Earlier this offseason, I spent some time reviewing the overall contact management performance of AL and NL ERA qualifiers. Exit-speed and launch-angle data was used to determine how pitchers “should have” performed on balls in play, and when the smoke cleared, CC Sabathia and Kyle Hendricks were named the 2016 AL and NL Contact Managers of the Year.
As the offseason progressed, I found myself in a pitch-specific rabbit hole, determining the individual pitches that keyed hurlers’ success, or caused their struggles. Enough interesting data surfaced that I opted to root through every pitcher’s arsenal to determine Adjusted Contact Scores for each of their offerings.
If you haven’t read my previous work on this topic, this is how Adjusted Contact Scores are derived. Each batted ball is placed into a “bucket” based on its exit speed (5 mph increments) and launch angle (> 20 degrees vertical angle = fly ball, 5-20 degrees = line drive, < 5 degress = ground ball). The projected offensive production for each bucket is based on the major-league average for all batted balls in that bucket. Convert everything to run values, compared it league average of 100, and voila, there’s your Adjusted Contact Score.
Today, we’re going to go through that process for every pitch type (with at least 5% of each pitcher’s overall BIP total) thrown by every AL ERA qualifier. Yes, some of the resulting sample sizes are a bit small, but there is still valuable information to be mined. At the very least, we’re able to see the nuts and bolts driving these pitchers’ contact management performances.
The following table will serve as the backbone of our analysis:
Each value in the table above represents the Adjusted Contact Score for each pitch in a hurler’s arsenal, subject to the limits described above. The right-most column lists each pitcher’s overall Adjusted Contact Score.
Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.
In this case, lower numbers are good.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the best and worst qualifying contact managers, as well as some notables in between:
The Top Five (and Ties)
CC Sabathia, Yankees
It wasn’t even close in the battle for top contact-management honors in the AL. Sabathia throttled contact with all four of his offerings last season. His changeup (53) and four-seam fastball (66) Adjusted Contact Scores were the best in their class, his sinker (85) ranked second, and his slider (70) third. There are only three values over two STD better than league average in the table above; Sabathia’s FF and overall values, and Trevor Bauer’s FC value. One big part of his success was a low liner-rate allowed, which is likely to regress moving forward given the volatility inherent to liner-rate frequency. His ability to muzzle contact authority across all BIP types, on all of his pitches — the fly-balls allowed on his changeup were the only of nine possible pitch/BIP type permutations to be hit harder than league average — is a real talent. There will be a “next contract” for the big fella.
Jose Quintana, White Sox
Sabathia and Quintana are the only two AL qualifiers to post Adjusted Contact Scores of 90 or lower on all of their primary pitches. The in-demand lefty’s greatest talent is his ability to manage contact with both his two- and four-seam fastballs. An Adjusted Contact Score of 90 on a four-seamer is a big deal; the AL average Adjusted Contact Score on this pitch among ERA qualifiers was a lofty 113. His 83 Adjusted Contact Score on his two-seamer ranked second among this group. Quintana’s ability to restrict fly-ball authority is extremely notable; he had Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Scores of 56, 75 and 47 on his curve, two-seamer and four-seamer, respectively.
Corey Kluber, Indians
Kluber is one of several pitchers on this list whose offspeed pitches were his best contact-management offerings. He throttled all types of contact with both his curve (65, 63 and 69 Adjusted Fly Ball, Liner and Grounder Contact Scores) and slider (76, 79 and 58). He did allow a great deal of damage on his four-seamer (124 Adjusted Contact Score), which he utilizes much less than most hurlers, in deference to his contact-neutral sinker (104). His contact-management performance has improved materially over the years as he has tweaked his pitch usage preferences.
Doug Fister, Astros
When you strike out absolutely no one, you had better manage contact well to simply survive. Fister tries to keep hitters off balance with a wide repertoire that featured three pitches, his cutter and four and two-seam fastballs, that limited contact quite well in 2016. His pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Scores were better than average on eight of nine pitch/BIP type combinations last season, with his best performances in the key fly-ball category. His changeup did get clobbered, with his 126 Adjusted Contact Score the worst among AL qualifiers on the pitch. He’s still looking for a job, and is at least worth a look for a pitching-hungry club.
Collin McHugh, Astros
Like Kluber, McHugh weathered the damage allowed on his four-seamer (125 Adjusted Contact Score) by significantly limiting authority on his supplementary offerings, his curve (80) and cutter (78). His ability to muffle contact in the air with his curve (49) and cutter (48) was particularly notable. You would never had been able to tell what a strong job McHugh had done managing contact without peeling back these BIP layers; his Unadjusted Contact Score on all BIP — i.e. based on actual results allowed — was a much higher 123. Look for much better mainstream numbers in 2017.
Chris Sale, White Sox
Obviously, he’s now with the Red Sox. The vast majority of Sale’s 2016 contact-management success can be traced back to one pitch, his changeup (66 Adjusted Contact Score). He severely limited contact of all types with his change (Adjusted Contact Scores of 69, 91 and 66 on fly balls, liners and grounders, respectively). His contact-management efforts were in the average range on his other two pitches, due to fairly loud authority allowed on his two-seamer and a high liner rate allowed on his slider.
Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
Lacking a truly dominant contact-management pitch, Tanaka ranks this high on the list in part to a trait he shares with Sale: he doesn’t throw the pitch least likely to limit contact, the four-seamer. Note the average 113 Adjusted Contact Score at the bottom of the table. His splitter (82 Adjusted Contact Score) and slider (88) were his best contact-management offerings. The splitter was so successful due to an outlier-high grounder rate, and while the grounder rate on his slider was much lower, it still was quite high compared to pitch-specific league norms.
