2016 Hitter Contact-Quality Report: AL Third Basemen

We’ve entered the relatively dead zone between the Winter Meetings and the holidays, but our position-by-position look at hitter contact quality rolls on. In case you haven’t been in on this from the beginning, we’re utilizing granular exit-speed and launch-angle data to measure how position players “should have” performed in comparison to their actual stat lines. The last group at which we looked was NL shortstops. Now: AL third basemen.

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 3B BIP Profiles
Donaldson 93.1 96.3 98.8 88.7 4.1% 36.5% 21.3% 38.2% 151 17.0% 15.6% 155 172 46.0%
Machado 91.2 90.4 98.3 90.3 6.1% 36.6% 20.0% 37.3% 140 17.2% 6.9% 129 140 41.9%
K.Seager 90.9 91.6 95.3 87.9 3.1% 38.9% 21.9% 36.1% 127 16.0% 10.2% 133 140 40.1%
Castellanos 89.5 93.2 91.7 80.9 1.0% 42.0% 25.6% 31.5% 169 24.8% 6.3% 119 136 39.0%
Beltre 90.8 92.4 93.9 88.7 4.6% 37.5% 17.7% 40.2% 111 10.3% 7.5% 130 135 41.0%
Longoria 91.6 93.4 96.8 87.6 5.4% 41.4% 21.4% 31.9% 129 21.0% 6.1% 123 117 42.9%
Valencia 90.7 89.5 95.4 89.3 4.5% 27.3% 23.2% 45.0% 130 22.2% 7.9% 118 117 39.9%
Valbuena 88.3 91.4 93.3 81.3 4.3% 38.0% 21.2% 36.5% 101 23.7% 12.9% 123 102 48.2%
J.Ramirez 88.8 88.5 91.1 88.8 3.6% 32.7% 22.8% 40.9% 81 10.0% 7.1% 122 102 39.0%
Y.Escobar 89.8 88.8 93.6 88.8 1.1% 19.7% 21.2% 58.1% 84 11.8% 7.1% 108 100 33.7%
Frazier 89.9 92.0 93.9 86.3 9.0% 39.7% 15.7% 35.6% 99 24.5% 9.6% 102 92 48.7%
T.Shaw 89.6 90.7 95.1 86.0 4.3% 40.3% 19.1% 36.3% 103 25.1% 8.1% 87 90 39.3%
Headley 87.5 88.4 91.6 85.7 2.0% 30.0% 23.8% 44.2% 86 22.3% 9.6% 92 86 41.5%
Cuthbert 90.2 87.9 94.1 91.8 6.3% 29.1% 17.1% 47.5% 72 18.8% 6.3% 94 74 41.1%
E.Escobar 85.9 85.2 90.9 83.4 3.9% 33.5% 23.5% 39.1% 71 19.1% 5.6% 63 71 42.8%
AVERAGE 89.9 90.6 94.3 87.0 4.2% 34.9% 21.0% 39.9% 110 18.9% 8.5% 113 112 41.7%

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.

Here, we find a fairly accomplished group offensively, a bit more so than the NL group we’ll review next week. There’s very little blue and black on this table, at least in the batted-ball-authority section. Those colors do abound in the grounder- and strikeout-percentage columns, however, as most of the successful hitters among this group are driven by high contact rates and high-to-maxed-out fly-ball rates. You almost can’t go wrong with that combination in the here and now. Whether those fly-ball rates are sustainable or not is tomorrow’s problem.

Josh Donaldson is one of the premier hitters — and all-around players — in the game today. I picked him as 2015 AL MVP in spring training based on an excellent 2014 BIP profile that included a very low liner rate that was due to regress upward, plus his move to a friendlier home park in Toronto. He won that MVP despite a continued low liner rate. The positive liner regression finally came in 2016, and was joined by an improvement in his already exceptional K/BB ratio.

Donaldson is a star squarely in his offensive prime. He’s one of the best ball-strikers around, as evidenced by his 255 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score, among other measurables. He was actually unlucky on the ground, batting .235 AVG-.248 SLG (94 Unadjusted Contact Score), though his exit-speed and launch-angle data supports an adjusted 117 mark. His fly-ball rate is high but not excessive, he puts the ball in play, and pulls it just enough to do maximum damage while not inviting overshifts. He’s pretty good and will stay that way.

