Below Average Hitters with Above Average Traits
Good hitting is a jigsaw puzzle where you don't even need all the pieces to be complete. Can't walk? Be like Adam Duvall and just hit 38 homers. Can't walk or hit bombs? Slap the ball around the field en route to a .305 AVG and a 114 wRC+ like Adam Fraizer.
Some players only need one thing that they're really good at to become good hitters. Duvall and Fraizer are just a few players who have mastered one skill so well that just doing enough in the other departments makes them good.
But sometimes, mastery in one skill just isn't enough. Today, I wanted to look at hitters who have a degree of mastery in one area of hitting, but aren't doing enough in the others to make them "good" hitters.
There are 6 categories I wanted to look at: BB%, AVG, OBP, SLG, K%, and BABIP. Some of these players are still above-average players, thanks to defense or baserunning, but they aren't above-average hitters.
Let's get into it.
The BBers (Not the Shane Variety)
These players have mastered the walk. League-average BB% in the majors was 8.7% and there were 3 players that really stood out to me.
DJ Stewart had the highest BB% of the bunch, taking his base 13.8% of the time. This rate is higher than Tony Kemp, who carried a 127 wRC+ despite having next to no power, so how did Stewart end up as 6% worse than a league-average hitter?
Despite having a relatively decent max EV (75th percentile), Stewart wasn't a power hitter. The power he showed in the minors (.548 SLG in his final stint in AAA) just hasn't translated to the bigs. His 2021 SLG of .371 was well below-average. He also wasn't someone who hit for average, as he hovered around the Mendoza level, finishing at .204.
Stewart also saw his K% balloon once he got to Baltimore. While his MiLB K% never exceeded 22.1% (with the exception of a 5 game sample in 2019), his career MLB K% is 26.7. In 2021, it was an even higher 28%.
I'd argue that his BB% is the only thing that gets him close to league-average as a hitter. It's the one tool that did translate to the majors. So, while he's not quite there as an average hitter, his BB% keeps giving him more chances.
Brett Gardner is a far more recognizable name. Since breaking into the bigs with the Yanks in 2008, he's been a remarkably consistent player (remember 2019 when he decided to be a power hitter and hit 28 bombs?).
His situation is nearly identical to Stewart's. Despite walking 13% of the time, he simply doesn't have the contact skills or the power anymore to boost him to average hitter status. The result is a remarkably similar 93 wRC+.
The big difference between the two players was their defense (Gardner had a -1.3 DEF, while Stewart had a -6.1 DEF)
The final player I wanted to look at in the BBer tier is Carlos Santana. At first glance, he looks like he doesn't belong. He'd actually slot into the K'ing category, too.
With a 13.1 BB%, a 15.5 K%, and 19 homers, Santana should've easily been an above-average hitter if he BABIP'd enough, right?
Wrong. His 83 wRC+ was far lower than Gardner and Stewart, despite having more homers. This was mainly because his SLG was so low, at .342 (in addition to his AVG being .214).
But how could someone who slugged 19 bombs have such a low SLG?
The first answer is that he didn't really hit doubles. He only had 15 all season. Max Kepler had an equally bad AVG, a worse BB%, and the same number of homers, but his wRC+ was 12 points higher because he had 6 more doubles in 169 fewer PAs.
One reason for Santana's lack of two-baggers is his complete lack of speed. He was the 39th slowest player in the bigs last season.
The second reason, and a huge contributor to his low BABIP in general, was the shift. When Santana came to bat left-handed, he was shifted on 97.6% of the time, the most in the majors with 250 PAs.
(For reference, the right-handed version of Santana only saw shifts 23.8% of the time, but he had 278 more PAs from the left side.)
This resulted in balls like this that could've been hits but weren't.
Clearing the threshold for AVG is seems relatively easy. After all, the league average was only .244.
Despite this, there were plenty of players who surpassed that mark who were not good.
There were 3 players, however, who stood out to me as having exceptionally high AVG for being below-average hitters.
Batting average isn't the stat it used to be. You don't have players getting released for having a .224 AVG despite a .406 OBP anymore.
Still, for Harold Castro and Starlin Castro to tie for the 45th best AVG in baseball and still be well below average hitters (83 wRC+ and 90 wRC+, respectively) is truly amazing to me.
The same can be said for Yonathan Daza, who despite having an AVG just 2 points lower than the two Castros, had a wRC+ of 75.
How they did it, of course, is no surprise. Starlin had the highest OBP and SLG of the bunch, at .333/.375. The three players combined for 8 homers in 1,016 PA's (!), as well as only 61 BBs (something Rafael Devers surpassed in 352 PAs).
Essentially, the three were getting plenty of singles, but terrible at getting extra-base hits or even walking. If you don't get enough of the latter two, then being 25% worse than league average is a lot easier to do than you think.
