2015 Positional Ball-In-Play Retrospective – C

With the Ides Of March upon us, let’s complete our 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’ll wrap it up with a look at catchers.

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. Fewer catchers qualify because of the physical demands of the position; players at other positions generally miss time only due to injury and platooning. Even the best non-Salvador Perez catchers need at least a day off per week to remain fresh.

Also, bear in mind that catchers earn playing time primarily for reasons not covered here today, i.e., defensive skills such as receiving/framing, handling the running game and the pitching staff. What the player brings to the table in those categories determines just how much a club is willing to sacrifice at bat. Today, we’ll look at the building blocks of their offensive games, to see what direction they might be headed in the near term. Let’s begin with a truncated AL field of qualifiers:

Ball-In-Play Overview – AL C
Name Avg MPH FB/LD MPH GB MPH POP% FLY% LD% GB% CON K% BB% OPS+ Pull% Cent% Opp%
R.Martin 90.01 93.50 87.12 6.2% 26.8% 16.4% 50.6% 111 20.9% 10.5% 115 38.2% 35.9% 25.9%
Vogt 86.59 90.39 82.90 2.0% 38.4% 21.9% 37.6% 108 19.0% 11.0% 114 43.0% 33.7% 23.3%
McCann 90.03 93.07 88.49 3.8% 43.4% 16.7% 36.1% 93 18.1% 9.7% 107 50.1% 31.5% 18.4%
S.Perez 88.26 90.70 87.40 5.3% 32.1% 20.7% 41.9% 90 14.8% 2.4% 89 43.0% 37.2% 19.8%
McCann 88.32 90.35 87.34 1.9% 25.1% 23.1% 49.8% 99 21.2% 3.8% 88 38.6% 35.8% 25.6%
Joseph 87.38 90.52 84.21 3.2% 39.9% 23.4% 33.5% 89 20.3% 7.6% 87 37.7% 33.7% 28.6%
Flowers 90.73 91.49 92.08 4.4% 31.6% 17.1% 46.9% 106 28.8% 5.8% 82 40.0% 31.7% 28.3%
J.Castro 89.47 92.82 84.72 2.7% 35.5% 24.4% 37.3% 103 30.7% 8.8% 77 47.6% 28.4% 24.0%
Y.Gomes 87.74 90.16 85.40 4.5% 35.5% 26.4% 33.6% 101 26.7% 3.3% 74 37.4% 37.0% 25.7%
K.Suzuki 87.76 89.88 86.29 4.3% 33.4% 19.4% 43.0% 58 12.3% 6.1% 67 41.4% 34.9% 23.7%
AVERAGE 88.63 91.29 86.60 3.8% 34.2% 21.0% 41.0% 96 21.3% 6.9% 90 41.7% 34.0% 24.3%

You’ll note that a grand total of one player on the above list had materially above average BIP authority last season; not a lot of red, orange and yellow in the “good” categories for AL catchers. Russell Martin has ridden a tried-and-true offensive profile to a long run as an above average offensive catcher. His BIP authority has now been in the average range for eight consecutive seasons. So has his BB rate, and it has been over a full standard deviation above league average in five of those eight campaigns. He has always posted a high grounder rate, and in most years a higher than average pop up rate, though not as high as his concerning 2015 mark. On the positive side, expect an upward bounce in his liner rate in 2016; it was similarly low in 2013, but was just above league average in both 2012 and 2014.

A handful of commenters have inquired about my citation of the next-year performance risk of extreme fly ball hitters. In recent years, players who have hit more fly balls (excluding pop ups) than grounders have tended to decline in performance the next season. This tends to be a small group of players, about twenty qualifiers per league, per year. One day I will do a complete article on this phenomenon. For now, I’ll just refer you to a few extreme cases from the last couple of years; in 2013, Chris Davis, Raul Ibanez, David Wright and Nick Swisher met this criterion, and each saw his OPS+ plunge by at least 45 points. In 2014, Rene Rivera, Adam LaRoche, Mike Zunino, Yan Gomes and Steven Pearce did so, and each saw his OPS+ decline by at least 39 points. About 70% of the players with more fly balls than grounders in 2013-14 saw their OPS+ decline the next year, and the group as a whole saw their OPS+ decline by an average of 15 points the next season.

There are four qualifying AL Cs who hit more fly balls than grounders in 2015, Stephen Vogt, Brian McCann, Caleb Joseph and Gomes. Vogt evolved a great deal as a hitter in 2015, becoming much more productive despite a decline in BIP authority, thanks to a doubling of his BB rate and a sharp cut in his pop up rate. One problem moving forward is that it’s very difficult to pair a high fly ball rate with a low pop up rate unless you’re a pretty special hitter, and Vogt isn’t that. Expect a declining fly ball rate to excise some of his power, and a rising pop up rate to reduce his average.

