2015 Positional Ball-in-Play Retrospective – 3B

Camps are open, players either are or aren’t in the best shape of their lives, and everyone’s starting to tire of watching bullpens and PFP. Let’s continue to take a position-by-position look back at the ball-in-play (BIP) profiles of 2015 semi-regulars and regulars to see if we can find any clues as to their projected performance moving forward. We’ve already looked at first basemen and designated hitters and second baseman and shortstops; today, let’s complete the infield with a look at third basemen.

First, some ground rules. To come up with an overall player population roughly equal to one player per team per position, the minimum number of batted balls with Statcast readings was set at 164. Players were listed at the position at which they played the most games. There is more than one player per team at some positions and less at others, like catcher and DH. Players are listed in descending OPS+ order. Without further ado, let’s kick it off with the AL third sackers.

BIP Overview – AL 3B
Name Avg MPH FB/LD MPH GB MPH POP% FLY% LD% GB% CON K% BB% OPS+ Pull% Cent% Opp%
Donaldson 92.43 96.71 88.50 3.6% 34.3% 17.3% 44.8% 156 18.7% 10.3% 155 42.9% 33.5% 23.7%
Valencia 92.90 95.57 90.61 2.6% 27.7% 17.2% 52.4% 149 21.2% 7.7% 134 47.8% 34.0% 18.3%
Machado 92.44 94.03 92.43 5.4% 33.1% 17.8% 43.7% 123 15.6% 9.8% 131 38.1% 36.7% 25.2%
Moustakas 89.85 91.47 90.64 6.3% 35.1% 18.8% 39.9% 103 12.4% 7.0% 120 39.2% 33.4% 27.4%
Seager 89.25 91.82 86.86 4.0% 36.8% 24.0% 35.2% 99 14.3% 7.9% 118 44.4% 31.8% 23.8%
Longoria 90.26 93.98 86.31 4.4% 36.0% 20.6% 39.0% 111 19.7% 7.6% 111 41.9% 32.1% 26.0%
Beltre 89.88 92.95 87.34 2.9% 32.8% 22.7% 41.6% 96 10.5% 6.6% 110 38.8% 38.6% 22.6%
Freese 89.56 94.29 86.28 1.9% 26.2% 17.5% 54.4% 113 22.8% 6.6% 109 38.1% 30.6% 31.3%
Valbuena 89.89 93.98 85.34 4.2% 41.3% 20.3% 34.2% 101 21.5% 10.1% 103 44.7% 29.3% 26.0%
Plouffe 90.81 93.39 88.57 4.9% 35.8% 18.2% 41.1% 101 19.6% 7.9% 99 42.7% 34.6% 22.7%
Castellanos 88.36 90.59 85.37 0.5% 39.9% 23.3% 36.2% 118 25.5% 6.6% 98 36.2% 34.5% 29.3%
Lawrie 90.06 94.39 87.11 1.9% 30.8% 18.5% 48.8% 111 23.9% 4.7% 92 38.1% 36.7% 25.2%
Headley 87.20 90.48 84.31 3.6% 26.8% 26.6% 43.1% 96 21.0% 7.9% 92 44.3% 35.6% 20.0%
Sandoval 89.20 91.95 88.85 4.3% 28.0% 18.8% 48.9% 74 14.5% 5.0% 76 29.8% 39.5% 30.8%
AVERAGE 90.15 93.26 87.75 3.6% 33.2% 20.1% 43.1% 111 18.7% 7.6% 111 40.5% 34.4% 25.2%

Most of the column headers are self explanatory, including average BIP speed (overall and by BIP type), BIP type frequency, K and BB rates, and BIP by field sector (pull, central, opposite). Each player’s OPS and Unadjusted Contact Score (CON) is also listed. For those of you who have not read my articles on the topic, Contact Score is derived by removing Ks and BBs from hitters’ batting lines, assigning run values to all other events, and comparing them to a league average of 100.

Cells are also color coded. If a hitter’s value is two standard deviations or more higher than average (the average of all players in the league, not just at the player’s position), the field is shaded red. If it’s one to two STD higher than average, it’s shaded orange. If it’s one-half to one STD higher than average, it’s shaded dark yellow. If it’s one-half to one STD less than average, it’s shaded blue. If it’s over one STD less than average, it’s shaded black. Ran out of colors at that point. On the rare occasions that a value is over two STD lower than average, we’ll mention it if necessary in the text. There’s quite a bit more yellow and orange present in the third-base tables than there was in the shortstop tables, as we return to a more bat-oriented position.