Manny Machado was my 2016 preseason MVP pick. While that one didn’t quite work out, he did enjoy a great season. It’s scary to think that he was only 23 and, in theory, retains significant room for additional improvement. He deserved a bit better on fly balls (111 Unadjusted vs. 148 Adjusted Contact Score), in fact. As he (shudder) continues to physically mature, his fly-ball authority should climb out of the average range and join his liner and grounder authority in the yellow/orange range.

That said, there are some risk areas. Machado’s walk rate declined quite a bit in 2016, and his pop-up rate has been quite high for two years running now. In addition, his 2016 fly-ball rate — in relation to his grounder rate — was about as high as you’d like to see. The pop ups could pressure his batting average; regression in the fly-ball rate could sap his power. Still, on balance, I’ll take the young guy who’s still getting stronger and puts the ball in play at a high rate. Toss in great defense and he remains on the MVP short list.

Kyle Seager truly is an underrated star. He’s been flying under the national radar in Seattle for awhile now, and his little brother has even begun to overshadow him a bit. He isn’t spectacular at any one thing, but is above average across the board, lacking a real weakness. His K/BB profile was always good and is getting better. Though he doesn’t crush his fly balls (105 Adjusted Contact Score), he is a master at selectively pulling the pitches he can handle for distance.

He flirted with receiving an excessive grounder-pulling penalty, but didn’t quite reach the aforementioned 5:1 threshold. That’s a good thing, as his actual .175 AVG-.199 SLG (56 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground would have made the penalty severe. He’s our third straight third baseman with a very high fly-ball rate (and there are several more), inviting near-term regression, so don’t expect much additional upside.

Next: perhaps the oddest line of any player we’ll cover at any position. First, let’s consider some reasons Nick Castellanos should be a star. He crushes his fly balls (153 Adjusted Contact Score), though the middle third of Comerica Park hurts him greatly (84 Unadjusted). He maintains an extremely low pop-up rate despite a very high fly-ball rate, a rare combination. He has posted very high liner rates in all three of his seasons as a regular, so it might actually be a true talent of his.

Now, the reasons Nick Castellanos should struggle. He’s one of the weaker ground-ball strikers in the game. That fly-ball rate simply isn’t sustainable over the long haul. His K/BB profile is bad, and hasn’t been getting better with time. On balance, what do we have here? Players who hit their fly balls harder than their liners and their liners harder than their grounders are usually old players on their way out. This scares me about his long-term future. Still, he will be coming down from a higher level than he appears to be, as his power hasn’t been fully rewarded to date. He might roll out his career year, in terms of raw numbers, at some point in 2017 or -18.

Adrian Beltre is a national treasure. His traditional numbers were depressed in his prime by Safeco Field, and he’s now getting his revenge by extracting every last drop of production from his “decline” phase. There really is nothing spectacular about his offensive game these days, except for maybe that ever-shrinking K rate. His BIP type-specific Adjusted Contact Scores (124, 100, and pull-penalty-adjusted 108 for flies, liners and grounders, respectively) are good, but modest. His fly-ball rate was about as high as you can get before regression can be expected. One reason to expect him not to fade materially in 2017: he’s always maintained high liner rates, and slipped in that category this season. Expect a bounce there.

Now for a word about “harvesting.” This is what I call it when a player begins to elevate and pull more, with his K and BB rate suffering in the process, all in pursuit of the long ball. Evan Longoria meets those criteria. He narrowly missed a grounder-pulling penalty. His fly-ball rate has always been high, but was dangerously so in 2016. It has nowhere to go but down. Harvesting gives a short-term boost to the power numbers, but ultimately opens holes that pitchers will exploit. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fairly substantial decline in performance over the next couple of seasons.

Danny Valencia certainly isn’t a third baseman, but that’s where he qualified in 2016. He’s a bat, and a pretty decent one at that. Once more of a platoon specialist, he’s made great strides against same-handed pitching. His overall authority has been “orange” and “yellow” the past two years, so it appears real. His BIP type-specific Adjusted Contact Scores (141, 108 and 117 for flies, liners and grounders) were all strong in 2016. That very high liner rate is coming down, however; it’s way out of whack with career norms. He’ll remain a quality multi-positional bat for the Mariners moving forward despite some regression from his 2016 heights.

