How Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and others are widening the gap between the good and great hitters

How Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and others are widening the gap between the good and great hitters

We’re past the quarter mark of the MLB season and there were still 20 batters hitting above .300 at the beginning of this week. There were five batters above .350. Between the precision of defensive shifts in MLB and the speculated-upon deadened ball, the league average is down to .239 in 2022, the lowest since 1968 and the third straight year we’ve seen a decrease.

So how have some batters managed to overcome these factors and introduce a modicum of predictability into the most unpredictable stat in sports? Baseball is working against batters in many ways, so what is the magic formula that has allowed some batters to overcome those factors?

Essentially, it’s this: Great hitters have the ability to adjust on the fly between or even within at-bats, whereas good hitters often take games or an offseason to work on weak points in their approach. And in 2022, the stats are bearing this out.

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Which batters are dominating baseball?

As previously mentioned, 20 batters in MLB are currently batting above .300. Here is a list of them and their slash line. Players batting above .350 are in bold.

BatterBatting AverageOn-Base PercentageSlugging Percentage
J.D. Martinez.376.435.591
Luis Arraez.359.455.420
Manny Machado.357.438.583
Paul Goldschmidt.355.420.622
Tim Anderson.354.392.503
Rafael Devers.347.375.603
Ty France.342.412.508
Eric Hosmer.327.391.457
Andrew Benintendi.323.396.421
Mike Trout.320.422.673
Xander Bogaerts.320.390.465
Jeff McNeil.319.374.466
Jose Iglesias.319.370.393
Bryce Harper.317.361.611
C.J. Cron.317.367.600
Freddie Freeman.307.398.489
J.P. Crawford.306.397.452
Aaron Judge.304.373.655
Mike Yastrzemski.303.406.487
Mookie Betts.301.389.602

A lot of the names on this list are expected. Machado, Trout, Harper, Judge and Betts are some of the premiere names in the sport. The Angels’ Taylor Ward is notably absent from the list, as he didn’t qualify under’s requirement of 3.1 plate appearances per team game because of injury and being used in platoon fashion to start the year.

Which players SHOULD be dominating baseball?

One interesting stat to have emerged recently is expected weight on-base percentage, or xwOBA. Basically, xwOBA throws away the outcome of an at-bat, and instead measures factors such as exit velocity and launch angle, along with a batter’s sprint speed, to determine what the outcome of an at-bat should be.

What xwOBA removes, however, is defensive factors.

Here are baseball’s top 10 players as of the beginning of the week, based on xwOBA. Bolded players on this list will correlate with players batting over .300 for the season, while left-handed batters will have an asterisk.

For the sake of consistency Ward, who had an xwOBA of .444 heading into Sunday, will be omitted.

Joc Pederson*.468
Mike Trout.463
Aaron Judge.461
Yordan Alvarez*.453
J.D. Martinez.444
Freddie Freeman*.434
Willson Contreras.433
Bryce Harper*.429
Juan Soto*.418
Giancarlo Stanton.416

Pederson, Alvarez and Soto having a disconnect between xwOBA and actual result-oriented success is hardly an accident. They’re left-handed batters, against whom teams are shifting against nearly 60 percent of the time. Righties, by contrast, deal with the shift about 22 percent of the time. That means lefties are battling scouting reports that have their tendencies down to a fraction of an inch, in addition to pitchers who are pitching to them in highly specified ways.

Freeman and Harper have learned to beat the shift in their own way. Where Harper uses the lines to hit for extra bases, Freeman uses all fields extremely well, and it shows in their real batting averages.

Bryce Harper, via Baseball Savant
Freddie Freeman, per Baseball Savant

The players who don’t appear high on xwOBA but have the best batting averages are also able to use all fields well. Paul Goldschmidt is going the other way 25.9 percent of the time, Tim Anderson a ridiculous 30.5 percent, Arraez 27.1 percent and Machado 26.8 percent. Arraez, the only lefty on the list, sees the shift just 3.9 percent of the time. In essence, lefties who aren’t dead pull hitters do better, and the magic number appears to be going the other way about 25 percent of the time (although that’s not a hard and fast rule).

Why do teams shift more vs. lefties?

Hint: It’s not because only lefties pull the ball.

It may seem like common sense, but the reason more left-handed batters get the Ted Williams treatment is purely based on limitation: A shortstop stationed in shallow left field isn’t going to throw out a runner at first, whereas a second baseman in shallow right can.

Furthermore, a team is sacrificing the ground ball vs. righties in another way, as a first baseman is suddenly tasked with covering an entire side of the infield in addition to trying to cover first on a ball hit to the left side of the field. In essence, the shift isn’t as feasible against right-handed batters.

The superstar element

In something as unpredictable as batting, how is is that Machado, Trout, Judge, Martinez and Harper regularly find themselves at the top of these lists?

Frankly, some players just do everything well at the plate. They have a clear approach, and it translates to hard-hit balls on hittable pitches. They find barrels regularly, and they can identify a pitch coming out of the hand. That is leading to an increased gap between great and good hitting.

MLB pitching is better than ever, and so is defensive scouting. Defensive players have batter tendencies down to fractions of inches.

Despite the Statcast Era’s heavy emphasis on launch angles and exit velocities, games still have to be played. It’s impossible to get a full view of a game based on a player’s advanced stats. To truly understand batters and what makes them good or great, one must take in their approach at the plate, their strategy and how the game is being played against them.

Trout is the perfect example.

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The league average against a pitcher going through the batting order for the third time was .267 going into Sunday. Trout’s batting average his third time facing the same pitcher a ridiculous .435. Bryce Harper is batting .429 his third time through. Judge is .321. Machado is .483. The list goes on — great hitters punish teams for letting a pitcher face them more than twice.

