2016 Hitter Contact-Quality Report : AL First Base and DH

The 2016 season is in the books, and the Hot Stove is already heating up big time. Over the last week or so, we’ve used granular data to evaluate the performance of qualifying starting pitchers in both leagues. Today, we begin to turn our head toward the position players.

We begin by looking at the primary first basemen and designated hitters from the AL. Players 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:

AL 1B BIP Profiles
M.Cabrera 94.5 94.9 97.5 92.8 1.7% 33.8% 22.7% 41.7% 200 17.1% 11.0% 152 204 37.8%
H.Ramirez 91.3 91.7 95.5 90.5 3.9% 29.0% 18.8% 48.4% 133 19.4% 9.7% 127 133 37.9%
Mauer 90.1 93.0 93.5 86.7 0.0% 21.3% 26.8% 51.9% 108 16.1% 13.7% 102 128 30.8%
C.Davis 92.0 94.4 94.9 86.8 2.6% 41.1% 19.8% 36.5% 172 32.9% 13.2% 111 121 41.7%
Hosmer 93.4 93.0 98.0 92.2 1.5% 23.2% 16.5% 58.9% 118 19.8% 8.5% 101 116 36.1%
Cron 89.9 90.5 93.5 87.4 5.6% 33.6% 19.6% 41.2% 116 16.9% 5.4% 115 115 33.5%
J.Abreu 90.1 89.5 93.7 89.7 3.7% 29.6% 21.3% 45.5% 115 18.0% 6.8% 118 114 36.0%
Moreland 91.3 92.2 96.1 88.6 4.1% 33.3% 21.1% 41.5% 130 23.5% 7.0% 87 112 44.7%
Napoli 90.6 95.1 93.3 83.7 6.5% 38.6% 18.5% 36.4% 139 30.1% 12.1% 113 110 47.6%
Smoak 92.2 92.4 96.6 88.2 3.2% 39.0% 27.3% 30.5% 132 32.8% 11.7% 90 96 41.7%
Alonso 88.8 87.3 95.1 87.1 2.5% 30.8% 22.5% 44.1% 81 13.9% 8.5% 88 96 39.8%
Morrison 91.5 91.9 99.3 87.9 3.8% 30.9% 21.1% 44.2% 99 22.4% 9.3% 101 95 50.0%
Lind 92.2 92.7 97.2 90.4 3.5% 32.5% 20.1% 43.9% 100 20.7% 6.0% 92 94 39.5%
Teixeira 89.0 91.0 92.7 86.3 4.2% 31.0% 21.5% 43.3% 90 24.0% 10.7% 76 88 52.1%
M.Gonzalez 89.8 92.5 93.1 87.0 2.6% 29.4% 20.6% 47.4% 95 22.8% 4.2% 87 81 50.7%
AVERAGE 91.1 92.1 95.3 88.4 3.3% 31.8% 21.2% 43.7% 122 22.0% 9.2% 104 114 41.3%

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.

The players at whom we’re looking today are largely of the offense-first variety: there is very little blue and black in the two tables. Each player is being compared to the league average across all positions, not the positional average. Hence, the preponderance of orange and yellow in the authority columns.

We start with Mr. Gold Standard, Miguel Cabrera. His profile is as close to perfection as one can get. You want authority? He clubs each BIP type at over one STD above league-average exit speed and, overall, his average exit speed is over two STD above. The 2016 season represents his seventh straight year meeting that last criteria. Simply amazing.

You want a strong BIP mix? Miggy is one of those rare guys who cranks out liners year after year, and he maintains a low pop-up rate despite hitting a solid share of fly balls. Oh, and he rarely strikes out while walking a lot. Perfection. Cabrera’s actual numbers were thwarted by the spacious middle third of Comerica Park’s outfield. His Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 166 is propelled upward to 245 by adjusting for context, leading this hard-hitting positional group. No, he doesn’t get any leg hits, but he keeps infield defenders honest by spraying the ball around, hard. He remains the best hitter in baseball, and barring injury, will have a long, extremely productive decline phase.

