Vladimir Guerrero and the Best Truly Bad Ball Hitters

Maybe the most painful part of writing about baseball for a living is that your biases — the same biases of which we’re all guilty — are constantly laid bare for everyone to see. Vladimir Guerrero reminded me of that problem most recently.

David Wright and Joey Votto embody my first bias. Plate discipline was a way to find great hitters! I’d read Moneyball and used it to draft Chipper Jones first in my first fantasy league, back in 2001, and I was money. I had baseball all figured out.

Good one, early 2000s dude. Good one.

Watching Guerrero and someone like Brandon Phillips, though, I was reminded that I didn’t know everything. Here were guys that reached on pitches outside the zone and yet were so darn athletic that they made good contact on those pitches and were stars. I had to examine my ideal player, revisit my early bias, and try to focus on these players against whom I’d been biased. And I did so, publicly. Good thing it’s very hard to embarrass me.

Back then, when I looked at guys with middling walk rates and only okay strikeout rates who were useful players nonetheless, I identified a few player archetypes. You had your defensive stalwarts like Phillips and Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Uribe, of course. And then players that weren’t long for baseball like Brennan Boesch and Delmon Young.

But you also had Pablo Sandoval. And if I had run my query at a different time, you might have had Guerrero. Some guys are athletic and big enough to do real damage on pitches outside of the zone. Some hitters are great bad-ball hitters, and deserve credit for that skill, even if it ages so terribly.

I want to give credit to those bad-ball hitters today, especially since we’re all considering Guerrero’s worthiness for the Hall of Fame. Paul Swydan pointed out the similarity between his candidacy and Larry Walker’s, and Craig Edwards wondered how much better Guerrero would look if we counted his intentional walks differently. Let’s throw on the list that Guerrero has the 25th-highest slugging percentage on balls outside the zone since we started tracking that sort of thing (minimum 5000 pitches seen outside of the zone).

If you limit the pool of 378 hitters who amassed 5000 pitches seen outside of the zone since 2002 to those who struck out less than 15% of the time on pitches out of the zone — that is, swung and missed for a third strike on a pitch out of the zone — you get a different list. Bad-ball hitters, more than bad-ball sluggers.

Best Bad Ball Hitters by Contact and Power
Batter Total K% AVG In-Zone SLG Out-Zone SLG
Albert Pujols 24972 10.6% 0.297 0.542 0.542
Nolan Arenado 8483 14.9% 0.287 0.526 0.524
Adrian Beltre 22941 12.8% 0.301 0.509 0.504
Mookie Betts 6367 12.2% 0.306 0.506 0.504
Vladimir Guerrero 9474 11.0% 0.306 0.495 0.495
Aramis Ramirez 17623 13.8% 0.288 0.492 0.494
Magglio Ordonez 9361 11.9% 0.318 0.468 0.482
Buster Posey 14549 12.3% 0.308 0.479 0.478
Mike Lowell 6938 12.5% 0.294 0.467 0.470
Carlos Lee 13687 8.9% 0.285 0.454 0.469
Minimum 5000 pitches seen outside of the zone and K% < 15, best out of zone slugging percentage
n = 72

Guerrero’s there, but does this really capture his essence? Does it represent the unusual skill of a guy who did this?

Look how far that pitch lands in front of Guerrero. And look how he makes contact. Does Albert Pujols do anything with balls off the bounce? That’s what I want to know.

Let’s revisit the out of zone query and try to push it further. Who did the best with balls that were more than three inches off the edge of the plate?

Best Truly Bad Ball Hitters by Power
Batter Total K% AVG SLG
Pablo Sandoval 5895 20.2% 0.243 0.343
Vladimir Guerrero 3666 24.5% 0.216 0.325
Mike Trout 5363 28.5% 0.212 0.315
Troy Tulowitzki 5911 22.5% 0.189 0.300
Jose Altuve 3956 22.7% 0.231 0.299
Jose Reyes 6085 23.7% 0.220 0.293
Denard Span 5476 20.3% 0.204 0.293
Victor Martinez 6473 21.0% 0.205 0.291
Adrian Beltre 7784 28.2% 0.201 0.289
Brett Lawrie 3009 35.6% 0.185 0.288
Minimum 3000 pitches seen outside of the zone
Pitch is at least three inches outside of the strike zone
n = 256

Now we’re cooking. Vladimir Guerrero is the best retired Truly Bad Ball hitter of our time. There are a decent amount of caveats in there, but by focusing on pitches far outside the zone, we’ve described part of the essence of Vlad. (And Pablo, of course.)

It’s worth asking how much this sort of thing matters. Of course it doesn’t age that well, and how much should we be lauding Guerrero for slugging .325 on any sort of pitch, especially one at which he shouldn’t be swinging?

It’s fair to ask these questions, and so it’s time to admit another bias I’ve developed and for which I don’t yet have evidence. I think teams with diverse lineups do better than teams with homogeneous ones. If I’m building my team, I want David Wright and Yoenis Cespedes. I want Mike Napoli and Vladimir Guerrero. I want Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval.

That means that we shouldn’t get to biased towards certain styles of excellence. Some day we may all be voting on Joey Votto for the Hall of Fame and he’ll be a shoo-in among those that love the disciplined hitter with pristine ratios. But let’s uncover our biases, let’s look inwards and remember Adrian Beltre when it comes to those votes, because it’s great to have a Truly Bad Ball hitter in the lineup, and because their excellence was so iconic and perhaps useful.

Remember how Guerrero played? With a smile, a cannon, and a bat that could destroy any pitch thrown his way? I don’t yet have a vote for the Hall of Fame, and I know in my head that he’s a borderline case. But my heart remembers all those bad balls, and all those biases that he helped me undo. And, perhaps, create.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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7 years ago

As a former and hopefully future Expos fan, Vlad is the player who connected me with baseball, wasn’t born to see Gary Carter, old Tim Raines etc… I sure hope he makes his place to the Hall, he played the right way and always with a smile. Jose Fernandez reminded me of Vlad in a sense.