2017 Top AL Contact Performers

Much of the focus in this still young season has been on higher launch angles, the three true outcomes, and a handful of newly minted sluggers who have quickly made an impact on the game. This week, let’s take a look at the players who have done the most damage on contact this year, analyze how they’ve done it, and assess what might lie in store for them. First, we’ll look at the AL.

To determine the AL’s top-10 performers on contact, we simply remove the Ks and BBs from the records of regular players, and compare their production on balls in play (BIP) to a league average of 100. Those who have read my articles on this topic in the past might recognize that as a player’s “Unadjusted Contact Score”. In the two tables below, contact authority and frequency data is provided for the AL leaders in Unadjusted Contact Score through this past Saturday:

Top AL Contact Performers – Authority Data
Sano 329 430-403 194-142 119-119 282 165 157
Judge 308 391-424 172-160 102-81 305 197 213
Trout 253 288-233 163-113 259-131 179 212 181
Gallo 201 362-368 180-150 16-16 189 114 106
Dickerson 199 212-156 127-93 188-82 127 168 110
C.Davis 198 271-160 96-111 53-51 151 110 89
Holliday 177 290-256 105-107 173-145 162 138 126
Souza 167 208-113 144-120 110-82 114 138 98
Av.Garcia 163 223-195 124-112 168-98 131 139 111
J.Upton 162 89-145 190-106 156-101 142 123 109

Top AL Contact Performers – Frequency Data
Name POP % FLY% LD% GB% K% BB%
Sano 2.0% 44.4% 24.7% 28.9% 37.4% 15.5%
Judge 0.9% 36.4% 22.9% 39.8% 29.3% 14.9%
Trout 4.8% 35.5% 22.6% 37.1% 20.4% 17.5%
Gallo 10.0% 50.0% 15.0% 25.0% 38.2% 11.3%
Dickerson 2.3% 35.3% 20.8% 41.6% 20.6% 5.0%
C.Davis 1.9% 40.2% 25.2% 32.7% 38.6% 12.3%
Holliday 3.4% 33.8% 15.3% 47.5% 28.4% 11.9%
Souza 2.4% 29.9% 25.8% 41.9% 28.6% 14.3%
Av.Garcia 2.6% 23.4% 22.1% 51.9% 20.9% 4.3%
J.Upton 4.2% 39.1% 19.2% 37.5% 29.7% 12.0%

The first of the tables above includes each player’s aforementioned Unadjusted Contact Score, along with their Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores for each BIP category, their overall Adjusted Contact Score, actual wRC+, and Projected Production, which is a BIP-based proxy for wRC+ that better represents a player’s true talent level. Red font color is used to indicate players who have been assessed an extreme-grounder-pulling penalty.

The bottom table lists their K and BB rates, as well as the breakdown of all of their BIP by category type. For this table, color-coding is used 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.

What is real, and what isn’t, with regard to these year-to-date performances? Let’s take a player-by-player look.

Miguel Sano, Twins
Our AL leader in Unadjusted Contact Score, at an amazing 329, is Sano. To put that number in perspective, consider that the highest Unadjusted Contact Score for any 2016 AL semi-regular was 191 by the Indians’ Tyler Naquin. That’s a testament to the power of sample size, but also a cautionary tale as to the importance of context; there was an awful lot of luck packed into Naquin’s figure.

There isn’t a ton of luck in Sano’s fly ball-striking: his Adjusted Contact Score of 403 is in the same neighborhood as his unadjusted 430 mark. His average fly-ball velocity of 99.6 mph would have easily led the AL last season. There is a bunch of luck involved in his performance on liners to date. He’s recorded an outrageous .933 AVG and 1.167 SLG (194 Unadjusted Contact Score) on them, but adjustment for context lowers that figure to a still stellar 142. His 101.2 mph average liner velocity would have led the AL in 2016, as well. Sano hasn’t hit his grounders nearly as well relative to the league (119 Contact Score), and was assessed a small excessive pulling penalty.

