The once and future generations of Placido Polanco
Plácido Polanco is in the midst of the worst season of his career. In 314 plate appearances, he has a slash line of .255/.300/.328 with two home runs. That’s a far cry from his career-best 2007 season, in which he slashed .341/.388/.458 with nine home runs and 36 doubles. The biggest and easiest difference to spot between those two extremes is BABIP—.346 in 2007, .272 in 2012. That BABIP disparity accounts for nearly all of the gap between his 2012 batting average and his 2007 batting average, and BABIP is notorious as the stat most prone to random fluctuations, so it seems I have a tidy resolution here. But Polanco is 36 years old: BABIP is supposed to decrease with age. Players get slower and can’t run out as many infield groundballs; their bat speed decreases and they start making weaker contact. Speed was never really part of Polanco’s game, but bat speed is paramount to hitters of his type.
What do I mean by “his type”? I should probably explain, because that’s where I’m going with this post. For me, Polanco has always epitomized a “slap hitter” or “bat-control guy,” someone with little power who compensates by putting the ball in play a lot. These players almost always strike the ball when they swing, so they rarely strikeout. Most of them don’t take walks often, either.
Polanco’s yearly contact rates (how many times he made contact divided by how many times he swung) back up my hunch:
- 2002: 88.5 percent contact%, 4.4 percent BB%, 6.9 percent K%
- 2003: 90.7 percent, 7.6 percent, 6.9 percent
- 2004: 91.3 percent, 4.9 percent, 7.0 percent
- 2005: 91.7 percent, 6.0 percent, 4.5 percent
- 2006: 93.8 percent, 3.4 percent, 5.5 percent
- 2007: 94.3 percent, 5.8 percent, 4.7 percent
- 2008: 92.7 percent, 5.6 percent, 6.8 percent
- 2009: 93.2 percent, 5.3 percent, 6.8 percent
- 2010: 91.4 percent, 5.3 percent, 7.8 percent
- 2011: 91.8 percent, 8.0 percent, 8.4 percent
- 2012: 91.2 percent, 5.4 percent, 7.6 percent
- MLB Average, 2002-2012 (approx.): 80.3 percent, 8.5 percent, 17.5 percent
(link) Note: Data provided by Baseball Info Solutions. The rest of the way I will be using PitchF/X data, because I (thoughtlessly) equate its newness with greater accuracy. BIS data goes back to 2002, PFX data to 2007. There is very little disagreement between the two; the only reason I used BIS data here was to capture more of Polanco’s career.
Polanco’s sustained a contract rate over 90 percent for 10 years while the rest of the league connected on only 80 percent of its swings. Not coincidentally, his highest strikeout rate was not even half of the league-average strikeout rate for those 11 years. A low walk rate is forgivable, since his greatest asset is the ability to put the bat on the ball. But with age Polanco loses swinging speed, and though he still makes contact on over 90 percent of his swings, that contact will be accordingly weaker, and those batted balls more likely to be converted into outs. At least, that’s my theory on Polanco’s decline. Without data on his bat speed I cannot confirm. (The best kind of theory!)
So with Polanco in his twilight, to whom do we look for this contact skill? You may be surprised that I came prepared with an answer to my own rhetorical question.
I looked at all hitters (min. 100 PA) this season going into Saturday, sorted in descending order of contact rate (according to PitchF/X) and then copy/pasted all of those with rates over 90 percent into an Excel workbook. I know 90 percent is a completely arbitrary selection, but in my defense I didn’t feel like figuring out or looking up the average contact rate of all major leaguers, and the standard deviation from that. That said, here are those players:
(I hid many columns to fit the table into the post. I will make the full workbook available at the bottom. You should download it, it is fun to play with.)
The stats I left unhidden provide insight into the other aspects of a hitter’s game. ISO gives you a glimpse of their power, AVG an idea of how well they translate contact into hits (or how lucky they’ve been so far), walk and strikeout rates are pretty self-explanatory, as is WAR.
Some takeaways: Out of 22 players, 12 are middle infielders (2B/SS), six are outfielders and four are catchers. Clearly this kind of production, so usually bereft of power, is not tolerated for first and third basemen. … Speaking of power, Sal Perez is the only player with an ISO (slugging minus average) over .200. You will see how rare that is in a minute. … Six players—Furcal, Carroll, Hanigan, Callaspo, Markakis and Span—have above-average walk rates, and the lowest WAR among them is Furcal’s 1.3. … Span has the highest WAR in this cohort. Given his average power and average average, I’d say most of that value comes from his defense.
After I looked at this I grabbed all player-seasons since 2007 (the first year of PitchF/X data available) that fit the same criteria, finding 181. What follows are some interesting snippets.
Of the 181-player sample, the average ISO was .098 and the standard deviation was .0459. The players on this table all had an ISO at least two standard deviations above the mean.
Evidence number 12,042 why Albert Pujols is one of the best hitters ever: for two glorious years he combined superelite contact with superelite power. One of the few true Übermenschen in the league. … Rookie Sal Perez can be properly appreciated with this table. If these numbers reflect his true talent level, then the Royals have the best bargain in baseball (he is signed to a 6-year, $7 million contract with options and incentives). It is clear that is unlikely; only Pujols was able to appear on this list more than once. If I had to guess between his high contract rate and superior power, which will succumb to the law of averages, I’d guess his power. Still, dude is exciting. … Imagine how potent the Tigers offense will be next year when V-Mart returns to back up Fielder, Jackson and Cabrera.
Here is a table of the top 10 players by WAR. 2007 Polanco missed out on this list by 0.1.
On the other hand, we can see that the few gentlemen who still have high strikeout rates do no fare well in terms of WAR. The only way I can reconcile high contact rates with high strikeout rates is by positing that these gentlemen take too many pitches in the hope of drawing walks. Swing more, lads, for that is what you were born to do.
Predictably, a high contact rate paired with a high walk rate often yields good results.
There are some things I would like to investigate using this 181-player sample but I am too much of a statistical novice to even pretend to try. Someone who knows how to do these things *coughdirtbagcough* might find it worth their time. Exploring how swing rates inside and outside the strike zone correlate to line drives seems sensible and potentially fruitful. (Those three are all columns that are hidden in the tables I have shown you but visible, along with other fun things, in the workbook below.)
One last, surprising thought on this sample: the average swing rate was 41.7 percent. The swing rate of all major league hitters in 2012 is 45.2 percent. So, in a nutshell, the players whose swings are most often successful (if we define success by simple contact) swing less often than their whiffing peers.
I promised you the future generation of Polanco in the title and I don’t intend to disappoint. To find the best candidates, I looked at player-seasons (again, min. 100 PA) since 2010 in which the player both, a) was 26 or younger and, b) had a contact rate of at least 88.0 percent (to leave room for improvement). That search returned 43 player-seasons, within which there were 36 unique players.
Indians outfielder Michael Brantley is the only player to appear the maximum number of three times (though I’m guessing nothing more than the age restrictions prevented some other players from doing so). Moreover, he managed to raise his ISO each year. Look out for him.
Excel document: placidopolanco