Baseball’s least productive low-authority hitters of all-time

Longtime Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek is one of the more surprising names on a list containing the least productive low-authority hitters of all-time.
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

By Tony Blengino

A couple weeks ago, we took a look at the most and least authoritative hitters of all time, utilizing raw contact scores, or production relative to the league on all plate appearances not resulting in a strikeout or walk. One of the reader comments suggested to take a look at the most productive low-authority hitters, and the least productive high-authority hitters. Earlier this week, we looked at the former, and today we discuss the latter.

First of all, a review of the methodology, and some parameters. We calculate raw contact scores by stripping away the strikeouts (Ks) and walks (BBs), and applying run values to all balls in play based on the norms for that era. The results are then scaled to 100. Raw contact scores were calculated for all regulars going back to 1901. Since we don’t have access to granular batted-ball data going that far backward, we’re not going to be able to adjust for context. That context includes the effects of ballparks, individual player’s speed, and of course, luck. In a given year, that those factors might affect an individual player significantly. Over the long haul, however, raw ball-striking ability, or lack thereof, as well as contact quality, the respective frequency of line drives and popups, of weak and hard contact in general, tends to carry the day.

I have done extensive work on pitchers’ contact-management ability in the past, utilizing a nearly identical method. In a given season, an elite contact-managing pitcher will have a contact score of 70 or better, and the best contact managers of all time post career marks in the low 80s, with 100 representing league average. Over time, a truly poor contact-managing starting pitcher might post a career contact score around 110. As you might expect, hitters have a wider range of contact scores.

A league-leading contact score for a hitter might be in the 200 range, or even higher. In fact, 102 individual season contact scores of 226 or higher have been posted since 1901. On the downside, 100 individual season contact scores of 50 or lower have been posted over that span, and the league-trailing mark is generally in that vicinity.

A couple weeks back, we identified the most authoritative hitters of all time, based on highest average raw contact score for players with 10 or more seasons as a regular. Today, we will focus on the most authoritative hitters, based on career raw contact score, who posted career OPS+ marks below 100, in their seasons as a regular. A player who has posted an OPS+ lower than 100 despite making harder than average contact, must have some clear offensive deficiencies masking their ball-striking ability. Still, remember that they still possessed solid enough all-around skills to retain starting jobs over the long haul.

For a bit more background on the relationship between contact score and OPS+, you might want to check out my article from last week on “The Contact Score Multiplier”. It groups players by relative K and BB rates, assigning each group a multiplier accordingly.

The list of the 10 most authoritative hitters of all time was heavily slanted toward first basemen and outfielders, with second baseman Rogers Hornsby crashing the party. This list is more diverse with regard to position, with three catchers, two center fielders and catchers, and one left fielder, first baseman and shortstop.

10 – CF Willie Wilson – (Career Contact Score = 106.2, Career OPS+ = 95.2, 14 qualifying seasons) – Right off the top, a quirky one. In no way can Willie Wilson be considered a particularly authoritative hitter: he hit just 41 homers in 8317 career plate appearances. However, his contact scores are quite high because of his blinding speed, particularly in the early stages of his career. He reached double-digits in triples six times, and had more than 15 four times, with a career high of 21. He notched tons of infield singles that would have been outs for most other hitters. Wilson had contact scores between 126 and 139 in three of his first four seasons as a regular. As with many of the hitters on this list, low BB rates were a problem: his BB rate was over a standard deviation below league average in eight of his first nine seasons as a regular.

9 – C Benito Santiago – (Career Contact Score = 108.7, Career OPS+ = 92.9, 15 qualifying seasons) – First and foremost, 15 years as a regular catcher puts Santiago in an exclusive fraternity: only Bob BooneCarlton FiskGabby Hartnett andIvan Rodriguez join him, and only Santiago and Hartnett did so by age 38. That said, Santiago’s 92.9 career OPS+ is the lowest among this top 10. He had a contact score over 100 in eight of his first nine seasons, peaking at 147 his rookie year, but had only five seasons with an above average OPS+, peaking at 118. His issue? His BB rate was over a standard deviation below league average seven times, and he also struck out more than the players on this list, actually whiffing over a standard deviation above league average once.

