2016 Hitter Contact-Quality Report: AL Right Fielders

We’re beginning to count down the days to spring training as we enter the latter stages of our position-by-position look at 2016 hitter contact quality. In the last installment, we looked at NL center fielders. Today, our review of regular right fielders gets underway in the American League. As a reminder, we are using granular exit-speed and launch-angle data to determine how 2016 regulars “should have” performed.

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:

AL RF BIP Profiles
NAME AVG MPH FLY MPH LD MPH GB MPH POP % FLY % LD % GB % ADJ C K % BB % wRC+ ADJ PRD PULL %
JD.Martinez 91.9 93.9 95.9 86.4 1.5% 34.7% 21.4% 42.4% 192 24.8% 9.5% 142 159 40.4%
Trumbo 93.9 95.1 97.2 94.1 5.4% 37.7% 17.4% 39.5% 171 25.5% 7.6% 123 138 42.0%
J.Bautista 92.6 93.3 97.6 91.4 7.4% 34.3% 18.8% 39.5% 116 19.9% 16.8% 122 133 52.8%
S.Smith 90.0 94.4 92.9 86.1 3.8% 26.7% 21.6% 47.9% 131 20.3% 11.0% 110 131 43.0%
Betts 90.6 88.3 94.0 92.3 4.8% 34.6% 19.3% 41.4% 100 11.0% 6.7% 135 118 39.7%
Calhoun 90.4 89.5 93.8 90.2 2.7% 37.2% 22.1% 38.0% 103 17.6% 10.0% 118 112 41.8%
Springer 90.3 92.2 97.0 85.6 1.9% 29.6% 20.3% 48.2% 119 23.9% 11.8% 124 112 39.0%
Eaton 89.4 88.5 91.1 89.6 1.4% 24.4% 20.5% 53.7% 91 16.3% 8.9% 115 102 30.7%
Mazara 88.5 87.9 93.7 86.8 2.4% 27.3% 21.4% 48.9% 103 19.7% 6.9% 94 100 37.2%
Souza 90.2 91.3 95.1 86.2 3.4% 30.8% 24.9% 40.9% 154 34.0% 6.6% 94 97 45.6%
Kepler 90.1 86.2 94.5 92.3 2.9% 33.6% 16.3% 47.2% 87 20.8% 9.4% 93 89 44.3%
Orlando 90.7 89.0 93.4 91.1 2.6% 23.2% 21.8% 52.4% 105 21.7% 2.7% 95 88 34.1%
Smolinski 88.7 90.4 93.1 86.6 5.7% 29.4% 22.2% 42.7% 76 13.8% 6.0% 78 85 42.6%
A.Hicks 89.9 90.2 95.9 87.8 3.5% 34.0% 17.0% 45.6% 76 18.8% 8.3% 64 81 45.6%
Chisenhall 86.6 85.0 89.3 88.1 4.7% 36.5% 23.9% 34.9% 75 16.7% 5.5% 103 78 37.6%
AVERAGE 90.3 90.3 94.3 89.0 3.6% 31.6% 20.6% 44.2% 113 20.3% 8.5% 107 108 41.1%

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.

If you’re a regular reader of this series, you might recall that the regular left fielders, especially in the AL, weren’t particularly productive last season. The right fielders swung the bat a bit better, but it’s become eminently clear that the job description of the corner outfielder has changed in recent years. It’s no longer a heavy offense position; defense and all-around play has become more desirable. The AL and NL right fielders were almost equally productive, with the junior circuit a bit more top heavy, the senior circuit a bit deeper.

Our first two AL right fielders are bat-first — or maybe even bat-only — guys. J.D. Martinez will go down as the one huge mistake of the early years of the current Astro regime. He flat mashes, and his actual production is held in check by the middle-third of his spacious home park. He batted “only” .356 AVG-1.089 SLG (134 Unadjusted Production) in the air, while his exit-speed/launch-angle data supports a massive 239 mark. Besides strong across-the-board BIP authority, Martinez’ other primary strength is maintenance of a very low pop-up rate despite a healthy fly-ball rate. This wasn’t a fluke, as he’s now done it three years running. His K/BB foundation isn’t strong, but it is improving. Very quietly, Martinez has become a borderline elite bat.