Hanley Ramirez found a new position and rediscovered his offensive game in 2016. Fenway Park dramatically inflates fly-ball production, which doesn’t do Ramirez a world of good. He was actually a bit lucky on fly balls this season, with his Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score being marked down from 169 to 155 for context. He hits his liners (113 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounders (135) very hard as well, uses all fields, and maintains a solid K/BB ratio, resulting in a strong overall profile.

There’s a fairly substantial difference between Joe Mauer’s wRC+ and Adjusted Production. Mauer batted an amazingly low .146 AVG-.170 SLG (39 Unadjusted Production) on the ground; he wasn’t quite an extreme grounder-puller, so that figure was adjusted upward to 93, the level supported by his authority. Mauer’s K and BB rates are superb, and he hit exactly zero pop ups, which gives him a very high floor. His fly-ball (89), liner (97) and grounder (93) Adjusted Contact Scores are all below average, but his BIP mix is exceptional. He’s another guy who churns out liners year after year. His traditional numbers will be better in 2017.

Chris Davis is the first of seven AL first basemen docked for an extreme grounder-pulling penalty. He’s an interesting cat, in a lot of ways. He crushes the ball in the air the other way, but almost never hits grounders there. He hits tons of fly balls, but rarely pops up. Of course, he is a strikeout machine. Even with the grounder penalty, Davis’ overall Adjusted Production (172) is easily second best among AL first basement. He absolutely needs to post such a number given his stratospheric K rate. He’s nominally above average offensively for his position, while decimating the baseball. What happens when his authority ebbs or his fly rate regresses, even a little? He’s a very high risk, moderate-to-high reward type with little margin for error.

I remain a big-time Eric Hosmer supporter, but at some point he needs to ramp up that fly-ball rate; it’s all that stands between him and greatness. His grounder rate has never been lower than the 77th percentile among AL regulars. He’s hurt by his home park in the air, and was unlucky on liners (94 Unadjusted vs. 119 Adjusted Production), but his BIP type-specific Adjusted Production scores are strong across the board (158 Fly, 141 Grounder). It’s all about BIP mix moving forward. You want a guy who could become an MVP candidate overnight with relatively simple swing adjustments? Here’s your man.

Now we get to our two average-est AL first basemen, C.J. Cron and Jose Abreu. Note the lack of shaded cells in their respective rows of data. For Cron, this is a positive. The two weak spots in his portfolio are his high pop-up and low walk rates. He compensates by making a ton of contact, and using the field well. I don’t see a ton of growth here, but league-average offensive first basemen tend to bat no worse than sixth, even in productive lineups, and offer solid bat value.

Abreu, on the other hand, recently was and still is supposed to be way better than this. Sure, he was really unlucky on fly balls (78 Unadjusted vs. 116 Adjusted Contact Score), but even that 116 mark is puny for an all-bat behemoth like Abreu. Year One, his average overall authority was yello; Year Two, orange; Year Three (i.e. 2016), it was white. That’s not the progression you want. I believe that we have already seen the best of Jose Abreu; once players with his body type begin their decline, it’s hard to turn the boat around.

Six of the next seven first sackers on our list are extreme grounder-pullers. Yes, to simultaneously be an extreme grounder-puller and an above-average offensive first baseman, you must crush the baseball a la Chris Davis. Mitch Moreland was actually way better than his actual numbers in 2016. He was incredibly unlucky on liners; he batted only .514 AVG-.649 SLG (58 Unadjusted Production) on them, though his authority supports a 115 mark. That right there explains the large difference between his wRC+ and his Adjusted Production. He looks like a league-average hitter for his position moving forward.

Mike Napoli is a league-average offensive first baseman headed in the wrong direction. His Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 232 is second to Cabrera among this group, and it carries his entire profile. His K rate is astronomical and he hits his grounders as weakly as Eduardo Escobar. When he does hit the offensive wall, he’ll hit it hard, and it might be soon.