The Bottom Five (and Ties)
Michael Pineda, Yankees
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: how good could Michael Pineda be if he was even an average contact manager? Pineda’s actual contact-management numbers, unadjusted for exit speed/launch angle, were much worse at 138. The vast majority of his contact-management issues are due to his inability to precisely locate his four-seamer (136 Adjusted Contact Score). His Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score on his four-seamer was off the charts high at 148. His slider is filthy, missing bats and escaping hard contact, and his changeup shows some promise. Maybe he should throw the latter a bit more.
Hector Santiago, Twins
Pretty narrow repertoire here. Santiago threw his sinker 64% of the time last season, and ran into a lot of trouble with it. He allowed materially more fly balls than grounders on his sinker, which is both quite rare and potentially disastrous. His Adjusted Contact Score on both fly balls (163) and grounders (142) on his sinker was quite scary. On the surface, the trade of the younger Santiago for the older and more expensive Ricky Nolasco was a head-scratcher, but the more I look at it, I like the Angels’ side of it.
Ervin Santana, Twins
As bad as the Twins’ season was last year, imagine what could have been if Santana hadn’t been so lucky. Santana’s Unadjusted Contact Score was a strong 82, but once you drain out the randomness and rely on the exit speed/launch angle data, it balloons to 110. All three of his offerings were similarly mediocre at managing contact, with Adjusted Contact Scores of 111, 110 and 111 for his change, four-seamer and slider, respectively. He induced plenty of grounders on his change, but the fly-ball-contact allowed was thunderous, while he allowed high liner rates on his other two pitches.
Mike Fiers, Astros
There’s some pretty interesting info on Fiers’ line. His curveball was a standout contact-management offering, yielding tons of grounders for that pitch type while thwarting fly-ball authority. He posted an Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 22 and overall score of 63 on his curve ball. He needed every bit of that to survive, as hitters teed off on his most frequent offering, his four-seamer. His overall Adjusted Contact Score on that pitch was a poor 146, third worst among AL qualifiers, driven by a 154 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score on the pitch.
Yordano Ventura, Royals
It feels improper analyzing the late Royal’s 2016 performance, so I’ll keep it short. There was a combination of great promise (66 Adjusted Contact Score on his changeup, featuring a huge grounder rate) and vulnerability (144 Adjusted Contact Score on his four-seamer, driven by a massive 199 mark on fly balls).
Danny Duffy, Royals
Talk about strengths and weaknesses. Duffy’s changeup muted contact almost exactly as well as Ventura’s, with a 67 Adjusted Contact Score. His change didn’t generate as many grounders as others’, but it generated very weak ones, posting a 49 Adjusted Grounder Contact Score. It was batting practice when Duffy threw his two-seamer, the worst individual contact-management pitch on the table above with a 178 Adjusted Contact Score. His fly-ball rate on the two-seamer was quite high, and the authority allowed was quite loud, as evidenced by its 173 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score. From a glass-half-full perspective, how good can Duffy be if he keeps everything else equal and drags his two-seamer fly-ball contact management into the average range?
Rick Porcello, Red Sox
Our 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner. His most frequently used pitch, his two-seamer, absorbed quite a bit of damage, as illustrated by its 123 Adjusted Contact Score. His curve ball compensated, with a 53 Adjusted Contact Score matching the lowest value for any pitch on the above table. The curve shut down both fly ball (65 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounder (45) authority.
Justin Verlander, Tigers
Like Kluber and McHugh above, Verlander (and others like Nolasco) shut down contact with his offspeed pitches to compensate for the damage done to his fastball. His curve ball (62) and slider (66) ranked third and first compared to their peers in contact management among AL qualifiers. He throttled fly-ball authority (39 Adjusted Contact Score) with his curve, while maximizing grounders and minimizing liners with his slider.
Drew Smyly, Rays
Now a Mariner. From a big picture perspective, an 87 Adjusted Contact Score on a given pitch doesn’t seem all that special. When we’re talking about a four-seamer, however, that’s good enough to tie for second best among the 39 AL ERA qualifiers last season. There’s a tenuous balance here, as his fly-ball rate on the four-seamer is quite extreme, but given his 70 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score on the pitch and his move to Safeco Field, Smyly certainly has upside potential.
Trevor Bauer, Indians
Quite the diverse arsenal, as Bauer throws none of his pitches more than 25% of the time. His most frequent offering, however, was his four-seamer, his only below average contact-management offering. It was way, way below average, however, with a 158 Adjusted Contact Score that was driven by an obscene 229 mark on fly balls. Again, the glass-half-full approach: he has multiple strong contact-management offerings in his changeup, curve and especially his cutter, so how good can he be with simply an average four-seamer?
Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays
You might expect to see Stroman and teammate Aaron Sanchez a little higher on this list, given all of the grounders they generate. One big reason is the relatively loud authority they yield on those grounders. Stroman’s grounder rate on his two-seamer was very high last season, but its impact was muted by a high Adjusted Grounder Contact Score of 132. His Adjusted Grounder Contact Scores on both his four-seamer (120) and slider (117) were also well higher than average. If he can tamp down grounder authority, watch out.
David Price, Red Sox
Price was basically a league-average contact manager last season, but could have been quite a bit better if not for a pitch he threw only 9.0% of the time, his knuckle-curve. He yielded a high liner rate on the pitch, and some pretty authoritative fly-ball contact (180 Adjusted Contact Score) as well. Price’s only above average contact-management offering was his filthy changeup (66 Adjusted Contact Score), with which he significantly limited both fly-ball (74) and grounder (56) contact.
In coming installments, we’ll do a similar analysis of 2016 NL ERA qualifiers, and also introduce swing-and-miss data so that we can take an inventive approach to grading out the individual pitches in qualifiers’ arsenals.