The MLB is dominated by strikeout pitchers. The top starting pitchers are the ones who can stay durable with the nastiest stuff. The best relievers are the ones guaranteed to rack up K's every time they pitch. The flow of baseball in 2023 is centered around attempts to get strikeouts, and attempts to avoid strikeouts, especially if you view the action from the perspective of the man who stands upon the mound and holds the ball. From the hitter's perspective, the game is about home runs, as every major leaguer has developed a narrow tunnel vision on the ultimate play, the round-tripper.
In this landscape of the Three True Outcomes, balls that reach the field of play, where the defenders are, almost seem to be an accident. The three true outcomes have increased dramatically over the decades, and all of the uncertainty and excitement has slowly evaporated along with the rate of playable baseballs. The old days of slapping, bunting, Baltimore chopping and running around the bases are done.
There's ample data showing this trend, so here is just a slice of it. In 2022, the league on average struck out 22.4% of the time, walked 8.2% of the time, and homered 2.9% of the time. Fifty years ago it was 1973, and baseball fans saw the league average hitter strike out 13.7% of the time, walk 8.8% of the time, and homer 2.1% of the time. That year, there was only one qualified player with a strikeout rate barely higher than the league average in 2022. Sorry, Nate Colbert.
Nate Colbert was the Joey Gallo of 1973, and the average joe today is now whiffing like Nate Colbert. Hitters whiff so often now because they're trying to hit homers, because pitchers all throw harder and with better spin, because reliever usage is way, way up, and because they're not taught to bunt, slap, choke up and chop like they used to.
All of this is a preamble that could apply to hundreds of discussion topics, as it's the most essential and existential issue facing the league. Every year that passes with more strikeouts inspires more attempts to reduce or mitigate or justify the oppression of the strikeouts. This year, eyes leaguewide have looked towards one heroic figure leading the charge against the three true outcomes: Luis Arraez.
Arraez is the bona fide champion of contact hitting. His reluctance to draw walks, the scarcity of his dingers, and his utter refusal to punch out has not only made him a fan-favorite but has led league prognosticators to suggest Arraez could bat .400 over a full season. It likely won't happen this year, but that it was even suggested is a testament to Arraez's skillset. He is striking out at a rate that is similar to a prime Ty Cobb and even better than noted .400 batter Ted Williams.
The 1973 Club
It's important to highlight such superhuman feats as a half-attempt at a .400 season. There is an increasingly small number of hitters with contact skills that vaguely resemble a typical singles hitter from the 1970's. Those brave few batsmen who can manage a strikeout rate below the 1973 average, they are the ones who maintain baseball's rapidly changing aesthetic. These are the players who rage against the dying of the ball in play.
As of July 24, there are fourteen qualified hitters who strike out less than 13.7% of the time, only 9 of them under 12%, and just three under 10%. Luis Arraez laps the crowd with his rate of 5.4%, and after him comes a young switch-hitting catcher named Keibert Ruiz at 9.3%. A few spots back sits Luis Garcia, the one on the Nationals, with his 11.8% rate. Looking at the rest of the group it is evident that running an elite contact rate correlates pretty strongly with being an elite hitter overall, but not as strongly as you might think.
Nine of these fourteen players are above average hitters according to wRC+, and six of them are truly elite with wRC+ marks of 128 or higher. Jose Ramirez, Masataka Yoshida, Ronald Acuna Jr., Will Smith, Kyle Tucker, and Luis Arraez make up that elite group. All but Yoshida were All-Stars and all but Arraez have at least 11 home runs and isolated slugging percentages over .178 (the league average is .163). After those stars come a group of above-average regulars who have made contact hitting their trademark in one way or another: Steven Kwan, Adam Frazier, Jeff McNeil, Nico Hoerner, Alex Bregman, and Marcus Semien. Each have put up seasons ranging from decent to great, and all but Frazier are locked-in starters on solid rosters.
As it turns out, players putting everything in play tend to put up heaps of total bases even if their raw power is less than the average slugger. These contact-heavy approaches aren't disappearing because it's not efficient or not advantageous, but because it is incredibly rare to find players with the talent to manage these low strikeout rates. When you can't find a Jose Ramirez, you can usually find a capable player with a successful approach but far more strikeouts.