Last year at about this time, I pegged Josh Donaldson as the 2015 AL MVP; I have to live with all of my incorrect predictions, so I’m clinging on to that one. He’s likely to be in the mix this year as well, as none of his abilities have deteriorated. He crushes the baseball, especially in the air, where he keeps company with Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis authority-wise. He does it with a low K rate for a power hitter. His pop up and pull rates are contained. His liner rate was again well below average in 2015, in the 12th percentile, actually up a tad from the fourth percentile in 2014. He’s run liner rates in the average range in the past, and his numbers could be even better in 2016 with a return to that level.

Look at Danny Valencia, sneaking in there between Donaldson and Manny Machado. He’s not nearly in their class, mind you, but in what was still largely a platoon role, in a season where he hit righties much better than in the past, he was in their offensive class on a per-at-bat basis. He’s a dead pull hitter, an infield overshift candidate who will struggle to hit for average because of the volume of grounders he hits. His low pop-up rate is a new development, and appears to be real, and his liner rate is due for some positive regression. He won’t put up a 149 Contact Score again, but he should remain a very productive complementary player.

How good could this Machado guy get? His man strength seems to be kicking in, as his authority ramped up from the average range in 2014 to over a full standard deviation above average in 2015. He crushes the ball on the ground, and doesn’t have a pronounced pull tendency, keeping overshifts away, and propping up his batting average. His authority in the air should continue to increase in the near term. His K/BB profile improved dramatically last season; there aren’t too many 22-year-olds whose OPS+ exceeds their Contact Score. Oh, and after posting liner rates in the 91st and 71st percentile the previous two seasons, it capsized into the 19th percentile in 2015; expect a big positive correction there. He’s my 2016 AL MVP pick; a monstrous year is on tap.

Major kudos to the Royals’ coaching staff for putting Mike Moustakas on the right offensive track. Even when he was struggling, his impressive K/BB profile offered a solid foundation, allowing him margin for error on BIP authority and quality. In previous seasons, Moustakas was an extreme puller. With average overall BIP authority, you can’t afford to be overshifted and hit .150 or so on the ground; in 2015, he used the opposite field much more often, hitting his grounders hard. He’ll never be the masher they thought they drafted, but with his glove, a 110-120 OPS+ in the near term will do just fine, thank you.

Kyle Seager is one solid all-around player, but I wouldn’t expect much additional offensive growth. His 2015 liner rate was by far a career high, he has evolved into an extreme puller who should be regularly overshifted in the infield, and he hit more fly balls (excluding pop ups) than grounders, which correlates with next-year decline. On the flip side, he cut his already solid K rate a bit more in 2015, raising his floor to a fairly high level. Note that his contact score was below average at 99; a bit of that is due to Safeco Field, but the underlying truth is that Seager’s ball-striking skills are just about average. About a 110 OPS+, combined with solid defense, sounds about right for Seager in the near term.

Evan Longoria is an offensive stud no longer. His BIP frequency data has largely been unchanged throughout his career; he’s had a fairly significant fly-ball tendency from the get-go, with liner rates in the average range. What has declined is his BIP authority, from over a full STD above average in five of six years between 2008 and -13, to just over one-half STD above in 2014-15. That decline in impact has also had a negative impact on his BB rate, which is now in the average range. To ramp up his power numbers, Longoria needs to selectively pull the ball in the air more frequently, as many post-prime sluggers try to do.

Adrian Beltre is in the midst of a very productive decline phase. As recently as 2013, his BIP authority was over a full STD above average; it is now in the average range. His minuscule K rate affords him significant margin for error with regard to authority. He’s now posted an above-average liner rate in four straight seasons; he’s one of the few who can pull that off in such a variable category. High liner rate plus low K rate equals .300 hitter. He too will need to selectively pull in the air more often to rekindle the power, but will still be productive even if he doesn’t.

Nick Castellanos is a tough nut to crack, with a number of conflicting indicators. On the positive side, he never pops up and has posted liner rate percentile ranks of 96 and 79 in his two seasons as a regular. He also uses the entire field, avoiding infield overshifts. On the negative side, he hits more fly balls (excluding pop ups) than grounders, an indicator of next-year decline. Oh, and the big one… his brutal K/BB profile, which affords him no margin for error with regard to BIP authority/quality. His overall authority actually declined from over a full STD above average in 2014 down to the average range in 2015. If he can learn to selectively pull in the air a bit more without upsetting his positives in the progress, he can become an above-average bat.