Ah, Mark Trumbo. I was part of many animated discussions regarding the Oriole slugger in my Seattle days. He has always destroyed the baseball (283, 120, 154 and 171 Adjusted Fly Ball, Liner, Grounder and overall Contact Scores in 2016), been a defensive liability, not hit liners (2016 liner rate percentile rank of 11), and carried unhealthy K and BB rates. What Trumbo has done since his Angel days is significantly increase his fly-ball rate and, by extension, become a greater long-ball threat. The O’s waited him out and gave him a contract more befitting of his one-dimensional skill set. Now, they just have to keep him out of the field.

Talk about waiting out a player. The Blue Jays let Michael Saunders walk, and Jose Bautista drifted back to them on a short-term deal. The long-time Jay is clearly in decline: his K rate has begun to increase and he’s pulling the ball even more in the air, signs of a “harvesting” late-career power hitter. By the barest of margins he avoided an excessive grounder-pulling penalty; that would have knocked his Adjusted Production level down to very close to his wRC+. Bautista has always managed to lug around high pop-up and low liner rates and remain productive thanks to brute force. He’s no longer that guy, as evidenced by his relatively pedestrian 117 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score and his 116 overall mark. The Jays will get only fair return on their investment.

Seth Smith heads east to Baltimore this season. He was by far the unluckiest of the AL right-field regulars last season. His fly-ball (131 Unadjusted vs. 216 Adjusted Contact Score) and liner production (73 vs. 100) both fell well short of the level supported by the granular data. Now, we do need to take a couple grains of salt here. First, Smith is strictly a platoon player. Secondly, he is an extreme ground-ball puller who carries some newfound batting-average risk. In a carefully tailored role, in a more hitter-friendly ballpark, he should be productive in 2017. Plus, his fly-ball rate was unusually low by career standards last season, so a home-run spike could be in order.

I can hear the Red Sox fans groaning already. What is Mookie Betts doing this far down on the list? First, remember that the speed premium of a player’s game isn’t fully reflected by my method, and Betts is way more athletic than the players already mentioned. That said, Betts’ wheels and admittedly solid grounder authority clearly don’t support his actual .345 AVG-.369 SLG (205 Unadjusted Contact Score, vs. 142 unadjusted mark) performance on the ground. The good news? He never strikes out, and hasn’t yet tapped into the magical fly-ball production-enhancing ways of his home park; he only posted a 76 Adjusted Fly Ball Production mark in 2016. His solid grounder authority will prop up his average for now, and some more power should be forthcoming in the next couple of years.

The Angels extended Kole Calhoun for the long term this offseason. There’s nothing truly spectacular about Calhoun, but when you consistently square up the baseball (liner rate percentile rank of 73 or higher the last three seasons) and your K rate is trending sharply downward, you have a great chance to bat .300. There isn’t a ton of upside here, however. He’s an extreme grounder-puller, and his Adjusted Fly Ball (83) and Liner (101) Contact Scores don’t suggest much additional power in the future. He stays healthy, and projects as a nice OBP-centric presence at or near the top of the lineup.

There’s far greater distance between potential upside and downside for George Springer than there is for Calhoun. On the plus side, Springer rips his liners (118 Adjusted Contact Score) and is beginning to do the same to his fly balls (164), and has maintained a very low pop-up rate throughout his brief MLB career. On the down side, he hits his grounders very weakly, and is an easy infield overshift decision due to his excessive grounder-pulling tendency. Without some adjustments, he could be on his way to becoming a just another low-average, high-power guy. His upside remains intriguing, but I’m beginning to temper my expectations a bit.

