Marco Scutaro made his Major League debut at age-26. It took him two year to get regular playing time, and at age-28, given his first real chance as a big leaguer, he hit .273/.297/.393, good for a 77 wRC+ and an exactly replacement level performance. Undeterred, the A’s stuck with him, and he eventually turned into something pretty close to a league average hitter. From 2005 to 2012 — is age-29 to age-36 seasons — Scutaro posted a 98 wRC+, which isn’t bad at all for a middle infielder. He wasn’t anything special, but through hard work, a no-tools non-prospect turned himself into an average player. That’s a pretty big accomplishment.
But that’s not the amazing thing about Marco Scutaro. Well, not the most amazing thing anyway. The real remarkable story here is how he’s just continuing to get better.
Take a look at his strikeout trends over each year of his career.
We know strikeout rate has really taken off the last five years or so, but during the time that no one else has been able to make contact, an aging Marco Scutaro has improved his K% every single season. If you prefer numbers to charts, here are his strikeout rates since 2009: 11.0%, 10.1%, 8.1%, 7.2%, 6.7%. At age-28, Scutaro struck out 25% less often than the average position player in the American League. 10 years later, he’s striking out 65% less often than the average position player in the National League.
This transformation into an elite contact wizard hasn’t just caused Scutaro to trade strikeouts for in play outs either, as both his ISO and his BABIPs have remained steady or even increased over this period. This isn’t a trade-off; it’s just an improvement.
And while super high contact numbers aren’t always a great thing for hitters — they often can be combined with a complete lack of power or plate discipline — Scutaro has basically refined his approach to maximize performance. Over the last calendar year, he’s posted the third lowest rate of swings on pitches out of the strike zone, and he owns the highest contact rate on pitches in the strike zone. In other words, Scutaro won’t swing at balls and he doesn’t miss strikes. Even with modest power, that approach can be highly effective.
Over that same past 365 day window, Scutaro has hit .327/.370/.422, good for a 120 wRC+. For comparison, that puts him just ahead of guys like Howie Kendrick and Chase Utley, who we profiled as still an excellent player yesterday. Among qualified second baseman, Scutaro ranks fifth in wRC+ over the last year, and he’s not that far behind guys like Dustin Pedroia (127 wRC+).
At a point in his career where most players are a shell of their prior selves, Scutaro is better than he’s ever been, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Over the last year, he’s been worth +3.5 WAR while hitting five home runs and stealing three bases. He might be the least toolsy player in the entire sport, but he has learned to completely own the strike zone, and that single skill alone has made him one of the best second baseman in baseball.
Tools are great. Yasiel Puig is probably going to become a terrific player even if he never learns the nuances of the strike zone simply because of the athletic gifts he has. It is a lot of fun to watch guys like Puig, who can do things that you just don’t think any human should be able to do on a baseball field.
But baseball, at its heart, is a conflict of the batter and pitcher fighting to control the strike zone. All the tools in the world are useless if you can’t win that battle, and as Scutaro as showing, you can be a good big league player without any superior physical skills if you win that battle almost every time you go up to the plate. No player in baseball wins the battle of the strike zone more often than a 37-year-old underpowered middle infielder. He doesn’t draw walks because pitchers are scared of him; he draws walks because pitchers can’t get him out.
Every fringe prospect, every bench player, every undersized guy in the minors should look to Marco Scutaro as their inspiration. They don’t have to become Marco Scutaro 2.0, but he’s the example of what you can be if you learn how to completely take over the batter/pitcher conflict. Learn the strike zone, study pitchers, swing only at strikes, and good things will happen.