The list of batters who go down in the count 0-1 least often mostly makes sense. Mike Trout and Cody Bellinger are in the top five, due to a combination of their sterling batting eyes and pitchers staying away from them. Justin Smoak, Mike Moustakas, and Anthony Rizzo comprise the rest of the top five, and even if they don’t quite have the fearsome power of Bellinger and Trout, they have enough power that pitchers often pitch them carefully. Smoak has the lowest ISO of the five at .205. Pitchers are being rationally cautious.
Number six on the list will make you question what you think you know about first strike rate. David Fletcher, the Angels infielder, is number six, and he couldn’t look any more different than the guys ahead of him. I don’t mean physically, though that’s true as well — at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, Fletcher isn’t an imposing power presence. No, what I mean is that Fletcher plays baseball in a style that can best be described as a throwback. Not only that, he’s succeeding, putting together a second consecutive solid major league season despite a game that would look more at home in the 1980s than in 2019.
If Tyler O’Neill is one extreme of the game, David Fletcher is the other. Think of a stereotype about baseball in 2019, and Fletcher probably defies it. Strikeout rates inexorably on the rise? Fletcher is striking out 8.3% of the time this year, the lowest rate among qualified hitters. Big swings and big whiffs? Fletcher makes contact on a dizzying 92.1% of his swings. The world gone mad for home runs and power? Fletcher’s .126 ISO is 12th-lowest in baseball this year, and that comes largely from his 20 doubles; he hits home runs on 5.6% of his fly balls, the sixth-lowest rate in the majors.
It’s easy to read the headlines in 2019, to see Pete Alonso hitting balls to Andromeda and Christian Yelich crushing home runs on nearly a third of his fly balls, and think that the only way to succeed in baseball is via home runs. There’s some truth to that, honestly — as pitchers throw harder and harder, stringing together a series of hits gets increasingly challenging, and a home run lets the offense skip all of that. That’s not a rule, though — it’s merely the path of least resistance.
Willians Astudillo is probably the first name that comes to mind when you think about players bucking the strikeout trend, and there’s good reason for that. Aside from being virally exciting, his strikeout rates are truly miniscule. Fletcher’s 8.3% rate might lead qualified hitters, but Astudillo has struck out 3.3% of the time in his career. What Fletcher is doing, though, is different. Astudillo almost never strikes out, but that’s not exclusively due to his contact rate, which is roughly equal to Fletcher’s. He also swings early and often — at a staggering 82% of pitches in the strike zone this year, at 53% of first strikes. He swings at an overall 60% clip for his career, higher than anyone else in recent baseball history.
Fletcher, as I mentioned, is a different kind of animal when it comes to swinging. Remember, he’s one of the best hitters in baseball when it comes to getting ahead in the count. Astudillo ends up behind in the count more than any hitter in baseball, largely due to his first pitch swings — they’re either in play, which doesn’t affect the ratio of 1-0 to 0-1 counts, or foul balls. Fletcher might be a super-high-contact, low-strikeout hitter, but we already know he’s often ahead in the count, so you might expect him to be doing something different on first pitches.
As it turns out, “something different” is underselling it. David Fletcher has batted 356 times this year. He’s swung at the first pitch 25 times, a 7% rate that’s the third-lowest in baseball. He swings at 47.3% of pitches in the zone overall, which means that he’s swinging at strikes at about the same clip that Astudillo swings at balls. In fact, Fletcher has the second-lowest swing rate in baseball, and the company he keeps on that leaderboard should clue you in as to how weird that is for a contact hitter:
There’s something viscerally strange about a low-power hitter swinging so rarely. It’s easy to wrap your brain around Mike Trout swinging rarely — pitchers are terrified of him, so they have to stay away, and he’s very good at waiting for his pitch. Trout swings at 58.6% of pitches in the zone, a ton more than Fletcher does; he just gets fewer pitches in the zone. Pitchers aren’t terrified of Fletcher, and they know he won’t chase outside of the zone, so they’re coming right after him. Take a look at how much lower Fletcher’s zone swing rate is than everyone else who pitchers come after comparably aggressively, the top 10 batters in baseball by zone rate:
How does Fletcher balance all of this? How can he avoid strikeouts when pitchers attack him relentlessly and he swings so sparingly? His first-pitch behavior is instructive here. Throw Fletcher a strike, and he swings 11.4% of the time. That’s way below average (42.9%), and it costs him some extra strikes. Not as many as you’d think, given that 40% of those swings have resulted in foul balls, but he’s still giving up strikes by taking so often.