Brett Lawrie’s K rate spiked upward last season, as he continues to spiral downward from surefire offensive stud to question mark. He has always struggled to hit the ball in the air with any consistency, and has never posted an above-average liner rate over a full season. This wasn’t a huge deal as long as he made consistent contact, but that ended in 2015. The White Sox took him on and will deploy him at second base this season; a 100 OPS+ would seem to be a reasonable goal moving forward.

What on earth happened to Pablo Sandoval last season? Well, his fly-ball rate cratered, which is a huge negative when you play your home games in the most fly ball-friendly stadium this side of Coors Field. Other than that, he’s still the same guy; he uses the opposite field, and doesn’t strike out or walk much. There was quite a bit of bad luck baked into his 2015 numbers; that isn’t the line of a 74 Contact Score. I would normally predict a solid rebound, but the x-factor here is his conditioning. How much of his inability to get the ball into the air regularly was due to his subpar conditioning? He’s always been a big guy, but his body was live in his early- to mid-20s; not so much anymore.

The average AL third baseman had a 111 OPS+ and Contact Score, hitting the ball harder than average with a relatively high fly-ball rate and a bit of a pull tendency. Next, their NL counterparts.

BIP Overview – NL 3B
Name Avg MPH FB/LD MPH GB MPH POP% FLY% LD% GB% CON K% BB% OPS+ Pull% Cent% Opp%
Turner 89.88 92.89 85.87 2.8% 33.4% 27.7% 36.2% 128 16.2% 8.2% 138 37.0% 37.9% 25.1%
Carpenter 89.56 92.15 85.10 1.0% 40.7% 28.5% 29.7% 152 22.7% 12.2% 135 39.3% 36.8% 23.9%
Bryant 89.33 94.13 82.55 3.6% 41.6% 20.5% 34.2% 193 30.6% 11.8% 134 41.6% 34.5% 23.8%
Franco 89.15 92.10 87.56 5.2% 29.6% 18.2% 47.0% 122 15.5% 7.8% 127 44.7% 38.7% 16.6%
Kang 90.82 95.59 86.95 1.8% 25.8% 22.6% 49.8% 137 21.2% 6.0% 123 46.1% 33.1% 20.7%
Arenado 91.31 94.22 88.33 4.7% 39.2% 21.7% 34.4% 144 16.5% 5.1% 123 45.7% 33.5% 20.9%
Frazier 90.46 93.59 87.00 8.0% 39.7% 19.1% 33.1% 124 20.2% 6.5% 117 46.1% 32.9% 21.0%
Y.Escobar 90.51 92.95 89.15 1.3% 21.9% 22.3% 54.5% 106 11.8% 7.6% 113 37.6% 34.6% 27.8%
Duffy 88.19 90.35 86.84 0.8% 25.7% 20.9% 52.6% 110 15.7% 4.9% 110 31.8% 34.9% 33.3%
Solarte 88.55 90.00 88.73 4.0% 33.1% 19.3% 43.6% 87 9.8% 6.0% 109 48.0% 32.4% 19.6%
Uribe 88.93 91.89 86.66 4.6% 31.7% 18.9% 44.8% 106 20.2% 8.6% 105 32.4% 41.3% 26.3%
Prado 89.50 90.77 89.90 4.1% 25.9% 23.2% 46.8% 90 12.3% 6.7% 102 31.1% 39.7% 29.3%
Harrison 86.29 89.58 83.49 2.0% 31.5% 24.9% 41.6% 98 15.8% 4.2% 97 35.5% 36.1% 28.4%
A.Ramirez 88.08 90.69 85.54 3.6% 39.6% 18.7% 38.1% 85 13.2% 6.0% 95 40.3% 35.2% 24.5%
Lamb 90.24 91.84 89.27 1.2% 31.2% 22.7% 44.9% 116 24.9% 9.2% 94 38.7% 34.8% 26.6%
AVERAGE 89.39 92.18 86.86 3.2% 32.7% 21.9% 42.1% 120 17.8% 7.4% 115 39.7% 35.8% 24.5%

Right off the bat, it’s pretty noticeable that most of the more productive NL third basemen have fairly pronounced pull tendencies. Not so the top two, however. Look at Justin Turner, topping a strong group. Turner is a line-drive machine; that 27.7% line rate placed him in the 95th percentile. It’s not a one-year deal, either: he’s never posted lower than a 64th percentile liner rate. Now, 2015 was a best-case scenario: his power numbers were up, the product of a fly-ball rate about as high as he’s capable of sustaining. Even with regression his enemy moving forward, he can bat .300 and post OPS+ figures in the 115-120 range in the near-term.

