(Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)
I once stood in a batting cage that had pitches coming in at 90+ MPH. I looked like a fool swiping at a ball that had already rolled to my feet after having hit the backstop. My idea of at least making contact with MLB-level pitching was one of the most fleeting thoughts I’ve ever had. And these were perfect strikes. Imagine if I had to guess where it was going.
I wondered about free-swinging (or whiffing) and how it relates to hitter success in baseball. I felt like the only guys that I could think of, in terms of swatters, were big-time power hitters.
The first question I want to ask is does high K% correlate with high home run totals? We need to establish this first because it will be relevant later.
I took qualifying hitters (2015-2017) with the highest strikeout rate and compared it with their home run totals in the last three seasons for the chart below.
Very poor correlation; 7.5% of HRs are dictated by strikeout rate. So the answer is ‘no’, it doesn’t follow that a home run-hitter tends to strike out a lot, nor does it suggest that you have to endure more strikeouts to hit home runs. The outlier is Chris Davis, who has 111 HRs since 2015 along with a 33.5% strikeout rate. On the opposite side, Nolan Arenado has 120 HRs with a 15.6% K-rate.
Furthermore, you can derive from the chart that there is a 50/50 split amongst the top-20 home run-hitters of the last three years who have a strikeout rate greater than league-average.
Seeing that you don’t necessarily have to strike out a lot to hit more home runs, obviously, I’ve asked the wrong question.
How about swinging strike percent (SwStr%)? If a hitter swings away more often, are they more inclined to be identified as a power hitter as opposed to someone who is a slap hitter and/or hits for average?
Since we’ve covered home runs, let’s look at isolated slugging’s relationship with SwStr%. The below chart is a three-year average of the top-50 hitters using ISO, which displays an even worse association than K% and HRs; 1.7% to be exact.
So obviously being a power hitter does not mean you swing, strikeout, or whiff more than a ‘regular’ hitter.
Now that I’ve dissolved my power stigma, let’s move to a more general statistical relationship by using batting average. I gauged 232 qualified hitters since 2015 in terms of swinging strike rate. Can we find any trend between whiffs and batting average?
These stats provide our best correlation yet but still exemplifies a pretty poor relationship. Like we found with power, there is no basis of proof that swinging away, or ‘whiffing’, has any impact on the hitter’s end results; the more you swing and miss will not dictate a positive or negative tendency.
It must be said that the charts above are context-neutral; no differentiation about where the pitch(es) were located. Sometimes you just have bad luck. You’ve got a great pitch to hit in the zone, you just time it wrong or there is an issue mechanically with your swing. Or its just as simple as you’re a bad hitter, but you’ve got to get some credit for at least recognizing a strike and attempting to make contact.
So then the question becomes what about hitters who chase pitches; ones that are thrown out of the zone? Are they more likely to be worse hitters?
On recent average, hitters chase pitches out of the zone about 30% of the time, swing (regardless of location) nearly 50% of the time, and see only about 45% of their pitches in the strike zone.
The list below is ten hitters with the highest whiff ratio on pitches they chase out of the zone, minimum 1000 pitches seen.
The unfortunate soul who tops this list is Jimmy Paredes, now currently playing in the KBO with the Doosan Bears where I’m sure he’s whiffing a lot less.
In any case, Paredes is on the lower end of pitches faced on this list. To be sure we’ve got the worst of the worst, I checked the coefficient of determination on whiffs vs total pitches.
We have about a 70% correlation between total pitches and whiffs when looking at all swings that were located out of the zone. Good enough to assume that, despite having the 7th fewest whiffs on the list, it’s likely that Paredes will, (or rather would have) remain at or near his 11.3% whiffs per pitch out of the zone.
So Paredes is our example of a hitter who swings too much, independent of subsequent events, and suffers performance-wise because of it.
Let’s compare his plate discipline to league average.
Rightfully so, Paredes saw infrequent pitches in the zone compared to league average. Furthermore, we can see that Paredes SwStr% was way above average; knowing this, I would presume he doesn’t subscribe to the belief that a walk is as good as a hit. His career wOBA, through just over 1000 PAs, is .286 and his BB% was just under 5%. Pretty bad considering that he sees well under league average pitches in the strike zone, as it would give more opportunities for walks.
OK, so what about hitters who we know make bad swings? This question forces me to dig a little deeper. Now I want to check for any connection between hitter success (getting on base) and chasing pitches out of the zone.
Even though we used batting average in the prior comparison, the relationship is highly insignificant. The same has been found using power/slugging figures. Since we, as sabermetricians, know batting average doesn’t tell a complete story and ‘whiffers’ take more chances thereby allowing less room for error during their plate appearances, let’s use on-base percentage for our relationship query. I’ll look at the top OOZ swing percent leaders of the last three years and check the correlation with OBP. All hitters with less than the 30.3% league-average OSwing% are omitted from this graph.
Like the other results, we are shown that swinging not only has no bearing on performance, chasing pitches (like our subject Paredes) do not dictate hitter success, either; marginally better than K% vs HRs and ISO vs SwStr%, but a worse correlation than BA vs SwStr%.
Just for reference purposes, here are the top-20 OOZ-swinging hitters with applicable metrics provided.
There are more relationships that could be tested, but for a general piece of mind, I think the abstract has been sufficiently answered; there is little room for concern about how a hitter’s (excessive) swing tendencies affect their overall performance at the plate.