In a game dominated by power hitters, can extreme contact hitters still thrive?
Is it possible to succeed without power? Can a player be a good hitter in today’s game without hitting home runs?
There are many ways to answer these questions. I decided to look at seasons since 2000 where players have had more than 150 hits yet tallied no more than 5 home runs. These are the guys that rarely leave the yard but played consistently throughout the year.
Juan Pierre was the king of such seasons in recent decades. Between 2001 and 2011, he achieved the feat 9 times. Elvis Andrus and Luis Castillo both have 5 seasons with 150+ hits and 5 or fewer home runs, and, somewhat surprisingly, Jason Kendall has 4. I think it is important to mention here that it is rare to hit less than 6 home runs while collecting 150 hits. It has happened 77 times since 2000, meaning less than 4 times per year. Even a guy like Ichiro Suzuki hits too many home runs to be included in this group.
If we look at the other commonalities between these seasons, a few things are readily noticeable. There is a lot of bold in the singles column. Home runs are obviously low, but extra-base hits are also fairly low for a lot of these players. Second, many of these players are known for running pretty quickly. This combined with the trend of hitting a lot of singles leads to very good stolen base numbers for the group. There are only 9 seasons below 10 stolen bases and there are 8 seasons above 60 stolen bases. Additionally, many of these guys played for quite a few seasons in Major League Baseball.
So, can you be a good hitter with no power?
If we look at the group we have created, the answer does not look very promising. For example, if we look at OPS+, 20 seasons have been above average (above 100) and 57 seasons have been below average (below 100). The seasons that are above average all have batting averages above .287 with most above .300. Being the power numbers are not there, these players really need to get on-base a lot. This is why we see so many of these seasons fall below the league average OPS.
Hitting above .287 is a very difficult task. The lack of home runs this group displays suggests their approach places greater emphasis on contact. This is usually beneficial in terms of limiting strikeouts. Thus, these players only need to have a similar batting average on balls in play to maintain a high batting average. Unfortunately, as strikeouts decline, we often see BABIP and exit velocity numbers decline as well.
Dee Strange-Gordon has the highest OPS+ of any of these seasons at 116. He did so by hitting .333 in a down offensive year. He finished just outside the top 50 in OPS that year. It is incredibly difficult to be one of the best 50 hitters in baseball while hitting 5 or fewer home runs. This is why we see so many teams today trying to squeeze the power potential out of each player.
Having no power offensively makes it necessary for a player to excel in other parts of the game, usually baserunning and defense. It also often requires players to master some of the finer details in the game. Juan Pierre led the league in sacrifice bunts 4 times, he beat out double-play balls, and he hit .295 for his career.
Recent Additions to Club
A few guys had seasons meeting our standards in 2021.
The first and most successful player was Adam Frazier. Frazier had an amazing start to the year with the Pirates. In 428 plate appearances, he hit .324 which allowed him to have an .836 OPS for a 127 OPS+. He also hit 4 of his 5 home runs in this stretch with the Pirates. Frazier was very successful with the Pirates, and it made him a big trade target for other teams. He was eventually traded to the Padres where his hitting cooled down. In his last 57 games, his batting average was only .267 and his OPS+ was 86. Frazier’s season did not end how he would have wanted it to, but the season as a whole was a success. His batting average ended above .300 at .305 and his OPS+ was a solid 114. Frazier made a living off of hitting singles and doubles and it worked.
The next player to have at least 150 hits and 5 or fewer home runs is Myles Straw. Straw did not have the profile or offensive performance of Adam Frazier. Straw got his first full year of playing time in 2021. He played 98 games for the Astros with an 85 OPS+. His offensive production was below average, but his speed in the outfield and on the bases made him a consistent starter for the Astros. Straw was also traded after 98 games in a deal that did not receive as much attention as the Adam Frazier deal. Straw’s hitting rebounded a bit and his OPS+ was slightly above average with the Guardians
The final player to meet the conditions of this club in 2021 was David Fletcher. Fletcher has become known around the league for his excellent defense. His defense provides some of the value that his offense has not been able to. Last year was Fletcher’s worst offensive season. He hit .262, barely walked, and had only 2 home runs.
Even with their varying levels of offensive production, all 3 of these players are valued by their teams.
Frazier and Straw have both played in most of their team’s games in 2022 and Fletcher played 14 games but has been sidelined by a hip injury for much of the season. This question of how effective a player can be without hitting for power is key to the longevity of their MLB careers. Frazier and Straw both currently have an OPS+ in the 80s.
The Decline of Extreme Contact Hitters
Earlier I mentioned there were 77 seasons meeting our criteria between 2000 and 2022. If we look at the 20-year period prior (1979-1999), there are 180 such seasons. Not only are there more of these seasons, there are also players that managed some amazing seasons in terms of OPS. Wade Boggs did it 3 times with an OPS+ above 140, including a league-leading 0.965 OPS in 1988. Tony Gwynn also did it 5 times as part of a hall of fame career. Rod Carew and Pete Rose each did it 3 times as well. These players are considered some of the best hitters of their generation even though they did not hit home runs.