OBPer The Hedge (But not really):
If you look at the top 73 players by OBP, the lowest wRC+ you'd see is Christian Yelich's 101 wRC+. Most players have a wRC+ upwards of 120. OBP is one of the most highly prized skills in hitting.
And yet, Charlie Blackmon found himself 74th in OBP, ahead of players like Jose Altuve and his 130 wRC+, with a 94 wRC+ at the season's end.
It wasn't like he had a poor SLG, either. It was exactly league-average SLG. So how did he end up as a below-average hitter?
When wRC+ is calculated, it doesn't only consider league-average standards, it also considers the park that is being played in.
Unfortunately for Blackmon, 303 of his 582 PAs came at Coors Field, the most hitter-friendly park in the league.
Coors played a large part in his slugging, as 11 of his 13 big flies came at home. His .283/356/.457 slash line at home was far better than his .257/.344/.359 slash away.
Instead of homers or doubles, Blackmon had flyballs like this one against the Giants turn into harmless flyouts when away from home.
It is important to mention that Blackmon actually finished with the second-worst expected homer to actual homer ratio, missing out on a projected 9 bombs. Only one player had a worse ratio, which was actually his teammate, Trevor Story.
If you want to have a well-above-average OBP and be a below-average hitter, just play at Coors.
This might be the hardest category to be above-average in while maintaining below-averageness overall.
League-average in SLG was .411 in 2021. The top 57 hitters by SLG don't have a wRC+ lower than 113. Adam Duvall managed a 103 wRC+ at 58th, despite hitting .228 and having a .281 OBP. After that, you have to scroll all the way down to 79th to find a player with a wRC+ at 100 (which would be Story and another victim of the Coors Effect).
Ryan Zimmerman is the first player to drop under the 100 wRC+ mark, and he only barely does at 97 wRC+.
In the final year of his very good 17-year career, his career-low BB% (5.9%) and career-high K% (28.2%) were major contributors to his ever so slightly below-average hitting season. An exceptionally brutal June and July (where he posted wRC+s of 64 and 31) dragged down what was otherwise an acceptable season.
Elías Díaz was yet another unfortunate product of the Coors Effect. His .246/.310/.464 slash looks to eclipse the average threshold, thanks to his slugging, but his home/away splits were drastic.
At Coors, his .289/.350/.534 slash looks like a star's. Away from the altitude, his .203/.271/.407 was brutal. His 81 wRC+ away from home dragged him down to an overall wRC+ of 92 on the season.
Surprisingly, it wasn't Díaz's homers that plummeted away from Coors – he actually evenly split his 4-baggers – it was all the other hits.
If you want to have a well-above SLG and be a below-average hitter, just play at Coors.
Running a high BABIP often indicates a player getting lucky on balls in play, but it's usually accompanied by a high wRC+.
For instance, in 2013, Chris Johnson carried a .394 BABIP throughout the entire season and had a 127 wRC+ despite only slugging .457.
The same could not be said for Brandon Marsh in 2021. Despite leading MLB in BABIP in 2021 at .403, Marsh was actually quite a miserable hitter overall.
His 86 wRC+ was nowhere near others in the top 10, the second-lowest being Ramón Urías, hitting 15% better than average.
There were two major contributors to his poor hitting, despite the incredibly high BABIP.
The first was his K%. He was put down on strikes 35% he walked up to the plate, which was exceptionally higher than the league's rate at 23.2%.
The second was his inability to slug. He only had 2 homers in 260 PAs. He didn't really hit doubles either, with only 12. His 3 triples actually helped elevate his SLG to .356, well off the league average mark.
Marsh is the prime example of why we say "usually" when we indicate that high BABIP are accompanied by high overall hitting metrics.
K'ings (Or Lack Thereof)
The people who bemoan that strikeouts are ruining the game should look at the players who rarely strike out at all.
Three of the top 5 in K% avoidance were not only below-average, but they were also well below-average.
Kevin Newman, David Fletcher, and Hanser Alberto finished 1, 2, and 4 by lowest K%. Alberto was the only one who had a wRC+ higher than 80. Luis Arraez, who finished 3rd, barely snuck over the league-average threshold.
Each of the below-average hitters share similar traits: they don't walk, (Alberto walked 4 times all season) and they sell out for weak contact, preventing them from hitting homers (a combined 9 in 1288 PAs).
Let's look at David Fletcher as an example. Fletcher put 633 balls in play (or over the fence) in 2021. Of those 566 swings, 406 (64.1%) of them were marked as poor contact. This includes weak contact, topped balls, and balls hit under.
Of these 406 balls in play, only 73 were hits (.180 AVG), and only 8 of these were doubles (.200 SLG).
This means a good portion of Fletcher's ABs went down like this:
While heavy contact works out for some players, like Michael Brantley, it's really not a recommendable strategy. (Although David Fletcher somehow managed to string together a 26-game hit streak, the longest in the bigs last season where he had a 202 wRC+.)
If you want to be a below-average hitter, just make bad contact and never strike out.