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

The NCAA Final Four is set, and we’re inside a week until baseball games actually start to mean something. Today, we’ll reach the halfway point of our ball-in-play-based analysis of 2015 starting pitcher performance. Yesterday, it was the NL Central. Now, the NL 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 – NL West
Kershaw 84.91 89.47 83.07 2.7% 25.5% 21.8% 50.0% 88 33.8% 4.7% 55 51 56
Greinke 87.78 91.04 86.02 3.1% 29.8% 19.1% 48.0% 76 23.7% 4.7% 43 71 64
Bumgarner 87.46 90.80 85.46 4.3% 31.3% 22.7% 41.7% 92 26.9% 4.5% 75 74 70
T.Ross 87.79 90.13 86.55 2.0% 17.9% 18.6% 61.5% 79 25.8% 10.2% 84 76 73
Ch.Anderson 88.52 91.59 87.00 3.6% 30.8% 23.6% 42.0% 94 17.3% 6.3% 110 106 94
Bettis 88.06 92.09 85.67 1.4% 27.1% 22.2% 49.3% 95 19.5% 8.4% 108 99 95
R.Ray 90.50 91.77 90.24 2.2% 32.4% 22.2% 43.3% 105 21.8% 9.0% 90 91 99
Heston 89.25 92.84 86.64 2.5% 23.5% 21.0% 53.0% 99 18.9% 8.6% 101 103 100
Shields 89.69 93.14 86.52 3.5% 30.8% 20.8% 44.9% 117 25.1% 9.4% 100 114 101
Cashner 88.79 92.08 87.09 2.7% 27.2% 22.7% 47.4% 106 20.5% 8.2% 111 99 101
Kennedy 89.73 92.44 87.13 3.0% 35.7% 22.8% 38.5% 121 24.4% 7.3% 110 116 101
B.Anderson 88.98 93.65 86.70 0.4% 18.1% 15.2% 66.3% 98 15.5% 6.1% 95 101 102
Bolsinger 88.41 91.70 86.79 1.3% 27.8% 17.8% 53.1% 105 21.0% 9.7% 93 100 102
De La Rosa, J. 86.07 90.84 83.67 1.2% 26.1% 20.7% 52.0% 104 21.1% 10.2% 107 107 103
Despaigne 87.41 90.40 85.69 1.7% 25.4% 22.4% 50.5% 96 12.6% 5.9% 149 122 105
De La Rosa, R. 89.13 90.55 88.30 2.4% 30.4% 18.1% 49.1% 107 18.5% 7.8% 120 123 106
Hellickson 90.14 93.64 87.19 1.5% 35.0% 21.1% 42.4% 112 19.0% 6.8% 118 114 107
Vogelsong 88.34 92.78 85.48 2.1% 34.0% 19.2% 44.7% 104 18.1% 9.7% 120 116 109
Rusin 88.60 92.64 85.62 2.7% 24.5% 20.8% 52.1% 109 14.5% 6.9% 137 121 116
Collmenter 86.12 91.84 79.40 5.2% 34.8% 25.6% 34.5% 121 12.6% 4.8% 97 119 128
Kendrick 89.70 93.37 86.46 2.7% 36.5% 22.0% 38.8% 127 12.7% 7.2% 162 157 140
AVERAGE 88.35 91.85 86.03 2.5% 28.8% 21.0% 47.8% 103 20.2% 7.4% 104 104 99

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.

Clayton Kershaw remains the gold standard to which all MLB starting pitchers are compared. The table above shows why: he’s at the elite level in all facets of pitching. His 2015 K rate was over two full standard deviations above league average, his BB rate over one full STD below. He’s an exceptional contact-manager as well, suffocating overall contact authority to over two STD below the league average while running a solidly above-average grounder rate. He’s capable of even better; his 2013-14 Adjusted Contact Scores were even better at 79 and 75, thanks to better pop-up and liner rates. He’s the best.

