The Least Authoritative Hitters of All Time

In this age of Hitf/x and StatCast, batted-ball velocity is a hotter topic than ever. We only have had access to such data for a limited period of time, but the hypothesizing regarding the loudest contact-makers in the game’s history has been going on as long as the game itself. A similar debate regarding the quietest contact-makers has been, shall we say, a bit more quiet. Earlier this week we used contact scores to run down the most authoritative hitters of the modern era. Today, let’s flip the script and look at the bottom of the contact authority list.

While most of us likely have memories of thunderous contact going back to our youth, we have to dig a little deeper into the recesses of our memory to unearth those who set themselves apart from the pack with regard to weak contact. Willie Stargell and Dick Allen left lasting imprints upon my pre-teen brain; the legions of light-hitting middle infielders from that era all kind of run together. How do we identify the lightest of the light hitters?

By using raw contact scores, that’s how. Strip away the Ks and BBs, and apply run values to all balls in play based on the norms for that era. Scale it to 100, and you have unadjusted contact scores for all regulars going back to 1901. Since we don’t have access to granular batted-ball data going that far backward, we’re not going to be able to adjust for context. That context includes the effects of ballparks, individual player’s speed, and of course, luck. In a given year, that those factors might affect an individual player significantly. Over the long haul, however, raw ball-striking ability, or lack thereof, as well as contact quality, the respective freqeuncy of line drives and popups, of weak and hard contact in general, makes the difference.

I have done extensive work on pitchers’ contact-management ability in the past, utilizing a nearly identical method. In a given season, an elite contact-managing pitcher will have a contact score of 70 or better, and the best contact managers of all time post career marks in the low 80s, with 100 representing league average. Over time, a truly poor contact-managing starting pitcher might post a career contact score around 110. As you might expect, hitters have a wider range of contact scores.

A league-leading contact score for a hitter might be in the 200 range, or even higher. In fact, 102 individual season contact scores of 226 or higher have been posted since 1901. On the downside, 100 individual season contact scores of 50 or lower have been posted over that span, and the league-trailing mark is generally in that vicinity.

So who have been the least authoritative ball-strikers in the game’s modern era? First, some basic parameters. This list is strictly based on lowest average raw contact score for players with 10 or more seasons as a regular. That 10-year minimum criteria should not be taken lightly. A player who makes such light contact over an extended period of time and doesn’t lose his everyday job must be doing something right. That “something” will become very clear as we roll through the all-time bottom 10.

These are players with value; it is not a “Ten Worst Hitters Of All Time” list. Most of these players put the ball in play more often than the average regular, and some even grew to become effective complementary offensive players at some point in their careers. And every one of them offered substantial defensive value. So here they are, the ten least authoritative hitters of all time, all of whom happened to play shortstop:

10 – Everett Scott – (Career Contact Score = 72.4, 11 qualifying seasons) – Most of us know that the power center of the AL shifted from Boston in the 1910s to New York in the 1920s, as a certain difference-maker named Ruth relocated to the Big Apple. He was joined by this guy, a shortstop who won four World Series in his career. His K and BB rates were extremely low throughout his career; the former was over a full standard deviation below league average in all but one season, the latter was that low each and every year. His three-year contact score trough average was 64.9, from ages 21 to 23, which he then gradually built up over his career. His one-year peak (88) and trough (49) are both very ordinary in this company. He posted a lifetime OPS+ of 65.

9 – Ozzie Smith – (Career Contact Score = 72.2, 17 qualifying seasons) – Competent offensive player alert. Plus, he’s the greatest defensive shortstop of all time and a Hall of Famer. He was an awful offensive player early on; his three-year trough average contact score of 53.3 from ages 24 to 26 ranks as the worst on this list. He was then traded to St. Louis, where he made subtly better contact while enhancing his K and BB rates for the rest of his career. His K rate was over two standard deviations below league average in 11 of his last 13 qualifying seasons, while his BB rate was over a standard deviation better than league average in six of 10 qualifying seasons between 1982 and 1991. He dragged his career OPS+ up to 87 by the time he was done, with four years over 100, thanks in small part to his ball-striking ability. His one-year peak contact score was 91, his trough, 45.