McCann is what I like to call a “harvester”, and he’s harvesting in Yankee Stadium, a great place to do it. McCann’s “real” power is gone; 2015 was the first year that his BIP authority has been as low as the average range. He compensated by focusing on elevating the ball to the pull side, which has a short term payoff, especially down the line in his home games. As Ibanez found out in 2014, this plan has a limited shelf line, once you’re routinely pounded down and away and roll over a bunch of grounders to the pull side. McCann’s offensive plunge will take place in the next 1-2 seasons.

Caleb Joseph, a minor league journeyman who has finally carved out a big league niche, had his dream offensive season with the bat in 2015. Yes, an 87 OPS+ represents his ultimate upside. He needed to hit more fly balls than grounders, and post a liner rate percentile rank of 82 to get there. Neither of those events will recur, even in the more limited playing time he’ll accrue with the return of Matt Wieters.

I wouldn’t be shocked if Gomes bucks the negative OPS+ trend of the more-fly-balls-than-grounders crew. His poor offensive year in 2015 was largely injury-related; while he’s a terrible K/BB guy even when healthy, his BIP authority was above average when healthy in 2014, and below average last season. Expect his liner rate to regress down to a more reasonable level, while his authority could bounce to the top of the list among AL Cs.

Salvador Perez is Tony Pena. He’s essentially an average offensive catcher thanks to a high contact rate, but despite a puny BB rate. He carries an incredible work load, which will eventually break his offensive game. Pena’s offensive game collapsed around age 30, but after only five years of 145+ game usage at the MLB level. Perez is entering year four of similar usage; expect his decline to occur prior to age 30, perhaps in year six, at age 28, in 2018. There’s your long-term forecast for the day.

Jason Castro posted a 77 OPS+ figure in 2015 despite a liner rate in the 90th percentile. That’s what a stratospheric K rate and an extreme pull tendency and the infield overshifts it brings can do to you. Despite his seemingly solid offensive tools for a catcher, the calculus is stacked against him. Regression of his liner rate is very likely, and will make it very hard for Castro to retain the majority of playing time for much longer.

Overall, AL Cs combined for a 90 OPS+ and 96 Contact Scores, with significant strikeout, fly ball and pull tendencies. A classic high risk, middling reward offensive skill set. Now, let’s look at a larger group of NL qualifiers:

Ball-In-Play Overview – NL C
Name Avg MPH FB/LD MPH GB MPH POP% FLY% LD% GB% CON K% BB% OPS+ Pull% Cent% Opp%
Posey 89.35 91.52 87.72 2.3% 31.5% 22.3% 43.9% 108 8.3% 9.0% 135 35.4% 37.5% 27.2%
Pierzynski 86.02 88.91 83.96 3.5% 25.2% 24.7% 46.6% 94 8.5% 4.4% 114 42.4% 33.5% 24.1%
Cervelli 87.90 92.00 84.85 0.8% 26.1% 21.0% 52.1% 113 18.4% 9.0% 113 36.5% 35.9% 27.6%
Grandal 91.58 94.71 90.41 5.7% 31.6% 17.1% 45.6% 102 21.6% 15.3% 111 37.1% 39.7% 23.2%
M.Montero 89.06 91.94 84.84 0.8% 33.2% 25.5% 40.5% 122 25.6% 12.2% 107 37.3% 38.1% 24.7%
Hundley 89.39 90.62 88.46 4.2% 30.2% 22.6% 43.1% 136 19.5% 5.4% 103 33.7% 36.4% 29.9%
W.Castillo 89.73 92.19 86.68 3.5% 36.1% 18.4% 42.0% 118 24.3% 6.6% 100 42.7% 35.3% 22.0%
Norris 87.79 91.66 86.27 3.9% 37.1% 17.4% 41.6% 111 23.5% 6.3% 99 42.6% 35.1% 22.3%
Lucroy 89.11 91.73 86.68 2.2% 27.2% 25.9% 44.7% 88 15.4% 8.7% 95 31.9% 37.3% 30.9%
Realmuto 88.67 92.56 84.94 1.9% 32.0% 21.3% 44.8% 88 15.0% 4.1% 90 38.0% 37.0% 25.0%
B.Pena 85.90 86.58 86.49 3.4% 23.3% 22.3% 51.0% 68 9.3% 7.9% 82 32.8% 40.4% 26.8%
Y.Molina 86.49 89.55 84.97 3.6% 28.4% 20.3% 47.7% 73 11.1% 6.0% 80 36.2% 32.8% 31.0%
W.Ramos 91.48 96.65 87.98 1.6% 23.3% 19.6% 55.5% 78 20.0% 4.2% 64 35.9% 37.4% 26.7%
Ruiz 85.87 89.09 83.17 2.9% 30.6% 22.3% 44.2% 50 13.4% 8.8% 59 30.2% 36.3% 33.5%
AVERAGE 88.45 91.41 86.24 2.9% 29.7% 21.5% 46.0% 96 16.7% 7.7% 97 36.6% 36.6% 26.8%

Buster Posey’s profile shows the magic of not having weaknesses. His overall BIP authority moved down into the average range for the first time in his career, but his miniscule K rate coupled with his solid liner rate, at the very top of the average range, is a winning formula. If anything, expect his liner rate to move up, as it’s been in the 75th percentile rank or higher in four of the last five seasons. Expect a slow, steady decline in his power numbers, but this guy will hit for average for the foreseeable future.

