2016 Hitter Contact-Quality Report: NL Catchers

It’s been quite a while since we kicked off our position-by-position look at 2016 hitter contact quality, which arrives at its last official installment today. (There will be a small number of add-on articles covering pitchers and hitters who didn’t quite qualify as “regulars.”) We looked at AL catchers earlier this week; today we move on to the NL crop, again utilizing granular exit-speed and launch-angle data in the analysis.

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:

NL C BIP Profiles
Posey 91.2 91.6 94.9 88.6 1.5% 28.4% 21.5% 48.6% 119 11.1% 10.4% 116 147 35.5%
Ramos 91.7 94.0 97.0 88.1 1.5% 23.8% 20.4% 54.3% 132 15.1% 6.7% 124 136 38.3%
Lucroy 88.2 88.8 92.0 86.3 5.3% 33.4% 24.2% 37.2% 121 18.4% 8.6% 123 122 35.1%
W.Contreras 88.3 90.2 92.4 85.4 1.1% 26.6% 17.9% 54.3% 133 23.7% 9.2% 126 116 42.5%
Grandal 92.5 94.1 98.8 90.0 4.4% 34.8% 16.1% 44.7% 119 25.4% 14.0% 122 112 42.9%
Y.Molina 88.3 88.5 91.1 86.6 1.5% 28.2% 21.9% 48.4% 95 10.8% 6.7% 113 111 37.6%
Rupp 92.2 92.1 97.2 90.7 1.8% 32.6% 17.4% 48.2% 146 27.2% 5.7% 99 108 33.3%
Flowers 94.0 92.5 98.3 94.4 2.1% 37.1% 18.6% 42.3% 136 28.0% 8.9% 110 104 35.1%
Cervelli 86.6 88.5 91.7 83.7 0.4% 23.7% 19.8% 56.0% 86 18.3% 14.2% 99 102 42.5%
Hundley 90.9 89.3 94.5 90.9 1.3% 35.1% 17.8% 45.8% 101 20.5% 7.9% 82 97 42.9%
Realmuto 89.6 89.2 92.2 88.9 4.8% 25.5% 20.4% 49.3% 101 18.3% 5.1% 107 96 41.0%
W.Castillo 89.6 89.2 94.4 86.5 3.0% 29.8% 25.4% 41.8% 110 26.5% 7.2% 92 88 45.5%
Barnhart 86.3 88.4 90.2 82.0 1.0% 26.5% 24.9% 47.5% 77 17.1% 8.6% 82 84 40.0%
T.d’Arnaud 89.8 91.7 93.3 88.5 6.0% 24.8% 16.9% 52.2% 77 18.1% 6.9% 74 79 39.2%
Norris 88.0 88.0 93.9 84.8 5.4% 37.6% 21.9% 35.1% 96 30.3% 7.9% 55 72 41.2%
AVERAGE 89.8 90.4 94.1 87.7 2.7% 29.9% 20.3% 47.0% 110 20.6% 8.5% 102 105 39.5%

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.

As indicated in the accompanying AL piece earlier this week, offense is secondary among a catcher’s responsibilities; it’s primarily about framing and receiving, handling a pitching staff, and muzzling the opponent’s running game. This NL group was much better at adding offensive value than their AL counterparts, however. The average NL regular catcher compiled an Adjusted Production (a solid BIP-based proxy for wRC+) figure very nearly as high as the leading AL mark. The top seven NL finishers all would have led the AL.

Buster Posey doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his offensive value. Part of this is due to his offense-averse home park, but in 2016, part of it was just due to bad luck. His Unadjusted Contact Scores lagged his Adjusted marks across all BIP types (74 vs. 119, 95 vs. 107, 94 vs. 114 and 92 vs. 119 for Fly Balls, Liners, Grounders and Overall). His greatest strength is his utter lack of weaknesses: he never strikes out, his lone notable BIP frequency trait is a very low pop-up rate, and his BIP authority is solid but unremarkable. Very quietly, his liner rate has been league average or better in every season of his career. The Giants have intelligently limited his workload behind the plate to allow his offensive skill set to depreciate more slowly. He’s still a stud.

