Who are MLB's best pure hitters?
Tony Gwynn's recent death at age 54 produced a torrent of positive reactions from writers who recalled his earthy side and ability to connect with Joe Fan through a smile or a kind word. His humility was a major piece of his legacy.
Beyond his eight batting titles, 3,141 hits and .338 career batting average, Gwynn elicited praise for his artistry at the plate. Moments after Gwynn's passing, Greg Maddux took to Twitter and called the man known as Mr. Padre "the best pure hitter I have ever faced."
Gwynn showed signs of brilliance long before he wore that gaudy yellow and brown uniform in San Diego and staked his claim to the 5.5 hole between shortstop and third base. Gary Hughes, a longtime scout who now works as a special assistant with the Boston Red Sox, flashes back to a Joe DiMaggio League tournament in California in the late 1970s. The first year, a lefty hitter unfamiliar to Hughes collected 12 hits. The next year, the same kid showed up and banged out 11.
"I followed him after that purely out of interest," Hughes said. "And then, of course, he became Tony Gwynn."
Which hitters in baseball today personify the attributes that Gwynn showed at Long Beach Polytechnic High School through his retirement as a Padre in 2001? A lot of players earn reputations as good, productive, consistent hitters. Some, like Matt Stairs, even ascend to the coveted status of "professional hitter." But pure hitters dwell in rarefied air.
Who makes the cut? Hughes and three other baseball authorities -- Miami Marlins general manager Dan Jennings, Tampa Bay Rays hitting instructor Derek Shelton and Texas Rangers hitting coach Dave Magadan -- pondered the question and shared their thoughts on the term "pure hitter" and which active players best define it.
What is a pure hitter?
Ted Williams springs to mind, but one of his prime contemporaries and generational rivals is just as deserving of the label.
"The guy I think of when you talk about 'pure hitter' is Joe DiMaggio," Shelton said. "Those guys don't strike out. They control at-bats. They drive the ball the other way. Their swing mechanics are near flawless. There's a wide group of guys in the game who are good or even great hitters, but pure hitters are really a select category."
[Miguel Cabrera] has very few holes, and if you execute a pitch or he does have a hole, he adjusts. ... Very few hitters can change their lower-half load and have the same swing and timing. That puts him in an elite status." --Rays hitting instructor Derek Shelton
By most objective standards, any discussion of pure hitters should factor in hand-eye coordination, strength, a professional approach at the plate, an understanding of game situations and a devotion to the craft. Everyone loves hearing about the guy who could "roll out of bed and hit," but the reality is that Manny Ramirez was a hitting savant who spent countless hours studying pitchers and refining his unique skill set.
Are fluid hitting mechanics a prerequisite? Not necessarily. Vladimir Guerrero and Pablo Sandoval both merit discussion, and neither of them would appear in an instructional video. The same applies to Ichiro Suzuki, who has amassed 4,065 hits between Japan and the U.S. A lot of those hits came while he was halfway out of the box on his way toward first base.
"Ichiro may be the best hitter I've ever seen, and he was like watching a slow-pitch softball guy," Hughes said. "He could do anything he wanted with the bat and put the ball anywhere he wanted to put it."
Does power give a player an advantage over a singles-and-doubles guy in the pure hitter debate? In the estimation of most talent evaluators, yes. When Cabrera and a prime-time Albert Pujols hit .330 with monster power numbers, it places them a notch above the rest. Gwynn, Ichiro and Wade Boggs probably could have hit 20-plus homers a year, but they ultimately determined they would have sacrificed too much production at the other end.
"A lot of it is mindset," Magadan said. "Some guys are more wired to get base hits and not make outs. I think Tony and Wade were built that way."
Do an abundance of strikeouts hurt a player's case? Again, yes. David Wright is a wonderful hitter who's building a Hall of Fame résumé. But he'll go through long fallow stretches when he tries to do too much (in part because he doesn't have much help) and loses his grasp of the strike zone, and the whiffs begin to mount. The pure hitter rarely if ever gives away an at-bat.
Every baseball fan has his or her own perception of the ideal. I remember watching George Brett against the Yankees in the postseason in the late 1970s and thinking, "If my life was on the line and I had to depend on one player to get a hit, he'd be a pretty good choice." That's the ultimate test.
What attributes come into play?
Dan Jennings: "For me, the purity comes with guys who use their hands and remove their body from their swings. Most of them are linear hitters -- they're not rotational. They have the ability to deliver the barrel with their hands, ride through and extend. It's a thing of beauty."
