With the new CBA in place and the Winter Meetings now complete, we continue our ongoing position-by-position look at hitter contact quality. Last time, we examined National League second basemen. Today, it’s American League shortstops in the spotlight. As usual, this analysis utilizes granular exit-speed and launch-angle data as its foundation. As an added bonus, I’ll toss in my take on the Yankees’ signing of Matt Holliday to a one-year deal at the end of the article.
The players below are listed in Adjusted Production order. Adjusted Production expresses, on a scale where 100 equals average, what a hitter “should have” produced based on the exit speed/launch angle of each ball put in play. Each player’s Adjusted Contact Score, which weeds out the strikeouts and walks and states what each player should have produced on BIP alone, is also listed. Here goes:
|NAME||AVG MPH||FLY MPH||LD MPH||GB MPH||POP %||FLY %||LD %||GB %||ADJ C||K %||BB %||wRC+||ADJ PRD||PULL %|
Most of the column headers are self-explanatory, including average BIP speed (overall and by BIP type), BIP type frequency, K and BB rates, wRC+ and Adjusted Production, which incorporates the exit speed/angle data. Each hitter’s Adjusted Contact Score (ADJ C) is also listed. Adjusted Contact Score applies league-average production to each hitter’s individual actual BIP type and velocity mix, and compares it to league average of 100.
Cells are also color-coded. If a hitter’s value is two standard deviations or more higher than average, 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.
It should be noted that individual hitters’ BIP frequency and authority figures correlate quite well from year to year, with one notable exception. As with pitchers, individual hitters’ liner rates fluctuate quite significantly from year to year, for all but a handful of hitters with a clear talent (or lack thereof) for squaring up the baseball.
Projecting performance based on BIP speed/angle opens us up to a couple biases that we didn’t need to address when evaluating pitchers. Pitchers face a mix of pull- and opposite-field-oriented hitters, more and less authoritative hitters, etc. Hitters are who they are each time they step up to the plate, and we must choose whether or not to address their individual tendencies.
I have adjusted the projected ground-ball performance for hitters who meet two criteria. First, they’ve recorded over five times as many grounders to the pull side than to the opposite field and, second, they exhibit a resulting deficiency in actual versus projected grounder performance. Such hitters’ projected grounder performance was capped at their actual performance level. Such hitters’ Adjusted Contact Scores and Adjusted Production figures are in red fonts.
I have decided not to adjust for the other primary factor that can skew actual versus projected performance based on exit speed/angle — namely, player speed. We’re attempting to assess hitter contact quality here; let’s keep speed/athleticism separate. As a result, we’ll see some slow, hard-hitting-to-all-fields sluggers overperform on this metric, and some more athletic players underperform. Contact quality is just part of offensive baseball; let’s attempt to isolate and evaluate it on its own.
There is no red on this table, and precious little orange; shortstop remains a defense-first position overall. Only three AL regulars posted an overall Adjusted Contact Score over 100. There is a huge difference in offensive value between the top and bottom of this list, and many of the good ones are very young, and are only going to get better. Interestingly, there are zero extreme grounder-pullers in this group.
At only 22 years old, Carlos Correa is already clearly the best all-around shortstop in the AL. Physically, he’s a man among boys in this group, and his game is already very polished in many ways. He has the plate discipline of a veteran, and the ball-impacting skills of a young buck. His liner rate has been well above league average in both of his full seasons, so he just might be one of the chosen few that has a knack for squaring up the baseball on an ongoing basis. The one missing piece: he elevates the baseball relatively infrequently. If he can ramp up his fly-ball rate and potentially hit the ball even harder while he continues to fill out, watch out. He has a real chance to put an MVP Award on his mantle in the next three seasons.
Troy Tulowitzki might be a bit of a surprise in the No. 2 spot on this list. The reason is fairly simple: MLB hitters produced a .686 AVG and 2.368 SLG on fly balls hit between 100-105 mph in 2016. Tulo recorded 32 such fly balls and hit only .562 AVG-1.750 SLG on them. His Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score was 116, while his strong authority in the air supported a much higher 164 mark. I do believe that Tulowitzki has peaked; the days of better-than-average K and BB rates seem to be behind him, but he retains the power upside to remain a top-tier offensive shortstop.
