2017 Top NL Contact Performers

Earlier this week, we took a look at the AL hitters producing the most on balls put in play. Today, it’s the NL hitters’ turn. Bear in mind that this top-10 list is based on games played through Saturday, explaining the absence of the greatest hitter of all time, Scooter Gennett. (In all seriousness, nice job, Scoots.)

To determine the NL’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”. We’re not saying these players have made the “best” contact (Adjusted Contact Score does that); but they’ve done the most in-game damage on contact. We’re simply peeling back a layer or two to see how they’ve done it, and how much of it is real. In the two tables below, contact authority and frequency data is provided for the AL leaders in Unadjusted Contact Score:

Top NL Contact Performers – Authority Data
Name UNADJ C U-FLY-A U-LD-A U-GB-A ADJ C wRC+ PRJ PRD
Freeman 252 342-286 135-101 68-103 216 208 216
Zimmerman 235 340-272 160-124 184-129 182 189 166
Conforto 210 281-206 153-116 131-95 156 168 140
Harper 210 189-227 165-122 323-154 169 179 177
Kemp 194 221-154 87-100 177-146 171 157 149
Thames 190 225-164 169-120 66-76 147 158 143
Broxton 187 157-119 106-92 217-95 136 96 74
Lamb 186 300-160 165-102 74-74 116 134 102
Bour 183 283-237 165-117 81-161 174 152 152
Blackmon 173 166-146 108-85 273-112 125 135 112

Top NL Contact Performers – Frequency Data
Name POP % FLY% LD% GB% K% BB%
Freeman 0.0% 40.4% 22.1% 37.5% 18.8% 16.4%
Zimmerman 2.6% 33.2% 22.5% 41.7% 19.6% 7.7%
Conforto 0.8% 39.3% 23.0% 36.9% 24.4% 13.4%
Harper 2.3% 36.8% 18.8% 42.1% 19.2% 15.9%
Kemp 0.7% 32.8% 25.2% 41.3% 20.3% 5.2%
Lamb 1.4% 36.6% 17.9% 44.1% 26.6% 11.8%
Thames 1.7% 39.8% 17.8% 40.7% 23.9% 17.2%
Bour 3.5% 30.6% 19.1% 46.8% 23.0% 10.3%
Broxton 2.0% 26.7% 28.7% 42.6% 38.3% 7.3%
Blackmon 2.1% 37.0% 18.0% 42.9% 19.4% 5.0%

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 performance 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.

One immediate observation is that no one in the NL does what Aaron Judge or Miguel Sano do to the baseball. On the other hand, there are some clear qualitative strengths shared by these 10 players. Seven of the 10 have pop up rates measurably below league average; the other three are in the average range. All ten have average to slightly below average grounder rates. They are maximizing their fly ball rates without going overboard, or as they say on the West Coast, pulling a (Ryan) Schimpf.

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

Freddie Freeman, Braves
Unfortunately, the current NL leader in Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Score, wRC+, and Projected Production is sitting on the disabled list. Freeman’s greatness was partially obscured by his pitcher-friendly home park in years past, but he doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. His new digs are playing more hitter friendly (342 Unadjusted vs. 286 Adjusted Fly Ball and 135 vs. 101 Liner Contact Score) and accentuating his offensive exploits.

He’s basically the same guy he was in 2016 with regard to contact authority: his overall average velocity is up from 91.7 to 92.2 mph, his average fly-ball velocity is up from 93.6 to 95.8 mph, and his average liner velocity is fractionally up from 95.4 to 95.6 mph. Where he has markedly improved is on the K/BB front, with both ratios moving in the right direction.

Looking for flaws? Well, he doesn’t crush the ball on the ground, and while he isn’t an extreme-puller begging to be overshifted, he is a slow runner who will tend to underperform that modest authority level (68 Unadjusted vs. 101 Adjusted Grounder Contact Score). He’s presently the best pure hitter in the NL.

Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals
I tried to tell you… Zimmerman’s poor traditional 2016 numbers were belied by a stellar line of authority-based metrics, foreshadowing much better days, given expected regression in his low liner rate and a raising of his average launch angle. Consider it done.