I nominate Justin Smoak’s 27.3% liner rate for Fluke Statistic of the Year. Despite that outlandish number, Smoak’s Adjusted Production checks in at only 96. His K rate is real, and really high, and his fly-ball rate is likely to regress downward a bit. All of this points to potentially significant near-term decline. The Jays are wisely hemming him into a platoon role, which should give him the best chance to succeed.

Watching Yonder Alonso in college, I certainly didn’t foresee him becoming a relatively powerless, contact-only MLB first baseman. Yet, here we are. If Alonso had more speed, he’d be a really nice No. 2 hitter in a weak lineup lacking multiple power threats. As it is, he clogs things up on the bases. To make matters worse, he’s both powerless and an extreme grounder-puller, not a great combination. With such a low K rate, the bar for overall offensive success is low. Trouble is, I still don’t think he can reach it.

Well, Logan Morrison destroys his line drives, harder (121 Adjusted Contact Score) than any other qualifying first baseman. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no reason for a club not to put fewer than three infielders on the right side of the infield when he bats. He hit .120 AVG-.130 SLG (25 Unadjusted Production) on the ground, with no prospect for material improvement. The rest of his profile can’t dig out of that hole.

Are Adam Lind and Logan Morrison actually the same player? There is virtually no difference in their respective authority and frequency profiles. Personally, I like Lind a little better; he hits all BIP types hard, and his 2016 BB rate dip seems a little fluky.

Mark Teixeira had a great career, but the player we saw in 2016 was but a shadow of his former self. He was an extreme grounder-puller from both sides, batting only .124 AVG-.140 SLG (28 Unadjusted Production) on the ground. His actual numbers were a little understated, as his low (76) Unadjusted Liner Contact Score was adjusted upward to 98 for context.

After Plans A and B didn’t work out at first base for the Astros, they turned to Marwin Gonzalez, who is in over his head against this group. For a utility guy, his Adjusted Fly Ball (111), Liner (100) and Grounder (102) Contact Scores are fine. At first base, not enough.

Next up, the DHs:

AL DH BIP Profiles
D.Ortiz 94.2 95.2 99.8 89.9 3.3% 41.8% 22.1% 32.8% 143 13.7% 12.8% 163 170 48.0%
K.Morales 93.9 95.3 97.4 91.0 2.2% 33.5% 20.1% 44.2% 158 19.4% 7.8% 110 150 37.9%
C.Santana 91.6 92.0 96.2 90.5 4.5% 36.7% 16.0% 42.8% 116 14.4% 14.4% 132 146 52.9%
N.Cruz 95.9 97.5 100.5 93.5 3.2% 34.3% 18.1% 44.4% 169 23.8% 9.3% 147 146 40.7%
Encarnacion 91.5 95.0 94.6 87.2 5.1% 36.3% 20.4% 38.2% 131 19.7% 12.4% 134 138 52.2%
Pujols 92.5 93.2 97.0 91.3 3.6% 35.9% 16.6% 43.9% 112 11.5% 7.5% 111 133 47.9%
V.Martinez 90.8 92.9 94.9 86.6 4.7% 34.6% 23.4% 37.3% 120 14.8% 8.2% 120 132 44.6%
K.Davis 92.7 97.1 100.0 86.6 2.1% 38.1% 17.0% 42.7% 161 27.2% 6.9% 123 123 38.6%
P.Alvarez 94.2 96.6 99.7 90.6 5.8% 30.6% 16.5% 47.1% 137 25.8% 9.8% 117 117 46.3%
Sano 93.2 97.1 95.9 87.3 1.9% 43.9% 20.2% 34.0% 188 36.0% 10.9% 107 116 36.3%
Beltran 90.7 90.1 94.9 90.1 4.2% 32.8% 20.9% 42.1% 106 17.0% 5.9% 124 107 47.7%
Gattis 90.0 91.3 94.4 88.3 4.6% 36.4% 17.9% 41.0% 123 25.5% 8.6% 119 105 46.6%
Fielder 89.4 87.9 94.6 88.9 3.0% 34.1% 19.1% 43.8% 96 17.0% 8.6% 65 104 41.2%
Av.Garcia 91.0 91.1 96.2 88.6 1.7% 21.6% 21.7% 55.0% 116 25.4% 7.5% 86 97 36.7%
Dickerson 89.8 91.0 93.5 87.0 5.0% 40.0% 17.5% 37.6% 104 24.5% 6.0% 101 89 32.5%
AVERAGE 92.1 93.6 96.6 89.2 3.7% 35.4% 19.2% 41.8% 132 21.0% 9.1% 117 125 43.3%

