The offensive side of baseball is an ever-evolving subject that remains an unperfected craft. There are countless ways for teams and players to be successful at the plate. Different people have different perspectives on how to approach the game in the batter’s box. As pitching continues to develop it is very important for offenses to remain adaptable to these advancements.
For an SEC team going into a weekend series against Vanderbilt in 2021, they were tasked with facing Kumar Rocker on Friday and Jack Leiter on Saturday. Both were top 10 picks in the most recent MLB Draft and each features a mid to high 90s fastball with plus secondary offerings. The major league level is even more extreme and plentiful in terms of pitcher stuff and talent. Opposing teams facing the Brewers in 2022 could face Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, or Freddy Peralta for 7 innings then see Devin Williams and Josh Hader out of the pen. The elite pitchers in the game today have many different ways to get hitters out and feature arsenals with heavily varying velocities and movement profiles. The average threshold still far exceeds the standards from years past, making an already tough thing to do in hitting even more challenging.
With this project, I looked to find out whether there there were certain qualities that good hitting MLB teams have in common. In particular, I decided to focus on more controllable metrics relating to plate discipline, including Swing % and Chase %. At the major league level, it appears that every team has their own philosophy. The Astros have made it a habit of prioritizing guys with low whiff and high contact percentages. While other playoff teams have sacrificed higher whiff rates for other hitting traits (greater power emphasis, etc). Many teams have proven that different philosophies can work against major league pitching and lead to offensive success. However, the game continues to evolve and pitching is becoming more advanced and intricate. With the evolving landscape of today’s game, it is essential to remain at the forefront of any sort of hitting advantage.
When looking at the MLB hitting landscape as a whole, I first compared the top six / seven hitting teams from the past three seasons. I tried to narrow down each team’s hitting philosophies / approaches to a few general categories. However, not every team was an ideal fit in any category and some teams feature key characteristics from multiple categories. Also, the end results don’t always necessarily match the process. This, of course, is dependent on which metric is analyzed. Stats like Swing %, 1st Pitch Swing %, and Chase% can be more indicative of a team’s philosophy compared to strikeout or walk totals. The talent disparity between teams may dictate their stats even when their underlying process may not align entirely. This was a fairly imperfect process and the top hitting MLB teams will be analyzed further in depth. This exercise was simply meant to gain a general sense of the topic to provide a base for further analysis.
From here, we can see where each team lies on the plate discipline spectrum. I divided the teams into different schools of thought / approach based off of their plate discipline stats. I came up with three main categories which should guide as a rough outline for the landscape of MLB philosophies. The first of which is the Aggressive Approach. Teams that fall into this category generally had higher numbers compared to the rest of the league in all statistics under the categorization of Swing %. Many teams along this approach were relatively average compared to the rest of the league in terms of other metrics. The 2021 Blue Jays were a bit of an outlier as their hitters swung the bat at quite an aggressive rate, yet maintained strong Zone Contact and low Whiff percentages. This seemed to be less common for most teams who favored an aggressive approach at the plate. Teams with this philosophy were generally at the top or bottom in terms of power output.
The next philosophy is headlined by a Low Chase / Whiff % and a High Zone Contact %. Teams like the Dodgers and the Astros have sustained consistent success over the past three years with this approach. When constructing their rosters and lineups, they tend to favor hitters with the ability to make contact at a high rate and effectively control the strike zone. The 2021 Giants and 2019 Nationals implemented a similar strategy and each experienced tremendous success in their respective seasons.
The final main hitting philosophy is categorized by teams with an emphasis on power but with high strikeout totals. Teams like the 2021 Rays and Yankees and 2020 White Sox stand out in the High Strikeout, Power Focus approach. Teams with this approach often sacrifice swings and misses in order to achieve a higher power output. This may seem like a tough trade off, but the Rays still managed to score the second most runs in the MLB in 2021 despite having the fifth highest strikeout rate. This “all-or-nothing” type approach appears to be a growing part of the game on the individual level and is represented through some teams and their overall hitting philosophies.
Of course, the question arises of which approach is the optimal strategy for run production and ultimately winning games. To solve this question, I compared the run totals of teams in each approach over the past three years to see how the philosophies fared as a whole.
