Buck-ing the System: Taking A Look At Contact Rates

john - buck

Baseball is a game of adjustments. The Mets under Dave Hudgens’ tutelage have adopted a doctrine of selectivity that emphasizes seeing lots of pitches, running up pitch-counts, zoning in on your pitch, and ultimately getting on base one way or another. There has been a lot of discussion on MMO about whether this approach is effective. The consensus, bolstered by a pile of data, seems to be that it is. Teams that take lots of pitches get on base more, teams that get on base score more runs … but if we’ve learned anything from following baseball over the years, it’s that successful trends tend to be attacked from every angle until a weakness is isolated and exploited.

The pitching side will adjust sooner or later, if they haven’t already. We saw the Giants, Nationals and Phillies come through Flushing late last summer pounding the zone, and it seemed like just about every one of our hitters were behind in the count before you could blink. Quality pitchers will do that to you … we have one of our own in Matt Harvey who has been doing that to opposing lineups routinely. Keith Hernandez noted on several occasions last year that when facing top-tier pitchers like Lee and Gonzales, the Mets struggled to adjust.

One problem that I’ve had with the Mets high OBP philosophy has been the blanket application of this approach system wide, with little regard to individual skill sets. You get the sense that they’re trying to squeeze more than a few round pegs into square holes … Not only does this fail with players who simply don’t have the aptitude to adjust (Kirk maybe?), but, there may actually be a place for the unpredictable aggressive hitter in a good lineup, if only to keep opposing pitchers honest.

First pitch strikes are up all over the league as a result of teams trying to be more selective and early indications are that hitters are taking these pitches. Most hitters that is … John Buck, hasn’t been one of them. John Buck, who has never been a very patient hitter, has been even less patient in 2013.

Watching the Met lineup this year has been entertaining. Any combination of lead-off hitters will take take take, swing … Murphy will take swing take take swing,  Wright will take a bunch of pitches then hit a triple, Ike will sometimes swing at the first pitch then take a bunch of borderline called strikes then he’ll whine and fuss and grimace, Duda seems like he walks every other at bat, then Buck will come up and launch a first pitch fastball 460 feet. He’s taking pitchers off guard. They get locked into this pattern of trying to get ahead with fastballs (because the rest of the lineup is so gosh darned selective), by the time Buck comes up it’s easy pickings.

Buck’s first pitch strike percentage has jumped from 61.1% last season, to 69.4% this year. His walk rate? After two seasons where he set career highs in BB% (which could very well be why the Mets were interested in him in the first place), this season he has seen his walk rate drop from 12.3% last year to 3.0% in 66 plate appearances so far in 2013. Go ahead, try and make sense of that.

When you look at other plate discipline metrics they’re all fairly comparable to his career norms with a few exceptions, his contact rates. Buck has a surprising 69% contact rate on pitches thrown outside the strike zone (o-contact %) and a whopping 85.1% contact rate on pitches thrown inside the zone (z-contact %). He’s not really being more selective, he’s just not missing pitches when he swings.

Buck’s contact metrics are up across the board, and at 9.9% his swinging strike percentage is at a career low. He’s not swinging any less either, he’s as aggressive (both in and out of the zone) as he’s ever been and he’s walking way less even though he is playing for a team that preaches being selective (!) … and, he’s been wildly successful. Why? Because his contact rates are up. Well, why are his contact rates up? Because he’s been dropped into this very patient lineup and he’s reaping all the benefits of clobbering fastballs off pitchers who come in pounding the zone … to the tune of  7 home runs and 22 RBI while hitting .290/.303/.661.

John Buck’s contact rates over the past 4 seasons:

contact rates

The lesson here? Variety … the spice of life as they say. I like the selective/patient approach as much as anyone, I like the idea of running pitch counts up and long at bats — they annoy pitchers and tire them out at the very least, but you have to mix in a few free radicals to keep pitchers off balance. As a pitcher it’s a lot more difficult to prepare for a lineup reflecting a bunch of diverse skill sets than a homogenous always-patient top to bottom bunch. It’s really what made the 86 Mets so devastating.

It’s hard for a pitcher who gets accustomed to pounding the zone to suddenly alter his approach here, and there, and again there … they are less likely to get into a groove. This is why I advocated from the beginning for letting Kirk play to his aggressive tendencies in the 6 or 7 spot rather than forcing him into the lead-off role, but noooo, Terry Collins had to try him in the lead-off role … Exploiting pitchers who get into the habit of grooving early strikes is also probably why Ike hit so many first pitch home runs last year.

Again, not a knock on “selective aggression” or whatever Hudgens calls it, but there were times last year when I felt like the lineup stagnated because there were too many predictable hitters who seemed to have identical approaches. They were vulnerable to pitchers who worked inside the strike-zone. Carefully embedding a few aggressive hackers in a patient lineup may result in more of what we’re seeing with Buck.

Eventually the league will adjust and stop throwing Buck these fat first pitch fastballs, at that point we may see an up-tick in walks and we’ll see if he in turn can adjust … but the premise should still hold. There is a benefit to carefully placing a few aggressive hitters in an otherwise selective lineup because they stand a good chance of capitalizing on pitchers who adjust by pounding the strike zone early in the count.

Call D.C., I think we just made Contact.
Call Washington, I think we just made Contact.
About Matt Balasis 151 Articles
A Met fan since August 1969 when the Red Cross placed my family on the 6th floor of a building in Willets Point because of a fire. I could see Shea from our balcony. I missed the fall of 86 because I was in Boot Camp and I've been serving penance ever since in Minnesota. I write about the Mets to share with a tradition that made much of my childhood worthwhile. Follow me on twitter: https://twitter.com/MatthewBalasis