Here’s another offense-laden position with lots of yellow and orange — and seven more extreme grounder-pullers. It’s no surprise to see David Ortiz at the top of the heap. An elite K/BB ratio, especially for a power hitter, plus a maxed-out fly-ball rate and strong all-around authority drives his profile. It’s strong enough to withstand an extreme grounder-pulling penalty, highlighted by his puny .167 AVG-.167 SLG (46 Unadjusted Production) on the ground. For those who choose to focus on his loose past association with performance enhancers, please note that his ability to make contact in the first place is what separates him from other contemporary sluggers.

Next comes the DH with the most misleading traditional 2016 statistics, Kendrys Morales. Look at the differences between his Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores: on fly balls (151 vs. 217), liners (83 vs. 116), grounders (86 vs. 137) and overall (109 vs. 158). OK, he’s slow, so the grounder difference might be a little misleading, but he was both hamstrung by his home park and just plain unlucky in 2016. The Blue Jays took note of this, and quickly pounced on him as a free agent. My prediction: a healthy Morales outperforms both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, for far less money, in 2017.

At 116, Carlos Santana’s overall Adjusted Contact Score was well below average for a DH. Posting the lowest K and highest BB rate at the position sure does create a strong foundation upon which to build an all-around game, though. In fact, he could have been even better in 2016 if not for his unusually low liner rate. His K/BB profile and switch-hitter status will keep him around awhile, but his ordinary ball-striking for a DH limits his upside. I don’t see him ever exceeding his 2016 homer output.

Nelson Cruz finally became a primary DH this season, preventing him from giving back much of his offensive output in the field. He massacres the baseball, beating Miguel Cabrera on pure thump, though falling far short to him in terms of BIP mix and K/BB ratio. Cruz’ Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 278 ranks third at his position, and his Adjusted Liner Contact Score of 136 is first by a mile. His hefty grounder authority went mostly for naught, as he too is an extreme grounder-puller. As a DH, a healthy Cruz should have no trouble paying off the rest of his contract in production.

Encarnacion is on the market now, with multiple AL East suitors. He’s a less productive, more extreme version of Cruz. His thump is mostly limited to fly balls: his 202 Adjusted Production in the air is more than competitive in this group, but if his fly-ball rate dips, he’s in trouble. He batted all of .141 AVG-.148 SLG (34 Unadjusted Production) on the ground, and was an extreme puller. His strong K/BB profile is a nice insurance policy that does raise his floor a bit. He’s a slightly above-average DH, with much more down than upside moving forward.

Albert Pujols was quite a bit better than his traditional 2016 numbers. Part of that is ballpark; he batted just .294 AVG-.860 SLG on fly balls, an 86 Unadjusted Contact Score, despite exit speeds supporting a 132 mark. Same thing with liners: 89 Unadjusted vs. 114 Adjusted Contact Score. He also earned an extreme grounder-pulling penalty, though it wasn’t as large as in recent seasons. His K rate is minuscule, lower than any other first baseman or DH we’ve discussed today. He’s nowhere near the guy he was in St. Louis, but based on the granular data, he was a slightly above-average DH this season.

