Robinson Cano, Pablo Sandoval, and Hard Contact

Sometimes players are described as “bad-ball hitters.” Or, sometimes players will be described as having strike zones that range from the head to their heels. Vladimir Guerrero used to own these tags, and once upon a time, so did Nomar Garciaparra. It is possible to succeed while swinging at everything, and nobody personifies that today better than do Robinson Cano and Pablo Sandoval.

Generally, swinging from your heels at every pitch isn’t a good idea. But here’s the thing — Cano and Sandoval are actually able to hit nearly everything. Pitchf/x has been compiling plate discipline data since 2007. The approximate league averages for O-Swing% during that time has been 28%, with 45% for Swing % and 81% for Contact %. I’m singling out O-Swing% rather than Z-Swing% since it’s harder to make quality contact on pitches that are out of the strike zone. Jumping those marks up one percent, we find that in that span, 319 had an O-swing% of 29% or higher, 323 had a Swing% of 46% or higher and 296 had a Contact % of 82% or higher, out a total of 716 players. However, only 78 players — or about 11 percent — had all three. Cano and Sandoval are two of those 78.

Many of them barely qualify as above having above average percentages, however. They have rates that are one to two percent above average in most respects, close enough to the average baseline to not be that remarkable. Combing down a little further though, we can see that only 26 players had O-Swing%’s and Swing% percentages more than 5 percent above the average (33% and 50%, respectively) while still maintaining that above-average contact rate. To wit:

Name Last yr PA O-Swing% Swing% Contact% K% ISO SLG wOBA
Johnny Estrada 2008 519 47.6% 59.6% 86.9% 9.1% 0.111 0.378 0.287
Pablo Sandoval Pres 2372 43.0% 56.6% 82.4% 12.8% 0.187 0.490 0.359
A.J. Pierzynski Pres 3182 41.5% 56.5% 86.0% 10.9% 0.144 0.424 0.320
Alex Cintron 2009 368 44.3% 56.0% 82.2% 15.5% 0.073 0.320 0.270
Tony Pena 2009 824 44.0% 55.4% 82.6% 17.0% 0.070 0.298 0.239
Toby Hall 2008 256 39.0% 55.0% 86.6% 12.1% 0.053 0.288 0.248
Bengie Molina 2010 2022 39.1% 54.0% 86.0% 9.5% 0.145 0.417 0.309
Nomar Garciaparra 2009 816 33.1% 53.5% 85.5% 9.8% 0.117 0.395 0.314
Joe Crede 2009 918 33.2% 52.3% 82.0% 13.6% 0.181 0.413 0.308
Luis Cruz Pres 508 35.1% 52.1% 85.7% 10.2% 0.092 0.348 0.279
Raul Chavez 2009 290 38.1% 52.1% 86.1% 12.8% 0.076 0.335 0.274
Yuniesky Betancourt Pres 3098 35.8% 51.6% 87.8% 9.4% 0.130 0.392 0.294
Jay Payton 2010 870 34.2% 51.5% 86.2% 11.4% 0.115 0.369 0.292
Ramiro Pena Pres 362 37.9% 51.4% 83.7% 17.4% 0.063 0.304 0.260
Robinson Cano Pres 4109 35.2% 51.3% 86.9% 12.0% 0.202 0.508 0.369
DJ LeMahieu Pres 309 33.9% 51.2% 83.8% 17.5% 0.097 0.384 0.302
Alexei Ramirez Pres 3104 37.0% 51.0% 84.0% 12.1% 0.134 0.411 0.318
Miguel Tejada Pres 2942 34.7% 51.0% 87.8% 9.4% 0.127 0.411 0.320
Josh Anderson 2009 519 37.9% 51.0% 84.8% 15.8% 0.080 0.352 0.296
Steve Lombardozzi Pres 471 34.9% 50.9% 91.0% 10.6% 0.080 0.353 0.295
Alexi Amarista Pres 399 37.9% 50.8% 83.2% 14.0% 0.131 0.357 0.270
Josh Harrison Pres 488 36.2% 50.8% 83.8% 12.9% 0.106 0.354 0.276
Carl Crawford Pres 3169 34.5% 50.5% 82.6% 16.1% 0.156 0.450 0.343
Jose Lopez 2012 3013 35.6% 50.4% 86.8% 11.1% 0.136 0.396 0.298
Michael Barrett 2009 493 33.7% 50.2% 82.1% 15.8% 0.123 0.355 0.274
Alberto Gonzalez Pres 989 36.3% 50.1% 86.0% 12.5% 0.078 0.319 0.263