A.J. Pierzynski’s bounce back with the bat in 2015 was quite unexpected. He cut his K rate nearly in half, and his liner rate exploded into the 82nd percentile after sitting in the 39th, 40th and 54th percentiles the previous three years. His BIP authority is poor, and in a sharp decline; expect his overall offensive game to follow suit as his K and liner rates negatively regress. Don’t expect any more 100+ OPS+ seasons from Pierzynski.

Francisco Cervelli was another significant offensive overperformer in 2015. Sure, he lacks glaring weaknesses, which in and of itself is a positive, but his skill set is incongruous with a 113 Contact Score. The low pop up rate would appear to be real, and might be his single largest offensive positive, but the extremely low grounder authority is a bit of a red flag, especially considering his high grounder rate. I’m not expecting any 100+ OPS+ seasons from Cervelli in the near term, either.

Yasmani Grandal just might have the highest offensive upside of any young MLB catcher. He hits the ball much harder than your average receiver, in the air and on the ground, and his 2015 BB rate was over two STD higher than the average of all NL regulars, not just catchers. If only he can get that liner rate off of the floor; it’s been in the 13th and 7th percentiles over the last two seasons. Put Grandal on your short list of 2016 breakout seasons.

Miguel Montero has been one of the better offensive catchers in the game in recent seasons, but signs of decline were papered over by an unusually high liner rate, way up in the 88th percentile last season. Montero’s K rate spiked by almost 50% in 2015, a bad sign. His very low pop up rate is his biggest positive, but that alone isn’t going to keep his OPS+ above 100 for much longer.

2015 was pretty much a best case offensive scenario for Nick Hundley. First, and most importantly, he played his home games at Coors Field. Secondly, his liner rate spiked all the way up into the 68th percentile. High pop up rates have always been an issue for Hundley, and while most of his 2015 positives will negatively regress, the pop ups won’t. Coors or not, Hundley is not a 136 Contact Score guy; expect fairly substantial offensive decline in 2016.

Welington Castillo is what he is. He hits the ball reasonably hard for a catcher, albeit with a below average K/BB profile and a fairly extreme pull tendency. One reason for hope is his career-low 2015 liner rate (16th percentile), which should regress upward moving forward. I guess that whatever goes for Castillo should also go for Derek Norris; check out the eerie similarity of their respective profiles.

All systems should be go for a Jonathan Lucroy resurgence in 2016. He was negatively impacted by injury last season, though the main breakdown in his profile was a sharp increase in his K rate. While such a high liner rate (89th percentile) would normally invite regression, it should be noted that his has been in the 75th percentile or higher in four of the last five seasons. Lucroy is one of the minority of players who can sustain high liner rates over the long haul.

Might Yadier Molina’s window of offensive excellence finally be slamming shut? He too has been dinged by injuries in recent years, and the toll appears to be accumulating. His BIP authority has gone from over a full STD above average to over one-half STD below in just two seasons. The power might be gone for good, but I wouldn’t write off the average just yet; his liner rate percentile rank was just 33 in 2015, but had been 65 or higher in four of the five previous seasons.

Wilson Ramos is a very tricky one. For the first time in his career, Ramos showed above average BIP authority last season, by over one full STD. Most of that authority was in the air, but unfortunately, Ramos can’t elevate the baseball with any regularity. His 2015 fly ball rate percentile rank of 14 was actually his highest of the last three seasons. His typically poor BB rate also forms a flimsy foundation for his overall offensive game. Still, the newfound authority was a breakthrough, and gives Ramos a puncher’s chance to approach 100 OPS+ in the next season or two.

Qualifying NL Cs combined for a 97 OPS+ and 96 Contact Score, better all-around offensive players than their AL counterparts while creating similar amounts of thunder, due to a superior contact rate and more of an all-fields approach.

Next up, we’ll take a similar contact-based look at starting pitchers, division by division (based on each pitcher’s 2015 club), beginning next week with the AL East.

We hoped you liked reading 2015 Positional Ball-In-Play Retrospective – C by Tony Blengino!

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Shirtless Bartolo Colon
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What about pitchers?