2015 Starting Pitcher Ball-in-Play Retrospective – AL West

With just over a week of the regular season in the books, it’s high time we concluded our division-by-division, ball-in-play-based analysis of 2015 starting-pitcher performance. Last time, we considered the AL Central. Today, it’s the AL West.

First, some ground rules. To come up with an overall player population roughly equal to one starting rotation per team, the minimum number of batted balls allowed with Statcast readings was set at 243. Pitchers are listed with their 2015 division mates; those who were traded during the season will appear in the division in which they compiled the most innings. Pitchers are listed in “tru” ERA order. For those who have not read my previous articles on the topic, “tru” ERA is the ERA pitchers “should” have compiled based on the actual BIP frequency and authority they allowed relative to the league. Here we go:

Starting Pitcher BIP Profiles – AL West
Keuchel 85.78 90.55 83.52 2.4% 17.2% 18.7% 61.7% 83 23.7% 5.6% 62 73 69
McHugh 86.16 89.25 85.12 3.9% 30.7% 20.0% 45.4% 85 19.9% 6.2% 97 89 78
F.Hernandez 88.81 92.10 87.70 2.0% 24.9% 16.9% 56.2% 92 23.1% 7.0% 88 95 79
Gray 88.85 91.89 87.55 2.5% 28.2% 16.6% 52.7% 86 20.3% 7.1% 68 86 80
Iwakuma 88.71 91.87 87.20 2.1% 29.0% 18.5% 50.4% 100 21.5% 4.1% 88 93 82
McCullers 89.16 92.62 85.87 3.0% 28.8% 21.8% 46.5% 99 24.8% 8.3% 80 81 83
Richards 87.48 92.35 85.20 2.9% 25.1% 17.1% 54.9% 88 20.4% 8.8% 91 96 85
Weaver 86.82 91.59 82.47 6.0% 40.5% 19.0% 34.4% 86 13.5% 4.9% 116 120 89
Shoemaker 87.37 91.81 83.55 3.9% 38.5% 18.5% 39.2% 101 20.4% 6.2% 111 114 90
Happ 89.72 91.82 89.71 4.1% 30.0% 24.3% 41.6% 104 21.1% 6.3% 90 85 91
Hahn 86.56 90.70 84.23 1.3% 21.6% 24.5% 52.6% 92 15.8% 6.2% 84 88 92
Kazmir 87.67 92.37 84.43 2.6% 34.7% 19.8% 42.9% 101 20.3% 7.7% 77 99 93
Santiago 89.38 92.96 85.73 5.9% 47.7% 16.5% 29.9% 99 20.9% 9.2% 90 119 94
Elias 88.40 91.68 86.41 3.3% 33.1% 19.4% 44.2% 98 19.8% 9.0% 103 113 94
T.Walker 90.60 92.96 88.48 3.9% 35.1% 22.4% 38.6% 115 22.2% 5.7% 114 101 95
CJ.Wilson 90.07 92.52 88.70 3.4% 31.6% 21.9% 43.1% 103 19.9% 8.3% 97 100 96
J.Chavez 89.21 93.11 85.85 5.4% 28.6% 22.9% 43.1% 110 20.2% 7.1% 104 96 99
Gallardo 88.53 89.92 87.69 2.4% 26.3% 22.0% 49.3% 96 15.3% 8.6% 85 100 102
C.Lewis 89.47 92.22 86.47 3.5% 40.8% 22.0% 33.7% 111 16.5% 4.9% 116 104 104
Feldman 88.34 90.80 87.63 1.7% 25.8% 23.6% 48.9% 101 13.5% 6.0% 97 108 105
Heaney 89.95 93.39 86.67 4.0% 35.5% 22.2% 38.3% 117 17.8% 6.4% 87 93 109
Graveman 90.07 93.10 87.59 1.3% 27.3% 21.4% 50.0% 115 15.3% 7.6% 101 115 116
N.Martinez 89.04 91.44 87.38 3.6% 30.1% 24.0% 42.3% 109 13.8% 8.2% 99 124 116
AVERAGE 88.53 91.87 86.31 3.3% 30.9% 20.6% 45.2% 100 19.1% 6.9% 93 100 93

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 traditional ERA-, FIP-, and “tru” ERA-. Each pitchers’ Adjusted Contact Score (ADJ C) is also listed. Again, for those of you who have not read my articles on the topic, Unadjusted Contact Score is derived by removing Ks and BBs from opposing hitters’ batting lines, assigning run values to all other events, and comparing them to a league average of 100. Adjusted Contact Score applies league-average production to each pitchers’ individual actual BIP type and velocity mix, and compares it to league average of 100.

Cells are also color coded. If a pitcher’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.