8 – 3B Pinky Whitney – (Career Contact Score = 109.2, Career OPS+ = 97.6, 10 qualifying seasons) – Let’s utilize the way-back machine for the first of three times today for Whitney, a third baseman who played the bulk of his career in the 1930s. Compared to the others on this list, there are no K or BB extremes in play with Whitney; his rate stats in those categories were never one full standard deviation above or below league average. His biggest issue was likely his hitter-friendly home park for most of his career, Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. It yielded well more than its share of homers, and Whitney didn’t hit many. He was a career .295 hitter, but it was a fairly empty average, as he exceeded 100 OPS+ only twice, and matched it once.

7 – 3B Gary Gaetti – (Career Contact Score = 110.4, Career OPS+ = 98.6, 17 qualifying seasons) – He hit a bunch of homers, and won four Gold Gloves in a very long career, so there’s plenty of value here. Still, poor K and BB rates kept him from being an above-average offensive player overall. His K rate was over a standard deviation higher than league average three times, his BB rate over a standard deviation lower four times. Interestingly, his BB rate declined as his career progressed. In 1987, he hit 31 homers, but only had a 102 OPS+. Not even Mark Trumbo (34 HR, 109 OPS+ in 2013) can boast that. (Dave Kingman actually posted a 37 HR, 99 OPS+ season in 1982.)

6 – SS Jose Valentin – (Career Contact Score = 110.4, Career OPS+ = 97.8, 11 qualifying seasons) – First and foremost, a 97.8 career OPS+ over 10+ qualifying seasons, mostly as a shortstop, is pretty impressive. Valentin actually hit 25 or more homers five seasons in a row late in his career, capping the streak with a 30 HR, 92 OPS+ season in 2004. His problem? High K rates. Indeed, his K rate was over a full standard deviation above league average six times, and over two standard deviations above once. He never had a contact score below 88, and peaked at 136 in 2001.

5 – 1B Kitty Bransfield – (Career Contact Score = 110.5, Career OPS+ = 97.7, 10 qualifying seasons) – Way-Back Machine, Part 2. Bransfield’s last season as a regular was 1910, and he’s been dead for over 68 years. He was the first baseman for the early 20th century Pirate powerhouse. He didn’t exactly profile by modern standards, hitting 13 homers in his entire career. That was the dead-ball era, however, and Bransfield’s contact scores were actually quite good, clearing 120 in half of his seasons as a regular, peaking at 136 in 1902. He didn’t strike out or walk very often, and his OPS+ marks were compromised by the fact that his BB rate was over a full standard deviation below league average in each of his last five seasons as a regular.

4 – C Jason Varitek – (Career Contact Score = 113.0, Career OPS+ = 98.3, 10 qualifying seasons) – This is a surprise name, and like Whitney before him and one name still to follow, it is mostly due to park effects. OPS+ figures include an adjustment for them, raw contact scores do not. Looking at Varitek’s 2003-05 peak shows us the difference: his OPS+ marks in those years were 120, 121 and 122; his contact scores, 138, 158 and 147. After 2005, his career-to-date contact score was 121.6 compared to an OPS+ of 106.2. Varitek’s walk rates were fine, but his K rates were high, over a full standard deviation above league average in five of six seasons between 2003 and -08.

3 – CF Devon White – (Career Contact Score = 113.7, Career OPS+ = 98.6, 13 qualifying seasons) – Really, really good player alert. Seven Gold Gloves at a premium position. Power (208 homers) and speed (346 steals). His contact score was over 100 in all but two of his 13 seasons as a regular, compared to only five seasons with an above average OPS+ due to poor K and BB rates. His K rate was over a full standard deviation above league average three times, and his BB rate over a full standard deviation below league average four times. It always seemed strange to me that such a valuable player overall — a 98.6 career OPS+ over 13 years in center field is actually quite good — moved around so much. He was a regular for six different clubs.

2 – LF Gee Walker – (Career Contact Score = 117.3, Career OPS+ = 98.5, 14 qualifying seasons) – The last two guys are in a league by themselves with regard to contact score, and since our #1 is affected a great deal by his home park, Walker is likely our true “champion.” Walker was a pretty good singles hitter in the 1930s, hitting over .300 for five straight years from 1934-38, including .335 and .353 marks. His career-to-date OPS+ peaked at 108.0 after 1938, but his career was likely extended by the exodus of players serving in World War II, with poor results: his OPS+ was below 80 in three of the four war seasons. Walker never was able to draw a walk, either: his BB rate was over a full standard deviation below league average in 12 of his 14 qualifying seasons.

