2016 NL Contact Management by Pitch Type

Real 2017 games have been played in earnest, but sample sizes are so small that we might as well continue our look at 2016 starting-pitcher contact management by pitch type. Last time, we reviewed the AL ERA qualifiers; today, it’s the NL qualifiers’ turn.

Throughout the offseason, we calculated Adjusted Contact Scores for all ERA qualifiers in both leagues, which covered their entire arsenal of pitches. Now, we’re drilling down and getting pitch specific.

If you haven’t read my previous work on this topic, this is how Adjusted Contact Scores are derived. Each batted ball is placed into a “bucket” based on its exit speed (5 mph increments) and launch angle (> 20 degrees vertical angle = fly ball, 5-20 degrees = line drive, < 5 degrees = ground ball). The projected offensive production for each bucket is based on the major-league average for all batted balls in that bucket. Convert everything to run values, compared it league average of 100, and voila, there’s your Adjusted Contact Score.

Today, we’re going to go through that process for every pitch type (with at least 50 batted-balls allowed) thrown by every 2016 NL ERA qualifier. Yes, some of the resulting sample sizes are a bit small, but there is still valuable information to be mined. At the very least, we’re able to see the nuts and bolts driving these pitchers’ contact management performances.

The following table will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

NL Contact Management By Pitch
Hendricks 55 78 84 75
Martinez, C. 79 80 70 87 80
Roark 53 98 94 57 83
Arrieta 76 108 81 71 83
Lester 108 95 76 88
Maeda 77 143 103 98 68 91
Eickhoff 75 108 93 74 92
Scherzer 92 98 90 92
Davies 68 73 108 102 92
Nelson 138 94 76 95
Cueto 97 93 103 91 98 96
Syndergaard 102 94 88 97
Samardzija 91 111 130 87 82 98
Garcia, J. 46 120 115 98
Straily 94 112 85 99
Bumgarner 54 121 132 104 101
Gonzalez, G. 94 92 109 101 101
Koehler 108 122 62 102
Bettis 80 98 114 79 97 102
Hammel 117 108 89 103
Hellickson 81 110 114 109 103
Teheran 85 79 118 123 94 105
Leake 83 96 116 106
Wainwright 95 85 135 137 106
Colon 101 106 107
Gray, J. 124 90 108
Finnegan 62 169 83 91 112
Fernandez, J. 84 91 132 112
Lackey 150 97 115 111 113
Ray, R. 116 133 105 125
AVG 77 94 95 114 130 104 122 96 85 99

Each value in the table above represents the Adjusted Contact Score for each pitch in a hurler’s arsenal, subject to the limits described above. The right-most column lists each pitcher’s overall Adjusted Contact Score.

Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.
In this case, lower numbers are good.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the best and worst qualifying contact managers, as well as some notables in between:

The Top Five

Kyle Hendricks, Cubs
Hendricks was our 2017 NL Contact Manager of the Year, supplanting teammate Jake Arrieta. The least of his three primary offerings with regard to contact management, his sinker, had a strong 84 Adjusted Contact Score. His changeup (55) was the second best of its type, while his cutter (78) ranked first. His sinker racked up the grounders, though they were hit quite hard (120 Adjusted Contact Score). His change, however, muted contact of all types (50, 79 and 60 scores for flies, liners and grounders, respectively). All three pitches pivotally minimized fly-ball damage (50, 86 and 54 scores for his change, cutter, and sinker). There really is no escape for opposing hitters.

Carlos Martinez, Cards
Martinez is the second of three NL hurlers at the top of this list whose entire arsenal is composed of above-average contact-management offerings. His worst pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score was 87, on his two-seamer, which generated an exceptional number of grounders. His two best scores were 70 and 79 — on his four-seamer and curve, respectively. Both featured a bit of luck, as his liner rates allowed on the two pitches were extremely low, and likely to regress upward moving forward. That 70 Adjusted Contact Score on his four-seamer was over two full standard deviations lower than league average, by far leading the league. Some bad luck (.323 AVG on grounders) obscured the effectiveness of his curve; he “should have” allowed a .203 AVG on those grounders, and posted an 80 Adjusted Contact Score. This is a bulletproof contact-management arsenal. If his improved bat-missing is real, watch out.

Tanner Roark, Nationals
This guy’s baseball card should feature him standing behind a tree; he’s simply the most faceless, underrated really good pitcher out there. He had sub-100 Adjusted Contact Scores on all four of his primary pitches, posting marks in the 50s on both his changeup (53) and slider (57). How good were those two pitches? His slider was easily the best in the NL by this measure, over two STD better than league average. He muffled contact on all BIP types (67, 62, and 52 on flies, liners, and grounders) with the pitch. Before adjustment for context, the changeup was even more amazing, allowing a meager .171 AVG-.289 SLG (29 Unadjusted Contact Score, adjusted upward to 53). He’s an exceptional contrast from Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer for opposing hitters.