Traditional ERA says that Zack Greinke was even better than Kershaw in 2015. While he was superb last season, later parlaying it into a mega-payday from the Diamondbacks, there are many indicators that show Greinke was performing at the extreme outer edge of his range of possibilities. His K/BB ratio has always provided a strong foundation to his game, though his K rate has begun to a soften a bit, dropping from the 92nd to 73rd percentile in 2015. His BIP frequency and authority data is pretty vanilla. His biggest 2015 strength was a very low liner rate, which is very unusual for him: after six straight seasons higher than average, including the last two in the 92nd percentile, it dropped to the 17th in 2015. An Adjusted Contact Score in the 90-95 range would be much more consistent with his true talent. Greinke just had his career year, and won’t be in the Cy Young discussion in 2016.

Madison Bumgarner is the clear No. 2 NL West starting-pitching talent. His 2015 BB rate was even lower than Kershaw or Greinke’s, and his K rate was the best among mere mortals in the West, in the 87th percentile. He has begun to morph into a fly-ball pitcher in recent seasons, but for the first time, Bumgarner developed a pop-up tendency last season, with a pop-up rate in the 82nd percentile. It’s very reasonable to expect Bumgarner to be even better in 2016; his otherwise solid 2015 contact-management performance was somewhat undermined by a high liner rate, in the 80th percentile. That’s the first time this very volatile figure has been higher than average in his career, and regression in his favor should be expected.

Very quietly, Tyson Ross has evolved into one of the best starting pitchers in the game. He’s a ground-ball machine: his grounder rate was in the 97th percentile in 2015, his third straight year in the 90s. His highest liner-rate percentile rank over that span is 24; it was 13 in 2015. In Ross’ case, I wouldn’t expect regression; preventing sweet-spot contact is one his core true talents. If only Ross can cut into his BB rate, which has plenty of room for cutting. The lessons of Justin Masterson are my only concern. Extreme grounder guy with unorthodox arm slot/action: which comes first, injury or improved command? I’m still bullish on Ross, and still believe we have yet to see his best.

You might be surprised to see Chase Anderson, who was dealt to the Brewers in the offseason, this high on the list. First, it must be noted that there is a huge “tru” ERA drop-off from Ross to Anderson. Still, there is plenty of reason to believe that Anderson is a better pitcher than his traditional 2015 ERA suggests. His K/BB ratio is pretty much average, so he’ll be as good as his contact-management skills allow. His pop-up rate has ranked in the 73rd percentile in both 2014 and 2015, so that’s a positive. His authority allowed was pretty close to average across the board, and positive regression should be expected from his liner rate, which was way up in the 92nd percentile in 2015. Why was his “tru” ERA so much better than his ERA or FIP? Well, hitters recorded a .290 AVG and.345 SLG against him on the ground, but should have hit only .256 AVG and .280 SLG based on authority allowed. He’s a high-floor, modest-upside guy.

The Rockies may have finally developed a starting pitcher who can have success at the altitude of Coors Field. Chad Bettis‘ grounder rate was in the 67th percentile in 2015, and minor-league indicators suggest it might be capable of moving even higher. His BB rate is below average now, but also projects to be at least average moving forward. Bettis has also shown the ability to manage authority of all BIP types to around a near league-average level, no small feat in Colorado. Bettis and Jorge de la Rosa, who we’ll cover below, give the Rockies a potentially viable combo at the top of their rotation; it’s been awhile since that could be said.

Given his BIP frequency and authority mix, Robbie Ray was a pretty fortunate guy in 2015. His average authority allowed was actually the highest in the division, and the combination of relatively high fly-ball and liner rate and very high grounder authority is a dangerous one. That said, in the long term, his K/BB profile should be good enough to withstand slightly below-average contact-management ability, making him a viable mid-rotation presence in Arizona.

“How do the Giants do it?” many ask whenever they plug a pitching hole with a Yusmeiro Petit or a Chris Heston? Heston rode a high grounder rate, in the 83rd percentile and a general lack of glaring weaknesses to a league-average performance in his age-27 rookie season. He did allow fairly loud authority on the rare occasions the ball was elevated against him, but generally got away with it in spacious AT&T Park. Expensive free-agent reinforcements have been brought in, so less will be expected from Heston this time around, so he’ll likely slide easily into the departed Petit’s rotation insurance role.

