Sluggers are the most beloved and reviled of baseball players. Watching a player with 30+ home run potential add to their annual counts can be a real dopamine hit. As fans we love those big numbers!
Yet when a slugger fails at his task, it’s painful to watch.
A few short games ago, when the Yankees were at the lowest of lows, I watched Joey Gallo flail at a ball that dropped well below the strike zone. I had to assume this was not a matter of random, poor judgement from the American League leader in walks.
No. Gallo was taking a somewhat intentional risk, hoping that if he hit that ball at the right, steep, angle, he could guide it over the fence.
The Yankees are in the midst of (by their standards) a frustrating season. And in the midst of frustration it’s easy to project negative qualities onto baseball’s most vaunted player. When a player destined to make hundreds of millions of dollars misses on a pitch out of the zone, we can read it as arrogant. Why, we may ask, are we paying these big egos, when we could instead call on scrappy players like Greg Allen to move runners and steal bases?
The truth may be more complicated. I suspect some sluggers do truly have ego problems, that make them feel a sacrifice, grounder is beneath them. However, I also suspect that making any kind of contact against 90 MPH pitching is an extremely elusive and sloppy art, no matter how pure a hitter’s intentions are.
As a fan, I cannot read hitters’ minds. I do, however, see golf-like swings on the TV, and wonder what the hitter is thinking. Have they made a mistake as embarrassing at they appear to have made? Or is there a strategic reason why the player swung as they did, making their failed effort, at least, a valiant one.
I decided to look at Fangraphs Heatmap profiles for 2021 of the five Yankees most straightforwardly classifiable as sluggers. I decided to focus on two heat map types: one that shows the batter’s average against a pitch in a particular area, and one that displays their isolated power. As you will see, these five Bronx Bombers are not as similar at the plate as one would assume.
Aaron Judge’s heat maps do not appear conducive to chasing balls outside of the strike zone. Whether one looks at his batting average/pitch or isolated-power/pitch, Judge hits balls well in a significant portion of the strike zone. He even hits balls well above and to the left of the zone, meaning he’s not easy to jam. Judge, interestingly, does not appear to have much success whatsoever with hitting balls at the bottom or below zone (this makes sense given his height). Feel free to give him the old finger wag if you catch him trying to golf at the bottom of the strike zone.
Of course not all sluggers have the privilege of being Aaron Judge. While power is perhaps what he’s most known for, he holds his own when it comes to defense and contact hitting. Joey Gallo, by contrast, is a boom-or-bust hitter. While Judge’s heat maps for average/pitch and ISO/pitch look more or less identical, Gallo’s show the disparity in his hitting skills. When it comes to hitting for average, Gallo is confined to the lower-central strike zone. But when it comes to hitting for power, nowhere in the strike zone is safe from Gallo’s bat.
Gallo has one hot-spot immediately below the strike zone, but whether that spot is big and hot enough to justify swinging at potentially ball four remains questionable.
Giancarlo Stanton’s heat maps are more resemblant of Judge’s than Gallo’s. While not someone who hits for average (.268 for his career), Stanton doesn’t have the same drastic skill disparity as Gallo. What Stanton does have in common with Gallo is some success with slugging balls slightly below the strike zone. Granted, Stanton’s “hot” batting average for pitches below the zone is .093, still making it questionable whether it’s worthwhile to make those swings.
Gary Sánchez, at least in recent history, hasn’t had much luck with hitting for contact, making his heat maps look similar to Gallo’s. Standing at “only” 6-foot-2, however, Sánchez cannot simply be called the same type of hitter as Gallo. While, again, it’s debatable how exactly one should crunch the numbers about balls immediately below the strike zone, El Gary clearly does better with pitches on the lower side. Sánchez may face more scrutiny for his mistakes than any other Yankee, but he may actually be the Yankees slugger with the best excuse for his golf swings.
At 6-foot-3, Luke Voit’s body type is closer to that of Sánchez’s than the other player on the list. But when it comes to his heat maps, his profile is far more in common with Judge’s. Voit appears to have no reason to chase low pitches, but he can crank up the power even when the throws come close to his body.
So should you cringe when a slugger misses a low-ball with a golf swing? Probably, but cringe with a grain of salt. The strike zone is not always reflective of where a player is most likely to get their hits and home runs. And while hitters may be far from perfect in judging of their own abilities, their senses of what pitches they can hit are probably a lot more accurate than our own.