2016 Hitter Contact-Quality Report: NL First Basemen

The major awards have been handed out, qualifying offers have been accepted and rejected, and free-agent signings and trades have begun to trickle in. Let’s continue our look backward at the 2016 season in an effort to look forward. After reviewing AL first basemen and designated hitters, we continue our look at position-player performance utilizing granular exit-speed and launch-angle data with NL first 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:

NL First-Base BIP Profiles
Votto 89.9 93.3 92.7 84.0 0.0% 29.7% 27.3% 43.0% 155 17.7% 16.0% 158 170 36.9%
Freeman 91.7 93.6 95.4 84.6 2.1% 38.4% 29.1% 30.3% 191 24.7% 12.8% 152 162 36.6%
Belt 87.4 89.7 91.3 77.9 2.8% 43.2% 27.8% 26.3% 143 22.6% 15.9% 138 143 36.2%
Goldschmidt 92.4 91.5 96.4 90.3 4.1% 24.7% 24.7% 46.5% 139 21.3% 15.6% 134 142 39.1%
C.Carter 92.6 95.3 98.2 85.6 4.5% 44.2% 19.5% 31.7% 201 32.0% 11.8% 112 137 37.7%
Rizzo 89.8 90.2 93.0 88.1 3.6% 37.7% 20.3% 38.4% 119 16.0% 10.9% 145 133 45.6%
Myers 89.2 89.3 92.8 87.3 2.0% 31.9% 21.4% 44.7% 126 23.7% 10.1% 115 113 38.3%
Moss 89.2 93.0 91.5 80.2 4.4% 48.2% 20.4% 27.0% 153 30.4% 8.4% 105 108 46.2%
R.Howard 92.5 96.2 94.3 85.9 0.9% 41.8% 22.7% 34.5% 156 31.5% 7.5% 83 106 42.3%
A.Gonzalez 88.6 89.1 92.2 85.9 1.3% 26.2% 26.4% 46.2% 102 18.5% 8.7% 112 105 38.1%
Dietrich 85.8 86.6 89.2 82.9 3.7% 34.2% 21.7% 40.4% 110 20.4% 7.8% 117 102 37.9%
Reynolds 88.3 88.4 94.7 85.0 5.3% 27.2% 25.8% 41.7% 117 25.4% 9.5% 99 100 40.6%
Zimmerman 93.7 93.2 99.8 93.1 3.1% 31.6% 16.7% 48.6% 113 22.3% 6.2% 67 99 36.5%
Loney 88.1 86.0 92.5 87.4 2.9% 31.6% 23.8% 41.7% 87 10.1% 4.4% 89 99 36.4%
Jaso 86.4 87.8 90.1 83.8 1.6% 25.4% 20.8% 52.1% 81 17.1% 10.4% 111 92 42.2%
AVERAGE 89.7 90.9 93.6 85.5 2.8% 34.4% 23.2% 39.5% 133 22.2% 10.4% 116 121 39.4%

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 you might expect there is a lot of yellow, orange and red at this bat-first position. That said, there is a bit more blue and black among NL first sackers compared to their junior circuit brethren. For some reason, the NL group hits more fly balls and line drives, and walks more often than their AL peers, while hitting their grounders much more weakly. The AL group projects as a bit more productive based on the granular data, mainly because Miguel Cabrera is on their side.

Joey Votto sits in the top spot. He’s really amazing at a number of things, but there is some reason for concern moving forward. As previously indicated, liner rates fluctuate significantly for most mortals. Votto doesn’t belong to that group: he racks up heaps of liners on an annual basis. He also hit exactly zero infield pop ups in 2016. That’s nice. His overall average exit velocity is trending down, however. It was over a full standard deviation above league average as recently as three seasons ago, and is in the average range now. His walk rate is beginning to slip a bit, as well, perhaps in direct relation to the authority drop, as pitchers may fear him just a bit less. He’s still really, really good, but slow, on-base guys with modest power aren’t guys around whom you build. He might not be a foundational piece moving forward; instead, he could be a better version of Joe Mauer or Adrian Gonzalez.