The Padres suffered through a disappointing 2015, and much of it was due to the club’s subpar defense. Their starters’ (outside of Ross’s) contact-management skills also played a part, however. James Shields has always ridden a strong K/BB profile to his success, masking below-average contact-management skills. In 2015, his previously reliable BB rate doubled, and his tendency to allow harder-than-average fly-ball contact remained in place. If the high BB rate was a one-year fluke, Shields can still be an above-average starter; however, his cumulative innings load coupled with the higher BB rate makes me wonder if an underlying injury is beginning to surface.

I still wonder if Andrew Cashner wouldn’t be best utilized as a reliever. Despite a high-octane fastball, Cashner continues to run slightly below league average K rates. He also allows the ball to be squared up quite regularly; his liner rate percentile rank was 79 in both 2014 and 2015. Otherwise, his frequency and authority profile is unremarkable. For Cashner to reach his potential, he needs to strike out hitters at a much higher rate; that simply is not going to happen in the rotation.

Ian Kennedy takes his fly ball-laden act to Kansas City in 2016. That elevated 121 Adjusted Contact Score is no fluke; he has ranked among MLB’s worst in that category in 2013-14 as well, at 114 and 117. He’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher, with fly-ball-rate percentile ranks of 85 or higher in three of the last four seasons, including 2015. In addition, he allows tons of liners, with liner rate percentile ranks of 71, 93 and 82 the last three seasons. The fly balls he allows tend to be well struck, to make matters worse. The good news? He now has Lorenzo Cain and friends to catch some of them, unlike the three-ring circus behind him in San Diego. I wouldn’t expect a big move in his “tru” ERA, though the Royals defensive support could bring his traditional ERA and FIP into line with it. Until his K rate tapers off, at least; then all bets are off.

Mike Bolsinger certainly deserves a mention, especially since Brett Anderson’s injury is certain to increase his usage. A strong grounder rate (in the 84th percentile in 2015) is his best trait, but his performance last season was propped up by an unsustainably low liner rate (seventh percentile). His high BB rate is a limiting factor, and a repeat of his surprisingly good 2015 K rate shouldn’t be expected. He represents decent rotation insurance, but league-average performance is likely a bit out of Bolsinger’s reach moving forward.

When healthy, Jorge de la Rosa has been a stabilizing force to the Rockies’ rotation for many years now. He deserves a medal, and should be used as a prototype for the desired profile sought by the club’s front office. Most importantly, altitude has no effect on ground balls. de la Rosa’s grounder-rate percentile ranks have been 75, 76 and 81 in 2013-15. He also has traditionally managed authority levels of all types of contact, avoiding disaster in the air, a must in his home park. His walk rate has always been higher than league average, and at his age, it likely is what it is. Still, his 104 Adjusted Contact Score doesn’t reflect his true ability level. Expect a 95-100 mark in 2015, which should be in line with his “tru” ERA. That’s huge in Coors.

Rubby de la Rosa’s profile is all over the place. Manages contact well in the air, but allows the ball to be scalded on the ground, where he allows it to be hit most often. On balance, I’m not too optimistic. He was better than his traditional ERA and FIP last season, but an extremely low liner rate, way down in the ninth percentile, was the primary reason, and that’s ripe for significant regression. There’s ability here, but I surmise that it might be best accessed out of the bullpen.

Jeremy Hellickson takes his fly ball-inducing ways to Philadelphia in 2016. He’s basically a poor man’s, low-K version of Ian Kennedy, which isn’t a great thing. He’s always allowed plenty of fly balls, many of them well struck. Unfortunately for him, his long-time pop-up tendency dried up in 2015, his pop-up rate dropping into the 18th percentile in 2015 from the 88th in 2014. He and the player immediately beneath him on the table, Ryan Vogelsong, are the only two players with materially above-average fly rates and materially below-average pop-up rates. Hence, their low overall rankings. I wouldn’t be surprised by a subtle bounce-back from Hellickson in 2016, related to regression in the pop-up rate. He’ll give the Phils the competent innings they need.

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

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I’m loving these write ups. I just wish you hadn’t posted them after all of my fantasy drafts.