Fielder and Ortiz: Contact Hitters

Prince Fielder is a big guy who swings hard and hits a lot of home runs. Not surprisingly, he also strikes out a lot; those things tend to go hand-in-hand. Except, well, not this year.

I noticed Fielder’s strikeout rate a couple of weeks into the season, but at that point, he was one of a handful of sluggers who were making a lot of contact early in the year. Most of the others – Miguel Cabrera, Paul Konerko, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, and Alex Rodriguez, to name a few – have gone right back to striking out as frequently as they had before. For them, it was just a blip on the radar.

Fielder, though, has kept making contact at a crazy high rate. Since that post was written, Fielder has struck out in just 13.1% of his plate 221 plate appearances – not exactly what you would consider regression to the mean, and the sample is getting larger by the day.

If Fielder were able to maintain this kind of contact rate, it would be something of an historic feat. Since 2000, the largest drop in season to season strikeout rate (minimum 500 PA in each year) came from Manny Ramirez in 2002, when he cut his strikeout rate down to 16.4% from 23.7% the prior year. For Ramirez, though, this wasn’t unprecedented territory – he was actually just getting back to previously established lower strikeout levels. The higher strikeout rates from 1999 to 2001 proved to be more of the outlier in his career.

In fact, it’s hard to find a comparable situation in prior years. Most of the other guys who saw their strikeout rates drop substantially from one year to the next were rebounding to prior levels. However, there is one other example of a big slugger miraculously improving his contact rate almost overnight, and it’s happening right now in Boston.

David Ortiz has had a nice long career with average to slightly above average strikeout rates. For the amount of power he’s had, they’ve always been under control, but he’s never been a big contact guy. He’s struck out 100+ times in nearly every season he’s been a full-time player, and his strikeout rate has been creeping up the last few years as he heads towards his decline phase. In fact, last year, his strikeout rate was so high at the start of the season that he was declared “done” for the second time, despite the fact that he had bounced back from a terrible April the year before.

Well, forget being finished. This year, Ortiz has just done this:

Just like Fielder, Ortiz has chopped his strikeout rate nearly in half from his career averages, and given where he was just last year, it’s an even more dramatic turnaround. After striking out 145 times last year, Ortiz is on pace to whiff just 61 times if he accumulates the same amount of plate appearances. That’s just ridiculous.

Even more incredible, it doesn’t appear that Fielder or Ortiz have had to make any massive trade-offs in order to support their new contact rates. Both have ISOs above their career averages, so they haven’t swapped power for fewer swinging strikes. Their walk rates are both down slightly, but that’s likely just a product of not being in as many deep counts. Since they’re hitting everything they swing at, it’s harder to get to ball four, but the extra hits that are generated more than off-set the loss of a few walks here and there.

Both Fielder and Ortiz are on pace to have career best offensive seasons (or in Ortiz’s case, to match his previous career best in 2007) relative to the league average, as they’ve increased their offensive output at a time when run scoring is way down around the game. Interestingly, both are free agents at the end of the season, so I’m sure we’ll hear some talk about these being examples of a “contract year”, but I find it hard to believe that these guys have been willingly striking out twice as often in previous years just because they weren’t playing for a huge paycheck.

Can they keep their strikeout rates at these low levels? History continues to suggest no, as there’s a very short list of players who have been able to hit for power while making this kind of contact over a long period of time. But, it’s no longer mid-April, and these guys are still putting the bat on the ball with great frequency. It’s gone from interesting statistical blip to thing worth watching – I don’t have the answer to why these two behemoths have been able to stop striking out, but seeing what their strikeout rate looks like in the second half is now one of the more compelling story lines of the season, especially for any team considering adding a big bat to their offense this winter.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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11 years ago

“Fielder, though, has kept making contact at a crazy low rate.”

Minor correction. Should be high rate, or striking out instead of making contact.