His liner rate actually may have overcorrected a bit to date; a drop into the average range wouldn’t be a surprise moving forward. Zimmerman hit his liners harder than any NL regular in 2016 (99.8 mph average); he’s actually down a bit to 98.7 mph in 2017, but that’s still the best of this accomplished group. He’s hitting his fly balls much harder this time around, up from a 93.2 mph average in 2016 to 97.4 mph in 2017. That figure would have led the NL last season.

He’s been a bit lucky on all BIP types to date (340 Adjusted vs. 272 Adjusted Contact Score on flies, 160 vs. 124 on liners, and 184 vs. 129 on grounders), but he hits all BIP types hard and has greatly improved his BIP mix. His numbers may be a bit inflated, but he’s making high-end contact.

Michael Conforto, Mets
Ah, the Mets’ bright spot. And to think, it took an injury to Yoenis Cespedes to get him into the lineup on a semi-regular basis. Sure, he’s overperforming a bit on all BIP types (281 Unadjusted vs. 206 Adjusted Fly Ball, 153 vs. 116 Liner, and 131 vs. 95 Grounder Contact Scores), and his high liner rate is likely to regress a bit, but a Projected Production figure of 140 is still fine, thank you.

His K and BB rates have both moved in the right direction, and he has maintained a high, though not excessive, fly-ball rate while sharply cutting down on the pop ups. His subpar grounder authority inches him a little closer to power-before-hit rather than the preferred hit-before-power profile, but no matter: he’s proving that his minor-league dominance was real, and should be a fixture in the middle of the Met lineup for the long haul.

Bryce Harper, Nationals
Well, he’s back. Harper is healthy, first and foremost, and is striking the ball much better than in 2016. His overall average BIP velocity lagged in the average range, at 89.5 mph last season. This year, he’s at 91.0 mph. His average fly-ball and liner authority has increased from 89.7 and 95.6 mph in 2016 to 95.4 and 97.3 mph in 2017. That fly-ball increase is quite stark and indicative of his health.

Another huge positive development is the shucking aside of an extreme grounder-pulling tendency that hamstrung him last season. He’s hitting the ball to all fields on the ground, though when you’ve put up an otherworldly .370 AVG and .481 SLG (323 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground, there’s plenty of luck involved.

Harper is the only player in this top 10 who has actually been “unlucky” on fly balls; his 189 Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score lags his adjusted 227 mark. His Projected Production figure of 177 almost exactly matches his actual wRC+ mark. He’s still a puppy, his K/BB profile is impeccable, and there are no areas of material vulnerability in his offensive game.

Matt Kemp, Braves
Very quietly, Kemp has worked his way back into the population of productive offensive players. When you walk as little as he does, the path is quite narrow, but if you hit all BIP types hard to all fields, you can do it. Kemp still has a bit of a pull tendency on the ground, but he rarely rolls over weakly. His 87.5 mph average grounder velocity is way up from 82.5 mph last season.

Like Freeman, Kemp has been aided by his new home park; though his 2017 average fly-ball velocity of 91.7 mph actually falls short of his 2016 mark of 92.1 mph, his Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 221 is quite a bit higher than his adjusted 154 mark. A slight but not insignificant drop in his K rate has also had a positive effect.

He still hemorrhages a sizeable portion of his value in the field, but Kemp has officially resuscitated his bat to the point an AL team might have interest in taking a reasonable chunk of his contract as a DH.

Eric Thames, Brewers
Well, this sure has been fun to watch. Thames is a much more patient hitter than he was in his first MLB go-round, affording him some margin for error with regard to contact quality. He hasn’t needed it, as he’s running a healthy, though not excessive, fly-ball rate while rarely popping up, and hitting his flies (91.7 mph average velocity) and particularly his liners (99.2 mph) quite hard.

Miller Park is a stealth hitters’ park that is shielded from the offense-limiting elements of the cool upper Midwestern spring. He’s gotten quite a bit of help on flies (225 Unadjusted vs. 164 Adjusted Contact Score) and liners (169 vs. 120). His uppercut swing creates less-than-authoritative grounder contact, which should limit his batting-average upside. He’s not quite the power force his raw numbers paint him as, but his on-base ability might actually be underrated. The Brewers will take 143 Projected Production for their relatively modest intermediate-term investment.