A "rotational" hitter, in contrast, is on and off the ball and works more like a merry-go-round. Jennings classifies Mickey Mantle, Vladimir Guerrero and Adrian Beltre as hitters who've enjoyed great success in the majors with rotational swings. Beltre is so rotational, he'll routinely drop to his right knee after particularly vicious hacks.
Derek Shelton: "If you're looking at the pure mechanics of the swing, it's someone who's able to stay balanced, control the barrel and stay short to the ball. But the pure hitter also stays within the controllables of the at-bat and doesn't get too amped up or try to do too much. Tony Gwynn's swing was beautiful, but you never saw him get outside of his approach. Very few guys in the game have that combination."
Dave Magadan: "A pure hitter has the ability to use the whole field. He's disciplined at the plate, and I don't mean having a lot of walks. I think of discipline as knowing what he wants to hit, and when he gets it, he swings at it and hits it hard. And if he doesn't get it, he takes it and waits for the pitch he's looking for. You can be disciplined and swing at the first pitch and line it to left-center for a double.
"Pure hitters all have great hand-eye coordination -- or hand-to-barrel of the bat coordination. They can manipulate the bat head and still make hard contact even when they're a little bit fooled or out in front. Look at Tony Gwynn's 3,000th hit. He was way out in front of that pitch and still managed to hit a soft line drive to the middle of the field. He always knew where the barrel of the bat was."
Gary Hughes: "The first thing for me is bat speed, because that gives a guy the ability to wait. And the pure hitter has great balance. You don't see him falling all over himself at the plate. He gets in the box, he's set and he stays in the box. He's not taking 10 minutes to get in there until his song finishes playing [over the P.A.]. He never looks not ready to hit."
The statistical definition
There's no litmus test for statistical purity at the plate, but ESPN Insider analyst Dan Szymborski classifies a pure hitter as "a guy who hits what he swings at and gets good results." So Szymborski looked back at hitters with a minimum of 2,000 plate appearances from 2008-14. He multiplied contact rate by batting average and came up with the following lists among active hitters:
- Most pure hitters: Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, Marco Scutaro, Dustin Pedroia, Ichiro Suzuki, Robinson Cano, Martin Prado, Miguel Cabrera, Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols.
- Least pure hitters: Mark Reynolds, Carlos Pena, Adam Dunn, Pedro Alvarez, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Dan Uggla, John Buck, Ryan Howard, B.J. Upton, Chris Iannetta.
With a little tinkering, Cabrera and Pujols would probably climb the list and overtake Scutaro and Pedroia in the top group. But you get the picture.
The gold standard
A SELECT GROUP
Only 10 active MLB hitters have amassed a .300 career BA with a .360 OBP and a .450 SLG over 2,500 or more at-bats.
Any discussion of the best pure hitters in the game begins and ends with Detroit's Miguel Cabrera, a two-time MVP with three batting titles and five Silver Slugger Awards. As a 21-year-old with the Marlins, Cabrera had 148 strikeouts and 68 walks. Last year, at age 30, he finished with 94 strikeouts and 90 walks. His ability to command the strike zone evolved with repetition and time.
So what makes Cabrera so transcendent? His lower half is a big factor in his dominance.
"His path to the ball is as good as you want it to be," Shelton said. "He has very few holes, and if you execute a pitch or he does have a hole, he adjusts. You'll see him with a high leg kick, but if he feels like he's getting beat, he'll just pick his heel up and down. Very few hitters can change their lower-half load and have the same swing and timing. That puts him in an elite status."
Others in the discussion
Robinson Cano ranks high on the list of hitters with pure hitting ability, a track record of production and an aesthetically pleasing approach. "He's maybe the most rhythmatic hitter in baseball," said Jennings.
Cano still has the same swing he used at age 19, said Shelton, who managed him in the low minor leagues in the New York Yankees' chain.
"Robbie will flatten out his barrel, and at times he looks beat and he'll end up fouling the ball over the other team's dugout," Shelton said. "But the length he creates through the zone creates so much backspin, his timing can be off and he'll still hit the ball hard. As he's gotten stronger and more aware of the strike zone, he's just become more dangerous."
Troy Tulowitzki, Joey Votto, Joe Mauer, Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Chase Utley, David Ortiz, Carlos Gonzalez, Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey and Matt Holliday are among the other big leaguers who embody many of the attributes of the pure hitter. Votto's .312 career batting average and .419 OBP are a testament to his ability, even if he's a lightning rod for debate because some old-school observers think he's too passive in run-producing situations. And Mauer has a discerning eye and a swing straight out of a textbook.
