Marlon Byrd and Trading Contact for Power

Nine months ago, Marlon Byrd could not secure a major league deal from any team leading him to sign a minor league deal with an invite to camp with the New York Mets. Two days ago, he parlayed a 136 wRC+ into a guaranteed two-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. As Dave Cameron pointed out, Byrd reinvented himself in 2013 at age-35 by swapping contact for power. The result of of this change was a .220 ISO, which was both a career-high and the first time he eclipsed the .200 plateau for his isolated power. After seasons of a relatively firm baseline for Contact% and Z-Contact%, Byrd changed his ways and made himself more attractive on the free agent market. 30 clubs were not willing to guarantee him money as a high contact batter with a good batting average, but one was quick to give him a guaranteed contract after one season of a grip it and rip it approach.

Baseball saw its league-wide strikeout rate rise for a ninth-consecutive season in 2013, so is Byrd just adapting to the new style of baseball? Is it permissible these days to forego choking up on the bat to make more contact and swing for extra base hits? Is the magical formula for getting paid simply to focus on the fences rather than making contact?

Not exactly.

A review of the leaderboard data of all batters at least 30 years old who have post an ISO score of at least .200 in a full season yielded a sample size of just under 300 batters. The correlation between Z-Contact% and ISO for that pool was R=-0.24, so while ISO tends to increase as Z-Contact% decreases, it is not a very high correlation. There are several examples of why the correlation is not significant enough for Byrd to make an informercial showing other players how they can instantly gain free agent riches.

Adrian Beltre (2010) – Beltre could not run away from the cavernous Safeco Field quick enough in 2010 when he took his hitting talents to North Beach in Fenway. That season, Beltre ended a worrisome three-year slide in his ISO to post a .233 ISO which, at the time, was the second best one of his career. The 119-point spike in his ISO came while Beltre added six percentage points of Z-Contact% to his game.

Russell Branyan (2008) – Russell the Muscle had a 69.2 Z-Contact% score in 2007 along with a .227 ISO while playing for three teams. He had just 152 PA for Milwaukee in 2008, but his z-contact score improved over nine percentage points while he posted a ridiculous .333 ISO.

Jeromy Burnitz (2004) – Burnitz split time with the Mets and Dodgers in 2003 and had a 81 Z-Contact% and a strong .248 ISO. In 2004, his Z-Contact% dropped to just 75 while his ISO jumped 28 points while playing for the Rockies. In 2005, his z-contact rating returned to over 80% where it had been most of his career and his ISO fell 99 points in his return to Wrigley Field.

David Dellucci (2005) – Dellucci was the anti-Byrd as he improved his Z-Contact% by five percentage points from 2004 to 2005 and saw his ISO rise 63 points, all while playing for the Rangers.

Adam Dunn (2010) – Dunn’s Z-Contact% was 73 in 2009. He tried the Byrd plan as his Z-Contact% dropped to 68 yet his ISO improved just 14 points.

Curtis Granderson (multiple years) – Granderson has two concerning trends as he currently sits on the open market. Despite the relative comfort of Yankee Stadium, both his ISO and his Z-Contact% are in a three-year decline and his overall Contact% is in a five-year decline. To top it off, his O-Swing% has risen each of the previous six seasons. Less overall contact, less in-zone contact, and less to show for it.

Josh Hamilton (2012) – Hamilton had improved his Z-Contact% for three consecutive seasons heading into 2012. With 2012 being his final year before free agency, Hamilton followed the Byrd plan and dropped five points of Z-Contact% and posted a .292 ISO which was 54 points higher than any previous effort of his. He got paid last off-season; it is a good thing that money is guaranteed.

Raul Ibanez (2009) – Ibanez’s Z-Contact% dropped five points from 2008 to 2009 while his ISO rose 94 points. In 2010, he improved his Z-Contact% five points and saw his ISO drop 111 points.

Hunter Pence (2012) – Pence sacrificed a noticeable seven points in his Z-Contact% that season and gained 28 points in his ISO.

Aramis Ramirez (2011) – Ramirez has been one of the more consistent hitters in the game, but added seven points of Z-Contact% in his last season before entering the free agent market. He actually lost seven points of ISO in the process but gained 65 points in batting average which led to a healthy payday from Milwaukee.

Cody Ross (2012, 2013) – Ross lost five points of Z-Contact% from 2011 to 2012 but gained 49 points in his ISO playing for Boston. Ross showed more Z-Contact% with Arizona improving that by seven percentage points yet lost 78 points in his ISO.

Byrd should be praised for having the ability to reinvent himself in the latter stages of his career and to guarantee himself at least another two seasons in the sun. However, he has not found any kind of magic elixir that can be applied to others looking for guaranteed contracts down the line. The approach worked for him and a few others, but the sustainability is anything but certain.

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9 years ago

Curious fonting, Jason. Interesting article, though.

9 years ago
Reply to  Jason Collette

Didn’t mean to pick nits on your first day. Congrats on joining fangraphs and happy writing.