Cano and Sandoval are still in the picture. Looking at the rest of the players here, we notice a few things. First, most of these guys either don’t have a very long track record, or didn’t have one in the Pitchf/x era. Garciaparra, for instance, had a plenty long track record in the majors, but by 2007 was on his last legs. The same is true of Barrett, Payton and a few others. As a result, most of the players here didn’t reach 1,000 PA. Of the 17 players in the sample who didn’t reach 1,000 PA, 10 of them are from the 12 players who are no longer active on a major league roster. And many of the active players are not what you would call regulars.

There’s likely a reason for that. While these guys manage to make contact at an above-average rate despite the frequency with which they swing, they’re not making — or did not make — what you would call hard contact. Of the 26-person sample, we see that 22 of them had an ISO below league average, and Crawford is essentially league average. That leaves Cano, Sandoval and Crede, who hasn’t played since 2009, as having definitively above-average ISO marks. We see the same story play out when examining slugging percentage. Cano stands at .508, Sandoval .490, and then Crawford comes in third, way off in the distance at .450, and then there is another sharp drop from there. Only three others are definitively above average.

It’s not just power, either. In looking at their wOBAs, we see that only Cano, Crawford, Pierzynski, Ramirez, Sandoval and Tejada have posted league average wOBAs or better. And Tejada’s days of posting even an exemplary wOBA are behind him — he hasn’t posted an above-average wOBA since 2009. It seemed like Ramirez’s days of being a productive hitter were behind him as well, but he has started this season with a bang.

Cano and Sandoval really do separate from the pack. Their SLG, ISO and wOBA marks stand out as the best among the group. You could squint and put Crawford in the same group, but then Crawford has struck out far more frequently across this span than have Cano and Sandoval. Furthermore, Crawford’s status in this group may be honorary at this point. He has started 2013 with drastically reduced Swing and O-Swing percentages. In the Pitchf/x years (again, 2007-present), Crawford has an O-Swing% of 34.5%, and a 50.5% Swing%. This season however, those numbers have dipped sharply — to 20.7% and 39.7%, respectively. He is still making contact at an above-average rate, but his swing percentages are well below average.

Cano and Sandoval, on the other hand, are still swinging with the best of them this season. Cano’s swing rates are down from his 2011 peak, but he is his O-Swing% and Swing% are still five percent above league average as of today. And Sandoval trumps just about everyone. Sandoval’s swing rates are 15-20% above league average. Only two players are swinging at more pitches this year than Sandoval — Josh Hamilton and Jeff Francoeur — and neither of them have contact rates even resembling league average.

Generally speaking, a hitter can do one of two things — he can try to hit for power or he can try to hit for contact. Cano and Sandoval have a long track record that proves that they can do both, and there really isn’t anyone else in their league. Their ability to swing at nearly any pitch and still manage to make enough hard contact to hit for power — both have top-50 slugging percentages since 2007 — is rare.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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10 years ago

Paul, have you looked into these players any more deeply? I’m curious if there’s any specific zone that they hit best in (outside the strike zone). I’m curious to see if it’s the two of them actually have a ton of range, or something like just liking one specific type of pitch (like, say, the Lefty Cano liking low inside fastballs)

10 years ago
Reply to  Synovia

Is there even any evidence backing up the lefties-love-it-low-and-in theory? I can’t imagine there is a difference between a LHB’s ability to hit a certain pitch from a RHP and a RHB’s ability to hit that pitch from a LHP. It’s not like there are inherent differences in what they are doing, it’s a mirror image.

10 years ago
Reply to  Tom

Except for the fact that lefties have the incentive to bail out of the box towards first while righties drive toward the plate, making the low-inside pitch more of an ‘across-the-body’ hack rather than a graceful Griffey/Cargo stroke.

10 years ago
Reply to  Synovia

Anecdotally, having watched a lot of Sandoval games, he has a ton of vertical range. I’ve seen him crush balls that were up around his eyes, and make good contact on stuff that was barely off the ground.

10 years ago
Reply to  pitnick

It’s the old saying, “you can’t walk off an island”.