Before we get to the pitchers, a couple words regarding year-to-year correlation of pitchers’ plate-appearance frequencies and BIP authority allowed. From 2013 to -15, ERA qualifiers’ K and BB rates and all BIP frequencies except for liner rate (.14 correlation coefficient) correlated very closely from year to year. The correlation coefficients for K% (.81), BB% (.66), and pop-up (.53), fly-ball (.76) and grounder (.86) rates are extremely high. While BIP authority correlates somewhat from year to year — FLY/LD authority is .37, grounder authority is .25 — it doesn’t correlate nearly as closely as frequency. Keep these relationships in mind as we move on to some random player comments.

Dallas Keuchel, though his K and BB rates have steadily improved into the well above-average range, owes the bulk of the credit for his elite pitcher status to his control-management expertise. His authority allowed on all BIP was over two standard deviations better than league average in both 2014 and 2015. His ground-ball rate was the highest among MLB starters in both seasons as well. He also has developed an aptitude for avoiding sweet-spot contact: his liner rate allowed was in the 15th percentile in 2015, and the third in 2014. Keuchel’s Adjusted Contact Score of 83 was the best in the AL West last season among ERA title qualifiers, and was second to Marco Estrada in the AL. In 2014, he led the AL in that department at 75. He’s the AL’s current gold standard with regard to contact management.

Keuchel’s teammate Collin McHugh finished just behind him in Adjusted Contact Score last season at 85. Unlike his teammate, McHugh got it done without the benefit of a go-to BIP frequency tendency. Instead, McHugh focused on suffocating contact authority. His overall and FLY/LD authority were over two full STD lower than league average. Expect a bit more regression to the mean from McHugh than from Keuchel, as authority doesn’t correlate as well from year to year as BIP and K/BB frequency. Still, expect a better-than-average performance from McHugh moving forward, though 2015 may have been a career year.

The beginning of the 2016 season has been like Groundhog Day thus far for Felix Hernandez: dominate, but struggle to get wins. We have likely already seen King Felix’s peak as a pitcher: his K and BB trends are not good, and his average fastball velocity has backed up a bit. That said, he still has his elite grounder-inducing talent upon which he can fall back. His grounder rate has always been well above average, but it reached a career high in the 96th percentile in 2015. His liner rate allowed was in the sixth and seventh percentiles, respectively, in 2014 and 2015, so there might be a true talent at work there, as well. Limiting BIP authority, however, doesn’t appear to a strength of his, and has prevented him from being an elite contact manager in recent seasons. He’ll be quite good for awhile, and his durability remains unquestioned, but the true greatness window may have closed.

There sure are plenty of similarities between the profiles of King Felix and Sonny Gray. Slight K rate edge goes to Hernandez, a slight contact-management edge to Gray, thanks largely to edges in pop ups and “can of corn” fly balls. More arrows are moving in the right direction for the A’s righty, as well, as his K and BB rates are trending more positively. Whereas durability has always been a given for the Mariner righty, it remains a nagging concern for Gray. With orange or even yellow in his K and BB columns, Gray becomes a Cy Young contender.

Hisashi Iwakuma nearly became a Dodger in the offseason, only to return to Seattle after concerns with his physical scuttled his signing. Contact management-wise, you can’t get much more vanilla than Iwakuma. His main strengths are his above-average grounder rate (84th percentile in 2015), and of course, his AL West-best BB rate. Historically, he has allowed fairly loud BIP authority, and his Adjusted Contact Score of 100 in 2015 was a career best, thanks to a low liner rate, down in the 12th percentile. Expect regression there this time around. Overall, Iwakuma is about as good a hurler as countryman Hiroki Kuroda was, with the former relying on K/BB excellence and the latter primarily on contact management.

Lance McCullers‘ profile is a fairly typical one for a youngster: high K and BB rates, with contact management largely an afterthought. Though he did allow harder-than-average FLY/LD authority, he kept damage to a minimum by yielding a great deal of “can of corn” fly balls. Obviously, injury is McCullers’ primary concern at present; once he returns, look for him to attempt to evolve from thrower to pitcher, with enhancements of his BB rate and contact-management ability the potential drivers of his growth.

You can line up Garrett Richards‘ profile next to Hernandez and Gray’s — and, to a lesser extent, Iwakuma’s. Richards finished second in the AL in 2014 to Keuchel in Adjusted Contact Score, and has the skill set to continue to excel in this area. Like Hernandez and Gray, he routinely posts high grounder rates (95th percentile in 2015) and has a knack for avoiding line drives (eighth percentile in 2015, below league average each season). Richards also manages contact authority better than both of them. Richards’ Achilles Heel has been his BB rate, which is high and trending in the wrong direction. He has Cy Young-contender ability, but needs to locate better, and soon.

Ah, the wonder of Jered Weaver. Most of the pitchers we’ve discussed thus far have superior stuff, while Weaver occasionally tickles the mid-80s with his fastball. It’s never been about stuff for Weaver, though. He’s one of the elite contact managers of his generation, with a career Unadjusted Contact Score of 88. He’s always been a pop-up machine, posting 90-plus percentile ranks in six of eight seasons, including a 94 mark in 2015. As his stuff and K rate have ebbed, his management of contact authority of all types has improved; his grounder authority allowed was over two STD better than average last season. Do not bet against this guy; he does whatever is necessary to compete. Weaver’s 2015 “tru” ERA is more indicative of his ability than his traditional ERA or FIP.

