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Hard Contact is Trending WAY Up Across Baseball

Chicago Cubs

As I was taking a closer look at Tyler Chatwood’s game-saving performance from last night, I accidentally stumbled onto something pretty odd about the league as a whole.

Here’s what I wrote earlier this morning, when it hit me:

During these last 12.2 IP (again, that’s excluding only his very first appearance of the year), Chatwood has a 0.71 ERA and a 3.29 FIP. Supporting those two very good numbers is a beautiful 56.3% ground ball rate and a 34.4% hard-hit rate ….

When I first saw Chatwood’s 34.4% hard-hit rate, I thought to myself That’s good, but not really great – probably right alongside the league average or just a bit hit. And in the past, I would’ve been right. But not this season. This season is all out of whack.

According to the data at FanGraphs, the league average hard-hit rate this season is 37.1%. Last year, it was 35.3%. Sure, we’re just a month or so into the season and that gap might be filled in a bit, but even last year’s number was shockingly high and the trend doesn’t start there. Just look.

League Average Hard-hit Rate:

2019: 37.1%
2018: 35.3%
2017: 31.8%
2016: 31.4%
2015: 28.8%

That is absolutely wild.

In just five seasons, we might see the average hard-hit rate rise by nearly 10 percentage points! That’s unbelievable. And while the launch-angle revolution can probably explain away some of it – a better path/swing plane should result in more consistent harder contact – fly ball rates haven’t been increasing quite as dramatically as the hard contact rates.

League Average Fly-ball Rate:

2019: 36.5%
2018: 35.4%
2017: 35.5%
2016: 34.6%
2015: 33.8%

Digging through the numbers for more explanations, I’ve noticed that, compared to 2015, batters are swinging at fewer pitches overall and are making less contact on pitches in the zone (86.7% in 2015 to 84.5% this season). I think the lesson there is that batters are waiting longer than ever for a pitch they think they can crush, and then are swinging for the fences when it does finally come (which inherently results in more whiffs, in addition to more hard contact).

As you can imagine, that’s made the strikeout rate creep up and up.

Strikeout rate:

2019: 23.3%
2018: 22.3%
2017: 21.6%
2016: 21.1%
2015: 20.4%

I suppose this stuff isn’t particularly newsy, as we already learned about the increasing strikeout rate and launch angle revolution, which are of course all about trying to increase offense by ripping the ball. But I still can’t believe that average hard-hit rate has exploded to the extent it has, even relative to the other dramatic changes in league-wide production.

We’ll have to give it more time to see if it levels out a bit, but this is something to keep firmly on your radar, especially when you’re evaluating pitchers and their contact management. If these rates remain as elevated as they’ve been, there might soon be a premium on pitchers like Kyle Hendricks.



Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami