2015 Starting Pitcher Ball-in-Play Retrospective – NL Central

Over the last few weeks in this space, we took a position-by-position look at the ball-in-play (BIP) profiles of 2015 regulars and semi-regulars to gain some insight into their potential performance moving forward. As I wrote the following, snow fell outside my window in blatant disregard for the dawn of baseball season. Regardless, we continue our similar BIP-centric analysis of qualifying 2015 starting pitchers, division by division. We began with NL East starters. Today’s second installment focuses on the NL Central.

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 – NL Central
Arrieta 84.89 88.56 82.79 2.1% 20.7% 21.0% 56.2% 73 27.1% 5.5% 45 60 58
Lester 87.44 91.15 85.87 2.5% 26.8% 21.8% 48.9% 91 25.0% 5.7% 86 75 76
J.Garcia 87.88 92.01 85.92 1.1% 21.2% 16.5% 61.2% 81 19.0% 5.9% 62 77 79
Hendricks 88.24 91.05 87.22 2.4% 24.5% 21.8% 51.3% 91 22.6% 5.8% 101 86 80
G.Cole 89.08 91.69 86.86 1.8% 27.8% 22.4% 48.0% 99 24.3% 5.3% 67 68 81
C.Martinez 87.63 91.79 85.99 1.7% 23.7% 20.1% 54.5% 91 24.4% 8.3% 77 82 81
F.Liriano 86.36 90.48 84.08 2.5% 23.9% 22.4% 51.2% 99 26.5% 9.1% 87 82 84
Fiers 88.51 91.60 85.65 5.3% 36.8% 20.3% 37.6% 96 23.7% 8.4% 95 103 87
Lackey 88.59 90.95 88.04 3.9% 29.5% 20.6% 46.0% 96 19.5% 5.9% 71 92 91
Hammel 89.02 92.20 85.68 1.5% 35.7% 24.5% 38.3% 112 24.2% 5.6% 96 94 92
Haren 88.54 91.85 86.51 5.4% 43.8% 20.2% 30.6% 94 17.2% 5.0% 92 118 92
Wacha 87.48 91.62 85.94 3.6% 28.4% 22.2% 45.8% 95 20.1% 7.6% 87 99 92
Cueto 87.27 90.32 85.58 4.3% 31.3% 21.8% 42.5% 105 20.3% 5.3% 88 91 95
DeSclafani 89.10 92.07 87.39 3.4% 30.3% 21.2% 45.1% 101 19.2% 7.0% 104 94 97
Locke 87.21 90.70 85.61 1.5% 23.4% 24.1% 51.0% 96 17.5% 8.2% 115 101 100
Lynn 88.96 91.86 88.72 3.2% 31.0% 21.6% 44.2% 107 22.2% 9.1% 78 88 100
J.Nelson 86.62 90.74 84.48 3.1% 26.3% 20.0% 50.6% 102 19.7% 8.6% 105 105 101
Burnett 90.48 94.10 88.84 2.0% 22.1% 22.5% 53.4% 113 20.5% 7.0% 82 86 105
Jungmann 87.64 91.94 84.67 2.4% 30.7% 20.6% 46.3% 110 21.4% 9.4% 97 101 105
Leake 89.64 92.98 87.23 2.2% 24.4% 21.6% 51.8% 111 15.3% 6.3% 95 108 114
Morton 89.99 94.09 87.72 2.0% 19.5% 21.2% 57.3% 102 17.1% 7.3% 123 107 117
Garza 88.27 91.05 87.61 4.3% 28.6% 22.1% 45.0% 111 15.6% 8.6% 144 127 120
Lohse 88.20 92.44 84.26 3.0% 35.2% 23.3% 38.6% 122 16.2% 6.5% 150 131 123
W.Peralta 89.79 93.96 87.11 1.9% 26.5% 19.9% 51.6% 122 12.6% 7.7% 121 124 136
Lorenzen 88.78 91.11 86.55 1.9% 29.3% 28.2% 40.5% 128 16.1% 11.1% 138 138 139
AVERAGE 88.22 91.69 86.25 2.8% 28.1% 21.7% 47.5% 102 20.3% 7.2% 96 98 98

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.

Jake Arrieta’s line is even better than it looks. His overall and fly ball/line drive authority allowed were over two standard deviations lower than average. He was excellent across the board, maintaining stellar K and BB rates while posting the lowest Adjusted Contact Score in the league, earning him NL Contact Manager of the Year honors. Many of the planks of his breakout season should carry forward: he’s a high-K, low-BB, ground-ball generator, and that’s about as ideal a combination as there is. Only a couple caveats: the track record of 29-year-old first-time ERA qualifiers is not great, and continued extreme squelching of fly-ball authority shouldn’t be expected. A healthy Arrieta should be one of the best pitchers in the NL in the intermediate term, but 2015 will go down as his career year.

