The home runs! Oh man, the home runs. Aristides Aquino has his 12 home runs in just 23 games for the Cincinnati Reds. That power he’s shown is just next-level kind of power. His isolated power (SLG-AVG) is currently sitting at .494. Now, we are dealing with an incredibly small sample size here of just 23 games played, but to put that into perspective here are the guys who topped that for a season in which they qualified for the batting title:
Barry Bonds. That’s it. That’s the list. And it came in the year in which he hit 73 home runs. No one else has been within 20 points of where Aristides Aquino is at in 2019. That’s the kind of run he’s been on from a power perspective. It’s been fun. It’s been great. And while it’s incredibly unlikely that he can keep that going, it doesn’t mean that his power isn’t real, or game changing. It just means that he probably isn’t peak Barry Bonds from a power perspective.
But the Barry Bonds thing actually got me to thinking about Aristides Aquino. In his minor league career part of the reason he was so up-and-down in prospect rankings over the years was that his plate approach/plate discipline/pitch recognition left something to be desired. He didn’t walk a lot, and he had a higher than you’d like to see strikeout rate. When you are a player with that skillset you tend to need to be able to do one of two things in order to hit enough in the other areas to make things work as an every day player: Carry a high batting average on balls in play, or hit for an incredibly high rate of power.
What made Barry Bonds so special was that he rarely struck out, he walked more than just about anyone at every point of his Major League career, and he hit for power that no one else in the game had ever hit for. He didn’t need a high BABIP to be a great hitter because he did everything else at an elite level. He’s probably the greatest hitter that ever lived.
A hitter like Aristides Aquino, however, may need some help when it comes to his BABIP. That all may just come down to exactly how much power he can hit for. Sammy Sosa before he began to hit 50+ home runs was a big strikeout, low-walk hitter. When the BABIP was on his side, he was a quality offensive contributor. But when it wasn’t, like in 1997 when he hit 36 home runs but only had a .251 average and a .300 on-base percentage, his offensive contributions weren’t all that great despite the power.
Things changed for Sammy Sosa when he began to show truly elite power, though. We don’t have the strikezone data for those years like we do now. So we can’t dive in and say he was swinging less, pitchers were throwing fewer strikes – we can just guess, reasonably, that pitchers were indeed approaching him a bit differently because he went from a 35-40 home run hitter to a guy who averaged 58 home runs over five seasons from 1998-2002. His walk rate reached double digits for the first time in his career, and peaked at 16.3% in 2001. Prior to 1998 he had a walk rate that topped 6.5% just once in the Major Leagues. He was a free swinger who had the kind of tools that worked, but also limited their effectiveness.
The Cubs have a current hitter that is similar in a way. Javier Baez walks less than Sammy Sosa did, and he’s striking out more. And he’s also hitting for less power. But he’s carrying a high BABIP and still hitting for plenty of power. The uptick in power in 2018 and 2019 is what’s taken him from an average-ish Major League hitter to an above-average one. He’s the kind of guy that Aristides Aquino could follow the path of. While Aquino probably has a little bit more pure power, and he’s walked a little bit more in his career – the underlying profile is similar. Both guys haven’t walked much, strike out quite a bit, and have plenty of power to spare.
There are 146 players currently qualified for the batting title in Major League. I headed over to Fangraphs to pour through the data on the plate discipline metrics. I added in Aristides Aquino, so we’re dealing with a sample of 147 players now, and decided to see where he ranks – along with Baez – in the various metrics.
For the most part, these guys have been incredibly similar in their approach. The big difference has been that Aristides Aquino has made more contact on pitches outside of the zone, and that Javier Baez has seen a lot more first-pitch strikes. Both guys are among the worst hitters in baseball at expanding the strikezone, making contact on pitches in the strikezone, making contact period, and swinging through strikes.
Making contact matters. But it doesn’t matter as much as some would lead you to believe. Being able to do real damage when you do make contact alleviates a lot of the lack of making contact. There are limits, though.
Right now, Aristides Aquino, and Javier Baez are both doing enough damage when they make contact to make it work. For Baez, he’s got a track record that suggests he can keep doing what he’s doing and make it work. With Aristides Aquino the jury is still out on this one. If he continues to hit for power at a very high rate, he’ll probably be just fine. We’ve seen guys do that in the past. But it seems that threshold is somewhere in that 30-35 home run range to make it work. That’s clearly not out of the question, as we’ve seen. It would be beneficial, though, for Aquino to make a little more contact in the zone and swing at pitches out of the zone a little less frequently.