2016 Hitter Contact-Quality Report: NL Shortstops

The blur of Winter Meetings activity has come and gone, as today we continue our position-by-position, league-by-league look at hitter contact quality, using granular exit-speed and launch-angle data. Last time, we looked at AL shortstops. Here, we switch leagues and examine their senior-circuit counterparts. Stick around until the end for a brief look at the Red Sox blockbuster acquisition of Chris Sale, at very heavy prospect cost.

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 SS BIP Profiles
C.Seager 91.5 92.7 95.3 88.6 0.6% 28.7% 24.4% 46.3% 145 19.4% 7.9% 137 137 37.1%
Story 91.5 93.3 94.8 86.7 4.1% 43.0% 23.6% 29.3% 182 31.3% 8.4% 120 122 40.0%
A.Diaz 90.2 89.5 94.3 90.1 5.2% 33.7% 15.6% 45.5% 103 13.0% 8.9% 132 119 46.3%
B.Crawford 89.6 90.4 93.7 86.2 4.3% 31.8% 21.3% 42.6% 105 18.5% 9.1% 107 109 37.4%
Villar 90.9 92.0 93.7 89.6 2.7% 21.4% 20.3% 55.6% 115 25.6% 11.6% 118 102 32.3%
A.Russell 88.2 91.0 90.7 84.7 5.8% 31.9% 21.1% 41.2% 108 22.6% 9.2% 95 100 44.2%
Owings 88.6 87.3 93.2 86.6 2.0% 25.2% 23.1% 49.7% 103 18.7% 4.3% 86 95 31.9%
A.Cabrera 89.6 91.6 93.9 85.0 2.7% 36.9% 22.9% 37.4% 92 18.1% 6.7% 119 92 51.2%
Hechavarria 88.6 86.7 91.1 89.2 0.9% 29.1% 22.2% 47.8% 79 13.3% 6.0% 56 89 28.9%
Mercer 87.1 87.9 91.9 84.8 3.9% 27.9% 19.7% 48.5% 72 14.2% 8.7% 89 85 33.9%
Espinosa 91.1 92.4 97.3 87.2 5.2% 37.9% 18.2% 38.8% 102 29.0% 9.0% 79 80 52.7%
Cozart 86.6 87.0 92.2 84.2 5.2% 34.7% 20.6% 39.4% 72 16.5% 7.3% 91 78 46.8%
A.Ramirez 84.7 84.6 84.2 85.7 3.8% 24.3% 20.2% 51.7% 58 12.5% 4.2% 63 65 44.0%
Galvis 87.6 88.2 91.1 84.8 2.5% 33.9% 23.5% 40.1% 73 21.8% 4.0% 74 64 41.6%
Aybar 85.1 85.2 86.6 84.8 2.1% 21.3% 19.5% 57.1% 54 15.3% 6.8% 65 62 39.5%
AVERAGE 88.7 89.3 92.3 86.5 3.4% 30.8% 21.1% 44.7% 98 19.3% 7.5% 95 93 40.5%

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 with the AL shortstop group, there is indisputable young star power at the top and automatic outs at the bottom. Overall, the offensive impact is similar in the two leagues; if anything, the NL crew might go one viable threat deeper than the AL.

The AL has their Carlos Correa, the NL counters with Corey Seager. Forced to choose, I’d likely select Seager’s present and Correa’s future. Over time, we’ll see whether the Dodger rookie’s extremely high liner rate was for real, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet against it. His pop-up rate was almost nonexistent, and paired an impressively low K rate for a youngster with solid contact authority that stills leaves room for growth. He’s the best of all worlds: a hit-before-power guy who’s developed considerable power. No holes here.

The same cannot necessarily be said for Trevor Story. Talk about a profile with peaks and valleys. First, lock in on that 182 overall Adjusted Contact Score. That’s a massive number; you can count the 2016 regulars topping that mark on less than two hands’ worth of fingers. The thump is real. However… his K rate is extreme, his liner rate is likely to regress downward, and his fly-ball rate is beyond maxed out. Even with that 182 Adjusted Contact Score, his Adjusted Production is just a good, if not great, 122. A still really good 150 Adjusted Contact Score would dump his Adjusted Production south of 100. To maintain his standing within this group, that K rate will have to come way down.