Luis Valbuena is available as a free agent, and though he made himself into a solid player as an Astro, I’d say they’re moving on at the right time. His ability to yank the ball down the short right-field line in Houston maximized his fly-ball production; his 156 Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score was cut to 112 once his exit-speed/launch-angle data were incorporated. He’s an out on the ground (67 Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Score) due to poor authority. While he has cut his pop-up and improved his walk rate over the years to make himself more viable, he has so little margin for error on so many offensive fronts that I wouldn’t take the risk in a less hitter-friendly park moving forward.

Jose Ramirez was one of the understated keys to the Indians’ magical 2016 run. That said, he wasn’t quite as good as his numbers. His actual, Unadjusted Contact Scores outstripped his Adjusted marks across the board (54 vs. 45 for flies, 108 vs. 90 for liners, 141 vs. 105 for grounders, 99 vs. 81 overall). In addition, his liner rate was high and can be expected to descend moving forward. That said, he remains a valuable piece because of an extremely high contact rate, youth, athleticism and defensive ability. By the traditional numbers, however, 2016 could go down as his high-water mark.

It’s a pretty simple formula for Yunel Escobar, really: constantly put the ball in play, usually on the ground, but spray those grounders around and hit them fairly hard. This provides enough production to stick around, and in seasons in which he posts a better-than-average liner rate, like 2016, it’s enough to provide league-average production, though below average for the hot corner. There is minimal upside here, but the decline phase will continue to be smooth and make him useful.

Todd Frazier is the polar opposite of Yunel Escobar: he’s become the premier pop-up hitter in the majors, a free-out title that no one wants to carry. He’s an extreme puller who batted just .183 AVG-.183 SLG (55 Adjusted Contact Score) on the ground. Toss in a high whiff rate, and there’s really no way to thrive, even with a more than respectable 167 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score. On the plus side, I would expect some upward regression in his minuscule 2016 liner rate, pulling his batting average off of the canvas at the very least.

Travis Shaw is now a Milwaukee Brewer. He’s moving from one comfortable home park to another in 2017, but there’s nothing in his profile to suggest an imminent performance spike. His 2016 K/BB profile was subpar, and his fly-ball rate was pretty much maxed out. His BIP authority was in the average range across the board. At the best, I’d guess we’ll be looking at some Trevor Plouffe-ian .250-ish, 20-homer seasons in beer town.

Chase Headley is pulling a slow fade on us. He can be counted upon for high liner rates on an annual basis, but only his comfy Yankee Stadium environs kept him viable in 2016. His 103 Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score was chopped to 68 based on the exit-speed/launch-angle data. He was a bit lucky (121 Unadjusted vs. 85 Adjusted) on the ground, as well. He’s the first player on this list whose BIP authority is measurably south of the average range. At best, he’ll provide some empty batting average for the Yanks moving forward.

Young Cheslor Cuthbert finished strong in Kansas City last season, ostensibly providing some hope for the future. I like the kid, but the granular numbers suggest a dose of caution. Cuthbert batted an insane .391 AVG-.430 SLG (269 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground. Yes, he did hit his grounders harder than any other qualifying AL third baseman (137 Adjusted Contact Score), but that’s still an awful lot of good fortune. Toss in his 45 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score and a very high pop-up rate, and Cuthbert simply wasn’t ready in 2016. He makes fairly consistent contact, and his liner rate should improve, so there should be some optimism for the next time he receives an opportunity.

Eduardo Escobar was the living embodiment of replacement level in 2016. Forced to play a bunch of third base by the injury to Plouffe, his numbers look even worse compared to these peers. Put it this way: when you don’t hit the ball hard at all and receive an extreme grounder-pulling penalty (he batted .120 AVG-.133 SLG, 26 Unadjusted Contact Score on the ground), it’s not a good thing. Imagine how bad his numbers would have been without his atypically high liner rate. He’ll be much better suited to his former utility role moving forward.

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Any numbers for Ryon Healy?