Matt Shoemaker is basically a less extreme version of Weaver. He’s an extreme fly-ball guy (91st percentile in 2015), albeit one without a pronounced pop-up tendency. Like Weaver, his “tru” ERA was far better than his traditional ERA and FIP in 2015, though an unusually low liner rate (14th percentile) was partially responsible. Shoemaker’s ability to manage authority will keep him afloat, though his upside is quite limited. The Angels will hope for league-average performance, a reasonable expectation.

J.A. Happ spent the bulk of 2015 in Seattle, but his performance skyrocketed once he found Ray Searage in Pittsburgh. He’s now a Blue Jay for the second time. His frequency profile has never been that interesting, save for a mild pop-up tendency (66th percentile in 2015). He has tended to allow harder-than-average authority, though his 2015 Adjusted Contact Score of 104 was hurt by an unusually high liner rate (93rd percentile), which should regress this time around. I’d mark him down as the poster child for “league average,” in all facets of pitching, in 2016.

The oft-injured Jesse Hahn has been unable to answer the bell for the A’s so far this season. It’s a shame, as there’s quite a bit to like here. Lots of grounders, strong authority suppression across the board, enough stuff to eventually approach league-average K rates. It’s all on hold until Hahn can prove ready to handle a starter’s workload.

Scott Kazmir hurled for two AL West clubs last season, and is now a Dodger. Most importantly, he appears to have put a career’s worth of injury woes in the rear-view mirror. Frequency-wise, he lacks a go-to pop up or grounder tendency to serve as the foundation of a strong contact management effort. Interestingly, he managed grounder authority much better than FLY/LD authority last season; if it was the other way around, it would be a bigger deal. Like Happ, Kazmir shapes up as a league average K/BB guy, with league average contact management ability. If healthy, that’s a safe, unsexy signing for the Dodgers.

Hector Santiago is the anti-Dallas Keuchel. The Angel lefty’s fly ball/pop up tendency is as extreme as the Astro southpaw’s ground-balling ways. Santiago’s ability to avoid sweet-spot contact — his liner rate has been in the 5th, 19th and 3rd percentile ranks the last three seasons — keeps him afloat. He allows plenty of loud contact in the air, and his BB rate was the highest of the above starters last season, minimizing his margin for error. Santiago’s upside above his current level is modest, and he has plenty of bust potential.

Taijuan Walker’s upside is considerable, to put it mildly. Look at the K rate column: the only three pitchers with better K rates are way above him on the list. The big issue to date has been contact management. His overall authority allowed is the worst on the list, and his FLY/LD authority is tied for fourth worst. As even an average contact manager, Walker’s “tru” ERA- could approach 80, with even better numbers ahead. Can he get there? Well, if his liner rate (75th percentile in 2015) regresses a bit, that would help. If he would develop a pop-up tendency commensurate with his fly-ball rate (79th percentile), that would as well. The biggest issue is simply command within the strike zone, a problem for many young hurlers. Walker made too many mistakes with his location last season, though it must be noted that most occurred in the first half. He’ll be one of the players I’ll be monitoring most closely in 2016.

Yovani Gallardo, after a fashion, moved on from the Rangers to the Orioles this offseason. His K rate has been in steady retreat for years now, but he has stayed afloat by managing contact in a slightly better-than-average manner. His grounder rate has always been strong, and peaked at an 82nd-percentile level last season. He’s a tough kid, but is seemingly in battle mode almost from pitch one in every single start. That simply has to take a toll. League average would seem to be his ceiling at this point, and without turning around those K and BB trends, it might be tough to get there.

Colby Lewis is playing with fire. Through most of his career, he has relied upon a very high pop-up rate to mute the effects of loud fly-ball contact. Last year, his pop-up rate percentile rank collapsed to a career-low 52. His previous low was 91. He saved himself by improving his fly-ball authority allowed from poor to the bottom of the average range, and cutting his already solid BB rate. I wouldn’t count on a repeat performance from one of the poorest contact managers of his generation. Significant bust potential here.

I am not nearly as bullish as many others on Andrew Heaney, a pitcher I loved as an amateur. In many ways, he looked like a Colby Lewis starter set last season. His spacious home park and some guy named Mike Trout in center field helped mute the effects of extremely loud FLY/LD contact, second hardest in the AL to Alfredo Simon. His K and BB rates are already in the league-average range, but will need to be better than that to absorb such authoritative contact. I see mid-rotation upside at best.

Next up, in my next two articles, we’ll explore relief pitchers’ contact-management abilities. Sure, sample sizes are small, but I’d bet there will be some interesting nuggets to be found.

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6 years ago

Great stuff