Jon Lester’s strong 2015 campaign was lost in Arrieta’s considerable shadow. His BB rate dropped considerably in 2014, and his relatively newfound high-K, low-BB status provides a strong foundation and gives him some margin for error with regard to contact authority allowed. He needs it, as his frequency profile is unremarkable, lacking a go-to pop-up or grounder tendency, while he has allowed an average-or-better liner rate in three of the last four seasons. Lester performed near the upper boundary of his range of capabilities in 2015, as he limited hitters to lower-than-average fly-ball authority. His decline phase will track the deterioration of his K and BB rates; he’s a strong K/BB guy with average to slightly above-average contact-management ability.

Oh, if Jaime Garcia could only stay healthy. Hardly anyone induces more grounders; his grounder rate was in the 98th percentile in 2015, and has been in the 88th percentile or higher every single year since 2010. His liner rate allowed was over two STD below league average last season, way down in the thirrd percentile. That, obviously, is bound to regress a bit. The negatives? Well, he hasn’t pitched enough innings to qualify for an ERA title since 2011. One shouldn’t expect quantity out of Garcia, but on a per-inning basis, he’s one of the more reliable contact managers in the NL and a well above average starter overall.

Want to talk about an underrated starter? How about Kyle Hendricks. He totally transformed himself in his first full season in the Cubs’ rotation, dramatically increasing his K rate and morphing from a pop-up generator to a grounder inducer. Doing it the second time around separates the men from the boys, but Hendricks would seem to have above-average core skills in both the K/BB and contact-management components of pitching, giving him a high floor and a considerable ceiling, albeit one which he may have reached in 2015.

Pretty strong starting-pitching division, wouldn’t you say, when Gerrit Cole is the fifth guy mentioned. Cole was noted for allowing very loud contact as an amateur despite his elite stuff. He still has work to do, but has come a long way under the Pirates’ tutelage. Can’t say I thought he’d ever be a league-average contact manager. His K/BB foundation is formidable: his BB rate was over a full STD better than league average, and his K rate is strong and has more upside. Cole still allows hitters to square up the ball; his liner rate allowed was in the 77th percentile in 2015, and has been higher than average in each of his MLB seasons. Still, his overall authority allowed remains in the average range. Expect continued enhancement on the contact-management front; if he can become even a 90 contact manager, we’re looking at 70-75 “tru” ERAs, and potential Cy Young seasons.

The Cards need Carlos Martinez to take the next step toward stardom in 2016, with Garcia’s health always in question and Lance Lynn on the sidelines following Tommy John surgery. Though Martinez’ 2015 ended early due to a shoulder injury, he sure looked good beforehand. His evolution from thrower to pitcher has been a quick one; all that’s left is for Martinez is to further reduce his BB rate into the average range. He’s a grounder machine — his GB rate was in the 87th percentile in 2015 — and that combined with his high K rate portends excellence. He’s capable of posting Adjusted Contact Scores in the 80s or better, and with an improved BB rate, can be a 70-75 “tru” ERA guy and Cy Young candidate.

Kudos to the Pirates for recognizing the underlying strengths of Francisco Liriano. Yes, he’s always going to walk guys, but man, he misses tons of bats and racks up the weak contact, especially on the ground. His overall authority allowed has been over a full STD weaker than average in each of the last three seasons, despite high liner rates in the 70th percentile or higher in three of the last four seasons. He doesn’t just induce grounders, many of them are topped straight into the dirt. He’s better than a 99 Adjusted Contact Score pitcher. Expect a 90 or better, making a sub-80 “tru” ERA a very real possibility.

Mike Fiers moved on from the division in the Carlos Gomez deal, and is now an Astro. He’s tended to pitch beyond his stuff, relying upon a surprisingly good K/BB foundation and an elevated pop-up rate. His K and BB rates have both started to come under a little strain, affording him less margin for error with regard to contact management. His low pop-up rate is very real, in the 86th and 91st percentile in his two years as a qualifier. This also means high fly-ball rates, which can be a problem when he’s missing his spots, which he’s done a bit more in recent seasons. He’s survived while pitching in a couple tough home parks for fly-ball pitchers, but his command has begun to waver. Fiers’ decline could be a swift one, and I’m wary of him in 2016.