Ah, Francisco Lindor. I was with the Mariners the year he was drafted, and fought like a dog to convince our group to cut a deal with him at No. 2 overall. It wasn’t meant to be, however — to the Indians’ ultimate benefit. This is the Derek Jeter starter set, with much better defense. I don’t necessarily ever see Lindor hitting 30 homers, but he’ll hit 20 multiple times, and almost never strike out. He’s the type of player who will eventually provide 120-plus Adjusted Production figures on an annual basis without needing to destroy the baseball. All he’ll need is Adjusted Contact Scores of 100 or so, which is very achievable. He’s getting stronger, will eventually significantly improve his 2016 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 60, and should post at least average liner rates in most years. His tangibles are really good, his intangibles arguably even better.
Apparently, we’re in the Tony Blengino’s draft room favorites part of the article. We took Brad Miller in the second round in Seattle, eliciting a yelp from yours truly. I really believed in the bat, figuring he’d be a high-average, contact-oriented guy with decent power for his position. I didn’t see 30 homers or 149 strikeouts coming, that’s for sure. The biggest issue with Miller is that he may have played himself off of shortstop, maybe even to first base, where the offensive demands are astronomically higher.
That said, his 2016 Adjusted Fly Ball, Line Drive and Ground Ball Adjusted Contact Scores were 146, 113 and 143, respectively. Those figures rank third, first and first, respectively, among this group of shortstops. He hits all BIP types hard. This past season may eventually be his career home-run high-water mark, but don’t be surprised to see the K rate moderate, enabling him to improve as an all-around offensive player. His total value will depend on his eventual defensive home. A jack-of-all-trades role could be in his future.
Like many Red Sox regulars, Xander Bogaerts is helped greatly by Fenway Park. While his average fly-ball exit speed of 90 mph is quite solid, he hit a heaping helping of 85-95 mph flies that are outs in most parks. A bunch of those are wall-scrapers or better in Boston. His Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 124 is marked down significantly to 90 for context. In a development that has nothing to do with Fenway Park, Bogaerts hit .316 AVG-.337 SLG on grounders (172 Unadjusted Contact Score), though his grounder authority supported only a 118 mark. I’m also a bit concerned about his very high pop-up rate vis a vis his ordinary fly-ball rate. Love the youth, love the low K rate, but at this stage Bogaerts doesn’t quite belong in a Correa/Lindor discussion.
Elvis Andrus is a stark example of a high-floor, low-ceiling offensive player. You can basically pencil in his limited-though-respectable BIP authority, very low K rate, and average-range BB rate. His final performance each season basically hinges on his liner rate, and in 2016 he posted a career best in that department. He’s an ultra-durable, solid if unspectacular defender who can be a league-average offensive player in his best year. That’s a really valuable player. He’ll reside in the midst of the shortstop list for a few years before assuming an Erick Aybar-esque exit strategy.
What’s NL third baseman Eduardo Nunez doing here among the AL shortstops? This is where he qualifies. He actually deserves a great deal of credit for grinding it out and making subtle changes to his offensive game that have made him a viable all-around player. He was one of the early poster children for batted-ball metrics, an extreme pop-up guy without the power to drown out the damage those extra free outs can do. With his heaviest single-season workload, Nunez cut his pop-up rate to the upper end of the average range, and became a solid bat for a shortstop and a passable one for a third baseman.
He greatly overperformed on the ground (.339 AVG-.355 SLG, 195 Unadjusted Contact Score, adjusted down to 136 for context), and his Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score was a humble 62, so let’s keep our expectations in check. Still, he turned in his career-best season despite a very low liner rate, so don’t write 2016 off as a fluke.
Marcus Semien is a different version of the power-hitting shortstop model than Brad Miller. He hits tons of fly balls, way more than Miller, and hits his ground balls very weakly, unlike his Tampa counterpart. They have a shared struggle with the defensive aspect of the position. I fail to see material offensive upside for Semien above his current level. His fly-ball rate is maxed out, and his inability to hit the ball hard on the ground should place strain upon his batting average. What he is presently — a power guy who hits fly balls, but not pop ups, at a defensive position — is fine, but this is as good as it gets.
Now for the last of the shortstops with reasonable offensive potential, J.J. Hardy. On the surface, you’d expect much more from Hardy’s line above. He hits the ball harder than Tulowitzki overall, and hits all BIP types reasonably hard. That said, even more than Bogaerts, Hardy is the king of the 85-95 mph fly ball. Thirty-five of his 79 fly balls fell within that range, and most of those, my friends, are outs. Thus, his average fly-ball exit speed is solid, but he gets little from it, besides an Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 60. Plus, he’s the polar opposite of Semien, hitting lots of pop ups despite an average range fly-ball rate. He’s an average-ish offensive shortstop who will gradually fade away as his remaining 95-plus mph fly balls drift down into the donut hole.
