While many aspects go into the making of a complete player, one thing is indisputable: It's hard to forget the ones who swung a mighty stick. Babe Ruth. Willie Mays. Ted Williams. Ty Cobb.
In an age when sabermetrics are king, the ability to simply put bat to ball still carries plenty of weight. This week, we focus on the so-called pure hitters of the National League Central, as we break down which current players have the best hit tools in the division.
Brewers: Christian Yelich
The Brewers have had some good hitters over the years. Paul Molitor set a franchise record with a .353 average in 1987 (the year he had a 39-game hitting streak), Cecil Cooper hit .352 while setting a franchise record with 219 hits in '80 and Ryan Braun batted .332 in 2011 to set a club record for the Miller Park era. But they never had a league batting champion until Yelich came along and led the NL in each of the past two seasons. His famously simple approach produces prodigious clean contact; Yelich ranked in MLB's top eight percent of barrels in '18, according to Statcast. In '19, he was in the top three percent.
-- Adam McCalvy
Cardinals: Paul Goldschmidt
Despite career-low numbers at the plate in his first year as a Cardinal, Goldschmidt still has a history of high average, and one year doesn’t negate that. The first baseman holds a career .292 average in his nine years in the Majors. The Cardinals traded for him and signed him to a multiyear deal for a number of reasons, but his ability to hit was certainly near the top: Goldschmidt hits all kinds of pitching, makes hard contact, controls the zone and works the count, and the hit tool is some combination of all of those. Goldschmidt’s 78 walks in 2019 led the team, and he also paced the Cardinals in hits (155) and RBIs (97). Yadier Molina is also involved in the conversation for best hit tool on the Cardinals, with a .282 career average, and as one of the better situational hitters on the team. -- Anne Rogers
Cubs: Anthony Rizzo
Rizzo is a dying breed of slugger. While the Cubs' first baseman can put baseballs in the seats, he adopts a "B swing" (choking up on the bat and shortening his stroke) to shift into a contact-based approach when he gets into two-strike counts. That has helped him develop into one of the game's best all-around hitters, one who blends power with patience and making contact. Over the past three years combined, Rizzo has nearly as many walks (232) as strikeouts (256). In 2019, he turned in a .293/.405/.520 slash line. Whether the Cubs need a homer, walk or just a ball put in play, Rizzo has learned to adjust both his mentality and swing according to the situation.
"I just hate striking out," Rizzo said last year about his two-strike approach. "I think the most embarrassing thing you can do as a hitter, for me, is you walk back to the dugout. There's nothing good that can come when you swing and miss." -- Jordan Bastian
Pirates: Bryan Reynolds
For all their offensive struggles last season, the Pirates have a handful of high-average hitters returning to their roster. Two of them spent last season as rookies: Kevin Newman, who hit .308 with an 11.7 percent strikeout rate, and Reynolds. Their lineup will also feature Adam Frazier, traditionally a high-average hitter who posted a .278 average last year despite breaking camp with a broken finger, and power-hitting first baseman Josh Bell, who kept his average above .300 until just after the All-Star break.
But the vote here must go to Reynolds, who has hit .300 or better at every level since high school. He has excellent hand-eye coordination and a simple swing, and he consistently hits the ball hard enough to maintain a high average. The switch-hitter showed that while slashing .314/.377/.503 as a rookie, but arguably the best display of his hit tool came when he batted .302 in 88 games for Double-A Altoona despite missing part of the 2018 season with a fractured left hamate bone. As a rookie, Reynolds had an expected batting average that ranked in the Majors’ 94th percentile, according to Statcast. He was hitting .330 or better, too, until he finally slowed down during the final two weeks of his first Major League season.
-- Adam Berry
Reds: Eugenio Suárez
Suárez of course has the power tool, as evidenced by his 49 home runs last season. But Suárez also has a sound hit tool that he has developed as he has gone from being a non-prospect to an All-Star third baseman, with one NL scout ranking it tops for Cincinnati. He is largely a pull hitter, especially when he hits homers, but can also hit line drives to the middle of the field and doesn’t actively try to clear the fences. Last season, Suárez ranked 13th in the Majors in barreling the ball and in the top 30 among NL hitters with a .312 BABIP. -- Mark Sheldon