Juan Pierre has been successful in the past 2 decades, but his offensive production is nowhere near the likes of Boggs, Gwynn, Carew, and Rose. Even within our group of seasons, the best seasons between 1979 and 1999 are far better across the board than the seasons between 2000 and 2021. Players like Gwynn and Boggs put up batting averages that have only been matched a few times in recent years. Boggs also managed to walk once in every seven plate appearances.
Some players in the 80s and 90s were able to be an essential part of their team’s offense without hitting more than 5 home runs in a season, and they could do so for many years. That feat is much less common in today’s game. Dee Gordon’s 116 OPS+ would rank 25th in OPS+ if he were placed in with the 80s and 90s seasons. Even Ichiro Suzuki, who often hit just a few too many home runs to be included in this group, does not have OPS+ numbers comparable to Tony Gwynn. Gwynn has 9 seasons better than Ichiro’s best season.
If anything, this reflects a shift throughout the league that has made it difficult for these extreme contact hitters. Gwynn did not need great slugging numbers to have a great season, because the rest of the league did not have great slugging numbers. Today, hitters do not get as many hits but they average more bases on their hits. It is getting more difficult to hit enough singles to keep up with the sluggers.
Could We See a Game Where Players Never Hit 5 or Fewer Home Runs?
This certainly feels like the direction baseball is headed in. The value of home runs is too great to be overlooked according to many of today’s performance measurements (slugging, OPS, wOBA, etc.). Well-rounded players are also learning to hit home runs in batches. Defensive specialists are becoming more rare because there are guys that can hit really well and play good defense. Just look at the star shortstops in Major League Baseball today. They might allow 5 more runs on defense, but they will score 20 more runs of offense.
As grim as the situation may appear, there is still a chance for the “No Pop Club”. For one, some defensive-minded players have been able to stick around for many years. This list includes guys like David Fletcher, Andrelton Simmons, plenty of members of the Rays outfield, etc. Teams obviously still value these types of players to some degree.
The Philadelphia Phillies Experiment
Baseball seems to be moving more and more toward assigning greater value to players that provide a lot of offense without much defense. It feels like guys that can hit home runs but play very little defense are getting more opportunities. This seems like a very bad trend for guys like David Fletcher. The silver lining is the fact that teams that have gone all-in on offense have not been as successful as we might expect.
One example is the New York Yankees. That Yankees have always been able to hit over the past decade, but their pitching and defense have often let them down. During the offseason, they traded for Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa now find themselves as anchors of a defense that has posted 25 defensive runs saved so far this year. This is coming off a season where the Yankees had an awful -41 defensive runs saved. Additionally, the Yankee’s pitching numbers look a lot better this year. The Yankees were willing to give up some offense by trading Sanchez and placing Kiner-Falefa at shortstop and it seems to be working.
Meanwhile, the Giants have done the opposite. They played good defense last year and had a very successful season. This year, they have not been able to meet expectations and their defense has been quite bad as well. Obviously, the Giants play in a very good division where repeating last year’s success would have been extremely difficult, but that also means that every run they give up through below-average defense has a greater impact on their standing. They literally have little room for errors.
The Giants, however, did not go all-in on mashers like the Philadelphia Phillies did. The Phillies had the worst defense in baseball last year. Unlike the Yankees, the Phillies got addicted to the long ball. They needed more of it. So they went and got Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber. Part of their struggles are related to these signings not having much success so far this year. If Castellanos and Schwarber were hitting better, they would definitely have a few more wins. The defense is not helping these struggles though. According to defensive runs saved, the Phillies have given up 30 runs more than the average team. Castellanos has not made any errors, yet he is at -11 defensive runs saved. The Phillies are over halfway to their league-worst total from last year and we are not even a third of the way through the season.
The first inning of this game against the Mets shows a lot of the defensive challenges the Phillies have had this year. The error on the first play hurts, but Castellanos’ inability to keep the Mets runners at third on the shallow fly balls is just as detrimental. Teams know the Phillies have poor defense and they are challenging it every chance they get. Most of the time, it is resulting in more runs.
Perhaps the Phillies’ extreme defensive struggles and the success of teams that have better defenses will be a warning for other teams to not go all-in on offense. This might be one of the few lifelines left for players that do not hit home runs. This might be one of the few lifelines left for defensive specialists. Ozzie Smith, perhaps the greatest fielder in MLB history, only hit more than 3 home runs in one season of his career. Like Andrelton Simmons and David Fletcher, Ozzie was never particularly amazing with the bat, but it is difficult to imagine baseball without his presence. Also, we would have missed out on one of the most memorable home runs in baseball history:
He may not have hit many in his career, but he certainly picked a good time to hit that one.
The No Pop Club is becoming smaller with each passing decade. The possibility of succeeding without hitting home runs is more narrow each year. Can you be a good hitter in today’s game without hitting home runs? You can, but you need to have a batting average above .300, sometimes it needs to be well above .300. You need to find a way to get on base at a high clip. The window of opportunity is quite small, but it still exists. It has not left. Not yet.
Read More: Home runs have become the currency of choice over the past century in baseball. However, it was triples that once held that spot in the early days of baseball. Sam Crawford mastered the art of hitting triples and set a record that will not be touched anytime soon.