We’ve now entered the offensive laggards section of the program. Andrelton Simmons, offensively, is a poor man’s Elvis Andrus, operating in a narrow range between his mediocre ceiling and a pretty low floor. Simmons almost never strikes out, and you can only be so bad with a 7.9% K rate. He pushes the envelope, however, with an amazingly low 26 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score, which is the worst even among this group. Roughly 40% of his fly balls were hit between 80-90 mph, the deadest part of the dead zone. Oh, and he’s never posted an average liner rate. He’s the first of four qualifying shortstops with an overall Unadjusted Contact Score in the 60s (highest of the four at 68). He’s still valuable as long as his glove remains golden. There are marginally worse offensive options out there.
Jose Iglesias, in a sense, is a slightly poorer man’s version of Simmons with the bat. Remember the part where I said I ran out of colors? Well, Iglesias’ overall and liner authority averaged over two full STD lower than league average. On the positive side, he strikes out nearly as infrequently as Simmons, but on the negative, his BIP authority is even weaker overall. His Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score (30) was a bit above his Angel counterpart’s, but his Adjusted Liner (75) and Grounder (84) Contact Scores are even worse. He did manage to lift the ball in the air a little more than in past seasons, but to little avail. He’ll stick around as long as his glove remains elite. Think Rey Ordonez.
Rookie Tim Anderson impacted the baseball significantly harder than most of the shortstops in the nether regions of this list, but was done in by horrific K and BB rates. His raw numbers create the illusion of a respectable season with the bat, but the exit-speed and launch-angle data simply don’t support it. The difference between his Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores is sizable across BIP types: 115 to 94 for fly balls, 130 to 94 for liners, 142 to 96 for grounders, and 128 to 96 overall. Plus, his K and BB rates were awful throughout his minor-league career, as well. Defense, of course, will play into whether he keeps his job over the long haul, but I’m not terribly optimistic about his bat.
You might ask, what on earth is 20-homer guy Didi Gregorius doing so far down on this list? He was helped greatly by his home park, where he curled a number of just-enough homers down the right-field line. His average fly-ball exit speed, as you see above, is quite limited, and his Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score was a meager 38, which has to be a record low for a 20-homer guy. His fly-ball rate is maxed out, his already low BB rate fell through the floor, and only his low K rate keeps him a viable offensive player, even at a defense-first position. Bet on multiple steps backward with the bat for Gregorius in 2017.
Alcides Escobar is yet another low-K, low-BB shortstop who lightly impacts the baseball. Like Iglesias, his overall and liner average exit speeds were over two full STD below average. Though his K rate remains low, it climbed fairly sharply from 11.3% in 2015 to 14.1% in 2016, and his artificially high 2015 liner rate predictably regressed downward. He’s probably not quite as bad as his overall 2016 61 Adjusted Score — the lowest of this light-hitting crop — but is closer to this version than the 2015 model.
Ketel Marte just might have been the single most unready regular in the majors last season. He never walked, K’d quite a bit, and impacted his fly balls over two STD more weakly than the league on average. All of that, plus defensive inconsistency sunk his season. He’s a Diamondback now, and will likely carry a lighter major-league load this time around. Bear in mind, he came in last among this group with Adjusted Production of 62 despite a liner rate at the high end of the average range. Not good.
For those of you who have stuck around to this point, I love the Matt Holliday signing. One year, $13 million for a better hitter than Edwin Encarnacion? Yup, you betcha. I’ve just completed my work on 2016 regulars at all positions, and only Nelson Cruz and Giancarlo Stanton posted higher overall average exit speeds. Despite an insanely low 14.1% liner rate, which is likely to regress sharply upward in 2017, Holliday’s Adjusted Production of 128 far outstrips his wRC+ of 109.
While Yankee Stadium is a hitters’ park for sure, and Holliday will almost certainly hit quite a few opposite-field homers there, he does do a lot of damage to the middle third of the field, which isn’t very inviting in his new home. No matter, a healthy Matt Holliday is a solid bet to have a big year in pinstripes debut.