Sano pulls off the neat trick of hitting a ton of fly balls without popping up much. He’s also earned a great deal of respect from opposing pitchers in his brief time in the league, with a mounting BB rate. There isn’t much additional upside beyond what he is doing at present, but that’s OK: 157 Projected Production is star territory. Sure, the K rate could come down, but there’s no way that his contact authority (or his liner rate) can be maintained at this extreme level over the long haul.

Aaron Judge, Yankees
Based on raw average velocity, Judge doesn’t quite match up to Sano overall (95.5 to 96.8 mph) or on fly balls (97.8 vs. 99.6 mph). He has outdone him in average liner velocity (103.6 to 101.2 mph). Judge would have finished second in the AL to Nelson Cruz in overall average velocity in 2016, and first in both fly-ball and liner velocity.

His Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 424 is even better than Sano’s, as a lower percentage of Judge’s flies have been hit in the 75-90 mph “donut hole,” which almost always results in an out. Judge’s 160 Adjusted Contact Score on liners is absolutely lethal; nearly half of his liners have been hit at over 110 mph, a scary thought.

Judge does hit his grounders fairly weakly, and he hits a bunch of them; this, along with his high (but not deal-breaking) K rate, should place pressure on his batting average over time. As with Sano, expect a dip in his liner rate moving forward — they are much more volatile than other BIP-type frequencies. On the plus side, he also shares Sano’s ability to elevate the baseball without popping up much. There’s actually a little room for Judge’s fly-ball rate to grow. He’s an absolute stud, with less risk than Sano.

Mike Trout, Angels
Unfortunately, the game’s best player is injured; the only minimal silver lining is that these numbers get to stand still for a spell to earn our admiration. No, he doesn’t destroy the ball a la Sano or Judge; there is a very healthy speed premium in Trout’s numbers. He outperforms his contact quality across all BIP types (288 Unadjusted vs. 233 Adjusted Fly Ball, 163 vs. 113 Liner, and 259 vs. 131 Grounder Contact Scores).

On the other hand, he strikes out less and walks more than these other players, and is the only one who plays a premium defensive position. Sure, his pop-up rate is a little elevated, but there is very little overall risk in his offensive game at this point. The speed component will gradually diminish over time, but who’s to say that the raw power won’t drift upward modestly to compensate? We should all enjoy the privilege of watching him whenever we can.

Joey Gallo, Rangers
Freak-show alert. There are so many outlier numbers on his line that I’m sure I’ll miss one. His 368 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score is up there near Sano/Judge territory. His 99.3 mph average fly-ball velocity is just off of Sano’s pace. His average liner velocity of 102.5 mph sits right between those two, so his 180 Unadjusted Contact Score on liners isn’t that outrageous, though it is whittled down to 150 for context.

Though he doesn’t hit that many grounders, they are almost exclusively hit to the pull side and aren’t hit nearly as hard as Sano or Judge’s. He’s 2 for 22 on them to date, and there really isn’t much hope at present for material growth above that poor 16 Contact Score.

His plate-appearance frequency profile is a mess. First, his K and pop-up rates are off of the charts; giving away half of your plate appearances is no way to go through life and makes it hard to be productive, no matter how you impact the baseball. If you take away the pop ups and the extreme grounder-pulling, he’s a lot like pre-2017 Sano. You can’t just strip those two huge factors away, however. Gallo has a long way to go to become a true offensive star.

Corey Dickerson, Rays
Yes, Dickerson has ramped up his game this season, but there’s an awful lot of good fortune in his actual numbers. Across the board, he has been lucky on all BIP types (212 Unadjusted vs. 156 Adjusted Fly Ball, 127 vs. 93 Liner and 188 vs. 82 Grounder Contact Scores). Yes, despite his overall success, his liners and grounders have actually been struck more weakly than league average. Pretty tough to make a positive top-10 list with that going on.

His plate-appearance frequency line is by far the least colorful of the above players. The one clear notable item is, of course, his very low BB rate, which places great pressure on his contact quality. He “should be” hitting .273/.310/.489 to date. Not bad, but miles away from his actual numbers.

Chris Davis, Orioles
This guy is one of the few players around who knows what it’s like to post Sano/Judge/Gallo-like Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Scores over a full season. Now, though, Davis is the result of what happens when a hitter’s ball-striking skills begin to naturally erode, exposing the weaknesses that surround them.

