The goal of every at-bat for a hitter is to reach base successfully. Home runs are great, walks are good, but base hits are even better. Teams can’t score runs if they don’t have baserunners. However, teams don’t have the money to go out and sign nine power hitters to fill a lineup. The best teams carry a collection of skilled players that specialize in all aspects of the game. Today, the skill we are covering is the concept of the contact hitter.
Did you ever wonder why the most powerful hitters on a baseball team bat third or fourth in the lineup? Do you know why batting fourth is called the “Clean Up Spot“? The reason for both is the same: contact hitters. We explain more below.
- Contact hitters specialize in putting the ball in play and rarely striking out. Their high batting averages and on-base percentages make them a valuable asset to teams.
- Famous examples of contact hitters include Pete Rose, Tony Gwynn, Ichiro Suzuki, Rod Carew, and Derek Jeter.
- Contact hitters bring advantages such as putting pressure on the defense and neutralizing defensive shift strategies; however, they are less effective when immediate runs are needed.
- To become an effective contact hitter, one needs to practice hand-eye coordination, swing technique, and use lightweight bats.
- While power hitting is greatly sought after by fans, contact hitting makes those home runs more valuable by keeping runners on base when power hitters come up to bat.
What is a “contact hitter” in baseball?
A contact hitter in baseball is a hitter who rarely strikes out. They may not get on base every time, but these hitters are extremely difficult to strike out and almost always put the ball in play, which forces the defense to make a play to get them out.
The definition also has extra meanings in common baseball vernacular. For example, when a player is called a “contact hitter,” there is an unspoken assumption that the player does not or cannot hit for power. That isn’t entirely true, but the argument has merits.
One of the best contact hitters to ever play baseball was Pete Rose. Over a 23-year playing career, Rose had more hits than anyone in history (4,256) and finished with a career batting average of .303. However, Rose only collected 160 home runs in his career, which means that only 3% of his career hits were home runs. Clearly, power is not what made Rose valuable on the field. He was still a 17-time All-Star, MVP, and 3-time batting champ to go along with 3 World Series titles.
Characteristics of a contact hitter
Traditional contact hitters have higher batting averages and on-base percentages than other hitters. The reason for this is simple. The more times a hitter can put the ball in play, it increases the odds of the opposite team making an error, allowing them to reach base.
In that same context, another benefit of being a contact hitter is that their strikeout rate is lower and, most likely, their RBI total is higher. With runners on base, when a ball is hit into play, it creates an opportunity for the team to score runs.
In today’s game, with the new defensive shift rules, the value of contact hitting is coming back. Contact hitters can adjust their swing to hit the ball to parts of the field where there may not be a fielder.
To hear some of the best talks ever about the differences in hitting for power and contact, watch these legends below as they discuss some of the secrets to making better contact with the ball:
Famous examples of contact hitters in baseball history
Over the years, there have been many excellent contact hitters. Below, in no particular order, we highlight some of the most notable:
1. Tony Gwynn
Gwynn is the pride of San Diego and as a lifelong Padre, his stat line shows why. Gwynn collected 3,141 hits, finished with a lifetime batting average of .338, was a 15x All-Star, and was a first ballot Hall of Famer. However, Gwynn only hit 135 career home runs and even referred to himself as a contact hitter rather than a power hitter:
2. Ichiro Suzuki
While he’s not in the MLB hall of fame yet because he isn’t eligible to be on the ballot until 2024, the great Ichiro is a lock to get in. Over a career that spanned nine years in the NPB (MLB equivalent in Japan) and 19 years in MLB, Ichiro had a similar career to Gwynn. In MLB, he had a career average of .311 and collected 3,089 hits while also being a 10x All-Star, MVP, and he owns the single-season hit record with 262 in 2004. Listen to Ken Griffey Jr. (and Sr.) talk about Ichiro:
3. Rod Carew
Considered one of the best players to have never won a World Series, Carew was a first ballot Hall of Famer, MVP, and 18x All-Star. He finished his career with 3,053 hits and a lifetime average of .328. Watch him collect his memorable 3,000th hit:
4. Derek Jeter
The man known simply as “The Captain” finished his career 6th on the all-time hit list, had a lifetime average of .310, and even better – a career .321 average in the World Series (FYI – he won 5 of them). Along with that, the Yankee shortstop collected 3,465 hits, was a 14x All-Star and was the World Series MVP in 2000. Here, you can listen to the man himself talk about hitting:
Advantages and disadvantages of a contact hitter
There are many advantages to having contact hitters in the lineup. Players that can make consistent contact and put the ball in play are more likely to get on base, advance runners, and potentially put the defense in a position where they make an error. They can also confuse managers and defenses because smart contact hitters have such control over the bat and where it enters the hitting zone that they can almost put the ball wherever they want. This neutralizes the defensive shift strategy.
