It’s pretty clear that pitching has been dominating the game of baseball in the past few years. If you’re skeptical about this statement, consider the fact that C.C. Sabathia won the Cy Young Award in 2007 with an ERA of 3.21; a number that would seem merely above average in 2014. In fact, this year there are a whopping 18 pitchers in the American League alone with an ERA under 3.21.
ERA isn’t the only example of the pitching dominance that baseball has seen over the past few years. Strikeouts are up, power is down and the number of perfect games and no-hitters has skyrocketed. Over the past five seasons, there have been 27 no-hitters (including a record 12 in 2012), which includes five perfect games. In the 5 years before that, there were eight total no-hitters, a figure which includes two perfect games. Other stats that have seen a downward trend in recent years include WHIP, OBP and FIP.
So what does all this have to do with Zach Walters? Well, he may be the latest subscriber to a new fad that’s becoming more popular: a focus on development of power at the expense of batting average. Walters, who came over to the Indians in the recent Asdrubal Cabrera trade, follows in the footsteps of some other isolated power junkies such as Mark Reynolds, Chris Carter, Jon Singleton, George Springer, and Javier Baez. The idea of this fad is pretty simple: swing hard and hope you connect. With strikeouts up and batting average down across the league, there are fewer chances to hit with a runner in scoring position, and thus fewer chances to score runs via the RBI base hit. This new class of all-or-nothing swingers attempts to eliminate the need for timely hitting by putting runs on the board with a single stroke of the bat. Sure, it leads to a lot of strikeouts and pop-ups, but it simplifies things a bit for teams that can’t seem to string together a series of singles.
For those who aren’t familiar with the isolated power stat, it’s a statistic created in an attempt to measure how many extra bases a hitter generates per hit. The figure is calculated by subtracting a player’s batting average (hits per at-bat) from his slugging percentage (total bases per at-bat). As things currently stand headed into Tuesday’s game, Walters leads all of baseball with a .322 isolated power stat (minimum 50 plate appearances). His batting average sits at a measly .207. Second and third place on that list belong to Nate Freiman of the A’s and Edwin Encarnacion of the Blue Jays, with ISO’s of .315 and .294 respectively, and batting averages of .241 and .264 respectively. This marks the only instance in the past ten years in which at least two players in the top three for ISO has had a batting of less than .265, and at this point in 2014, all three of them are below that mark. There are also two more players in the top ten for ISO whose batting averages fall below .265. Carter sits at number five, and Baez is at number seven. That makes five players in the top ten for ISO who have sub-.265 batting averages; in the past ten years there have never been more than three such players in a season.
The trend is clear. More young batters are spending more time developing their power swings and focusing less on so-called “contact hitting”. It’s nearly acceptable to flirt with the Mendoza line if you can crank out 5 homers in a month. Players like Walters have far more value in today’s game than, say, an Emilio Bonifacio or Endy Chavez-type player who can hit .275 but with virtually no power. I’m not calling Walters the next Chris Carter, but he certainly has developed a valuable skill set that should continue to help the Indians win for many years. Maybe he could even prove to be an impact player. Brian Heise certainly seems to think it’s possible. The point is, this kid may be more valuable to the team than we all realize. But for now, let’s all just sit back and enjoy watching him smack the cover off of the baseball.