Davis has been very lucky on fly balls thus far in 2017 (271 Unadjusted vs. 160 Adjusted Contact Score, fairly ordinary 90.5 mph average velocity). His uppercut stroke produces weak, topped, pulled grounders. He’s hit them so weakly (51 Adjusted Contact Score) that an excessive-pulling penalty wasn’t needed.

Put it this way: Davis’s uninspiring performance to date is despite a high liner rate that is likely to regress downward and a very high fly-ball rate with little room to grow — all that coupled with a low pop-up rate. It’s not looking good for his future.

Matt Holliday, Yankees
Those of you who’ve read my stuff for awhile know that I’ve got a little bit of a Matt Holliday thing. He just does it right. He never overly focused on elevating the baseball and has always used the entire field. Doing those things so well for so long enables a batter to “sell out” a bit on them — and on making contact in general — late in one’s career, as physical skills begin to fade. And here we are, with Holliday now “harvesting” for power, in a hitters’ park.

His K rate isn’t in a great place, but he still torches all BIP types (Adjusted Contact Scores of 256, 107 and 145 on flies, liners and grounders). He hits his grounders harder than the other, younger players on this list and still isn’t an infield overshift candidate. He’s been running low liner rates for a bit now, so we might be waiting for regression that never comes, but… what if it does? I still believe.

Steven Souza, Rays
Sorry, Rays fans, but both of the most obvious mirages on this list reside in your lineup. Souza has been very lucky on all BIP types, but has been alarmingly so on fly balls (208 Unadjusted vs. 113 Adjusted Contact Score). Only 25% and 35%, respectively — very low percentages in this company — have been hit at over 100 and 95 mph.

There has been some real improvement: the K and BB rates are both moving in the right direction, and his numbers on line drives (average 95.1 mph in 2016, 97.7 mph in 2017) suggests that big power could still develop. While there is lots of room for his fly rate to grow, his liner rate is ripe for regression. Don’t believe his current numbers; he’s an average offensive player.

Avisail Garcia, White Sox
Here’s another example of a player who has made some progress, though not nearly as much as his raw numbers might suggest. Garcia still doesn’t walk or hit the ball in the air very often, but he is beginning to drive the ball hard in the air on those infrequent occasions. His average fly-ball velocity has increased from 91.0 mph in 2016 to 92.3 mph in 2017, allowing him to post a very strong 195 Adjusted Contact Score in the air this season.

Still, his numbers have been puffed up by exceedingly good fortune on the ground. He’s recorded a .297 AVG and .297 SLG on grounders — good for a 168 Unadjusted Contact Score, despite his authority meriting a much lower 98 mark. He pulls the ball on the ground frequently, as well, so there is downside below that level. Still, if you would have penciled in a .279/.310/.491 slash line (his Projected Production level) at the beginning of the season, Sox fans would have signed up.

Justin Upton, Tigers
To land on this list despite Comerica Park’s fly-ball-suppressing ways is quite a feat. Upton is the only player on this list with an Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score below 200, and his is below 100, at 89. He “should be” posting a 145 mark given his authority levels.

He’s been even luckier on liners as he’s been lucky on flies, however, having recorded a .793 AVG and 1.379 SLG (190 Unadjusted Production) despite authority supporting a much lower 106 mark. He’s also greatly overperformed on the ground (156 vs. 101).

It’s probably time to stop expecting a massive breakthrough from the former No. 1 overall draft pick. His fly-ball rate doesn’t offer much upside, and his K and BB rates are what they are. He’s still relatively young, and is a very solid No. 5 hitter, but at this time his big contract looks unlikely to be a bargain or an albatross.

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6 years ago

I find the yellow and orange are difficult to visually differentiate. Black also makes less intuitive sense as “more extreme than blue” when compared to the gradient between red, orange, and yellow used on the other end of the STD spectrum.

6 years ago
Reply to  FunFella13

STD spectrum.

6 years ago
Reply to  FunFella13

I’ve also always wished that the colors would “point in the same direction” for “goodness” rather than absolute larger and smaller. That is lowest popup rates should be red, and highest popup rates should be black instead of the other way round