8 – Omar Vizquel – (Career Contact Score = 72.2, 18 qualifying seasons) – The AL version of Smith. The same career contact score over a slightly longer career. Like Smith, his worst offensive work came early in his career; his career-low contact score of 50 came in his rookie year, and his three-year trough average of 64.2 occurred between ages 26 and 28. His walk rates were almost always in the average range, but his K rates — his chief offensive strength — were over a standard deviation below league average in 17 of his 18 qualifying seasons. His best one-year contact score was 94, in 1999, and his career OPS+ was 82, two more figures closely aligned with Smith’s.

7 – Roy McMillan – (Career Contact Score = 70.8, 12 qualifying seasons) – It’s strictly pretty bad offensive players the rest of the way. McMillan posted the best contact score of his career (99) — the best single-season mark of any player on this list — as a 22-year-old rookie in 1952, and a bright offensive future appeared to beckon. He then posted his three-year trough average contact score of 68.7 over the next three seasons, with his career average steadily declining throughout, on the way to a career 72 OPS+. His career-low contact score was an abysmal 45, in 1964. Strong K (seven seasons over a standard deviation lower) and BB (two seasons over a standard deviation higher) rates made him a borderline viable offensive presence.

6 – Mark Belanger – (Career Contact Score = 70.2, 11 qualifying seasons) – Belanger is saved from being at the top (or is it bottom?) of this list by his era. Runs were really tough to come by throughout his career. Belanger actually had a 77.6 career contact score through his first four seasons, posting his peak seasonal mark of 97 in his second season. He was basically in offensive free-fall thereafter, notching his three-year trough average of 59.7 between ages 29 and 31. He was nearly in Smith and Vizquel’s league defensively, with the main difference a relatively short career. His seasonal contact score bottomed at 54, and he compiled a career OPS+ of 68. Compared to the players already mentioned, his K and BB rates gravitated toward the average range.

5 – Alfredo Griffin – (Career Contact Score = 68.9, 13 qualifying seasons) – For my money, the largest cumulative negative batting contribution of any player, ever. The difference-maker? His abysmally low BB rate, over a full standard deviation below league average nine times, and over two below once. His low K rate — over a standard deviation below league average for seven straight years from 1983 to 1989 — and above-average speed kept him afloat, barely. His three-year trough average of 58.8 occurred between ages 28 and 30, and his career average continued to trend downward from there. His one-year peak contact score was 87, his trough 45, as he notched a career OPS+ of 67.

4 – Dick Schofield, Jr. – (Career Contact Score = 67.9, 10 qualifying seasons) – Schofield’s seasonal contact scores bounced arrowed in a fairly narrow band between a trough of 53 and a peak of 79 in 10 seasons as a regular. His K rates typically were in the average range, and only late in his career did his BB rate become an asset; it was over a standard deviation above league average in two of his last four seasons as a regular. His three-year trough average contact score is actually the second highest among this group, at 65.4, from ages 27 to 29. He was basically the same mediocre offensive player in each season of his career, and finished with an OPS+ of 73.

3 – Bucky Dent – (Career Contact Score = 67.3, 10 qualifying seasons) – This really has to burn Red Sox fans. Dent was totally fixated on contact frequency in lieu of authority, with a K rate over a full standard deviation below league average in all 10 seasons as a regular. His BB rate drifted from average to slightly below, but not to nearly as extreme an extent as his K rate. Dent’s three-year trough average contact score bottomed at 54.5 from ages 29 to 31, third lowest only to Smith and #2 below. Dent’s one-season trough mark of 37 in 1982 was the second lowest ever, exceeded only by the immortal Bill Bergen’s 31 in 1909. His one-season peak of 85 occurred in his rookie year, but it was all downhill from there, as he posted a career OPS+ of 74.

2 – Ozzie Guillen – (Career Contact Score = 67.2, 12 qualifying seasons) – Here is the only member of our bottom ten never once to post a single-season contact score of at least 80; his one-year peak was 78, in his rookie season. His floor was 51, in his final year, finishing off his three-year trough average of 53.9, second worst among this group. Guillen’s K and BB rates were consistently among the lowest in his league; both were over a full standard deviation lower than average in all of his 12 seasons as a regular. Guillen’s career OPS+ of 69 fits right in among this group.

