As the long dormant Hot Stove season shows signs of flickering to life, we continue our position-by-position look at hitter contact quality. Last week, we looked at a rather moribund group of AL left fielders; today, it’s their NL counterparts, whose 2016 production was much more significant. As a reminder, 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 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:
|NAME||AVG MPH||FLY MPH||LD MPH||GB MPH||POP %||FLY %||LD %||GB %||ADJ C||K %||BB %||wRC+||ADJ PRD||PULL %|
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 NL left-field group features more star power at the top and depth through the middle relative to the AL group. Of course, including NL MVP Kris Bryant here rather than at third base certainly doesn’t hurt. One of the under-the-radar strengths of many of the Cub regulars is their ability to put the ball in play. Bryant will never be a slap hitter, by any means, but the significant drop in his strikeout rate cannot be ignored; it was an underrated driver of his 2016 performance.
There are some long-term concerns here, however. His grounder authority ranks near the bottom of all regulars in both leagues; his is an uppercut, all-or-nothing stroke. His fly-ball and pull rates are near the top of the scale, with virtually nowhere to go but down. This is a young player with an old-player skill set. Mike Schmidt was a similar offensive player at the same age; ultimately, he made adjustments that ensured excellence into his 30s, using all of the field and hitting the ball harder on a line and on the ground. Bryant has already done the hardest part, cutting the Ks dramatically, so I’d bet on him making the other alterations in due time.
I could write about Christian Yelich all day. He’s the opposite of Bryant in many ways: he possesses a significant ground-ball tendency and uses the opposite field liberally. He absolutely crushes all BIP types, and is one of a relatively small number of players who runs a high liner rate on an annual basis. He’s the ultimate hit-before-power player. And the power’s coming. If he compiled a league average-ish fly-ball rate without materially raising his K and pop-up rates, he might contend for home-run and batting-average titles simultaneously. Don’t ask me why, but I think of Hank Aaron when I look at Yelich, a pure hitter who can become a home-run machine as he evolves.
I could also write about Matt Holliday all day. He embodies the hitting philosophy that has defined the Cardinals for the last decade: make hard contact from line to line. The demise of Holliday has been greatly exaggerated. Holliday tied Giancarlo Stanton for the hardest average grounder exit speed in either league last season. Despite this, he batted all of .217 AVG-.233 SLG (82 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground. His authority supported a 180 adjusted mark, and his ability to use the field keeps those average-draining infield overshifts away. His liner rate was also unnaturally low, inviting positive regression moving forward. He might not be able to log the workloads he once did, but mark it down: Holliday will bounce back big on a per-at-bat basis as a Yankee in 2017.
Ryan Braun certainly appears to be back among the elite offensive players in the game. He smokes all BIP types (198, 115 and 121 Adjusted Fly Ball, Liner and Grounder Contact Scores) and uses the entire field. His raw numbers are propped up a bit (his Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score was a lofty 259) by the hitter-friendly nature of Miller Park, but his primarily line-drive-based power plays well anywhere. His fly-ball rate has plenty of room to grow, so one could argue that true decline phase hasn’t begun yet. He could opt for a more fly-ball-oriented “harvesting” phase at some point down the road that could yield post-prime 30-homer seasons.
Jayson Werth will play this season at age 38, but remains a reasonably high-end offensive player. Don’t buy his middling raw 2016 numbers. His line-drive rate was quite low and is likely to positive regress moving forward, and his stealthily pitcher-friendly home park hurt him quite a bit on fly balls. He batted just .283 AVG-.800 SLG in the air (82 Unadjusted Contact Score) despite granular data supporting a 114 mark. He still crushes the ball on the ground (155 Adjusted Contact Score), so his batting-average floor is quite high. He is a bit down the path of his decline phase, however; he has increased his fly-ball rate in recent years, and will likely ramp up his pull rate to harvest as much power as possible.
Howie Kendrick was quite unlucky last season. His Unadjusted Contact Scores fell well short of his adjusted marks across all BIP types (103 vs. 141 Fly Ball, 82 vs. 108 Line Drive, 97 vs. 118 Grounder, 82 vs. 106 overall). Kendrick’s profile has been incredibly consistent over the years; he’s been among the most prolific opposite-field grounder and line-drive hitters in the game. The liner rate spun away from him in 2016, but I’d expect it to bounce back this season. The Phils bought relatively low on an older player with a much younger offensive profile; it’s highly likely that he can provide them with at least a .280-.340-.400 line in the near term.