Wilson Ramos‘ 2016 season ended prematurely due to a knee injury, and he is one of a handful of receivers listed above who will take his act to the AL in 2017. The new Ray’s offensive output shot upward last season, in large part due to significant improvement in both his K and BB rates. Ramos has always hit the ball very hard (Adjusted Fly Ball, Liner and Grounder Contact Scores of 193, 117 and 113, respectively, in 2016), but his BIP mix has tended to be very grounder heavy. There’s still ample room for growth here; more fly balls and walks might create a monster. That upside at least offsets the risk presented by his ongoing recovery and the rapid natural aging inherent to this position.

Like Buster Posey, Jonathan Lucroy is one of a select group of hitters with a knack for squaring up the baseball; his liner rate percentile rank has been 75 or better for four years running. Lucroy is no Posey offensively, though they may belong to the same family of hitters. Lucroy’s pop-up and K rates shot up last season; if this becomes a trend, his batting average could fall under some pressure before long. This development was obscured in 2016 by good fortune on grounders (127 Unadjusted vs. 98 Adjusted Contact Score). Moving from one hitters’ park to another will help his offensive aging curve, as will occasional deployment at first base, another feature shared with Posey.

Willson Contreras was one of the many youngsters to make a material impact on the World Champion Cubs. And there’s room to grow. Honestly, save for the difference in their K/BB and liner rates, it’s the Wilson Ramos starter set, and Contreras is substantially younger. His strong Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score (177) suggests significant future power development, if only he can enhance his fly-ball rate. His liner rate is also due for some positive regression. One more middle-of-the-order type hitter is on the way for the Cubbies.

Some guys have a knack for squared contact, some have a knack for avoiding it. The latter group includes Yasmani Grandal. In three seasons as at least a semi-regular, his line-rate percentile rank has never exceeded a mere 13. That and his excessive grounder-pulling ways from both sides of the plate (.177 AVG-.177 SLG, 52 Contact Score) put a hard cap on his batting average. That said, there are material strengths here. He draws his walks and really hammers all BIP types, featuring a 205 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score. I don’t see much additional upside, but Grandal should be a reliable power source in the intermediate term.

Yadier Molina‘s batted-ball authority has slipped away from him in recent years, but his very low K rate and tendency to maintain solid liner rates has made his offensive aging curve a very smooth one. This is where Buster Posey will be at Molina’s age. Molina’s liner rate has been above league average seven of the last nine seasons; in an eighth, it was just a tick below. His will be a very interesting Hall of Fame case when the day comes, much like Chase Utley’s. Neither player has the traditional counting stats, but were both extremely productive on winning clubs for long periods of time.

Cameron Rupp might be a bit of a surprise this high on the list. When your K and BB rates are as poor as his, significant batted-ball authority across the board is a necessity. Still, it’s quite notable that Rupp’s 146 overall Adjusted Contact Score paced this group. He destroyed all BIP types, with Adjusted Contact Scores of 213 on fly Balls, 118 on liners and 146 on grounders. He was quite unlucky on the first and last of those groups, posting unadjusted marks of 176 and 115. He didn’t pop up much despite a healthy fly-ball rate, and his liner rate has room to regress upward. There’s additional upside here.

Tyler Flowers might be the most likely present comp for Rupp. Their strengths and weaknesses are similar, with Flowers’ fly-ball and BB rates checking in a bit higher. Very quietly, Flowers is one of the premier ground-ball strikers in the game; this slow-footed catcher batted .351 AVG-.365 SLG (210 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground, and he wasn’t overly lucky, as the underlying data supports a solid 165 mark. His new home park might more fully reward him on fly balls (126 Unadjusted vs. 174 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score). I’d really like to see what this guy could do over 350-400 at-bats. We already know what Kurt Suzuki will do.

