Power Hitting: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
By Kevin Rushforth - Barry Bonds, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4076161
The term “Power Hitting” is becoming more and more relevant when talking about Major League Baseball in the 21st century. A massive change from the way baseball used to be played vs. how it is being played now has fully developed in the last several years. The concept is simple: try to hit a baseball as hard as you can and as far as you can every time you step into the batter’s box. No longer is the contact-heavy approach still breathing in today’s game. It has been euthanized in favor of the home run. After all, people do not want to come to a stadium to watch their favorite players get singles when they could see a 450-foot bomb sail over the fence.
With the development of more advanced analytics, the value of the home run has fully been revealed. One swing of the bat can affect the win probability of any game a ton, but only if that swing of the bat produces runs. Players are not in the dark about these developments either. The San Francisco Giants evolution from 2019 to 2021 is a fantastic example highlighting the MLB power surge. The 2019 Giants hit 167 home runs, good for 13th out of 15 National League teams. 2 years later, the 2021 Giants put up 241 home runs, putting them at 1st place in the National League. That kind of leap is outstanding, and the future of the game is put on full display when teams trend in this kind of direction. Franchise home run records have been broken several times in the last couple of years, and even the MLB record for most home runs by a team was broken in 2019 by the Minnesota Twins, as they put up an incredible 307 long balls. People argue that these types of seasons have something to do with the baseballs being “juiced”. While that may or may not be true, the fact that MLB players are swinging for the fences more than ever before holds its validity.
Jumping into the young 2022 MLB season, power hitting is as potent as ever. Some players are finding a ton of success with this approach, although it is questionable how sustainable an approach like this really can be. Other players are having immense struggles at the plate as they try to find their power strokes. This season has had one of the worst offensive starts in MLB history, possibly being attributed to this power-focused approach.
The first player worth taking a closer look at is Joc Pederson of the San Francisco Giants. Pederson is a known power guy, making several appearances in the Home Run Derby over the last couple of seasons. After a successful postseason in 2021 with the Braves, Joc is once again going for a ring with the Giants. His career is filled with maddening strikeouts and mammoth home runs, the perfect prototype for power hitters. This new season has been extremely kind to Pederson. According to Baseball Savant, Joc has 100th percentile stats (as in the best in the league) in average exit velocity, hard hit percentage, expected weighted on base average (xwOBA), expected batting average, and expected slugging. To put it simply, Joc Pederson is tearing up the league. A more traditional slash line shows Pederson hitting .347/.377/.755 with an absurd 1.132 OPS. Something to highlight in that slash line is the small difference between batting average and on-base percentage. The .30 point difference suggests that Joc is not walking, which is confirmed by his 12th percentile walk percentage. Pederson is swinging hard and often, fully categorizing him as a power hitter.
Two noted sluggers who are not having success with power in 2022 are Kyle Schwarber and Joey Gallo. Schwarber’s arrival in Philadelphia came with high hopes from fans. Kyle’s 2021 season featured plenty of home runs out of the leadoff spot, particularly when he was a part of the Washington Nationals. Schwarber, regarded as one of the most productive power hitters since coming into the league, has unfortunately seen a plethora of scenery changes since the start of 2020. Being moved from the Cubs to the Nationals, to the Red Sox for their playoff push, to Philly in free agency, Kyle Schwarber has been a sought-after bat in many lineups.
Kyle is, in fact, struggling in 2022. His barrel percentage (basically the ideal launch angle and exit velocity on a given swing) and max exit velocity are both in the 78th percentile, which is certainly not bad for a slugger like Schwarber. However, his strikeout percentage, expected batting average, and average exit velocity are all way down. His K% is in the 11th percentile and xBA is in the 8th percentile of hitters. These kinds of numbers do not translate well onto the baseball diamond. The promising thing about Schwarber is that his chase rate and walk percentage are in the 83rd and 65th percentiles, respectively. These metrics seem to point to a player who has not found his swing to start the year, which is exactly the case with Kyle Schwarber.
Joey Gallo is another breed of a pure power hitter. Perhaps the most extreme example the league has seen, Gallo has a career .205 batting average but also is the proud owner of a career .813 OPS, which is quite good. Everyone knows Joey Gallo as that guy who only hits home runs. People also recognize him as one of the game’s most frequent victims of the shift. Shifting infielders against power guys is not a new strategy, but Gallo is a tragic case of the shift taking hits away from a player.
Gallo’s start to his 2022 season has Yankee fans nervous about his longevity in the pinstripes. Thus far, Gallo is putting up abysmal percentile rankings in important offensive categories. A 4th percentile strikeout rate, 8th percentile swing and miss percent, and a 29th percentile chase rate are all horrendous for the supposed Yankee “slugger”. Even Gallo’s average exit velocity is in the 66th percentile, which is very unlike him, considering that his career is built around hitting the ball hard. Some positives about Joey are his walk percentage, expected slugging, and hard hit percentage, which all lie in the 73rd percentile or higher. Joey Gallo has been making Yankee fans panic as soon as he got to the Bronx. A slash line of .154/.254/.231 with a .485 OPS understandably makes baseball fans worry. How often do you see an on base percentage higher than a slugging stat? Fortunately, all Gallo needs is some patience and his numbers will level out. Joey Gallo will put up 30+ home runs in 2022 with some more time to find himself at the plate.
Power hitting in the MLB is not going anywhere anytime soon. Home run records will continue to be broken. Batting averages will continue to drop. Chasing pitches will continue to be a risk players are willing to take, as long as they get the power results they are chasing. The game of baseball is changing before us and will continue to as long as the sport is played. It can be argued that baseball games are as exciting as they ever have been, as the chance of seeing a home run is higher than ever. However, it can also be argued that pitchers' duels and strikeouts, both of which are results of power hitting approaches, make the game far more dull to watch. Whichever side a fan lies on, power hitting is something everyone is going to have to get used to.