If he gives up a few extra strikes through his passivity, though, he makes it all back on the other side of the ledger. Fletcher has swung at 2% of first pitches outside the strike zone this year. The major leagues as a whole swing at nearly 15%. Swinging at a pitch outside the strike zone is a terrible way to start an at-bat, and Fletcher avoids it more or less completely. That’s essentially all there is to it — pitchers aren’t that great at hitting the zone on first pitches (51.9% for the league as a whole, 52.3% against Fletcher), and not swinging at balls provides a huge tailwind to your plate discipline.
Still, a man can’t make a living at the plate swinging at only 11% of strikes. Pitchers are no dummies, and they come after Fletcher relentlessly. How does he deal with that? Well, he adapts. Throw Fletcher a pitch in the strike zone with two strikes, and he swings 93.8% of the time, in the 95th percentile of hitters. A Fletcher swing is basically guaranteed to make contact — he’s whiffed on only 3.6% of these two-strike swings, the lowest rate in baseball.
Okay, so you’re not beating him in the zone. You’ll need to throw him a bad pitch to strike him out, and indeed, Fletcher chases a decent amount with two strikes — 54.9% of the time, well above average. The only problem is, he’s phenomenally good at making contact with these pitches. He whiffs on only 13% of two-strike swings outside of the zone (over 100 swings, a decent enough sample), the lowest whiff rate in these situations by a sizable margin.
This combination is incredibly difficult for pitchers. Fletcher doesn’t care if he gets to two strikes, because he’s still really hard to strike out, which means he’ll take frequently until he gets there and draw his fair share of walks. Watch Justin Verlander go outside of the zone three straight times with two strikes, and you can see the bind pitchers are in. First a 2-2 slider:
Okay, Fletcher is hanging around. What about a 2-2 curveball?
Fine, can’t go that far out of the zone. How about the Verlander special, an elevated four-seamer?
David Fletcher is an outlier. His contact ability is otherworldly, unmatched by anyone in baseball. He’s figured out a way to use that skill to survive in the modern game without home runs, by never striking out and taking walks that pitchers give him. When he gets ahead 1-0 in the count, he walks 18% of the time — and he gets ahead 1-0 a lot. Sometimes walks aren’t a matter of pitchers being unwilling to challenge batters. Sometimes, pitchers just miss.
All this contact prowess isn’t without its costs. Watch that Verlander at-bat, and you can see that Fletcher is taking an incredibly short swing to maximize his chances of hitting the ball. That comes at the direct expense of power — Fletcher has barreled up only 2 balls this year out of 197 balls in play (his teammate Mike Trout has 50). He’s hit an above-average amount of ground balls this year, and that’s just as well — his 88.1 mph average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls is in the 6th percentile across all hitters.
The mixture of Fletcher’s phenomenal strikeout-and-walk skills and middling prowess when he hits the ball is unique. When Fletcher has put the ball in play this year, he’s produced a .333 wOBA, miles below the league average of .382. It’s no fluke, either — his xwOBA on those is .325. When one of his plate appearances ends with a strikeout, walk, or hit by pitch, though, he produces a .356 wOBA, the fourth-best mark in baseball.
If it sounds weird to you, in the era of higher-than-ever strikeout rates and louder-than-ever contact, to be more valuable offensively with the bat on your shoulders than when you put the ball in play, well, you’re right. It’s super weird! Only five batters have done that this year, and they’ve mostly done it by hitting the ball incredibly poorly. Only Fletcher and Alex Bregman are productive hitters this year:
It wasn’t always a lock that Fletcher’s career would turn out this way. In 2018, he showed previously unseen power in finishing highly on Carson Cistulli’s Fringe Five leaderboard, potentially due to a mechanical change to his swing. His ISO in the minors last year was a spicy .209, almost 100 points higher than his previous high, which he’d set in rookie ball. Since reaching the majors, however, he’s reverted to his previous ways, slashing and dinking his way to a solid 112 wRC+ on the year and 2.6 WAR.
There aren’t many players like David Fletcher, and that’s no accident. He’s truly exceptional, an absolute master of contact, and that lets him succeed without power in a way that most hitters couldn’t even dream of. The lesson we should learn from Fletcher isn’t, I don’t think, that most batters are too focused on home runs. It’s not that everyone other than Fletcher has gone power-crazy. No, what I take from David Fletcher is that saying there’s one way to succeed in baseball is too simplistic. Not everyone can be Aaron Judge, and expecting every player to suddenly swing for the fences sells some people short. At the same time, though, not everyone can be David Fletcher. His peerless contact skills let him play the game in a way other players simply cannot. Baseball is a game that lets multiple skill sets succeed, and Fletcher is a perfect example of that.
All stats current through July 17th.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.