Freddie Freeman is emerging as the best offensive first baseman in the NL. Like Votto, Freeman is an absolute line-drive machine, cranking them out on an annual basis. His traditional numbers were held down a bit by his pitcher-friendly home park, but his combination of fly balls, liners and walks is a lethal one. I would expect the fly-ball rate to regress downward a bit, while his new home park gives him a bit back in return. He’s not an extreme grounder-puller, so he gets away with relatively light grounder authority. He’s a hit-before-power guy with lots of power, squarely in the prime of his career.

Brandon Belt is just about the weirdest offensive player in the game today. You have to go way down to Derek Dietrich on this list before you find another regular first baseman with less-than-average overall authority. This is because Belt’s grounder authority is among the weakest of any player at any position, over two full STD below the NL average. Luckily for Belt, his grounder rate is also over two full STD below league average.

There’s even more wildly positive positives and negative negatives in place: he’s our third straight first sacker who can be counted upon for an obscene number of liners every year, and his pop-up rate is quite low for someone who hits so many fly balls. His walk rate has been mushrooming, as well. On the downside, his average authority was sharply down from 2015, and his fly-ball rate has nowhere to go but down. I like Belt in the intermediate term, but he carries much more short-term risk than the three hitters surrounding him on this list.

Paul Goldschmidt wasn’t quite himself in 2016, and this can be clearly traced back to a single number on his profile: his fly-ball rate. In his four previous season, Goldschmidt never posted a below-average fly-ball rate; this year, he was well below. That said, I see 2016 as his floor in the near term. He’s the first player at whom we’ve looked here so far who hits his fly balls, liners and grounders well, which serves as batting-average insurance at the very least. So there we have our NL first-base royalty; they hit liners, hit their fly balls reasonably well, and draw tons of walks. No Anthony Rizzo yet. We’ll get to him soon.

Chris Carter absolutely detonates the baseball. His average fly-ball authority was second to Ryan Howard‘s, his average liner authority second to Ryan Zimmerman’s. On the positive (but risky) side, he hit tons of fly balls, on the negative all-the-way-around side, he strikes out all the time. Carter is also the first player we’ve encountered thus far who incurs an extreme ground-ball-puller penalty.

There’s risk and reward everywhere you look, but I’d like to focus on the potential reward. Carter’s Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 178 is a narrow second to Freeman’s 180 among this group, but adjusted for context it shoots up to a mighty 264. Carter hits a ton of very high, hard flies; even a modest swing adjustment that flattens them out a bit ramps up his production significantly. And if he makes more contact… well, that might be asking for too much. Even with the pull penalty, his overall 201 Adjusted Contact Score paces the NL first basemen.

It might surprise you to find Anthony Rizzo this far down on the list. I actually look at it as a positive: he’s mastered some of the things sluggers never conquer, like making consistent contact. If he can learn to use the whole field on the ground while selectively pulling in the air and maintaining his exceptional contact rate, watch out. His overall average authority is quite ordinary, something we’ll also see when we cover Kris Bryant among the left fielders. The Cubs’ stealth offensive weapon was the ability of their middle-of-the-order hitters’ to consistently put the ball in play while remaining power threats. If Rizzo can merely sprinkle in some “yellows” in the authority column moving forward, he’ll be down for projected production in the 150-plus range, duking it out with Freeman and Goldschmidt for positional supremacy.

There’s a big drop-off at this point down to Wil Myers. He embodies league-averageness more so than any other NL first basement. He possesses very little shading in any of his authority columns, and his slightly elevated K rate drags his Projected Production down to 113, below average among this group. His floor would appear to reasonably high; his Adjusted Fly Ball (149), Liner (102) and Grounder (105) Contact Scores all check in above league average, and his pop-up rate is nice and low.

Crank Brandon Belt’s extreme profile up to a cartoonish level and you have Brandon Moss. He didn’t receive an extreme grounder-pulling penalty solely because he hits his grounders so weakly that there’s no need to penalize him further. His fly-ball rate has nowhere to go but down, and his K-BB spread is unusually large. His 199 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score is all he has going for him. The risk is beyond considerable, more than outweighing the reward, even in the short term.