In other words, Statcast gives a rubric for hitters, but the eye test still has a place in baseball.

What distinguishes good from great?

The gap between good and great hitters is increasing because the great players know how to tendency-break and defy their own habits. That can be a difficult thing to do. If a pitcher knows to pitch a batter away, then it’s on the batter to adjust somehow. That element, however, is nearly impossible to do in the current climate, with pitchers’ stuff looking better by the day, teams actively tendency-breaking with their own pitchers, and them having more information than ever on batters.

Therein lies the difference. The great hitters are able to work their way through various eras of pitching and find a way to adjust. It’s never as simple as just “going the other way.” It’s knowing how to do so and which pitches to do it against. Anderson is a particularly good example of that. Trout and Harper are also able to do it with regularity, which is why they’re so consistent at the plate.

Machado, Trout, Harper and Judge will continue to top these lists year in and year out because of their fluidity at the plate. Good hitters in the current MLB climate eventually get figured out by defenses. Great hitters figure out defenses. That is a key distinction, as baseball continues to move in the direction of being a chess match rather than the old adage “hit it where they ain’t.”

How do great hitters think?

Trout is a hard player to pin down because, as Emma Baccellieri noted for Sports Illustrated, he’s never the same hitter two years in a row. But one thing has remained consistent: He always sits fastball and changes from there.

“I’m always sitting fastball,” Trout said to former Padres second baseman and current baseball trainer Matt Antonelli back in 2018. “Fastball up the middle. For me if I sit offspeed, they throw me a fastball I’m done. So I like to just sit fastball and react to the offspeed. If I’m on-time with the fastball, I’m definitely going to be on-time with the offspeed.”

Trout said the same thing in early May after an Angels win against the Nationals in which he hit a home run.

“I’m always looking fastball,” he said after that game, per “The second pitch, the one I swung through, I was trying to do too much. I just tried to shorten my swing up and got a pitch to hit, and I barreled it.”

This is a common mentality among MLB hitters, but it’s not generally as simple as reacting to offspeed pitches. That’s something you can mostly do if you’re Trout.

Harper, meanwhile, has a slightly different approach.

In a fascinating breakdown of Harper’s MVP 2021 season by’s David Adler published before the season, Adler goes into how Harper has two different swings he uses situationally: One with a leg kick and one with a toe tap.

Adler found that Harper treats his leg kick like a pitcher would a slide-step with runners on the bases: He adjusts based on the count in an at-bat. He will use the leg kick in hitters counts, and the toe tap when he falls behind or even counts. That’s a lot of mental calculus to be doing per at-bat, but again: If everyone could do it, Harper wouldn’t be great.

A player working his way toward the great tier is Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt hit .218 against sliders last season, his worst average against any pitch. In 2022, he’s seen more sliders than fastballs, and he’s hitting an absurd .431 against them this season.

“Obviously you’re adapting,” Goldschmidt said, per “This is my 12th year. And the game has changed an extremely large amount, in my opinion, since when I came up. But it’s been gradual. It’s not like I played 10 years ago, took a break, and then play now and am like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ But yeah, every year you’re making adjustments. There’s a million different things to adjust, and learn from, and experience. The game is different, but I try to adapt each day and each year.”

That’s the mentality of a great hitter.

How are good hitters ‘figured out?’

The lists above are chock full of good to very good hitters. Joc Pederson, for example, is hitting extremely well this year. So why aren’t the numbers coming for him?

Pitchers are throwing Pederson fastballs just a quarter of the time. So not only is he hitting against three infielders on the right side of the field, he also has to sit back on breaking pitches if he even wants to think about going the other way. Pederson is very capable of adjusting, but teams don’t give him the chance to: They’re forcing him to fight his body to succeed.

So what about a very good right-handed hitter?

If a team can’t shift, then the pitchers must adjust differently. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, for example, is hitting the ball extremely well. Contreras, however, is batting .374 against the fastball this year, while batting .000 against 66 change-ups. It doesn’t take a scout to figure out that’s the way to throw to him right now — but unfortunately for Contreras, baseball is full of scouts figuring exactly that.

Great hitters don’t have those weaknesses to point to and exploit. That’s what ultimately makes them different and reduces their variance.

Players hitting .300 isn’t the end-all-be-all of success. In a post from 2019, Rusty Groppel of Cards Conclave highlighted the significance of the .300 hitter. Groppel correctly pointed out that the Steroid Era’s days of averaging 47.2 .300 hitters per season are behind us. In 2019, the average had fallen to 26.3 players hitting .300. In 2020, there were 23. In 2021, it had fallen to a meager 14. In 2022, we now sit at 20.

The number .300, however, is more touchstone of sorts. Good vs. great hitters are a state of mind — they’re players you fear in high-leverage situations. Trout is batting .290 in high-leverage spots. Harper .355. The league average? Resting at .245.

What will change?

Come 2023, things are going to change to a degree. MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to impose a “ban” of sorts on the shift, which won’t allow defensive alignments to have more than two players on one side of the bag. With regard to the effect of the shift, left-handed batters have a BABIP of .280. Righties have a BABIP of .292, a significant difference.

Once MLB imposes this change, expect to see those numbers come much closer. Defensive alignments becoming more standardized should curb the effect of incredibly heavy scouting on batters, and thus lead to increased offense again.

That won’t mitigate the importance of having a Harper or Trout in the lineup, but it will force pitchers and defenses to approach games differently. The numbers should eventually bear out to be more neutral between pitchers and hitters. But there’s still a season to finish in 2022.