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Extreme contact hitters have had unexpected results

Some of the best contact hitters have had poor seasons while guys at the bottom have been very good.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals
Tyler O’Neill has a worse contact rate than Andrew Suarez, but he’s still been an above average hitter.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Baseball nerds have been enraptured by the legend of Willians Astudillo. The Twins’ virtuoso was brought to mainstream attention because he never strikes out. Among hitters with at least 50 plate appearances, Astudillo is third in the majors in contact rate behind Luis Guillorme and Breyvic Valera. Unsurprisingly, Astudillo has been a good hitter and his elite contact rate is big reason why his wRC+ is sitting at 121.

The same cannot be said of Valera and Guillorme. Valera and Guilllorme have a wRC+ of 55 and 52 respectively.

In fact, several of the most elite contact hitters this year have been below average. Joe Panik, David Fletcher, Michael Brantley and Eric Sogard are the only other hitters with at least a 90 percent contact rate. Brantley is the only other player to post a wRC+ above 100.

On the other end of the contact spectrum is Tyler O’Neill, who has made contact just 56.9 percent of the time. League average contact rate is 77.2, so O’Neill is farther behind the league than Breyvic Valera is ahead of it and his wRC+ is 52 points higher. The only players to have worse contact rates are all pitchers. O’Neill has a wRC+ of 112. He’s only had 130 plate appearances, but in that small sample he’s hit eight home runs while striking out 40.8 percent of the time.

O’Neill’s approach doesn’t look sustainable. His BABIP is .367 and his OBP is exactly .300. Behind O’Neill are Derek Fisher, Drew Robinson, and Jorge Alfaro who have all been below average. Then there’s Joey Gallo who, like O’Neill, hits a lot of dingers (37 this year) despite striking out a bunch (35.8 percent).

Gallo has succeeded because he hits over half of his balls in the air, and nearly a third of those go over the fence. Gallo has put together two straight seasons of above average hitting, so O’Neill’s approach can work, at least for a bit. The major difference between Gallo and O’Neill is that Gallo has always been able to draw walks.

What Panik, Fletcher, Sogard, Guillorme, and Valera have in common (aside from making contact at a well above average rate, is that they hit a plurality of their balls on the ground. Putting the ball in play doesn’t help when it’s on the ground. League-wide BABIP on groundballs is just .236.

This isn’t to say that making contact is overrated. I split all hitters with at least 100 plate appearances up into three groups: good, average , and poor contact hitters. Good contact hitters are those with a contact rate at least one standard deviation above the mean. Average contact hitters are those with a contact rate within one standard deviation of the mean in either direction. Poor contact hitters have a contact rate at least one standard deviation below the mean. Here are the average wRC+ of each group.

Contact Hitters

Contact wRC+
Contact wRC+
Good 101
Average 95
Poor 90

This wasn’t an extensive study by any means, but as you would expect, making contact is still good. It’s just a bit weird that some of the best contact hitters have been so bad, while some of the worst have been so good. O’Neill and Gallo just show that you can still hit without actually hitting the ball that often.