Houston, We’ve Made (lots of) Contact

What can baseball learn from the Astros' contact-heavy approach?

The Astros make more contact than Bausch & Lomb. 

The Astros make more Contact than Jodie Foster.

I’ll stop. But, the Astros make a ton of contact! Since 2016, here are the owners of the top ten seasons by contact rate: Red Sox, Angels, Astros, Astros, Astros, Cleveland, Giants, Cleveland, Astros, Astros. 

Houston owns five of the top-10 seasons for contact rate in the past six years. Only Cleveland has reached that mark more than once in that time span. For Houston, it’s been a particularly effective strategy, as they also hold three of the top ten overall hitting performances in that time, including this year’s squad which so far has produced an MLB-leading 118 wRC+, where 100 is league average.

By internet baseball law, I am obligated to now mention the Astros’ trash can cheating scandal. I’m not entirely sure whether or not the systematic cheating actually helped the Astros or not when it was in play, nor can we be certain that there aren’t more unfair advantages being gained by the club; when caught cheating you lose the benefit of the doubt. However, whether or not the intentional sign-stealing was part of the Astros success or not, the way the Astros have (and continue) to make contact at such a high rate provides a fascinating case study in hitting strategy in modern baseball, and that’s what I’ll focus on here.

With the advent and great success of the “pitching lab” in baseball- that is, a technological and mechanical breakdown of the individual elements of pitching- providing a decided advantage to run prevention and strikeouts over the past several years, one wonders what the hitting equivalent could be. Pitchers have the advantage of intent in the game. That is, they can control outcomes (to an extent) through their mechanics and physical action to a greater degree than hitters, who must react to the pitcher’s action. To think of it another way, the pitcher can perfect his delivery to a degree (in theory) that generates strikes and/or outs. The hitter can perfect his swing and eye at the plate meticulously but is still ultimately dependent to some degree on what the pitcher throws. 

This obviously isn’t news. It’s worth stating, however, the context in which hitters are operating and what can and cannot be done to make hitters better. It appears that for the Astros, they’ve decided to essentially distill that hitting skill into the ability to make contact with pitches. While a bit oversimplified, this makes sense in that the skills needed to make a lot of contact (e.g., determining balls and strikes, bat control, or coverage) are ones that would apply across other offensive skill sets (e.g., getting on base, power).

How are the Astros going about it, though? Are they developing hitters with a feel for contact? To study this, Pitcher List data scientist Justin Filteau and I looked at all Astros players with a minimum of 100 PA between 2016-2020 and their contact rates after joining the Astros, and after they left the Astros. If the Astros have a secret “hitting lab” or specific team-taught approach, we would expect to see contact rates increase after joining the team. Instead, those players actually slightly decreased their contact rates after joining the Astros (albeit with a small sample size of just 3 players in that timeframe). 

Of course, that doesn’t tell us much about the Astros approach, both due to small sample size and confounding factors, such as age. You might expect, for example, hitters as they age (and thus as they’re joining new teams in free agency) to decrease their contact rate. We controlled for this by looking at players who left the Astros. After leaving the team, the hitters’ contact rate also slightly decreased, but by a bit more than the players who joined the Astros. So perhaps there is something to the team’s philosophy of approach; perhaps players leaving the Astros are going to more free-swinging philosophy teams and are seeing slight decreases in contact rates. However, again, it seems pretty clear there isn’t a mechanical secret Houston has uncovered for their hitters.

It doesn’t necessarily seem to be an organization-wide drafting or instructional philosophy at first glance, either. Among hitters with 20 or more at-bats in 2021 in the Astros’ minor leagues, the Houston farmhands make contact at slightly below their league averages:

Team Level League Contact % Team Contact %
Sugar Land AAA 72 72
Corpus Christi AA 70 68
Asheville A 68 64

 

It seems more likely instead that the Astros are simply valuing contact in free agency (and perhaps with their prospects) more than other teams, and selecting for that skill when deciding which players to acquire or play. The contact rate for MLB as a whole in 2021 has been 75.8%. The Astros have only one player with 250 PA or more below that mark (catcher Martín Maldonado).

It begs the question: if the Astros haven’t figured out some special recipe or approach for contact, and are instead valuing and investing in players with advanced contact rates why don’t other teams…just do that?

For one, the Astros haven’t been terribly active in the free-agent hitter market. Of those nine players with at least 250 plate appearances for the 2021 team, only Maldonado and Michael Brantley were drafted by other teams. It could just be that the Astros’ drafts in those previous years that now form their core group of outstanding offensive players were just advanced contact players because they’re good. “Teams should draft good players,” or even “teams should sign good players” isn’t exactly helpful.

There is of course, also the fact that there is more than one approach to yielding results. This season’s second-best hitting team, the Blue Jays, has seven players with 250 PA or more, and two of those seven are below league-average in contact (including MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.). None of those Blue Jays hitters have a contact rate above 80% (six of the Astros do).

There could be a “compounding effect” in having so many contact hitters in one lineup. Perhaps the layering of heavy contact throughout the lineup provides more opportunities and fewer “holes” in the lineup, even if it comes at the risk of “big innings,” and runs are more evenly distributed for Houston.

Given the Astros’ consistent success at the plate over the past six seasons, there may be something to a contact-heavy approach. No other team has been as contact-heavy nor has had as much hitting success over that time frame. While partially that’s attributable to the quality hitters the Astros drafted, they’ve supplemented it with one of the highest contact players in Michael Brantley. Not one approach to roster construction or lineup management is guaranteed to be successful, but the Astros have made a case for contact in modern MLB. Other teams might benefit from such an approach either through player acquisition or development.

Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)

Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a contributor to Pitcher List and writes mostly about the Brewers at Sausage Racing Form. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league.

  • Avatar Chris says:

    You can see from the draft, trade deadline both that the Cubs have made this change going forward. The high school second rounder from VA who had zero strike outs last year for instance.

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