Cleveland’s offense is succeeding by not swinging
Don’t swing sounds like the worst advice to give a hitter. After all, the only way to win a baseball game is to score runs, and the only way to score runs is to put the ball in play (you can’t count on walks that much), and the only way to put balls in play is to swing. Duh.
Over at The Athletic, however, Eno Sarris wrote a big long treatise that basically comes down to this quote: “With the current rules of the game, hitters are more productive when they swing less often.” Of course, nothing has dramatically changed about the current rules in regard to the strike zone, and Sarris has the data to show that the best hitters historically do their damage when they are selective.
So what is it about the current game that makes swinging less even more important? Mostly the fact that pitchers are better than ever. With the velocity and movement that pitchers can achieve today, the ability to be selective is more important than ever, and the best teams are those that have players with that skill in spades or that can train their players to be selective.
This is borne out in some ways in the statistics. The top 10 teams with the lowest swing percentage include the Angels, Brewers, and Dodgers (all first-place teams), as well as the Padres and Astros (second-place teams) and a couple of outliers, including the Pirates, Diamondbacks, and Guardians.
Whereas there’s a solid argument for the Pirates and Diamondbacks being among the top 10 based on lack of quality, Cleveland seems a lot less like a true outlier here. The biggest reason why the Guardians deserve to be among the best offensive teams is because the best offensive player in the American League plays third base in Cleveland. And it turns out being selective is a big part of what makes José Ramírez so good.
Every pitch a player sees is assigned a run value, and Baseball Savant has a cumulative leaderboard of how valuable each swing and take is to the batter. At the top of the leaderboard, six runs ahead of second place, is Ramírez, with 22. Part of this is, obviously, the damage he can do when he does swing, which is mostly where his AL-leading 1.9 fWAR and 205 wRC+ comes from, but Ramírez is also remarkably disciplined. He doesn’t lead in terms of overall swing percentage (44.8), but he knows what he can hit, evidenced by his 5.4% swinging-strike rate (10th in MLB) and 93.1% contact rate on pitches in the zone (19th). This discipline allows him to attack balls he can do damage on and be the offensive monster we all love.
These same traits are what have allowed Steven Kwan to have such a hot start to his MLB career. As discussed previously, Kwan does not miss when he swings, which is something he’s kept up as he gets more opportunities. His 1.8% swinging-strike rate is still best in the big leagues, 2 points lower than second place. And when he does swing, he swings at pitches he knows he can get: his contact rates are 96.4% in the zone (second-best) and 93.3% on pitches outside the zone (first). By Savant’s swing/take run values, Kwan ranks 9th overall, just one run behind some guy named Mike Trout.
But a team’s quality can’t be determined from two batters — that’s less than a third of the team’s offense on a single day — but Cleveland has the depth to support their place among the league’s best offenses. Per Savant’s swing/take leaderboard, Andrés Giménez ranks 25th with 7 runs, Owen Miller ranks 37th with 6 runs, and Josh Naylor ranks 50th with 5 runs. For his part, Giménez is simply hitting the hell out of the ball when he makes contact, evidenced by the fact that he has an xBA of .300, an 85th percentile outcome. Owen Miller, on the other hand, is finding success this year by being more selective and not going after pitches outside the heart of the zone, as outlined by Mike Hattery at Everybody Hates Cleveland, and illustrated in the graphic below.
In addition to these individuals, Myles Straw has shown great strike zone recognition (21.5% swing rate at pitches outside the zone; 8th in MLB) and patience to wait for pitches he can connect on (4.4% swinging strike rate; 4th). Straw is also walking in 13.2% of his plate appearances, 28th in MLB. And even though has struggled to start the season, Amed Rosario is making contact on 84.1% of his swings, which is 25th in MLB.
Cleveland has constructed a contact-oriented team, not a power-hitting team — just two of the team’s hitters show up in the top 70 in barrels per plate appearance (Ramírez, 44th, and Franmil Reyes, 70th). In order to have a successful offense centered around contact rather than power, especially in a game centered around the three true outcomes, players have to be patient and selective. As Sarris points out, this seems to be an emphasis for certain organizations, and I think the data show that Cleveland has made a point of targeting players with these traits.
All of this also bodes well — very well even — for the Guardians moving forward. As Sarris noted, “It’s true that plate discipline generally improves with time, because hitters as a group swing less with age, often in reaction to the fact that they can’t make contact on the same pitches they used to hit.” Thus, if Cleveland is doing a better job than other teams at training their hitters to be patient and selective, then you could expect some offensive improvement as this youngest team in the majors gains age and experience.
For example, if Giménez can become more selective (his current swing% is 53.2%, five points above league average) and walk more, he could go from everyday player to All-Star. But Giménez would hardly be the only player who could benefit from this approach, and the offensive gains around the team could propel them to the top of the AL Central pile.
Of course, it means we have to be patient as well. But it seems like the organization is trying to teach us fans that skill anyway.