TORONTO — We are in a moment where Major League Baseball is awash in trends reshaping the fabric of the game.
Strikeouts, home runs, and shifting are up. Stolen bases, bunts, and starter workloads are down. The game doesn’t look like it used to even 10 years ago.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t those that resist the prevailing winds of the game. Even in a league of swing-from-the-heels wall clearers, there’s still room for guys who make their living putting the bat on the ball with only occasional extra-base ambitions.
Guys like Eric Sogard.
“For me, that’s not my game where I can swing for the fences, go all-in or strike out,” he says. “I really keep my swing short, work the count and when I do that it puts me in a position where I can battle and be ready for any pitch.”
That battling has impressed the Blue Jays brass.
“Eric Sogard has had an impact on our lineup,” GM Ross Atkins says. “He sees a lot of pitches and sometimes taking pitches that are likely hittable but has four or five pitch at-bats and 20 pitch nights.”
“He gives you a good at-bat,” adds manager Charlie Montoyo. “He’s not going to keep hitting [like this], but he gives you a good at-bat. He can run, he can steal a base. He’s our perfect leadoff guy.”
Although Sogard is off to a great start with the Blue Jays, it wouldn’t be fair to describe him as a great hitter considering his career .241/.311/.322 line. He is remarkable, though. In an age where contact rates are falling through the floor, each and every season he’s up around a 90 percent contact rate.
You could poke holes a few hole in that graph if you were determined to do it. Some of Sogard’s seasons represent pretty small samples - 2019 especially - but his ability to put the bat on the ball in the hardest era in history to accomplish that feat is really something.
Since he got his first regular MLB work in 2011 only four hitters - Marco Scutaro, Ben Revere, Michael Brantley, and Alberto Callaspo - have bettered his contact rate of 90.3 percent. Only Brantley is still in the major leagues.
In that time span, the average fastball velocity has gone from 91.5 mph to 92.9 mph and the league-wide contact rate has gone from 80.7 percent to 75.8 percent.
“You have to give some credit to the pitching,” Sogard says. “Even from when I first got up in the league it’s improved so much. Guys are throwing harder with more movement. That alone is going decrease the contact rate.”
Velocity isn’t the only thing that’s made it harder to make contact in recent years. Pitchers have also improvement significantly in their ability to generate movement on the ball, even on big-time heaters. Early in the season, Tampa Bay Rays reliever Jose Alvarado went viral hitting on 99 mph on this pitch:
“When I was coming up, facing a guy high-90s you’d know it’d be straight as an arrow,” Sogard says. “Now guys are cutting it and sinking it at that velocity.”
Asked to chose one pitcher who throws the kind of stuff he never saw when he arrived in the majors, Sogard doesn’t hesitate.
“Jordan Hicks. He throws 100-102 with good sinking movement is impressive for sure. But as hitters the more you see it you do adjust and get comfortable with it. But it takes a little adjustment time.”
Sogard’s record against Hicks? 1-for-2 with a single.
Even the guy he points to as having the nastiest stuff in the league he’s put some wood on.
The infielder doesn’t have a perfect explanation for why he’s able to survive the golden age of bat-missing stuff. He does believe some of it is a matter of approach.
“Other guys are able to pick out a pitch, take their monster hack and maybe miss it. But if they get it, it could go 450 feet. That’s not me.”
Sogard has just 13 home runs - approximately one Vladimir Guerrero Jr. batting practice worth - in his career. The two he’s hit so far with the Blue Jays are just one shy of a single-season career high. Big swings don’t make sense for him. His game doesn’t exist along the strikeout-home run balance beam that many hitters are walking in 2019.
“I think the strikeout upon as too much of a negative anymore to some guys,” he says. “So as long as they’re hitting homers they’ll take the strikeouts with it.”
As for Sogard, he can’t afford to sacrifice contact for power because the power side of that equation doesn’t justify the tradeoff. That makes his game plan elegant in its simplicity.
“From my perspective, I’m always up there looking to see pitches and trying to get the barrel on it.”
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