Keon Broxton, Brewers
Let’s stay with the Brew Crew here. This is a fairly complicated one. I was extremely bullish on Broxton entering the season, as his 2016 batted-ball authority was so extreme that one could imagine stardom if only he could cut his K rate to a more respectable level.

Instead, the K rate has remained in the stratosphere while his BIP authority has plunged. Thing is, Broxton is such a good athlete, and he’s running such a high liner rate, that his ball-striking struggles don’t really show in his traditional batting line. He’s overperformed his exit-speed-adjusted projections on flies (157 Unadjusted vs. 119 Adjusted Contact Score), liners (106 vs. 92), and especially grounders (217 vs. 95). His speed premium is part of the reason, but there is no way Broxton should be hitting .306 AVG-.389 SLG on the ground with subpar average authority of 79.7 mph.

He will be one to watch closely moving forward. If the sweet-spot contact returns, enjoy the show. On the other hand, if his liner rate regresses as it should, his numbers could fall apart. Still, a worthwhile project for a club that appears to be arriving a bit ahead of schedule.

Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks
Lamb is the only player on the above list who was assessed an excessive-grounder-pulling penalty. This a new and unwelcome development. Though he still hits the ball quite hard, his average overall (from 92.4 to 90.4 mph), fly-ball (93.3 to 93.0 mph), and liner (99.4 to 94.7 mph) authority is down from 2016. These declines have been papered over by a very charitable offensive environment: his Unadjusted (300 and 165 for flies and liners) Contact Scores far outstrip his Adjusted (160 and 102) marks.

There’s still plenty to like here. He hits the ball hard and, like the others on this list, hits plenty of fly balls while rarely popping up. He has bought into the power a bit too much, however, and projects as a significant batting-average risk as things stand.

Justin Bour, Marlins
Yup, a Marlin on the list, and he’s not named Stanton. (Giancarlo finished narrowly behind Blackmon for the No. 11 spot.) Very quietly, this guy decimates the baseball. He’s been a bit fortunate on flies (283 Unadjusted vs. 237 Adjusted Contact Score) and liners (165 vs. 117), but extremely unlucky on the ground (81 vs. 161). With just a couple more pulled grounders, he would have absorbed a fairly hefty grounder-pulling penalty, so there is quite a bit of batting-average risk here.

On the other hand, there is plenty of additional power upside. Bour has the second-lowest fly-ball rate of any player listed above, but has hit the most fly-ball homers. Even a 35% fly-ball rate would arguably make him a favorite to lead the NL in homers if healthy.

The K and BB rates aren’t special, particularly for his position, but the ball-striking fits right in. It’s easy to get lost in the sea of productive NL first sackers, but don’t lose sight of Bour.

Charlie Blackmon, Rockies
OK, let’s be clear… Blackmon is not one of the 10 best baseball-impactors in the NL, but he might be one of the 10 best all-around players. Park effects certainly are a big part of the reason for his appearance on this list, but it’s not solely the one you immediately associate with Coors. Through May 20, all of 18 ground-ball triples had been hit by major-league batters. Four of them were hit by Blackmon, at Coors. He’s hit another one since. He’s batting an insane .310 AVG-.493 SLG (273 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground. He “should have” a much lower 112 mark.

Overall, Blackmon’s average BIP velocity of 86.8 mph is much lower than the others on this list. Interestingly, however, his average fly-ball authority (90.8 mph) outstrips both his liner (88.0 mph) and grounder (83.1 mph) marks. The vast majority of hitters hit their liners harder than their fly balls. In Coors, a couple mph of extra fly-ball impact goes a long, long way. Fly balls with launch angles near 40 degrees almost never leave the yard, or even come close. Blackmon has two such Coors homers this year. He has modified his approach to his home park and is reaping the dividends.

We hoped you liked reading 2017 Top NL Contact Performers by Tony Blengino!

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JDX
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JDX

Freeman as the best “pure hitter” in the NL? Would have sounded crazy a year ago, but now, not so much.