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That Swing You Do: A look at baseball’s prettiest hacks

Is there any relationship between the illustrative quality of a swing and individual outcomes? We’re not sure, but at least they’re nice to look at.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at San Diego Padres Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Full disclosure: I’ve never seen That Thing You Do. It’s got a 6.9 on iMDB, so it’s kind of right in my wheelhouse, and I’m a big Hanks guy, but it hasn’t made it onto my Letterboxd quite yet. I just figured it’d make a clever headline. I’m also not going to sugarcoat the fact that there is an inherent bias present in the words that are about to rather clumsily tumble out of my fingertips. I take hitting aesthetics fairly seriously; I enjoy things that are pleasant for my eyeballs to behold. And in a general sense, who has the prettiest swings? Correct, it’s the lefties.

I do wonder why that is. Doesn’t matter the brand of hack, left-handed hitters just do it better. To not completely discriminate against hitters of the opposite handedness, I do have some righties mixed in here. The objective? Determine not only who has the best-looking swings in the big leagues, but also dabble into whether that swing is indicative of performance and outputs. This will also be a small sample. The big ones. As the year progresses, perhaps there’s room for more, but these are the elite. The S tier, if you will.

Who won’t you see here? Well, Mike Trout for one. A weird thing, to be sure, given that we’re talking about a list of things that are among the best in baseball and here I am leaving Mike Trout off of it. And don’t me wrong, there are few things I enjoy more than the best player in baseball annihilating a fastball down in the strike zone. But it’s almost too simple. Just a short, compact stroke that, wildly effective as it is, doesn’t give me the goosebumps that the other hitters on this list do.

Other honorable mentions include: Javier Báez, who was the toughest omission, but the violence-to-contact ratio that I’ll “introduce” simply isn’t there, and it isn’t the fault of the mechanics necessarily, but the approach. Buster Posey’s swing has aged surprisingly well. Matt Olson is a paradox; everything he does in his stance and his approach annoys me, but I’ll be damned if the results don’t speak for the effectiveness. Anthony Rizzo is a sneaky candidate for such a list, but he ultimately falls to the same simplicity for which I excluded Trout. I can’t let my pro-lefty bias in here too much.

You’ve got Tim Anderson, who doesn’t necessarily do anything mechanically exciting, but there’s energy just radiating with each swing. Josh Donaldson is fun because of the mechanics. Juan Soto obviously does terrible things to baseballs. And Jake Cronenworth has too small a sample, but it’s more so that his mention alone may be more of that pro-lefty bias. But what about Manny Machado’s classically gorgeous swingThere’s just so much fun right now in the game and the basis in a lot of it is just watching these guys swing the bat. I’m going to end up making a series out of this, aren’t I?

Also worth noting is that this is also a focus on current players. My apologies to the literal king of aesthetics in baseball. Maybe someday we’ll hit rewind on this project.

Now we get to the criteria. You might ask, how did I determine who ultimately graced this list? The answer lies almost exclusively in subjectivity. However you can define and describe what represents “aesthetically pleasing” is how I arrived here. The eye test. There certainly is a healthy amount of violence in the swing itself among those selected, whether rooted in the swing itself or manifesting in the contact off the bat. Hence, the first of two imaginary metrics here: Violence-to-Contact Ratio (VCR). Ultimately, the fake metric seeks to explore the question of did they deploy that sweet swing consistently enough in a way that makes actual, meaningful contact?

VCR simply works as such: Barrel% + Hard% / Contact%. The whole goal of this is to determine who is 1. Making contact, 2. Doing it consistently, and 3. Ensuring that it’s violent. The ability to make meaningful contact is a key component in all of this, as subjective as the overall concept of aesthetics might be. Despite largely high strikeout and whiff numbers among this group—and once you see the names, you’ll see why—there were fairly consistent trends in their ability to make consistently meaningful contact.