Adam Eaton switches leagues, going to the Nationals, and back to center field in 2017. He’s living proof that you can be productive without even average batted-ball quality. I call it the Willie Randolph Rule. (Willie is the player with the lowest career Unadjusted Contact Score to also have been an above-average offensive player.) If you have a very strong K/BB foundation, the margin for error with regard to authority/frequency is significant. Eaton hit his grounders fairly well (109 Adjusted Contact Score), but his fly-ball (70) and liner (89) authority was well below average. His ability to use the entire field and make ultra-consistent contact is enough to make him a throwback leadoff man. As a right fielder, he kind of melted in with the crowd offensively; in center field, his offensive package will stand out a bit more.

It was a very successful rookie season for Nomar Mazara. When you’re 21 and not a single aspect of your game can to be pointed to as deficient, you’re in a good place. By the same token, it is unclear as to which, if any, part of Mazara’s game will ultimately stand out. I’m going to take the glass-half-full approach. His BIP-specific Adjusted Contact Scores (Fly Ball 115, Liner 104, Grounder 104, overall 103) were all above average as a 21-year-old rookie, and his fly-ball rate has plenty of room to grow. I think that we’re going to be looking at a 25- to 30-homer guy down the road.

Steven Souza Jr. doesn’t have a lot of colored cells is his line, but the ones that are colored boldly stand out. First and foremost, there’s that unsightly 34.0% strikeout rate, the highest among MLB regulars. It’s almost impossible to be an average or better MLB hitter striking out that often — even when you post a 175 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score and a line drive rate in the 94th percentile, feats both accomplished by Souza last season. His BB rate also moved in the wrong direction last year. I’m not very sanguine about his prospects moving forward; if nothing changes besides the expected regression in his liner rate, he won’t be startable.

It was an uneven but intriguing MLB debut for Max Kepler. He got a bit lucky in the air (84 Unadjusted vs. 48 Adjusted Contact Score), and a bit unlucky on the ground (91 vs. 149), though it all kind of came out in the wash. An upward spike should be expected in his liner rate (percentile rank of 3). I don’t believe he’s quite ready for prime time. His low average fly-ball authority suggests his homer total was artificially high; he’ll be a 20-homer guy someday, but not now. Hopefully the new Twins regime will show patience.

Paulo Orlando stepped up and gave the Royals much more than they ever could have expected last season. That said, they did the right thing by obtaining Jorge Soler and thereby relegating Orlando to a more limited role. He is one of the most walk-averse players in the game, and simply cannot be expected to repeat his extreme performance on grounders (.380 AVG-.426 SLG, 258 Unadjusted Production, vs. adjusted 136 mark). As a fourth outfielder, he’ll be more of an offensive threat than the departed Jarrod Dyson, thanks to his all-fields approach and solid grounder authority.

Jake Smolinski is what he was in 2016, basically midseason filler for a below-average, rebuilding MLB club. He puts the bat on the baseball, but that’s about it. There’s really no power potential here (64 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score), even in parks much more forgiving than the Oakland Abomination.

There are limits to the usage of average exit speed as a proxy for hitting ability. The fact that Aaron Hicks had a higher average exit speed than Kris Bryant in 2016 speaks to that, in volumes. Bryant’s was lower thanks to exceedingly low average grounder authority. Hicks, on the other hand, hit a ton of fly balls in the upper end of the 75-90 mph “donut hole,” where careers go to die, recording a low Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 58 despite average range exit speed. Hicks is better than he showed last season, but not to an exciting extent. His liner rate should certainly positively regress, and his K/BB foundation is sound, though he isn’t too far from becoming an extreme grounder-puller.

Lonnie Chisenhall finished last on this list despite a liner rate in the 90th percentile that is certain to plunge moving forward. Not a good sign. His fly-ball rate is maxed out, and his BIP authority across all types has been gradually sliding away from him. The Indians have numerous corner-outfield options moving forward, likely squeezing him out before too long.





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Twitchy
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Twitchy

I do wonder how Bautista’s injuries affect his batted ball performance. He spent most of the time coming back from injuries that I do think he might be better than what he showed last year.

mattyjames1
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mattyjames1

https://twitter.com/tangotiger/status/821073546554339328

Tango’s research shows you’re likely on to something