Jake Arrieta, Cubs
This guy really belongs in the same conversation with the three above; while his 108 Adjusted Contact Score on his four-seamer exceeds 100, it’s still beneath the pitch-specific average. Arrieta is one of a very small number of pitchers who actually yields fewer fly balls than grounders on his four-seamer. He throws his sinker an awful lot and gets plenty of help from his strong infield defense. Hitters batted well under .200 on the ground on his four-seamer, sinker, and slider (Unadjusted Contact Scores of 45, 27, and 12, adjusted upward to 74, 87, and 60 based on speed/angle data). Haven’t even mentioned his curve yet, with which he best thwarted fly-ball authority (68 Adjusted Contact Score).

Jon Lester, Cubs
Hmmm, three Cubs among the top-five contact managers? Combine that with their stout team defense, and their run-prevention excellence is quite easy to see. He’s the only one of the top five to actually possess a materially below-average contact-management pitch (his cutter, with a 108 Adjusted Contact Score), but that’s a small blemish. His four-seamer’s 95 Adjusted Contact Score is actually a pretty big deal; it ranked second within its pitch type, one of only three four-seamer scores below 100. Like Arrieta, though to a somewhat lesser extent, Lester was also adept at inducing grounders with the four-seamer. The efficiency of his sinker was obscured by an oddly high .432 AVG-.541 SLG (369 Unadjusted Contact Score) on grounders allowed on the pitch. Adjusted for context, he “should have” posted a much lower 116 mark.

The Bottom Five

Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks
Virtually every member of the D-backs’ 2016 pitching staff allowed thunderous contact, but Ray was their poster child. Both his two-seamer (133 Adjusted Contact Score) and slider (105) ranked last in this metric within their pitch type. He allowed an incredible .462 AVG-.679 SLG on balls in play on his two-seamer, for a 183 Unadjusted Contact Score, marked down to 133 based on exit-speed/launch-angle allowed. He yielded very loud contact in the air on all three of his pitchers (132, 219, and 176 Adjusted Contact Scores on his four-seamer, two-seamer, and slider, respectively). The glass-half-full approach must be taken here: with his bat-missing ability, Ray could be a star with even average contact-management ability. His new management understands this.

John Lackey, Cubs
Well, well… a Cub starter on the naughty list. While Hendricks, Arrieta, and Lester combined their expertise with their defense’s skill to create run-prevention excellence, Lackey simply relied on the defense for survival. Just look at that abysmal 150 Adjusted Contact Score on his curve. He “should have” allowed a .378 AVG-1.156 SLG (162 Adjusted Contact Score) in the air on the pitch. On raw numbers alone, his cutter (.187 AVG-.203 SLG, 23 Unadjusted Contact Score) would appear to be an elite contact-management offering. This is where his defense saved him: on flies (2 vs. 76), liners (35 vs. 98), and grounders (22 vs. 142), his Adjusted Contact Score was way higher than the unadjusted version. His overall Adjusted Contact Score on the cutter was a decent, though far from great, 97.

Jose Fernandez, Marlins
We’ll keep this one short and sweet, as I’m not comfortable critiquing the departed. This kid was great, and he was going to get a lot greater. Despite yielding an outrageous 28.0% liner rate, his overall Adjusted Contact Score wasn’t that far worse than league average, at 112. That liner rate allowed was clearly going to regress downward. The change and curve were already above-average contact-management pitches even with all those liners, and despite the massive 132 Adjusted Contact Score allowed on his four-seamer, he was able to manage fly-ball authority (62 Adjusted Contact Score) with the pitch. He’ll be missed.

Brandon Finnegan, Reds
What a mess of a line this is. There’s plenty of good (Adjusted Contact Scores of 62, 83, and 91 on his changeup, sinker, and slider), besmirched by the sickly 169 mark on his four-seamer. As strong as the fly-ball-authority (132 Adjusted Contact Score) allowed on his four-seamer was, it was far outstripped by the 193 figure allowed on grounders. He “should have” yielded a .331 AVG-.359 SLG on the ground on his four-seamer according to the speed/angle data. Overall, Finnegan simply allows too many fly balls for his pitch mix; he allows almost as many flies as grounders on his sinker, unusual for that pitch type. First 2017 start notwithstanding, both his K rate and contact management played down as a starter last season; I think we’d see a different cat with a move back to the pen.

