The Minors’ Best Bad-Ball Hitter: Christian Encarnacion-Strand

Image credit: Christian Encarnacion-Strand (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Hitting a baseball is both extremely complex and mind-numbingly simple at the same time.

It’s the difficult act of trying to cover the strike zone against pitchers with top-end velocity while also dealing with advanced game theory of trying to figure out which type of pitch a pitcher is going to choose out of a multitude of options.

And at the same time, it can be reduced to the simple motto of “hit strikes hard.”

Christian Encarnacion-Strand does hit strikes hard, but the Reds first base prospect has an even simpler approach. He just tries to hit everything hard.

That should not work. For almost everyone in baseball, it does not work. Encarnacion-Strand this year has swung at 41% of pitches that are well out of the strike zone. That would seem to be a recipe for disaster.

At the MLB level, these pitches are defined as the chase zone and the waste zone. They are the pitches that are not even close to being strikes. They are pitches that are more than one ball width out of the strike zone. On-base percentages are made on taking these pitches, but batting averages and slugging percentages go here to die.

This year in the majors, hitters are hitting .092/.461/.115 on these chase/waste zone pitches. Since 2015, they are hitting .104/.452/.132.

A full 31% of pitches are thrown in these zones, accounting for more than 83,000 pitches in the majors already this year. There have been only 609 hits this season on those pitches with just 87 doubles, four triples and 20 home runs. The walk rate is 34.2% and the strikeout rate is 38.5%

Hit strikes hard. But a developing hitter also has to learn how to spit on these pitches. Swing at these pitches and pitchers will kill you.

It’s simple and easy to understand.

There are 55 qualified minor leaguers with a chase rate of 40% or higher, according to data Baseball America has obtained. Of those, 39 (71%) have an average or worse weighted on-base average (wOBA). That makes complete sense. These are the hitters whose swing-at-everything approach makes them an easy mark for pitchers.

Just two of those 55 have a wOBA above .400. There’s Aaron Schunk, who benefits from playing at hitter-happy Albuquerque, and Encarnacion-Strand. Encarnacion-Strand’s wOBA is .485.

Encarnacion-Strand’s chase rate last year was 39%. Of 49 MiLB players with 200-plus plate appearances in 2022 and a chase rate of 39% or higher, Encarnacion-Strand was the only one with a wOBA above .400—his was .415. Cult hero Willians Astudillo, one of the most famous bad-ball hitters of the 21st century, was close with a .396 wOBA.

Encarnacion-Strand keeps playing with fire, but he doesn’t seem to get burned. Welcome to the best bad-ball hitter in the minors.

Across the entire major leagues there have been 20 home runs hit on these pitches all year over 11,243 plate appearances. We don’t have equivalent stats for Triple-A, but Encarnacion-Strand by himself has hit three. He also has three doubles. He’s hitting .271/.434/.475 on these chase/waste pitches. He had 16 hits on chase/waste pitches in Triple-A in the span of a little over a month (40 games).

Encarnacion-Strand has hits on pitches well above the zone, well outside the zone, well below the zone and one on a pitch in on his hands.

That leads to a key follow-up question. Is this skill sustainable?

Well that may be the bad news for Encarnacion-Strand. We do not have stats for Vladimir Guerrero Sr., the bad-ball hitter who sometimes turned bounced pitches into hits. It would be both entertaining and useful to know how well Guerrero fared.

What we do have are the stats for every MLB player from 2008 to present. And it’s hard to find many MLB hitters over that time who have turned this into a sustainable skill at the level Encarnacion-Strand is producing on bad balls in Triple-A.

No MLB hitter with 200 or more PAs that finished on chase/waste pitches has hit better than .240 or slugged better than .293 over their career since the stat started to be tracked in 2015.

The best pure hitter against these pitches is Luis Arraez, who has hit .240/.563/.263 against pitches well out of the zone. Michael Young’s .336 slugging percentage is best among all these hitters.

Miguel Cabrera (26 home runs) and Pablo Sandoval (21) are the only two hitters to have more than 13 career home runs against chase/waste pitches over the past 16 seasons.

Sandoval is the best-case example of a truly exceptional bad-ball hitter. Sandoval’s 40 hits on chase/waste pitches in 2010 is the most by any hitter in the pitch tracking era. Sandoval also has the fourth, fifth and sixth most hits in a season (2009, 2011 and 2014, respectively). Sandoval is easily the most prolific hitter in the study with 222 hits. Cabrera (166 hits), Jose Altuve (162), Ichiro Suzuki (159), Erick Aybar (158) and Adam Jones (151) are the only other hitters to top 150 hits. 

But the most valuable hitters against these pitches are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Juan Soto, Jesse Winker, Daric Barton, Brandon Nimmo and Will Smith have the best wOBA against chase and waste pitches because they almost never swing at them. Soto is only a .108 hitter with a .144 slugging percentage against chase/waste offerings, but he has a .745 on-base percentage. He’s got a 17.2% strikeout rate on these pitches and a 69% walk rate.

That may lead to some healthy skepticism that Encarnacion-Strand can translate this skill to the majors, but he has something else going for him. He’s also hitting .410/.421/.872 on pitches in the strike zone and one ball off the strike zone. That helps explain why one of the minors’ most aggressive hitters is hitting .328 for his MiLB career. 

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