Updated: Sep 3, 2020
In part 2 of this series I analyzed the first three clusters of hitters based on 5 different plate discipline metrics; O.Swing, Z.Swing, O.Contact, Z.Contact, and Swing Strike %. In the final installment of this series I will analyze the last four remaining clusters. Before I dive in, lets look at a refresher of how each cluster performed in 2018.
Cluster 4- Free Swing- Low Contact Sluggers
This cluster is smaller than many of the others and contains some of the games best sluggers. This cluster is very similar to cluster one except that this cluster is more extreme in regards to how often they swing in the zone, and by making even less contact than the first cluster. Cluster 1 on average swings in the zone 69%, While the this cluster group swings in the zone 77% of the time. They do this while having the same amount of average swing % outside of the zone. So while they make less contact, they are able to swing more on pitches in the zone, while not chasing more pitches outside of the zone. This could very well be the difference in being an elite power hitter and just an above average one.
Obviously Brandon Crawford is the odd man out in this cluster. He doesn't have the kind of top end raw power to make this kind of plate discipline approach work. He also has a much lower pull % compared to this cluster. If he pulled the ball more often it's possible he could have more success but ultimately I believe a new approach where he swings less and focuses more on contact and possibly swinging less would benefit him.
Cluster 5- Patient "Hitters"
There are a lot of guys in this cluster that can flat hit. What people frequently coin as "professional hitters." Members of this cluster have a well below average out of zone swing rate and a below average swing rate. In simpler terms, they are very patient. These are the type of guys that work counts, collect a lot of walks, get good pitches to hit but they also have a proficient enough amount of bat to ball skills where they don't strike out at super high rates. Unsurprisingly, the guys that have the highest hard % in this cluster are the elite hitters.
Ryon Healy stands out to me here. He has a bit better in zone contact than this cluster, but also swings out of the zone much more frequently. His 5% walk rate is by far lower than this cluster's average. I think Healy might benefit by changing to a more Slug focused plate discipline approach where he 'sells out' more and perhaps sacrifices some contact ability in order to swing at more pitches in the zone, and hit balls harder when he does connect.
Cluster 6- Free Swing Contact Driven
This is by far the biggest cluster and admittedly the most "unclear". This cluster is made up hitters that swing a lot both in and out of the zone and generally have above average contact rates. Players that are frequently putting the ball in play more frequently obviously walk much less than players that swing less often. Quality of contact becomes very important for players like this because simply putting it play isn't necessarily a winning strategy if you cant strike the ball hard and at good angles.
Guys that put the ball in play a lot with high rates of soft contact(Hamilton, Hosmer) and/or have very low rates of Hard Contact (Jones, Escobar, Rosario) are generally pretty bad. Pretty intuitive I know, but worth stating. Mallex Smith was one of those that performed in 18 well but did so on a very low Hard contact %. I would say that probably wouldn't be sustainable and he has struggled thus far in 2019 as his BABIP regressed. I think Salvador Perez could benefit by trying to be a bit more patient. He mashes the ball when he makes contact(46% Hard) but swings out of the zone at an alarming high rate. Guys in other clusters have proven you can be an elite hitter with low swing rates. Being more selective would allow his power to play even more than it does, and could hopefully improve his very poor walk rate.
Cluster 7- Low Swing Bat Controllers
This is a very small and unique cluster. It is similar to Cluster 3 except that these players have a heightened element of discipline. They don't whiff at all and are elite at making contact, paired with a patient approach. I don't believe its a coincidence that 4 of the games top 5-6 hitters in 2018 are in this group. They don't chase out of the zone at all and in return also have a very low swing rate in the zone too. Perhaps this level of patience also allows them to have very good K:BB rates as well.
All in all, I believe this cluster can show the effect plate discipline can have on performance. There are plenty of players that hit the ball hard as frequently as Trout, Mookie, Bregaman, and J-Ram, that don't achieve the same level of success because they lack the combination of discipline and/or accuracy. Discipline and approach isn't maximized without the ability to hit balls hard and at optimal angles. Inversely, the ability to hit balls optimally isn't optimized without great discipline and approach.
The player's with low pull rates in this cluster were the few that didn't achieve high levels of success. Mauer had a significantly low average launch angle but there was a time where he was in the conversation as one of the games best hitters. I would be very interested to see if guys like Markakis, LeMahieu, and Gardner could signicatly improve their performance by pulling the ball more frequently. (DJ is off to a hot start in 2019.) These guys have what I would consider elite level approaches but need to get more out of their batted ball profiles to be an above average offensive performer.