Another main element I’ll introduce here is the Swagger Factor or Swagger+. Every single one of these hitters has at least a little bit of it (which further explains Buster Posey’s absence), but just how much is the real question. To put the answer into something more finite, the formula is simple and as such: Dismount Rating / Barrel%. Dismount Rating is determined on a scale of 1-10. Sometimes an 11. It comes down to the swing, the bat drop or flip (both are acceptable), and the pace at which the hitter leaves the box upon contact. The slower, the better. So, essentially a figure completely and entirely dosed in subjectivity per their number of barrels.

When it comes down to it, these metrics are nothing more than complete nonsense. Maybe the VCR thing could be workshopped into something that actually classifies as logical, but for now these are nothing more than a reasonably tangible expression of where the following five players might fall in relation to one another. On the other hand, it’s my mission in life to be able to quantify swagger in baseball players. Stay tuned on that.

The other, far less nonsensical, factor here is to determine if there is, in fact, a relationship between the quality of the swing, in terms of those aesthetics, and the actual outcomes for those individual hitter. The nature of this article is that these players are likely going to be elite in certain regards, or, at the very least, a “rising” talent. But there might be something in the foundation of these gorgeous strokes that indicates certain things about the impact their swing path has on contact rates, whiff percentages, and overall strikeout numbers. The five hitters here are a blend of both right and left-handed, despite my previously stated predisposition against the former (organized by fake Swagger+):

Bo Bichette

  • VCR: 0.66
  • Swagger+: 0.18

Slow that thing down and drag the cursor so that it plays as slowly as possible. I promise you won’t regret it. He doesn’t necessarily have the power that the other names on this list have, but when he barrels it like he did here, it does exist. What’s interesting about Bichette’s swing is that you can see how aggressive he is. Which is unsurprising, given that he walked at a rate under four percent last year and is under five so far this year. At 53.8 percent, Bichette has one of the highest swing rates in the bigs, but he currently sits around the middle of the pack in terms of contact rate.

Part of that is selection, but it’s also possible that his aggressive nature in terms of mechanics doesn’t do him any favors. For a guy like Bichette, who has such great bat-to-ball skills, it might behoove him to calm down the mechanics a bit and focus more on the contact side. But, then, of course I’m sitting behind a computer, and there’s no reason for Bichette to rob us of such a beautiful swing. Because the way he launches himself into that thing...man.

Bryce Harper

  • VCR: 1.03
  • Swagger+: 0.18

In many respects, Bryce Harper is better than ever. He’s hitting the ball hard almost half the time, ranking in the 97th percentile in Barrel% and sitting at the very top of the league in xwOBA. His WPA over the last 162 games is at 4.9, second in all of baseball. And his swing is among the best to watch.

The thing with Harper’s is just the anger present in the swing. Bryce Harper not only wants the baseball to feel it, he wants every square inch of the pitcher’s soul to hurt. That’s what makes it so aesthetically satisfying. The short, compact stroke also allows him to cover the inner half of the plate so well. It’s no wonder his heat map looks like this in the matter of SLG:

Harper Slugging Heat Map
via FanGraphs

It helps further that Harper is among the most selective hitters in baseball. His walk percentage (16.2) is top 10 in the league. So while his swing doesn’t necessarily allow him to cover the outer portions of the zone quite as well—it’s just historically where he’s struggled the most in terms of contact—being that selective allows him to get those pitches on the inner half, regardless of height, and absolutely demolish them. Lefties, righties, it doesn’t matter.