It might surprise you to see Ryan Howard this high on the list. Much has been made of Howard’s many shortcomings in recent years, so let’s take time to salute his remaining strengths. He still crushes the baseball in the air, hardest among this strong group of NL first basemen; he hits tons of fly balls, but almost never pops up; and his liner rate has generally been respectable over the years. On the down side, his K-BB spread is even larger than Moss’, and he is the ultimate ground-ball-puller among extreme ground-ball-pullers. He batted .098 AVG-.098 SLG (16 Unadjusted Production) on the ground, and is as easy an overshift decision as there is in the game. Despite this, he retains prodigious opposite-field power. If I had a need for a lefty DH and had an otherwise versatile group of position players, I might throw a mill or so at Howard and hope for the best.

Adrian Gonzalez is another of those lucky ones who can roll out of bed and hit liners, year after year. That said, it’s about all he can do these days. His fly-ball rate dropped precipitously in 2016, and he was fortunate to squeeze out as much long-ball production as he did: his Fly Ball Contact Score dropped from 102 to 75 when adjusted for context. His adjusted liner (97) and grounder (86) marks were both below average, as well. He’s clearly in decline.

It certainly wasn’t the Marlins’ intention for Derek Dietrich to become their primary first baseman in 2016. His authority profile was poor across the board, but a strong — albeit misleading — frequency profile featuring lots of fly balls and liners pushed his overall Adjusted Contact Score to 110. Unfortunately, the good stuff is small-sample noise; expect him to drift back into a supporting role, with Justin Bour or some other more authoritative option inheriting this spot.

Mark Reynolds in his prime might have laid waste to the NL with Coors Field as his home park. Instead, he was just another in a long lineage of Rockie regulars appearing to supply more production than he actually was, thanks to the rarefied mountain air. His extreme liner rate is another nominee for Fluke Stat of the Year; from 2008-15, his liner-rate percentile rank ranged between 1 and 26. Reynolds, in a neutral park, with a regressed liner rate, is cooked. Colorado first base is one of the most easily upgradeable positions for any club in either league.

Now for a player with tons of upside above his traditional 2016 numbers: Ryan Zimmerman. His overall, liner and grounder authority paced NL first basemen, and his fly-ball authority was well above average, as well. Expect serious upward regression in his liner rate moving forward, with a possible upward move in his fly-ball rate, as well. His walk rate did take a major hit last season; positive regression is possible here, as well, as his walk-rate percentile rank was higher than his K rate percentile rank each qualifying season from 2009 to 2015. This guy is not through just yet.

James Loney is who he is who he is. He never walks or whiffs, basically paddling the ball around to all fields, keeping himself afloat with a perennially high liner rate. He’s a league-average offensive player, which happens to be equivalent to a well below-average offensive first baseman. He wouldn’t have had a regular gig in 2016 without the injury to Lucas Duda, and is unlikely to have one moving forward.

The concept of John Jaso was a really nice one when he could play catcher. Lefty bat, lots of relatively innocuous contact. It doesn’t play nearly as well at first base, especially now that’s he’s developed an extreme grounder-pulling tendency. He was very fortunate in the air last season, batting .425 AVG-.938 SLG (138 Unadjusted Production, marked down to 90 for context). He’s a deep bench piece at best these days, as his concussion history has ended his catching career.

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7 years ago

Votto’s average EV only fell by 0.2 MPH compared to last year (I went and found your article from last year), which was among the best of his career. The difference seems to be that everyone else’s just went up, so he’s more average compared to the new normal in the MLB, but it’s still very Votto like. Also, I don’t think his BB% fell because pitchers were challenging him more, it’s just that he simply decided that walking and striking out was boring in the second half so he just hit everything. I mean, if pitchers thought it was a good idea to start throwing him more strikes, the fact he hit .408 probably should’ve disabused them of that theory.

Edit- He did have a little higher Zone% this year, but he also swung quite a bit more.

7 years ago

I know HRs went up last season, was there a corresponding overall increase in EV? If there was, and Votto didn’t increase with everyone else, then that IS a real relative decrease. Like, let’s pretend the baseballs were juiced in some way. The sameness of his EV might mean only that his skill deterioration almost exactly offset the boost from hitting more tightly wound baseballs.

7 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

It means that votto doesn’t rely on pulling with power that the rest of the league does. Pulling the ball allows you to generate more exit speed. Votto was the best hitter in the NL. Let’s not act like he’s trending downward.

7 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

I’m probably misremembering here, but I think I read an article (talking about the juiced ball theory) that, at least somewhat, showed evidence that there was less of a league-wide increase in EV than among players who were exhibiting a pull-for-power type of approach.