Minnesota third base coach Joe Vavra, the Twins' hitting instructor from 2006-2012, said Mauer's "pure hitter" characteristics include exceptional hand-eye skills and bat-speed impact, a balanced setup from the bottom up, an understanding of the importance of the legs in hitting, and the ability to stick to a plan with off-speed pitches. "There is nothing the pitcher can do to alter or change Joe mechanically, nor speed up or excite him," Vavra said in an email. "He is never going to surrender an at-bat to anyone."
Utley is renowned for his amazingly quick hands and no-frills approach. His swing isn't quite Paul Molitor-like in its simplicity, but it has very few moving parts. "Chase has that prototypical 1950s low-finish swing," Shelton said. "You have to stay short to the ball to do that."
Braun also has a novel approach to hitting that becomes more stunning upon closer inspection.
"He has a funky swing, and I mean funky in a good way because he kind of stops the bat at contact and keeps two hands on it," Shelton said. "Two or three clicks post-contact in a video, he's stopping the bat, and the way the ball comes off the bat is almost unbelievable. There are things that we do in a drill to keep the barrel in the zone, and he does it as his regular swing."
The switch-hitting professional
Victor Martinez, a favorite of hitting aficionados throughout the game, has all the bases covered in a very under-the-radar way.
You want consistency? Martinez has a .305 career batting average and an .835 OPS from the left side and a .302 average and an .852 OPS from the right. He has 540 walks and 617 strikeouts over 12 seasons, and he's never whiffed 80 times.
Shelton was Martinez's hitting coach in Cleveland and Magadan served the same role in Boston, and they both marvel at his ability to repeat his mechanics from both sides of the plate. By all accounts, Martinez also possesses the game awareness required of a pure hitter.
"Victor is really good at adapting to the situation," Magadan said. "If there's a runner on third with less than two outs and the infield is back, his focus is on getting the run in. If you hang him a breaking ball, he'll drive it. But he'll also hit a ground ball to short to drive in a guy. To me, pure hitters aren't one-dimensional. They take on many different looks throughout the game."
Said Shelton: "Victor has by far the best ability to remember pitches and at-bats that I've seen. You can go through a pregame prep with him and he'll say, 'This guy threw me a 2-1 changeup two years ago, and this is what I did with it.' His recall is uncanny. He also controls an at-bat better than any hitter I've ever seen. At no point is he ever rushed. You'll see him step out and bang his bat on his leg guard and it's like he's telling the pitcher, 'Hey, this is my time.' He gets guys to rush and make bad pitches, and when they do, he does damage."
Two under-the-radar guys
From Derek Shelton: "Jose Altuve goes under-noticed. We just played [the Astros], and I saw him get three hits on three different pitches in three parts of the zone in one game. It's impressive. His swing is short, he controls himself and it looks like he has a plan. You don't have 102 hits on June 21 by accident."
From Dave Magadan: "Yadier Molina is a guy who's made himself into that type of player. He makes consistent hard contact. He hits the ball to all fields. He can hit for power, and he seems to focus in RBI situations late in the game. He's been in the batting race the last couple of years, and for a guy who's back there having to catch [almost 140] games a year, that's pretty impressive."
Dan Jennings is a big admirer of Atlanta's Freddie Freeman and Jose Abreu of the White Sox. Matt Adams is making some waves in St. Louis, and Giancarlo Stanton is earning raves from scouts as a strong, athletic player who has learned to take a more refined approach at the plate.
Of course, any conversation about pure hitters would be remiss not to include Angels outfielder Mike Trout, whose stunning impact in a short time is reflected by the impressive company he keeps at age 22. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Trout and Rickey Henderson both reached base 347 times in their first 400 big league games. As ESPN Stats & Information also notes, Trout recently became the first player in history with at least 300 runs, 75 homers and 75 steals in his first 400 games.
"He's fearless," Hughes said. "That's probably true of a lot of good athletes. Or maybe it's semantics and he's just self-confident, but the situation doesn't bother him. He knows he's going to get a hit, and most people in the place know it."
After nearly 50 years in the game, Hughes adheres to the belief that "pure hitters are born," but he's seen enough prospects come and go to realize there's no such thing as a sure thing. As an amateur scout Hughes was blown away by a young Bill Buckner, who went on to amass 2,715 hits in the majors. He was also smitten by a young Preston Wilson, who had a nice career in the big leagues but was ultimately limited by his contact issues.
And Hughes counts himself among the privileged few who were around to watch a budding young craftsman named Tony Gwynn, who was exquisite in the batter's box from his first professional at-bat to his last. You can generate a spirited debate about which major leaguers do or don't fit the description of "pure hitter." But the great ones have one thing in common: They stand the test of time.
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