Michael Conforto has arrived at a career crossroads. There’s no reason that he cannot be one of the better hitters in the NL, if he can moderate his budding extreme-pulling tendency and become a tough out against left-handed pitching. Of course, to do so, he’s going to have to be allowed to actually face lefties. He’s become a bit too power-focused, as evidenced by his high K and fly-ball rates, as well as the extreme grounder-pulling that earned the only penalty among this group. He spent some time at Triple-A last season, and eviscerated the level. It’s incumbent upon the Mets to clear their outfield logjam so that he can play nearly everyday, and upon him to make the subtle adjustments that will unlock his substantial potential.
As stated earlier, we are evaluating contact quality here, so players like Starling Marte with huge speed components to their offensive game sometimes get short shrift. Marte batted .285 AVG-.323 SLG (148 Adjusted Contact Score) on the ground last season, despite underlying data that supported a much lower 93 mark. He might never develop the long-ball power some expected of him early in his career, but he has tended to post elevated liner rates on an ongoing basis. He might be the hit-before-power guy whose power never arrives, but I’d still love to have him in my lineup.
Talk about an older player’s profile… check out Adam Duvall’s. Sky-high K, fly-ball and pull rates. An extreme uppercut stroke that impacts fly balls way more than grounders. His overall Adjusted Contact Score of 143 ranks third among this august company, but he needed every bit of that to essentially be a league average offensive left fielder. The 2016 season may well have represented his ceiling; it’s pretty tough to imagine a player who didn’t cement a big-league role until age 27 making the substantial adjustments necessary to make more contact and use the entire field. Kris Bryant he’s not.
There isn’t a lot of blue and black in the authority columns above, but most of it belongs to Angel Pagan. His line underscores the power of the high liner rate — along with his ability to make consistent contact. They’re his only offensive strengths. And liners are a true talent of his: he’s posted an above-league-average (usually well above) mark in that category in seven of the last eight seasons. With an elevated liner rate, he’s a league-average offensive player. Without it, he could immediately pull an Omar Infante-esque disappearing act due to poor (and declining) contact authority. His shelf life as a regular is limited.
Brandon Drury’s raw 2016 numbers weren’t bad at all, but his supporting BIP data tells a different story. He outperformed his Adjusted Contact Scores across the board (126 vs. 95 Fly Ball, 128 vs. 105 Liner, 131 vs. 115 Grounder, 120 vs. 97 Overall), and his exit speed and frequency line above lacks a go-to strength. He brings some positional flexibility to the table, and holds promise as a complementary player more than as a regular at an offensively oriented position such as this one.
It was a lost season for Gerardo Parra. A lot of it is directly on him: his never particularly strong K/BB foundation fell apart on him, and his batted-ball authority slipped a bit, as well. wRC+ unjustly penalizes him, however, for playing his home games in Coors Field. Publicly available park-factor adjustments are of the one-size-fits-all variety, and Rockies’ hitters uniformly take a big hit. Parra’s individual BIP data shows that he got less than he deserved in the air, with his Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 104 far outdistancing his unadjusted 69 mark. He’s not particularly good, but he’s not done either.
If nothing else, Melvin Upton Jr. got his career off of life support last season. He’s still got major issues to deal with, mind you, but he moderated his recently sky-high pop-up rate, leaving his poor K/BB foundation and perennially low liner rate as remaining issues. Liner rates are volatile, but Upton’s has only been above the 30th percentile among MLB regulars twice since 2008. I would not entrust him with a full-time job moving forward, but there is some hope for him as part of a job share.
What more could possibly be written about Jeff Francoeur. He sure must be a great guy in the clubhouse; far better players have gotten far fewer opportunities. At his best, his poor K/BB foundation muted decent BIP authority; now an even worse K/BB foundation mutes decent BIP authority. There’s talk of him attempting to pitch, perhaps carving out a roster spot as dual-threat type. Might be fun to watch.
Massive rebuilding efforts sometimes result in unready Rule 5 picks like Tyler Goeddel earning a plurality of plate appearances at a given position. It wasn’t pretty. Look at that high pop-up rate as a percentage of his low fly-ball rate; it’s just not right. He clearly was not a major-league-ready player in 2016, but with the Phils in the next phase of their evolution, Goeddel can now head back to the minors to see if he can someday become one.