Jon Gray, Rockies
This is the classic case of a thrower who has yet to evolve into a pitcher. He’s a pretty good thrower, mind you, but a thrower nonetheless. He only met the 50 ball-in-ply threshold with two pitches, his four-seamer and his slider. A four-seamer by definition is generally not a quality contact-management offering, unless your name is Carlos Martinez or Jon Lester. Playing his games at altitude, Gray has little margin for error, and he squanders what he has quickly by allowing lusty fly-ball authority. Hitters batted .391 AVG-1.031 SLG (144 Unadjusted Contact Score) on fly balls against his four-seamer, just a little more damage than the 140 score he “should have” allowed based on the speed/angle data. In Coors, it could have been much worse. With a real third pitch, Gray could become an average contact manager and true ace.

Other Notables

Kenta Maeda, Dodgers
Like many Far Eastern imports, Maeda has relied upon a diverse arsenal of pitches for his early success. Four of his five primary pitches effectively muted contact, led by his slider (68 Adjusted Contact Score). His curve (143) held him back, however, with lots of fly balls allowed, many of them authoritative (139 Adjusted Contact Score). His raw, unadjusted numbers against the curve were even worse, as hitters batted .476 AVG-.524 SLG on the ground (404 Adjusted Contact Score, marked down to 87 for context).

Jerad Eickhoff, Phillies
Eickhoff very quietly showcased three strong contact-management offerings in his first full MLB season: his curve (75 Adjusted Contact Score), two-seamer (93), and slider (74). Even his four-seamer (108) was above average for its pitch type. He shut down grounder contact with both his curve (56) and slider (51), his two best contact-management pitches. Expect a bit of regression with the slider, as he allowed an extremely low liner rate on the pitch. He also allows more fly balls on that pitch compared to the NL average.

Max Scherzer, Nationals
Hats off to Mr. Scherzer, once a thrower who overwhelmed contact-management struggles with pure stuff, who has now evolved into a pitcher who does it all. All three of his pitches were modestly above-average contact-management offerings. That’s a pretty neat trick, particularly on the four-seamer, considering how many fly balls Scherzer allows. When the decline eventually comes, it will likely to due to increased fly-ball authority on that pitch. Right now, he allows a ton of fly-ball contact in the 75-90 mph “donut hole,” where flies go to die. When enough of those balls in play creep up a bucket or two, he’ll have issues.

Zach Davies, Brewers
It’s pretty impressive for a pitcher in his first full season to put up as strong a contact-management campaign as Davies did in 2016. His changeup is the primary driver of such success. While he does allow plenty of fly balls on his change, he shut down both fly-ball and grounder authority (identical 45 Adjusted Contact Scores) with the pitch. His curve was a strong contact-management offering, as well; he didn’t allow a single hit on grounders on his curve. Even after adjustment for context, his 61 Adjusted Grounder Contact Score was strong. With expected fastball improvement, Davies could have a real breakthrough soon.

Noah Syndergaard, Mets
Everyone knows how overpowering this guy is, but did you know that this guy is already an average contact manager, with plenty of remaining upside? One would expect a pitcher who relies so heavily on his four-seamer to have contact-management issues, but not him. His 102 Adjusted Contact Score on the four-seamer is measurably better than league average. He induces more grounders than most on the pitch, and has contained the authority of the flies he does allow (90 Adjusted Contact Score). The arm action and delivery still scare me over the long term, but the short-term outlook is limitless.

Madison Bumgarner, Giants
Interesting stuff here. Without the contributions of his curve ball (54 Unadjusted Contact Score), Bumgarner would have been a well below-average contact-manager last season. Fly-ball frequency was the issue with his four-seamer, and fairly extreme fly-ball authority (170 Adjusted Contact Score) the problem on the two-seamer. The big lefty has built his success on K/BB excellence; when he begins to fade in that area, he isn’t going to have a particularly strong contact-management foundation upon which to fall back. His demise isn’t imminent, for sure, but it could be sudden when it comes.

Contact management is just a piece of the puzzle when it comes to evaluating pitchers. Next time, we’ll introduce swing-and-miss data so that we can take a unique approach to grading out the individual pitches in qualifiers’ arsenals.

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5 years ago


5 years ago
Reply to  phpope

Too few balls in play, I would guess. Likely due to a combination of his DL stint and the fact that his K/BB ratio looks similar to what would happen if most guys pitched to blindfolded hitters.

5 years ago
Reply to  phpope

Didn’t qualify, but I agree we definitely need to see his numbers somewhere

5 years ago
Reply to  phpope

Pretty poor decision to leave out the best pitcher in the game.