Now for Rupp and Flowers’ polar opposite, Francisco Cervelli. His OBP-centric profile is very rare for his position, and currently places him right around league-average production regardless of position. His authority is below average across BIP types; in fact, his 79 Adjusted Grounder Contact Score might be most worrisome, as he very nearly was imposed an excessive grounder-pulling penalty. His BB rate spiked upward in 2016 and is the glue holding his offensive game together. Without it, he drifts near the bottom of this list. He could age a la Chone Figgins; once the walks are gone, he could be gone.

Sure, Nick Hundley was aided somewhat in recent years by playing his home games in Colorado, but he did make some real bat improvements during his time there. He made much more consistent contact, and has increased his fly-ball while cutting his pop-up rate. He hits his grounders hard, which should serve as batting-average insurance. He’ll now be in an ideal role as Buster Posey’s job-share partner in San Francisco, staying fresh and ready to contribute 200-250 quality plate appearances. He won’t get help from his new park on fly balls, but should enjoy some positive regression in his liner rate in 2017.

First, some good things about J.T. Realmuto. He’s as durable as they come, and his solid athleticism relative to the position bodes well for his all-around development. That said, his numbers got a little ahead of themselves in 2016. He batted an insane .321 AVG-.358 SLG (185 Unadjusted Contact Score) on grounders, while the underlying BIP data supported a much lower 115 mark. His pop-up rate is very high in relation to his fly-ball rate, a clear negative, as was the uptick in his K rate. I like his long-term prognosis, but wouldn’t be surprised to see Realmuto take a step backward in 2017.

Welington Castillo is yet another 2016 NL catching regular headed to the AL in 2017, as an Oriole. There’s an awful lot about which to be concerned from Baltimore’s perspective. First, that liner rate is coming down, and coming down hard. Secondly, while Camden Yards is no pitchers’ paradise, it’s less hitter-friendly than Chase Field. Castillo benefited on fly balls last season, with his Unadjusted Contact Score in the air of 120 far outdistancing his adjusted 94 mark. Plus, there’s a poor K/BB foundation and a fairly limited defensive skill set to fall back upon. The O’s might soon be pining for Matt Wieters.

Tucker Barnhart is, well, a nice backup catcher who was pressed into full-time work by injuries to Devin Mesoraco. It’s pretty tough to put up a poor overall 77 Adjusted Contact Score with a sky-high liner rate, but Barnhart sure did pull it off. His Adjusted Fly Ball (33) and Grounder (66) Contact Scores were off-the-charts low, and there’s little reason to believe they’ll materially improve.

Travis d’Arnaud has never quite evolved into the strong all-around player that multiple clubs believed he would become. Part of it has been injury, part simply lack of development. While he did strike his fly balls well last season, a substantial percentage were in the 75-90 mph “donut hole” where careers go to die. He hit a ton of pop ups, which was particularly disheartening in light of his very low fly-ball rate. His liner rate is likely to regress upward in 2017, so he’s got that going for him. In any event, the window appears to be closed for d’Arnaud to develop into a high-end receiver.

Derek Norris‘ traditional numbers sure were terrible last season. To make matters worse, they were compiled despite a reasonably strong liner rate. His K rate spiked, his BIP authority dipped, his pop-up rate was as high as ever, his fly-ball rate has nowhere to go but down, he’s a borderline extreme grounder-puller. Not a pretty picture. One mitigating factor: he was extremely unlucky on liners (.561 AVG-.742 SLG, 74 Unadjusted Contact Score, compared to 103 Adjusted). Even then, and even with that liner rate, Norris ranked last. He moves to Washington this season, and is likely to carry a lighter workload.

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7 years ago

Just wondering, what would Grandal’s ADJ-C and ADJ-P numbers look like had he just narrowly avoided a grounder penalty?