Bat on Ball: Chris Denorfia and the Importance of Making Contact

A few days ago, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported that the Red Sox have approached the San Diego Padres and asked about outfielder Chris Denorfia’s availability. Assuming that the organization follows through on their intent to begin the 2014 campaign with rookie Jackie Bradley in centerfield, Denorfia would be used primarily as a utility outfielder. This article (my blogging debut) is not about the merits or shortcomings of this potential trade, but rather an analysis of the type of player Chris Denorfia is and why organizations should look toward him as well as the tool he embodies when assembling the cohesive self-contained unit we call a team.

What’s so great about him? Your grandfather – or great-grandfather – would be the first to point out that he doesn’t strike out nearly as much as other players while still doing other things on the field consistently.

We currently live in the Age of the Strikeout. Both hitters’ and pitchers’ strikeout rates have increased dramatically over the past decade. Pitchers today – especially relievers – generally have more explosive stuff than their counterparts in previous generations. Furthermore, front offices in the post-Moneyball period have (rightly, I might add) placed a premium on patience and power. More and more hitters appear to follow Matt Stairs’ manual of how to swing a bat: take the pitch if it’s outside the zone, but swing as if your life depended on it if you think you can hit it. As a result, players like Dunn, Mark Reynolds, and Ryan Howard feast on fastballs and post high wOBA, home run, and WAR rates. However, they also have trouble with breaking and off-speed pitches, thereby leading to record-setting strikeout rates and abysmally low batting averages. It is also important to note that these players represent the top of the pile; players of the same style are found all over the major and minor leagues. Consequently, pitchers have benefited immensely by increasing their strikeout rates and lowering their Earned Run Averages considerably. Luck cannot be on a batter’s side if he is unable to put the ball in play. Moreover, pitchers are facing the kind of hitters they do best against: free swingers who have trouble with pitches that aren’t fastballs.

Some of you might argue that these players in question were far more productive than league average during their primes. You’re right, but I’m not contesting these players’ respective values. Instead, I’m looking at their style of play – which has obvious flaws – and viewing it as a generally accepted tendency in baseball. Wherever there’s a common trend, there will be players who do not fit into that particular mold. Those are the players who represent untapped undervalued advantages. Chris Denorfia exemplifies the contact-oriented approach that emphasizes working the count, putting the bat on the ball, and avoiding strikeouts. He does not hit for much power, but he is not incapable of hitting doubles and home runs either (21 2B and 10 HR in 2013). His approach at the plate is relatively simple. Denorfia almost always takes the first pitch regardless of location (75% of PA) and proceeds to adjust accordingly. His goal is to put himself in a position where he can get a good ball to hit. Below is a list of his career rates of contact, courtesy of Fangraphs:

Outside-Swing% 25.0%
Zone-Swing% 57.7%
Swing% 40.9%
Outside-Contact% 62.8%
Zone-Contact% 89.3%
Contact% 81.0%
Swing-Strike% 7.6%

This table demonstrates the patient, but consistent approach that Chris Denorfia has taken throughout his career (there is very little fluctuation from season-to-season). He does not swing particularly often; he is a patient hitter who would rather take a pitch both inside and outside the zone if he feels he cannot hit it. His contact rates stand out the most. Of all the pitches he swings at, he makes some sort of contact 81.0% of the time. When he chases something in the zone, that figure increases to a whopping 89.3%. He swings and misses in only 7.6% of all his swings. Although he does not hit for significant power and struggles against righties, he was still a consistently solid bat in the Padres order for the past four seasons, batting .280/.338/.414 and generating 8.2 Wins Above Replacement. He only made $2 million last season and will make $2.25 million in 2014.

As these rates suggest, Denorfia exemplifies the contact-oriented approach that has been so glaringly absent from baseball in the past few seasons. A player of this mold gives the manager options when facing different types of pitchers. It might more beneficial to pinch hit a player like Denorfia against some power pitchers with good breaking stuff if other bench players are particularly strikeout prone. He might not hit a home run, but he could start a rally by getting on base and make the opposing pitcher work in the process whereas a player like Matt Stairs would probably walk back to the dugout after three swings. This argument does not suggest that a general manager should fill his bench with five Enrique Wilsons; however, he should have at least one position player on the bench who can make contact consistently. Doing so gives the field manager a potential rally starter in the late innings against power pitching. So, should the Red Sox consider trading for Chris Denorfia? Absolutely. Assuming the price is right and he will not regress significantly, he could be a cost-effective addition to their club who adds diversity to their bench.

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