Just when you thought the Cardinal pipeline was running dry, along came Aledmys Diaz. He way outperformed his minor-league pedigree in his rookie season, though his 119 Adjusted Production falls well short of his 132 wRC+. He experienced materially good fortune on both liners (136 Unadjusted vs. 100 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounders (150 vs. 133). His pop-up rate was quite high for a player with a fly-ball rate in the average range, a cause for some concern.

On the positive side, he rarely strikes out, and posted his strong 2016 numbers with an extremely low liner rate that’s likely to regress upward moving forward. His floor is quite high, but his ceiling is fairly modest, likely shy of his actual 2016 numbers. He’s a reasonable facsimile for the late-career version of Jhonny Peralta he replaced.

Next to Seager, Brandon Crawford is likely the best all-around shortstop in the NL. His glove deservedly gets the most praise, but his bat is solidly reliable. While his home park had a role in keeping his fly-ball (73 Unadjusted vs. 85 Adjusted Contact Score) and liner Contact Scores (90 vs. 101) in check, this was offset by very good fortune on the ground (153 vs. 93). There is almost no colored shading on his line above, and when a shortstop is in the league-average-authority range across all BIP types, he tends to be an above-average offensive player. He’s one of the more predictable offensive middle infielders out there, with a high floor and a modest ceiling.

Jonathan Villar is likely headed over to second base in 2017 after a year split between shortstop and third base in 2016. Speed is obviously his carrying tool, partially explaining the difference between his 196 Unadjusted and 124 Adjusted Grounder Contact Score. Miller Park was his friend in the air, doing the same for his 211 Unadjusted vs. 133 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score. All of that said, Villar still hit the ball quite hard for a middle infielder and profiles well at his new position.

He strikes out a lot but compensates by drawing plenty of walks, and has additional power upside — especially at home — if he can modestly increase his fly-ball rate. Villar was quite a get for the Brewers, one of a number of cornerstones in their ongoing rebuild.

You might be surprised to see Addison Russell this low on the list. Yes, he is still a pup, and has a chance to climb a few notches higher in upcoming seasons, but there are some real offensive hurdles to overcome. He is very power-focused and has an old player’s exit-speed profile; his average fly ball speed is higher than his average liner, which is higher than his average grounder speed. His pop-up rate is very high for a hitter with an average-range fly-ball rate. With the bat, at least, he’s the young Cub about whose future I am the least sanguine. Now, mind you, he’s already a league-average hitter before the age of 23, but so was Jose Lopez once.

Chris Owings took another step toward being a very useful major leaguer in 2016, reclaiming the shortstop position and delivering slightly above-average offensive production for the position, largely driven by his admittedly fairly empty batting average. For the second straight season he posted a very high liner rate, so squaring up the baseball might actually be a real part of his skill set. It needs to be, as he walks very infrequently and doesn’t hit the ball in the air enough to do material damage. This is likely about as good as it gets for Owings, and a drop in that liner rate would send him careening down the rankings.

No NL shortstop’s actual production exceeded their projection by a greater margin than Asdrubal Cabrera’s. Some of it can be explained, while some of it was simply good fortune on his part. The root of this differential, good and bad, lies in his extreme-pulling tendency. On the ground, it’s a bad thing: he batted .205 AVG-.213 SLG (72 Unadjusted Production) on grounders, and was assessed an extreme-pulling penalty. In the air, he is a master of selectively pulling the pitches he can handle for distance. He batted .374 AVG-1.061 SLG on fly balls (144 Unadjusted Contact Score, while his exit-speed/launch-angle data supports just a 75 mark). Jimmy Rollins was productive through his 30s doing the same thing. There’s an awful lot of offensive and defensive risk in his game, and the bill is likely to come due in the next two or three seasons, if not in 2017.

If I could pick one truly bad offensive player who could one day grow into something resembling a league-average performer, I’d take Adeiny Hechavarria. Stick with me for a minute here. He’ll never hit for power (37 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score), so he’ll need to get it done another way. Compared to the other qualifying shortstops in both leagues with similarly puny offensive output, Hechavarria hit his liners and (especially) his grounders harder than most, and used the entire field much more liberally. He never strikes out, making his floor… well, making 2016 his floor. He was extremely unlucky on the ground, batting .181 AVG-.181 SLG (54 Unadjusted Contact Score) while his granular data supports a much higher 110 mark. I see him more as a slightly poorer man’s Elvis Andrus offensively moving forward, rather than the late-career Alexei Ramirez clone his 2016 numbers suggest.