*Disclaimer: a few teams fell into a grey area that didn’t fit into any of the three categories so their run totals were not included
Aggressive Approach (2021)
- Blue Jays, Red Sox, Braves, Mets, Royals, Rockies, Angels, Orioles, Tigers
Run average = 733.9
Low Whiff / Chase, High Contact (2021)
- Astros, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, Padres, Diamondbacks, A’s, Pirates
Run average = 745.13
High Strikeout, Power Focus (2021)
- Rays, Yankees, Cubs, Mariners, Marlins
Run average = 718.6
Aggressive Approach (2020)
- Blue Jays, Braves, Orioles, Rockies, Giants, Royals, Pirates, Nationals
Run average = 282.25
Low Whiff / Chase, High Contact (2020)
- Dodgers, Yankees, Padres, Astros, A’s, Angels, Guardians, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Cardinals
Run average = 289.9
High Strikeout, Power Focus(2020)
- White Sox, Rays, Brewers, Reds, Tigers, Cubs, Twins, Rangers, Mariners
Run average = 260.67
Aggressive Approach (2019)
- Twins, Braves, Mets, Pirates, Rockies, Giants, Reds, White Sox, Orioles
Run average = 771.11
Low Whiff / Chase, High Contact (2019)
- Astros, Nationals, Dodgers, Yankees, A’s, Angels, Guardians, Royals
Run average = 837
High Strikeout, Power Focus (2019)
- Mariners, Brewers, Rangers, Blue Jays, Tigers, Padres, Cubs
Run average = 734.43
Based off of these rough characterizations, the “Low Whiff / Chase, High Contact” approach seemed to be the most optimal for run production. With anything in baseball, there is no exact right way to approach the game. In each of the past two years, one of the top five hitting teams in the MLB has been committed to the “High Strikeout, Power Focus” philosophy. There are some really good hitting teams who have made an organizational decision to sacrifice swings and misses for hitting bombs. This is a perfectly valid philosophy as shown by teams like the 2021 Rays and the 2020 White Sox. In many situations, a strikeout is the same as a fly out or groundout. Of course, this isn’t always true, but the general premise applies. When looking at each approach, “Low Whiff / Chase, High Contact” appears to be the most sustainable and consistent among the better hitting teams. A team that can effectively control the strike zone and connect with balls in the zone at a consistent rate is bound to have continued success at the plate.
Of course, MLB teams have some players that deviate from their general philosophy. But, for the most part their team-wide approach still holds true. (Especially with the core players)
Astros (top 7)
Despite the preconceived notions about the Astros and their past behavior, they are still one of the better examples of having a hitting philosophy, sticking to it, and getting the most out of it. When looking at the core hitters in their lineup, we can see that they have done an incredible job of staying committed to their process.
In 2021, all but one core hitter (Altuve who seems to be doing just fine) was better than league average in Chase %, and every core hitter was better than league average in Zone Contact % and Whiff %. The Astros’ dedication and commitment to their hitting philosophies have allowed them to maintain offensive success over the past few years.
Dodgers (top 10)
The Dodgers have also been a historically good example of staying committed to their hitting philosophy.
Taking a look at their ten core hitters form the 2021 season, the Dodgers have done a great job of staying disciplined and controlling the strike zone. Outside of Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor, the entirety of their core lineup pieces don’t chase or swing and miss at a high rate.
Diamondbacks (top 9)
2021 Arizona is a good example of having an approach but not yet having the offensive results to match it. They were a top 10 team in Chase% (low) and top 15 in Zone Contact %, but ranked near the bottom third in team wOBA and run production.
Regardless of how the outcomes turned out, you can see a clear hitting direction and commitment to it.
At the individual level in the MLB, there seems to be a similar conclusion that different things work for different people. In particular, when looking at the top 50 hitters in terms of wOBA during the 2021 season, there were some relative trends that developed among the game’s elite.
|Top 50 wOBA (min 100 PA)||Elite||Very Good||Good||Average||Not Good||Bad||Very Bad|
|Out of Zone Swing %||5||9||14||6||5||8||3|
|Highest||3||1||2||13||4||24||10, 12, 16|
|In Zone Contact %||1||5||17||4||12||8||3|
Some of the main takeaways:
- Out of Zone Swing %
- 28/50 are good-elite
- 19 of the top 25 are good, very good, or elite in this category
- In total- 38/50 are 29% and below with league average at 27.7%
- The ones that are not below 29% are generally stronger in other categories or near average in at least 1 of the other categories
- In Zone Contact %
- 23/50 are good-elite
- In total- 39/50 are 78.4% and above with league average at 81.1%
- Nearly as many good-average as there were not good-bad
- Contact skills are important, but also contingent on other aspects (bat speed, etc)
- Whiff %
- Average of the top 25 is 27% (1% above league average)
- In total, 25/50 had Whiff % below league average
- 6 out of top 10 had worse than league average Whiff %
- Whiff % wasn’t as significant as long as another factor made up for it
As seen here from the top 15 hitters in 2021, 11 of them were better than league average in terms of not chasing pitches out of the zone. Many of which were nearly elite in this category. This number wavered when moving towards In Zone Contact %, but the top were mostly within a reasonable range of league average. Whiff % was generally the same in terms of being one or two standard deviations off from the league average.
Overall, there does not seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach to the offensive side of baseball. Some of the more consistent hitting MLB teams have committed to the “Low Whiff / Chase, High Contact” approach and have seen great success over the past three seasons. Other teams have also made it work and been in the upper offensive ranks of the league while adopting the “Aggressive Approach” or “High Strikeout, Power Focus” approach. MLB teams have experienced success with all three hitting philosophies, but “Low Whiff / Chase, High Contact” seems to be the most sustainable in terms of consistent offensive production. On an individual level, Out of Zone Swing % and In Zone Contact % were mostly close to or better than league average among the top 50 hitters in 2021. Whiff % was mostly similar with a little more variance and tendency to reach above league average.
I look forward to following MLB plate discipline metrics throughout the 2022 season to see how they align with years past.
*Stats courtesy of Baseball Savant and FanGraphs