Talk about high liner rates: in four seasons as a regular, Matt Carpenter has posted liner rate percentile ranks of 80, 98, 90 and 98, respectively. Another liner machine. That said, Carpenter made some major changes to sustain and even enhance his productivity in 2015, at least in the short term. Carpenter focused more on power, striking out and pulling much more, and significantly ramping up his already high fly-ball rate. He did so while keeping his pop-up rate very low, a tough daily double to accomplish. The fly-ball rate just has to decline in 2016, sapping his overall numbers, but the new, more powerized version of Matt Carpenter should stabilize as a 120ish OPS+ player.

Here come the kids. First among them, Kris Bryant. It’s a bit surprising to see his overall BIP authority in the average range; that’s due to his inability to hit the ball hard on the ground. Put it this way: Bryant hit the ball on the ground exactly as hard as Jimmy Rollins last season. This, along with his stratospheric K rate, is something he’ll have to address to become a complete offensive player. For now, he’ll just have to rely on his above-average fly-ball frequency and authority, which keyed his massive 193 Contact Score. There’s some good fortune in that number, and plenty of reason to expect perhaps a modest 2016 retrenching in his overall numbers, but he evokes a young Mike Schmidt. A moderate-to-high risk, massive reward offensive player.

Maikel Franco’s strong 2015 debut slipped under the radar a bit. On the positive side, his low K rate coupled with strong BIP authority for a 22-year-old hints at a substantial upside. His liner rate should positively regress as well. On the negative side, his pop-up rate was high despite a low fly-ball rate, and he showed an extreme pull tendency, inviting infield overshifts. The only true concern from my perspective is the pulling; if he can force the defense to play him honest, we could be talking about a .300 hitter with 35+ homer upside.

Jung-ho Kang isn’t as young as the players surrounding him on this list, though he has comparable MLB service time. He appeared to be the real deal before his late-season injury. He’s not very big, but is a quick-twitch muscle type who explodes through the baseball. His average fly-ball authority barely exceeded David Ortiz‘ last season. His pop-up rate was very low, and his fly-ball rate has room to grow. On the down side, he’s an extreme puller who should be overshifted, capping his batting average. The league could adjust to him a bit this time around, but he’s no fluke. He’s yet another example of a low-risk, high-return investment paying off and keeping the Pirates relevant despite their financial limitations.

Nolan Arenado is a sensational baseball player, with stellar defense complementing his bat. His numbers will be embellished a bit as long as he’s a Rockie, but the combination of a well-managed K rate and very impressive BIP authority plays anywhere. His authority has ramped up, though he’s a sacrificed a bit of contact in the process, and his extreme pull tendency invites infield overshifts. Though his pop-up rate remains high, it’s moving in the right direction, even in a season in which his fly-ball rate surged to a level that is likely unsustainable. If Arenado could boost his BB rate and use the field a bit more, he’d be an MVP candidate in the near term. He’s the slightly lesser NL version of Machado.

Todd Frazier moves to the AL to play third for the White Sox this season. He peaked in the All-Star Home Run Derby last season, struggling mightily in the second half. His pop up rate is a major concern; it was the highest among all NL regulars last season. His fly-ball rate was also unsustainably high, hinting at a 2016 power decline. Toss in his extreme pull tendency, and there is pressure on the batting average front as well. On the other hand, his liner rate should positively regress, and his new home park is fly ball-friendly. That didn’t help the somewhat similar Adam LaRoche much, however.

Matt Duffy was a pretty lucky guy in 2015. He does make a bunch of contact, avoids pop ups and uses the field, so if all goes well, he can hit for a decent average. That best-case scenario is exactly what happened last year. He doesn’t draw walks, his power ceiling is very limited, and a large number of his many ground balls aren’t going to find the holes every year. He’s more of a 90-95 than a 110 OPS+ guy moving forward.

NL third basemen were quite productive in 2015, with a cumulative 115 OPS+ and 120 Contact Score. They made more contact, especially of the line drive variety, compared to their AL peers.

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Seeing Valbuena having the lowest percentage of BIP to center reminded me of Jeff Sullivan’s wonderful artist’s rendition of Minute Maid Park here: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-most-difficult-homer-in-baseball/.