1 – Tim Foli – (Career Contact Score = 65.7, 12 qualifying seasons) – The least authoritative hitter of the modern era. He’s yet another very low K and BB guy; his K rate was over a full standard deviation lower than league average in all 12 of his qualifying seasons, and over two standard deviations lower in four of them. His BB rate was nearly as extreme, over a full standard deviation below nine times, and over two below once. His one-year high and low contact scores of 88 and 54 don’t stand out among this group, but his seasonal marks floated in a narrow band between 54 and 73 in all but one of his qualifying seasons, setting him apart. The first pick of the 1968 draft posted a career 64 OPS+. I will always remember Tim Foli as the ultimate brawl-starter: when his Expos and Phillies fought their annual pitched battle to escape last place in the NL East in the early ’70s, it was Foli usually being tossed around by Phils’ enforcers such as Joe Lis and Pete Koegel.

You will note that no member of the bottom ten ever posted a contact score of 100 in a given season. You will also notice that a preponderance of them played between the ’60s and ’90s. Today, even the middle-of-the-field defensive specialists are expected to hit the ball with authority.

The #11-20 finishers? Ed Brinkman, Walt Weiss, George McBride, Ted Sizemore, Larry Bowa, Spike Owen, Juan Pierre, Brad Ausmus, Don Kessinger and Luke Sewell. Six more shortstops, a second baseman (Sizemore), an outfielder (Pierre) and two catchers (Ausmus and Sewell). The “highest” ranking active player is Coco Crisp at #71 with an 88.1 career contact score. The only other active players on the bottom 100 will get some Hall of Fame votes: #73 Yadier Molina (88.2) and #96 Jimmy Rollins (91.9). That 10-year minimum sure does cull the herd, doesn’t it?

Now for some honorable mentions. Bill Bergen is clearly the worst hitter of all time, and with a contact score of 45.5 over six seasons as a regular, he would clearly rank as the least authoritative ball-striker of all time if the ten-year criteria was waived. The ace defensive catcher posted two of the six worst single-season marks of all time, 31 in 1909 and 40 in 1906. The only others to post career contact scores under 60 with five or more seasons as a regular? Shortstops Enzo Hernandez (53.5, 5 years), Rey Ordonez (57.3, 6) and Felix Fermin (59.4, 5).

Are there any active players who might one day threaten the bottom 10 list? Elvis Andrus (76.9, 6 qualifying seasons) might have the best chance both of accumulating the 10+ years as a regular and seeing his career mark drop below 72.4. Kurt Suzuki (78.3, 5) also has a puncher’s chance, while Alberto Callaspo’s (75.4, 6) days as a regular seem to be at an end. Andrelton Simmons (70.4, 2) has many seasons to go, but his glove will almost certainly allow him to meet the longevity requirement. The lightest paddlers out there are Eric Sogard (63.9, 2) and Alexi Amarista (67.9, 2), who surely will not be allowed to play every day for anywhere near a decade. The 2015 seasonal laggards to date? Chase Utley (41) in the NL, and Jose Ramirez (35) in the AL.

Below, for reference purposes, is some detailed information about the all-time contact score laggards with 10 or more seasons as regulars:

Foli 12 65.7 57.3 30-32 88 54
O.Guillen 12 67.2 53.9 31-33 78 51
Dent 10 67.3 54.5 29-31 85 37
Schofield, Jr. 10 67.9 65.4 27-29 79 53
A.Griffin 13 68.9 58.8 28-30 87 47
Belanger 11 70.2 59.7 29-31 97 54
McMillan 12 70.8 68.7 23-25 99 45
Vizquel 18 72.2 64.2 26-28 94 50
O.Smith 17 72.2 53.3 24-26 91 45
E.Scott 11 72.4 64.9 21-23 88 49

Next week, we’ll examine the relationship between contact score and OPS+, and develop contact score multipliers based on relative K and BB rates.

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I feel like even though we slice things so many different ways, it can end up always ending into the two buckets of light hitting speed guys and high K/BB power guys.