A thrilling season and postseason is in the books, and another whirlwind offseason is ready to be set in motion. This would appear to be a good time to take one last look back at 2016 player performance, utilizing granular data to assess pitcher and position-player true-talent levels.
In the coming weeks, we’ll use exit-speed and launch-angle data to show what pitchers and position players “should have” done this season. Starting pitchers are first in the barrel; today, we’ll take a look at AL ERA qualifiers.
Starting pitchers get the job done in various ways. Some excel at bat-missing and/or command; others are more adept at managing contact on balls in play. The very best are able to clear the bar in all areas. Pitchers in the table below are listed in Adjusted Contact Score order. For those of you who have not read my articles on the topic, Adjusted Contact Score is the relative production, on a scale where 100 equals average, that a pitcher “should have” allowed based on the exit-speed and -angle of each ball-in-play yielded. Here goes:
|NAME||AVG MPH||FB MPH||LD MPH||GB MPH||POP %||FLY %||LD %||GB %||ADJ C||K %||BB %||ERA –||FIP –||TRU –|
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-, which incorporates the exit-speed and -angle data. Each pitcher’s Adjusted Contact Score (ADJ C) is also listed. Adjusted Contact Score applies league-average production to each pitcher’s 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 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 player comments.
CC Sabathia is our 2016 American League Contact Manager of the Year. Are you surprised? He actually wins by a country mile. The color-coding actually doesn’t do him any justice. His average authority allowed, both overall and for each major BIP type, is over two full STD lower than average across the board. Only one other qualifying pitcher (Corey Kluber) in only one BIP type (line drives) can make the same claim. That authority suppression is very real. His low liner rate allowed, the second lowest among AL qualifiers, likely isn’t indicative of true talent, and is likely to regress the other way moving forward. Sabathia’s “Tru” ERA- of 77 ranks fourth in the AL, far better than either his traditional ERA or FIP. Mr. Sabathia appears to have successfully reinvented himself as a contact manager, and projects to potentially earn his very high salary once again if healthy in 2017.
Jose Quintana silently rolls on as the most anonymous above-average starting pitcher in either league. His main strength is an utter lack of weaknesses, even small ones. His most identifiable contact-management strength is his propensity to induce can-of-corn, 75-90 mph fly balls. His average fly-ball-velocity allowed was over one STD less than average, and his Unadjusted and Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Scores were 63 and 62, respectively. That adjusted mark was the very best among AL qualifiers.
Corey Kluber is the first legit Cy Young Award candidate we’ll discuss today. He combines an elite K rate, over one STD better than league average, with clearly above-average contact-management performance. This is a major step forward for Kluber, who allowed largely authoritative contact early in his MLB career. The low liner rate should regress moving forward, but his lower-than-average authority allowed across all BIP types is real. His “Tru” ERA- of 74 falls right in line with his traditional ERA and FIP, and is tied for best in the AL. I’d place him second on my hypothetical AL Cy Young ballot.
I’d place Chris Sale first. While he falls just behind Kluber in Adjusted Contact Score and K rate, he’s better in BB rate and pitched more innings, accumulating fractionally more value than Kluber. His average authority allowed was fairly close to average across the board, and his BIP mix lacks glaring strengths or weaknesses. Like his teammate Quintana, the absence of weaknesses is a strength in itself. His K-BB spread is the best in the AL, and that coupled with sound if unspectacular contact management skill is the mark of excellence.
Collin McHugh was way, way better than his traditional ERA in 2016. Only Sabathia and Kluber throttled contact across all BIP types better than McHugh, and his BIP mix and K/BB profile were both solid, lacking weak links. He was one of the unluckiest starters in the game in 2016: his Unadjusted Contact Score on all BIP was an unsightly 123. His Unadjusted vs. Adjusted Contact Scores were out of whack across the major BIP types: fly balls (100 vs. 66), liners (118 vs. 93) and grounders (120 vs. 93). McHugh is a much more valuable asset to the Astros than he might appear on the surface.
Masahiro Tanaka has greatly improved as a contact manager over his tenure with the Yankees. While his authority profile is rather unimposing, he has developed a go-to grounder tendency. He did get a bit lucky on the ground this season, with a 69 Unadjusted Contact Score that was adjusted upward to 104 for context.
Doug Fister is living proof that being a good contact manager doesn’t necessarily make you a good pitcher. His authority suppression ability is absolutely necessary to simply keep him afloat, given his utter inability to strike people out. The rise in his once minuscule BB rate whittles away even further at his margin for error. Unless his K/BB profile bounces back, it’s hard to see him being effective enough to qualify for another ERA title.
Marco Estrada was the 2015 AL Contact Manager of the Year. His Unadjusted Contact Score of 72 ranked second in the AL in 2016, but there was an awful lot of good fortune involved. Hitters batted just .556 AVG-.756 SLG on liners against him, for a 72 Unadjusted Liner Contact Score, though the underlying granular data supported a league-average 100 mark. His extreme pop-up rate and his ability to contain damage in the air — his very high fly-ball rate is a bit scary — keeps him in the above average contact manager category, at least for now.
Rick Porcello might run off with a Cy Young Award he doesn’t deserve any day now. Don’t get me wrong, he had a very nice year. He was helped, however, by very strong team defense, especially in the infield. He allowed just .185 AVG-.204 SLG production on the ground this year, for a 60 Unadjusted Grounder Contact Score, adjusted upward to 89 for context. His overall Unadjusted Contact Score of 77 was very good; his adjusted mark of 95, simply just a bit above average. BB suppression is his only true plus skill, though the development of a stealth pop-up tendency was a positive surprise. Expect his low liner rate to regress the wrong way in 2017. His “Tru” ERA- of 83 ranked sixth in the AL, and his innings bulk materially exceeds only one (Sabathia) of the five hurlers ahead of him.