Cody Bellinger

  • VCR: 0.60
  • Swagger+: 0.21

Bellinger is the outlier for me here. I don’t normally like such an elongated path to the ball. It’s why Matt Olson bothers me so much. But with Bellinger, it’s a work of art. The path and the bat speed combine to make it look like he’s almost swinging a giant tennis racket—or at least something much larger than a baseball bat. It’s an optical illusion. Perhaps most impressive, though, is that he’s so pull heavy (over 45 percent of his career), but that long swing allows him to reach any part of the plate:

Bellinger Contact Percentage
via FanGraphs

Obviously he struggles on the low-and-away portion, but those percentages are fairly consistent along the strike zone otherwise. Among the hitters listed here, Bellinger’s swing may benefit him more than any of the others. He’s got the zone coverage, and he’s got the natural upper cut in his swing to help him sustain high ISO numbers (.273 for his career). It looks weird as hell as he steps backward in the box to do it, but there is almost nothing more satisfying than the sound of the ball off of the bat of Cody Bellinger.

Fernando Tatís, Jr.

  • VCR: 0.97
  • Swagger+: 0.21

My favorite thing about a swing from Tatís, Jr. is how effortless it looks. Just loud contact, bat drop, stutter-step at third base, and that’s it. Tatís is probably the most interesting case among those for which I deployed my fake VCR metric. Harper has the highest here, but that’s unsurprising given his contact and barrel rates, neither of which are shocking at this point. Tatís, however, is not too far behind him and is actually more similar than you’d probably think.

Like Harper, Tatís has that high swing rate and low contact rate. The shortstop ranks near the bottom of the league in contact rate, despite being among the highest in Swing% (though not quite to Bichette levels). Unlike Harper, though, Tatís has a swing that allows him to excel on those pitches on the outer half of the plate in the power game. Similar skill set, but the swing mechanics change the dynamic entirely in terms of slugging. That VCR metric, though, shows that Tatís makes the absolute most of his contact. Even if the rates aren’t great, he’s mashing the baseball when he makes contact with it.

Which is why you see things like this. And this. Also this. It’s the casualness that makes it so much fun to watch, though. The nonchalant ope with which he makes contact and the ball cruises over the wall.

Ronald Acuña, Jr.

  • VCR: 0.67
  • Swagger+: 0.28

He’s not the highest in terms of VCR, but he does have the highest Swagger+ on the list. Everything Ronald Acuña, Jr. does on a baseball field is just dripping with cool. In regard to the former, though, the fake metric doesn’t work in his favor because Acuña just makes so much contact. His 84.1 percent contact rate is easily the highest among the five hitters here, and his CSW% (21.9) is among the highest in the league. Rather than make less contact, but more impact, Acuña goes high contact, even if the results aren’t overwhelmingly powerful. However, the aesthetic of the swing remains.

It’s one thing to watch a power hitter mash a ball. It’s another to watch a multi-faceted player completely throw himself into a pitch and send it 450+. The latter tends to be more of what we see from Acuña. His strike zone approach is very precise. It’s a lot of middle-middle, with little on the corners and much less at each vertical end of the zone. As a result, that’s where pretty much all of that power manifests itself. And that’s what Acuña’s swing does. It’s somewhat similar to Bellinger in that he’s able to reach different parts of the zone thanks to the length. But his strike zone awareness makes those majestic shots all the more common from different parts of the zone.

But back to my nonsensical, made-up-on-the-spot metrics. Were we able to glean anything from those? Perhaps a little. We know that Bryce Harper and Fernando Tatís, Jr. don’t make a ton of contact, relative to the rest of the league, but they absolutely and completely make that contact count, by way of VCR. We know that because Ronald Acuña, Jr. and Cody Bellinger make higher degrees of contact, meaning that the power metrics get a little bit watered down by the less ISO-y stuff and a lower overall VCR. Bo Bichette’s a little more unique, as he doesn’t quite have the power or the contact to really drive up his own number in that regard. But perhaps one day.

So what exactly was the point of getting you to read 2,000+ words on hitter aesthetics? Well, to bestow upon you the opportunity to enjoy some absolutely majestic hacks for one. And to workshop some new fake-but-maybe-real-in-the-future metrics. This was fun. We’ll do this again. Maybe with more refined metrics. In any case, I will find a way to quantify athlete swagger. Someday.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.