The Road to .400?
Here's the strangest part of this club of contact hitters, who you can henceforth call the '73 club. There are only two players who have been solidly below-average, though Adam Frazier is right on the borderline. Surprise, it's the two players on the Nationals. Somehow they've managed to fail despite their vintage, slappy tendencies, as they've been the two "in play, out(s)" runts in a club based around the "in play, no out" philosophy.
Keibert Ruiz sticks out like a sore thumb in this cohort despite his silver medal in purely avoiding strikeouts. He has the worst BABIP in the group with .241, he has the worst FanGraphs WAR in the group with -0.7, and his wRC+ is third worst, barely ahead of Jeff McNeil and Luis Garcia. Garcia doesn't fare well either, running the worst batting line overall, the 2nd-worst WAR with 0.0, and the 3rd-worst isolated slugging among the 14 hitters in the club.
It's easy to see why these players have failed, even when their colleagues in contact rate have almost all succeeded. Garcia and Ruiz are the worst hitters here because they aren't nearly as selective as players like Jose Ramirez and Alex Bregman. Neither hitter has elite speed like Ronald Acuna Jr. and Nico Hoerner, nor do they have batted ball profiles with high average and top-end exit velocities like Kyle Tucker and Will Smith.
Garcia and Ruiz have absolutely demonstrated excellent bat-to-ball skills, but are held down by being below average at pretty much everything else. Both players grade out poorly on defense, both have been unlucky on offense, and both are below-average power hitters, and both have awful on-base percentages due to their poor walk rates and BABIPs. As is demonstrated by their fellow club members, at least one of those several attributes needs to improve to be a solid hitter. While they share DNA with Alex Bregman, there is a vast chasm between their seasons and Bregman's 8-WAR performances in 2018 and 2019. They won't get there, but joining the second tier of regulars is not too much to ask of the players, or to wish for as a fan.
There's an easy path to success for players with a strong plus in bat-to-ball. Hit more home runs, improve on defense, take more walks, and be more selective in the strike zone to improve results on contact. These Nats youngsters could do all of the above a little bit, and you'd expect them to given their age, or they could make large gains in one aspect. Neither player is going to hit .380 like Arraez or 80 extra-base hits like Jose Ramirez, but the fact that they are in that stratosphere is a good sign within their struggles this season.
Something unexpected would have to happen for Ruiz or Garcia to chase a .400 batting average. Nobody saw it coming from Arraez either, but he had far stronger batting averages throughout his development. Right now, Ruiz and Garcia are hitting .244 and .269, respectively, so it's reasonable to set the bar at or near .300 for both players. The pair almost certainly won't become elite defenders, or elite speedsters, or elite home run hitters, so their capacity to improve their batting averages, and their on-base and slugging as a result, is of the utmost importance.
For Garcia, .300 and better power is what's necessary to turn his limited athleticism into a great player. I've long been convinced that he's capable of more power, but he's still scuffling, especially when it comes to laying off difficult, low-value pitches. In Ruiz's case, he can seek to imitate Wilson Ramos' 2016 season as a National, where he hit .307 with 22 home runs, was an All-Star, a Silver Slugger, and an MVP vote-getter. Ramos accomplished that with seriously sluggish sprint speeds with a solid strikeout rate, but benefitted from far more pop than Ruiz has displayed. Keibert will need to get his average up at a minimum, continue pushing 20 home runs with plenty of doubles, and improve his poor defensive metrics to reach an All-Star level. Catchers often develop in slow and strange ways, and there's clearly plenty of talent in the young backstop to become a plus behind the plate and in the lineup.
The most boring fan would look at Garcia and Ruiz's seasons and say, well, clearly they need to focus less on balls in play and trade some whiffs for more damage and dingers. I'm on the contrary. When a player with Arraez-esque contact skills comes along, I hope they do everything they can to join the revolution against the three true outcomes. In the years to come, I hope desperately to see Ruiz, Garcia, and players around the league blooping singles and chopping grounders on their way to stardom. The Nats haven't succeeded with either player yet, or with their team in general, but they're lucky to employ not one but two members of the most exclusive, most exciting underground club in town. With Arraez as the role model, let's hope that contact hitting comes all the way back.