Carlos Rodon may have turned the corner in 2016. Hitters batted an outlandish .329 AVG-.361 SLG on grounders against the young lefty, for a 190 Unadjusted Grounder Contact Score. Take that air out of his overall numbers and his overall Contact Score dips from an unadjusted 115 to an adjusted 95, and his “Tru” ERA- slots in at 86, among the top 10 ERA qualifiers in the AL. He throttled fly-ball authority, an asset in his cozy home park, and has no glaring BIP mix vulnerabilities.
Martin Perez is the 2016 Rangers personified: how the heck did he/they accomplish what they did? His K rate was incredibly low, barely above his high BB rate. Sure, he induces tons of grounders, but when you allow this many balls in play, it’s not enough. His Unadjusted Contact Scores were adjusted upward for context across all BIP types: fly balls (73 to 110), liners (87 to 104) and grounders (83 to 98). His overall Unadjusted Contact Score was an amazing 74, and while some good Ranger infield defense is part of the reason, there was an awful lot of good fortune involved. He simply must strike out more hitters to survive, let alone thrive.
Justin Verlander is another legit Cy Young candidate. His K rate was the best among qualifying AL starters, and it was supplemented by above-average contact-management skills. He muted authority across most BIP types, and got a bit of help from his spacious home park on fly balls (70 Unadjusted vs. 98 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score). His biggest frequency attribute is his solid pop-up tendency: look for his low 2016 liner rate to regress upward in 2017. Like Sabathia, Verlander has emerged from a difficult career phase intact, and will rely at least in part on contact management as he progresses through his 30s. The very high fly-ball rate is a bit scary, however.
Drew Smyly was a much better pitcher than his traditional 2016 numbers suggest. Hitters batted a ridiculous .331 AVG-.379 SLG (199 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground against him this season. No, this extreme fly-ball guy doesn’t allow that many grounders, but this still pushed his overall Unadjusted Contact Score up to 110, before being adjusted downward to 97 for context. Strong K rate plus extreme pop-up rate plus solid management of fly-ball authority (85 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score) equals one really good starting pitcher. I still believe.
Marcus Stroman remains a work in progress. You have to like his AL-best grounder rate, but he allows some of the hardest grounders in the AL (116 Adjusted Grounder Contact Score). His Adjusted Fly Ball (118) and Liner (108) Contact Scores are also above league average; only his exceptional BIP mix kept his overall Adjusted Contact Score at a league-average 100. If Stroman can maintain his BIP mix while honing his overall authority-suppression skills, he can become one of the league’s best starters.
Many of Stroman’s themes apply to teammate Aaron Sanchez, as well. His grounder rate ranks second to Stroman’s among AL ERA qualifiers, and his overall Unadjusted Contact Score of 70 ranks first. Strong team defense and a heaping helping of luck drove that number, however. His Unadjusted Contact Scores were adjusted sharply upward across all BIP types: on fly balls (from 69 to 125), liners (88 to 105), and grounders (66 to 119). The BIP mix is super, and should key a strong contact-management portfolio if he can moderate authority allowed across the board.
I’m not buying Kendall Graveman as a successful starter over the long haul. Like Martin Perez, Graveman attempts to overcome a very low K rate with a pile of grounders. Hitters batted just .182 AVG-.204 SLG (59 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground against him this year, though exit-speed and launch-angle data supports a much higher 98 mark. This bumps his overall Unadjusted Contact Score of 85 to an adjusted 106, and his “Tru” ERA- up to 115, well above his ERA- and FIP- figures.
J.A. Happ’s exceptional traditional 2016 numbers were a mirage. He allowed harder-than-average authority, his BIP mix was unremarkable, and his Contact Scores were adjusted upward sharply for context across the board: fly balls (73 to 96), liners (80 to 106), grounders (67 to 107), and overall (78 to 107). The good news? Award voters will not reward him for his basic competence. We’ve at least advanced from the point where obviously undeserving pitchers win awards, to where less obviously undeserving ones do so.
Regarding Jered Weaver’s line: this is what happens when extreme fly-ball guys can no longer contain authority in the air. Though his Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 89 was certainly respectable, when that is spread across an enormous number of fly balls, the damage accumulates. He still runs a very high pop-up rate and stifles grounder authority, but it’s tough to overcome three dozen homers or so.
Chris Archer is an incredibly talented young man, but his progress in the contact-management area will determine whether he fulfills his potential. He allows loud contact across all BIP types, and his Adjusted Contact Score might have been way worse if not for a very low liner rate that is likely to regress upward moving forward. His 135 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score was second worst among AL qualifiers to Hector Santiago. Not good. He was very unlucky on the ground, allowing .299 AVG-.309 SLG production (150 Unadjusted Contact Score, adjusted downward to 117 for context). The really good ones eventually figure it out, and Archer has a shot to develop a strong grounder tendency. He’s an intriguing but risky trade target.
Danny Duffy is another strong K/BB guy with a chance to be a much better contact manager in the future. He’s been a strong pop-up generator in the past, but he dropped off in that regard this season. Like Archer, he was very unlucky on the ground, also posting a 150 Unadjusted Contact Score, adjusted down to 104 for context. All those fly balls are a bit scary, but in that park, with that outfield defense, Duffy can enjoy success.
Michael Pineda finished dead last among AL qualifiers with a 113 Adjusted Contact Score. His unadjusted mark was a scary 138, driven by 152 Unadjusted Fly Ball and a 184 Unadjusted Ground Ball Contact Scores. Pineda’s K-BB spread was as awesome as ever, and if he can even become a borderline-average contact manager he’d be a star. Some positive signs: his liner authority allowed was better than league average, and his liner rate is ripe for regression in the right direction.