John Lackey is one durable cat. He takes the ball every fifth day, and does just about everything in the league-average range. He retains one big plus: a solidly lower than league average walk rate. His BIP mix is unremarkable, save for a subtle pop-up tendency which has come and gone in recent seasons. He’s about as average a contact manager as you’ll find. There is nothing in his profile to discuss a near-term implosion; his decline will be slow and steady, and most likely tied to deterioration of his K and BB rates.

Jason Hammel has his warts, but he’s a pretty darned good fifth starter. His K/BB foundation is strong, but necessary, given his career-long struggles with contact management. He’s developed a fairly significant fly-ball tendency, but hasn’t been able to suppress authority in the air to any significant extent. His liner rate allowed was way up in the 97th percentile last year, and this was nothing new, as it has been in the 72nd percentile or higher each of the last three seasons. You’ll note that no one near him on the list has an Adjusted Contact Score anywhere near as high as his 112; pitchers at that level tend to have to fight for survival. Watch for any breakdown in Hammel’s K rate, as he can’t live without it.

Plenty of people have predicted stardom for Michael Wacha. I am not necessarily among them. He’s as solid as they come, with a very high floor, but to this point there isn’t much in his line that hints at greatness. His pop-up rate was in the 72nd percentile, and he did hold down BIP authority to a respectable level. Wacha’s greatest strength is his lack of weaknesses; he can be a 90 Adjusted Contact Score guy, but he’ll need to enhance his K/BB ratio, most likely by cutting the walks, to truly take a step up in class.

You might be surprised that we’re just now getting around to Johnny Cueto, who will pitch in the NL West this year for the Giants. Cueto’s best years in 2012 and 2014 were marked by exceptional contact management. His 2014 Adjusted Contact Score, for example, was 81. It shot up to 105 in 2015, but the reasons aren’t easy to identify using only the information listed. He’s developed a pop-up and fly-ball tendency in recent years, and in 2015, too many of the fly balls were at relatively low and dangerous launch angles. In addition, his liner rate was in the 10th percentile in 2014, and shot up to the 61st in 2015. All has to go perfectly for Cueto to excel, and his best days are likely behind him. His new home park, however, should lessen the blow, and allow him to improve upon his 2015 performance.

Anthony DeSclafani was average across the board in his rookie season. And there’s nothing wrong with league average, especially when pitching for a sinking club that was trading off assets. It’s hard to see any seeds of potential excellence, though his pop-up rate did rank in the 67th percentile. His floor is reasonably high, however, and 180 league-average innings are nothing to sneeze at.

Jeff Locke, Jimmy Nelson, Charlie Morton and Wily Peralta are all of similar stripes. All are significant ground-ball generators, posting grounder-rate percentile ranks from the 70s to, in Morton’s case, the 90s. Even with such tendencies, you need to whiff at least 16-17% of hitters to survive. Locke has done a nice job, slightly improving his K and BB rates annually to get to his 2015 level. Nelson likely has the best upside of the group: his K rate is highest, his BB rate should improve, and his overall contact-authority management was quite strong in 2015. Morton has always been a grounder machine, and prior to 2015, his authority management was strong as well. He was a solid buy-low acquisition by the Phillies and has league-average upside. Peralta’s 2015 K rate drop was alarming, and while that can be attributed at least in part to injury, he’s been hit very hard this spring while missing few bats.

Mike Leake deserves his own section, as he was guaranteed major bank by the Cards during the offseason. Leake isn’t going to strike out people, though he won’t walk them, either. His K rate has dropped, however, while the league average has increased, and was in the 19th percentile last season. While he is a grounder guy, he didn’t allow much weak contact last season. Here’s one for you: Leake allowed a .172 AVG and .181 SLG on grounders in 2015. Based on authority allowed, he “should” have allowed .272 AVG-.297 SLG. More than anything else, that’s the difference between his 95 ERA- and 114 “tru” ERA-. League average is his ceiling.

Want a recently unlucky guy likely to bounce back in 2015? How about Matt Garza? Don’t get me wrong, he’s in decline, as evidenced by his deteriorating K and BB rates. Still, he has a very strong pop-up tendency, in the 83rd percentile last season, and his liner rate percentile rank leapt from 19 in 2014 to 70 in 2015, and should regress somewhat. Garza actually had a 74 Adjusted Contact Score in 2014, best in the NL. He’s not that guy, but he’s not Mr. 144 ERA-. either. League-averageness in 2016 wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

We hoped you liked reading 2015 Starting Pitcher Ball-in-Play Retrospective – NL Central by Tony Blengino!

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this is very cool stuff, Tony. Thank you