While Hechavarria might have some future offensive upside, I’d argue that Jordy Mercer, with a very similar BIP profile as a foundation, does not. Outside of his low K rate, there isn’t anything resembling a strength in Mercer’s profile. His fly-ball (52) and grounder (85) Adjusted Contact Scores are well below average. He’s not a present offensive hole like those at the bottom of both leagues’ shortstop lists, but he’s clearly below average.

Danny Espinosa’s offensive philosophy surely must be “Swing hard, in case you hit it.” He became an even more extreme version of his former self in 2016, hitting the ball harder, while striking out and pulling the baseball even more than in the past. His power numbers were buttressed by a significant increase in his fly-ball rate, one that is well out of whack with his previous marks. I wouldn’t be surprised to see his fly rate slide, causing the offensive side of his game to totally crater in 2017. Trea Turner might get that shortstop job yet.

Until 2016, Zack Cozart had never posted anywhere near league-average offensive numbers over a full season. To do so, he had to experience very good fortune on fly balls (75 Unadjusted vs. 48 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score). He’s always been a pop-up machine, he hits his grounders very weakly, and his 2016 liner rate was very high compared to past seasons. Lot of warning signs for a fairly significant backslide in the near term. Potential trade partners, be forewarned.

The Padres have seemingly gotten rid of everyone, but Alexei Ramirez beat them all out the door. Both his overall and line-drive average exit speeds were over two STD below the league. He possessed the undesirable combination of a high pop-up rate and a low fly-ball rate, and his once merely adequate BIP authority has gradually and totally slipped away from him in recent years. He simply no longer measures up to the standard of a regular MLB shortstop.

Freddy Galvis: 20 homers? Don’t be fooled, at least with the bat. He’s a solid defender, but this about sums up his offensive game: he compiled a 74 wRC+, and an even lower 64 Adjusted Production mark, despite a very high liner rate. What happens when that liner rate drops even into the average range? Even the 20 homers were a mirage of sorts: his 85 Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score was marked down to 50 when adjusted for context. He shouldn’t be considered a material obstacle to J.P. Crawford.

After a strong career, Erick Aybar has been reduced to this, trailing the NL shortstop pack. In his day, Aybar would post K rates in the 10% rate and was at least a threat to ride a fly ball over the wall down the line from time to time. Now, with a 15% K rate and an Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 21, it’s over, at least as a regular.

For those of you who have read through to the end, some bonus thoughts on the Chris Sale deal. I consider Sale to be, believe it or not, underrated. He should have at least two Cy Young Awards on his mantle already. In fact, I would have given him a first-place vote this season. He does everything you could ever want a pitcher to do: miss bats, minimize free passes, and manage contact at a well above-average level. The only nit I can pick is that, for a great pitcher, he’s an ordinary athlete, a la Ben Sheets in his day. I’m not really sure how Sale would bounce back from a major injury at this stage of his career.

As for the other side of the deal, the White Sox obtained tremendous upside, especially in the persons of Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech. Many consider Moncada the game’s foremost prospect. Upside-wise, that might in fact be true. There is real risk here, however. It was only 20 at-bats in his brief 2016 MLB debut, but 12 strikeouts? That’s an eye-catcher. It took him a little while to start cooking in his 2015 A-ball debut, but he’s been a freight train since. As for Kopech, it’s all about velocity and upside. What exactly is he, though? He’s pitched all of 134.2 innings as a pro, and has a portfolio dotted with missed time for all of the wrong reasons — i.e. injury and suspension. You can’t teach a repeatable 100-plus mph fastball, however.

One has to give the White Sox credit for swinging for the fences, but I prefer the Red Sox end of the deal. It isn’t every day that a superstar pitcher at the absolute top of his game — and at a very reasonable salary — becomes available. If you can add him without putting a huge long-term hole in your organizational depth, you do it. Not too many clubs could afford to move such a package, but the Red Sox could.

newest oldest most voted

How can Aledmys Diaz’ ceiling be lower than the numbers he just put up? I get that you’re saying he’s a candidate for regression, but you’d have to agree that even if that’s true then he’s reached his ceiling.