Baseball’s Improbable Contact Hitter

George Springer is hitting for contact.

Much has been written about how, this year, the Astros have easily the lowest strikeout rate in baseball. One of the most strikeout-heavy lineups around has opted to put the bat on the ball, and now the Astros have a giant lead in wRC+. Part of that improvement in contact comes from adding players like Josh Reddick and Brian McCann. Part of that improvement in contact comes from the emergence of Yulieski Gurriel. And part of that improvement in contact comes from George Springer’s improvement in contact.

Young players improve. When you start to learn the major leagues, you tend to get better. But this — this is extraordinary. This isn’t just a young Astros player doing better at baseball. This is *George Springer,* making contact on a consistent basis, and if that doesn’t immediately grab your attention, perhaps it’s because you’ve forgotten what Springer used to be.

Again, young players improve. We’ve seen other fairly dramatic strides in contact, from players like Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson. No one fresh out of the minors is considered a finished product, and you should generally expect some measure of development. But George Springer, the prospect, was something extreme. I wrote about it in February of 2014. Even in the high minors, Springer would swing right through the ball. And then he debuted in the bigs. He did well! Hit for power, in a low-power season. But contact was not one of his strengths.

Springer, in 2014, swung at nearly half the pitches he saw. When he did swing, he missed with two out of every five hacks. I can give you some context. Dating back to 2002, we have record of 4,941 individual player-seasons with at least 250 plate appearances. Springer’s contact rate in 2014 ranks fifth-lowest in the entire sample. He was in Joey Gallo territory. That’s not even an exaggeration. Springer made 61% contact. Gallo this year has made 59% contact.

That’s not who George Springer is anymore. He’s still somewhere in between being a young player and a veteran, but Springer has been making yearly progress. Behold his progressive contact rates, compared against the league average.

The league-average line has been intersected. As the league has moved away from contact, Springer has moved closer toward it, and, obviously, with Springer making more contact, that means he’s striking out less often.

There’s a big improvement between 2014 and 2015, and there’s another big improvement between 2016 and 2017. Springer now has a lower-than-average strikeout rate, and he ranks in the 67th percentile in terms of strikeout avoidance with two strikes. He’s gotten better in general, and he’s gotten better situationally, and in the following contact-rate heat maps, you can see where Springer has zoned in.

These are from the catcher’s perspective, and Springer is a right-handed batter, so he’d be standing on the left side of these plots. The dramatic improvement here is up, and inside. Compare the upper thirds of the strike zones. In particular, compare the left and middle squares within the upper thirds. That used to be a weakness, but Springer’s bat is now finding those pitches more often. He’s closed up a hole, in other words, and not very many remain, given Springer’s especially disciplined eye.

Players just don’t do what Springer has done. Not to such an extent. This is only Springer’s fourth season, but his career-low contact rate is 61%, and his career-high contact rate is 78%. The difference there is 17 percentage points, right? I looked, again, at every player who’s had 250-plate-appearance seasons since 2002. Springer already ranks in first place, in terms of having the biggest gap between his contact-rate high and his contact-rate low. And, remember, he’s trending in a positive direction. His contact rate isn’t 17 points worse. He’s already done something recently unprecedented.

That’s not even the whole of the story. Because, in 2017, we’re seeing the best contact version of George Springer yet. And even within 2017, Springer’s making more contact still.

Look at how that strikeout rate has plummeted. Springer last played on Sunday, September 17. I examined the three-month period, beginning June 18. Over that span, Springer batted nearly 300 times, and he hit .304, with a 148 wRC+. More importantly, he struck out less than 13% of the time. That had him sandwiched between names like Francisco Lindor and Mookie Betts. Springer’s strikeout rate was only one percentage point higher than Jose Altuve’s. His three-month strikeout rate ranked as the 20th-best, out of 217 players. More recently, Springer has been almost an *extreme* contact hitter, and, coincidentally or not, this is linked with a change in his approach. Here’s a Springer swing from earlier in the year.

Here’s a Springer swing from just the other day.

The changes aren’t all that subtle, as swing changes go. They’re visible to the naked eye, and as I went back to watch highlight after highlight, it looked like Springer started to make adjustments somewhere in June. Immediately, you can spot a difference in stance, with the more recent Springer standing open, instead of closed. Yet stance is only so important, since it’s more about timing and hitting position. The recent Springer doesn’t turn his back so far away from the pitcher. He doesn’t get so coiled up. And Springer has also somewhat muted his leg kick. It’s still there, but it’s not so aggressive, something almost in between a regular leg kick and a toe tap. George Springer used to be known for his violent, powerful swing. These days, he’s quieted himself, and the bat is more often finding the baseball. In this era, it’s not like Springer needs to put everything he possibly can into a batted ball, anyway. The damage will be there. The strength isn’t gone.

Springer’s having the best contact season of his young career. Within this season, he’s spent three months as one of the premier contact hitters around. He’s walking and he’s hitting for power, and he’s also not striking out, seemingly at least in part because of how he’s changed his own swing. It’s not like it’s astonishing that George Springer is good. George Springer has always been good. What’s astonishing is the *way* that he’s good. Springer reached the majors at a time when baseball was more willing than ever to accept his tendency to swing at a pitch and miss. But as baseball has come to terms with the strikeout, Springer has attempted to avoid them. Even more than that, it’s worked.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

Him, Kris Bryant, and Giancarlo Stanton are why I’m always going to be relatively bullish and guys who show the ability to hit (especially for average) in the minors despite contact issues. They do tend to figure it out in the majors eventually, at least that’s my impression. Leaves me pretty hopeful on the Joey Gallo’s, Miguel Sano’s, and Joc Pederson’s of the world. Would be interesting to see if the data backs up my assertion that players with similar profiles adapt to the majors more often than not.

5 years ago

I sort of agree with you, but keep in mind that Springer had more contact issues than either him or Bryant, and that Gallo’s are more dramatic than Springer’s. Also, while there is often some improvement, cutting your strikeout rate in *half* is very, very rare. You can hope guys like this will improve, but most of them don’t.

5 years ago

They do tend to figure it out in the majors eventually, at least that’s my impression.

Actually it’s rare for them to do so, which is what marks Springer’s transformation as something truly extraordinary. Z-Contact% has been one of the more stable statistics historically.