While there are many benefits, there are a few strategic occasions where being a contact hitter is not the best option at the time. If a team needs immediate runs, and if there are two outs in an inning, then a contact hitter is not who you want at the plate. It’s great if they can get a hit, but the odds of getting them to score are very low in that scenario.
Strategies for becoming a contact hitter
To prepare yourself to become a better contact hitter, a player needs to practice swinging in many ways. Batting practice and tee drills are the best places to start, and to develop your hand-eye coordination, a game of pepper works too. Some players even start juggling to enhance their coordination (The Dodgers trainers believe in this).
Below, you’ll hear from one of the best power hitters in baseball history, Albert Pujols, who talks about how much more important it is to focus on contact and not swing for the fence:
What type of bat is best for contact hitters?
Conventional wisdom says that to be a good contact hitter, you must be able to get the barrel of the bat into the hitting zone quickly and adjust mid-pitch. Because of this, it is recommended that contact hitters use as light of a bat as possible.
For example, Tony Gwynn swung a 33″ bat that weighed 30 ounces. Those sized bats are also used at the high school level, but it worked for Gwynn because his hand-eye coordination was superior to other players. Jeter used one about the same size, while Rod Carew used an even smaller 29-ounce bat.
There is always an exception to every rule. Even though MLB allows bats up to 42″, the longest players have used in games is 36″. There is no way to make a 36″ wood bat light, but it worked for Pete Rose – that’s the size he used.
Who is the greatest contact hitter in baseball?
Because rules and pitching styles have changed over the years, there have been many debates on who the best contact hitter in baseball history is. For most experts, it comes down to three names, Ty Cobb, Ichiro Suzuki, and Pete Rose.
What is a contact bat vs. a power bat?
A baseball bat used for contact hitting will be light, preferably under 32 ounces. To ensure the bat stays lightweight but remains sturdy, contact hitters use a shorter bat. It worked for many of the players we’ve mentioned, like Tony Gwynn, Derek Jeter, and Rod Carew.
A power bat is longer and weighs a lot more. In today’s game, it is reported that Bryce Harper uses a 35-36 ounce bat that is considered heavy by today’s standards. In earlier days of baseball, players like Reggie Jackson and Roberto Clemente were said to have used bats weighing 38 ounces or more. But the real champ of power bats is what the Bambino used. Babe Ruth was famous for using baseball bats that weighed over 50 ounces (that’s over 3 pounds!)
Want to see what happens when you give a power hitter a lightweight bat? Watch what happened when the Red Sox let Big Papi take some batting practice cuts with an aluminum bat:
Just making contact with a major league pitch is difficult. While fans scream and holler for more home runs, the truth is that contact hitters make those home runs much more valuable by being on base when power hitters are up to bat.
For young players, remember that you can’t hit what you can’t see, so the first step in becoming a good hitter and making contact is to focus on your hand-eye coordination first so you can see the ball. Then listen when your coach talks about swing mechanics so that when you see a ball in the strike zone, you have the right technique, equipment, and knowledge to get yourself a hit.
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