Victor Martinez gets it done much differently than most of these DHs. What they bring in thunder, he brings in consistent craftsmanship. The authority is downright pedestrian in this company, but his very low K rate and high liner rate — something he’s done many times before — gives him an extremely high floor. He’s in decline, but at worst should be able to contribute relatively empty .290-.300 averages in the near term.

Now for three flawed mashers, Khris Davis, Pedro Alvarez and Miguel Sano. Davis nearly matched Cruz in fly-ball and liner authority, though he fell way short on the ground. His 288 Adjusted Fly Ball Production actually nosed out Cruz. He hits a ton of fly balls, but very few pop ups, a really nice combination. He needs every bit of that thunder to carry his horrid K/BB profile and extreme grounder-pulling tendency. His is a volatile mix; he’s a risk-reward type who becomes a star with an improved approach, or potentially disappears with diminished authority. I kind of like his chances.

Alvarez had Khris Davis’ promise once, but hasn’t taken the next step. He destroys each BIP type, but has a poor BIP mix. He has a low fly-ball/high pop-up rate profile, a poor combination. He batted .175 AVG-.188 SLG (53 Unadjusted Production) on the many grounders he hit, and is yet another extreme pull guy. His Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 325 is the best among qualified DHs, but is more a sign of unfulfilled potential than anything else. He can’t possibly hit the ball harder, and is still a somewhat below-average DH.

Then there’s Sano. His profile is downright cartoonish. Very few hitters hit their fly balls harder than their liners, and their liners harder than their grounders, like Sano does. No one hits more fly balls with such a low liner rate. That’s very good. No one strikes out as much. That’s really bad. He’s still a puppy, and new organizational leadership could focus on revamping his approach. Only Miguel Cabrera posted a higher Adjusted Contact Score than Sano’s 188 among AL first basemen and DHs. A lot to like here.

Carlos Beltran wasn’t as good as his traditional numbers this season. He played in two hitters’ parks, and overperformance on fly balls (115 Unadjusted vs. 91 Adjusted Contact Score) and liners (141 vs. 106) caused his wRC+ (124) to greatly exceed his Adjusted Production (107). Someone is going to overpay for the continuation of a decline phase that was obscured by some good fortune in 2016.

Evan Gattis‘ decent authority across all BIP types, high fly-ball rate and poor K/BB profile makes him a solid offensive player compared to the league, but not for a DH. If he can again give the Astros 50-plus games behind the dish moving forward, he’s a clear asset. For a pure DH, a contender needs to do better.

Prince Fielder’s career is over, and it should be noted that he was much better than his awful traditional 2016 numbers. He batted a minuscule .104 AVG-.115 SLG (19 Unadjusted Production) despite not having an extreme pull tendency; part of that is lack of speed, part is extreme misfortune. Alas, when Prince Fielder’s Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score drops to 80 (his unadjusted mark was 46), it’s time to hang them up. Godspeed, Prince.

Avisail Garcia might be 2017’s Mike Zunino: a guy who was clearly rushed to the majors, who either needs a change of scenery or some Triple-A time to relocate his game. There was some bad luck involved in Garcia’s 2016 performance: both his Unadjusted Fly Ball (119) and Grounder (69) Contact Scores fell well short of their corresponding adjusted marks (155, 110) despite the lack of a grounder pull tendency. His biggest issue is his ongoing inability to elevate the baseball. With a league-average fly-ball rate, this guy is pretty productive. He’s also pretty young not to be playing the field, but that’s another issue.

Corey Dickerson hit a ton of fly balls, but didn’t pull the ball enough to tap into his power. In fact, he was even worse than his traditional numbers; Dickerson batted .294 AVG-.330 SLG (155 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground, while the granular data supported a league-average 100 mark. There’s just not enough offensive ability here to successfully project into a DH role.

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6 years ago

You already mentioned, but I wonder if the Jays didn’t see numbers similar to this and come to the same conclusion you did? It’ll be interesting to see if Morakes can actually translate that authority into real production.

Also, Miggy, wow.