We are, inarguably, living in the Golden Age Of Offensive Platitudes. Russell A. Carleton tossed out several of them in one recent column: “Sit fastball. Swing hard. Strikeouts don’t matter.” The Pirates say “OPS is in the air,” which is really just the Cubs’ “there’s no slug on the ground,” but stood on its head. Josh Donaldson wants you to “just say no to ground balls,” which is unimaginative but clear enough.
Modern offense comes down to launch angle and exit velocity, and to maximizing extra-base power (especially home runs) in order to make up for an unabating upshoot in strikeout rate. To be a great hitter in the modern game is nowhere near easy, but it’s fairly simple. Most teams, and many individual players, have dedicated themselves to breaking down hitting to the simplest set of basic ideas possible, so that batters can adapt to the unprecedented velocity and sheer stuff of modern pitchers as deftly as possible.
I said modern offense is about launch angle and exit velocity, but of course, there’s another dimension to be considered. A number of players who have always had the ability to hit the ball hard and get it elevated are enjoying breakout campaigns, and it’s not because they’re suddenly hitting it harder or higher. Rather, it’s because they’re hewing to another bromide, one I haven’t seen mentioned often so far. Here it is: No. Free. Strikes.
Take Twins slugger Miguel Sano, for instance. He had a dazzling rookie season in 2015, but went backward last year. He’s the very model of the modern masher—strikeout-prone, with a grooved swing that doesn’t give him much chance to make solid contact on pitchers’ pitches, but patient and extraordinarily powerful. As pitchers got their second and third looks at him, they found that they could use his patience against him.
A bit over 46.6 percent of the pitches Sano saw in 2016 were in the strike zone—on par with the zone rate for Howie Kendrick. Over 30 percent of the strikes on Sano prior to this season were called. He swung at the first pitch less than a quarter of the time, and pitchers knew it, so over half his plate appearances began 0-1. Sano’s OPS after that start to at-bats was .558. He swung at just over 60 percent of pitches in the zone, and it left him in bad counts all the time.
This season, Sano has swung at the first pitch nearly 40 percent of the time. He’s offered at 73 percent of all pitches he’s seen within the zone. He’s traded a very little bit of contact for that extra plate coverage and aggressiveness, but because he hits the ball so hard when he connects, the tradeoff has been more than worth it. Moreover, pitchers have quickly come to realize that they can’t ever throw him a strike without fear of having a ball hit 112 miles per hour past their ear.
Despite his increased aggressiveness, therefore, he’s walking more. He’s striking out almost exactly as often, but instead of over 10 percent of his plate appearances ending in a called third strike, he’s being rung up less than six percent of the time. That means that for the same number of strikeouts, he’s giving himself more chances to get two-strike hits, and it’s reflected in his two-strike numbers: his OPS is up from .440 to .674 in such counts.
Surely, not every hitter can increase their rate of swings on strikes without also chasing more outside of the zone, and not every hitter can swing more without also missing more often. Sano is far from an isolated example of this kind of change, though. Starlin Castro has swung more than ever since being traded to the Yankees, and he’s made a particularly large change this year. His increase in swing rate within the zone has been larger than the increase on pitches outside it, and he’s making more contact within the zone than ever.
Castro has similarly scared opposing pitchers out of pounding the zone against him, helping him walk enough to make the rest of his improved offensive profile work. A higher percentage of Castro’s pitches seen have come while behind in the count than ever before in his career, and yet he’s having his best offensive season. Didi Gregorius has always been aggressive, in the zone and out, but he’s taken it to a new level this season—hacking away at nearly 80 percent of strikes. Marcell Ozuna, whose adjustments I partially chronicled in a separate piece last month, has made the same change.
We shouldn’t—we mustn’t—assume that these changes (and the attendant success) are results of isolated approach changes. Each of these players has also made at least minor physical changes, be it a mechanical tweak or a rededication to good conditioning. Still, the lesson here is that there are some batters who should adopt what we would once have considered a hyper-aggressive, extreme approach at the plate.
For so long, the league lurched back and forth, with teams trying to fit a relatively narrow band of approaches onto a widely varied set of players with disparate skill sets. Cases like these are examples of the evolution of player development, just as the cases of Zack Cozart, Eric Thames, and other newly patient hitters are. Pitchers and hitters seem to be adjusting to one another at speeds they never could before, and that’s necessitating increased individualization in terms of approach and preparation.
Guys like Sano, Castro, and Ozuna are becoming some of the most exciting hitters in MLB by refusing to grant pitchers a single pitch’s worth of relief.