1 – 3B Vinny Castilla – (Career Contact Score = 117.9, Career OPS+ = 96.9, 12 qualifying seasons) – Coors Field rears its ugly head. When he was a Rockie, Castilla posted raw contact scores of 140 or higher four times, peaking at 157 in 1998. That was also the year his posted his peak OPS+ mark, 30 basis points lower at 127. His average contact score in his five seasons as a regular for clubs other than the Rockies? A mighty 87.2. Castilla didn’t strike out or walk much: his K rate was over a standard deviation below league average once, his BB rate, five times.

Some low-performance, high-authority players who missed the 10 year cutoff? Eight players with between five and nine seasons as a regular had career contact scores of 125 or higher. They are Cory Snyder (139.0 career contact score, 99.1 career OPS+, 7 qualifying seasons), Jose Hernandez (138.9, 88.8, 7), Billy Hall (137.0, 98.8, 6),Drew Stubbs (135.0, 91.0, 5), Butch Hobson (127.9, 93.9, 5), Jim Presley(125.6, 93.0, 6), Dee Fondy (125.5, 97.6, 6) and Jason LaRue (125.4, 94.1, 5). All of these players struck out a ton, and most are of fairly recent vintage. It underscores the fact that no matter how much power you have, if your K rate is out of control, you’re not likely to last a decade as a regular unless you have some serious complementary skills. Your holes will be found and you will be exposed.

How about the handful of players with above-average contact scores who posted career OPS+ marks below 90? Nine players with between five and nine seasons as regulars meet these criteria. They are Miguel Olivo (116.9, 83, 8), Don Zimmer(114.7, 89.4, 6), Charlie Smith (112.2, 86.9, 5), Damian Miller (110.9, 89.2, 7), Shawon Dunston (110.4, 88.9, 9), Mariano Duncan (109.6, 87.9, 9), Todd Benzinger (108.6, 87.9, 5), Bobby Knoop (108.1, 84.9, 7) and Craig Paquette (107.6, 83.8, 5). Dunston and Duncan fell one season as a regular short of having, by far, the lowest career OPS+ marks of anyone on today’s list.

It’s Olivo, however, who is the piece de resistance. A career Contact Score Multiplier of 71.0 is simply mind-bending in and of itself. That’s before you consider that he played a significant portion of his career at Safeco Field, which substantially deflates his raw contact scores. His career OPS+ is way below anyone on the top ten list. His K rate was over a standard deviation above league average in all eight of his qualifying seasons, and over two above in two of them. His BB rate was over a full standard deviation below league average in five seasons. The worst of both worlds, a historically poor K/BB guy. Unfortunately for the Mariners, their current catcher, Mike Zunino, is in the same K/BB area code thus far in his career, a fate not suggested by his amateur career, and likely exacerbated by a rush through the minor leagues.

Who are 2015’s high-authority, low-production guys so far? Through Sunday’s games, it’s Jorge Soler (152 contact score, 98 OPS+) in the NL and Steven Souza (149, 98) in the AL. They’re both in their first season as regulars, and are likely to figure it out.

What does all of this tell us? That hitting the ball hard alone isn’t a surefire way to be productive. The players on our top ten list are pretty good, which isn’t a surprise because they are 10-year regulars, after all. Once you get down into that five- to nine-year group, however, the holes shine through. Poor K and/or BB rates are going to get you sooner or later, unless you are a supreme ball-striker. BIP authority declines over time, and you need a technically sound offensive foundation to fall back upon.

Below, for reference purposes, is some summary information about our top-10 low-authority producers. The right-most column indicates their career Contact Score/OPS+ multiplier:

  Yrs. CAR CSC YR > 100 CAR OPS+ YR > 100 CAR MULT
Castilla 12 117.9 8 96.9 6 82.19
G.Walker 14 117.3 11 98.5 4 83.97
D.White 13 113.7 11 98.6 5 86.72
Varitek 10 113.0 6 98.3 5 86.99
Bransfield 10 110.5 5 97.7 5 88.42
Js.Valentin 11 110.4 8 97.8 5 88.59
Gaetti 17 110.4 11 98.6 6 89.31
P.Whitney 10 109.2 6 97.6 3 89.38
B.Santiago 15 108.7 10 92.9 5 85.46
W.Wilson 14 106.3 7 95.2 5 89.56

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