2017 Top NL Contact Survivors

Hitters are generating thunderous contact at a record clip, with pitchers in both leagues under siege. Last week, we examined the ERA-qualifying AL starting pitchers who have been the best at limiting damage, looking at their underlying batted-ball allowed data to see whether their performances are real. Today, we avert our gaze toward qualifying NL starting pitchers.

To determine the NL’s top-10 contact survivors, we simply remove the Ks and BBs from the records of ERA-qualifying starters, and compare their production allowed 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 pitcher’s “Unadjusted Contact Score”. We’re not saying these players have been the best contact managers (Adjusted Contact Score does that); but they’ve allowed the least in-game damage on contact. In the two tables below, contact authority and frequency data is provided for the NL leaders in Unadjusted Contact Score. All stats are through last Friday:

Top NL Contact Survivors – Authority Data
Lynn 70 69-68 77-100 50-65 82 63 111 74
Nova 73 79-103 84-103 54-92 99 67 84 98
C. Martinez 75 109-93 92-97 53-89 84 67 72 70
J. Garcia 75 74-74 110-92 62-90 79 73 98 88
Blach 78 55-74 117-100 81-87 85 103 94 97
Leake 80 43-94 141-99 42-69 92 73 87 89
R. Ray 81 92-119 62-110 104-132 115 57 72 84
Scherzer 82 98-98 89-97 69-89 90 52 68 57
Freeland 85 105-76 135-112 58-76 78 70 102 93
Kershaw 86 130-139 96-96 39-71 101 54 76 74
Top NL Contact Survivors – Frequency Data
Name POP % FLY% LD% GB% K% BB%
Lynn 1.5% 36.3% 17.1% 45.1% 23.5% 9.9%
Nova 2.5% 26.4% 21.6% 49.5% 13.7% 2.0%
C. Martinez 4.3% 27.1% 17.7% 50.9% 28.5% 8.8%
J. Garcia 1.7% 24.3% 17.3% 56.7% 16.7% 9.1%
Blach 2.5% 28.4% 19.5% 49.6% 10.5% 4.9%
Leake 0.8% 24.3% 20.1% 54.9% 17.5% 4.6%
R. Ray 5.6% 34.4% 21.7% 38.3% 32.4% 10.6%
Scherzer 6.0% 41.9% 15.8% 36.3% 35.1% 6.0%
Freeland 3.0% 22.3% 16.9% 57.8% 14.3% 9.2%
Kershaw 4.0% 29.0% 20.6% 46.4% 28.1% 4.3%

The first of the tables above includes each pitcher’s aforementioned Unadjusted Contact Score, along with their Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores for each BIP category, their overall Adjusted Contact Score, actual ERA-, FIP- and “tru” ERA-. “Tru” ERA adds back the Ks and BBs, and incorporates the Adjusted Contact Score data to give a better measure of each pitcher’s true performance level.

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.

Some brief commentary on the NL Top Ten contact survivors. As with the AL group, especially in this small, less than half-season sample, minimization of line drives is almost a prerequisite. Thing is, liner rates allowed are much more volatile compared to other BIP types, so regression could be in store moving forward. That said, six of the 10 hurlers listed have materially higher than average grounder rates allowed; that rate stabilizes very quickly, so these are much more likely to be true-talent attributes. Three of the four other pitchers have run materially above average pop up rates, another true-talent indicator.

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

Lance Lynn, Cardinals
Our leader in NL Unadjusted Contact Score through last Friday is the one of the 10 pitchers listed without a standout grounder or pop up tendency. How’d he get here? Well, he’s stifled fly ball authority (68 Adjusted Contact Score) better than the others, and is second best at limiting grounder authority (65). An amazing 29 of 60 fly balls allowed have been between 85 and 95 mph, where hitter success is very limited.

Lynn’s FIP- of 111 is easily the worst of any of the hurlers listed above; that stat simply does not take into account his authority-muting ways. Not all flies and grounders are created equal. Lynn’s “tru” ERA- of 74 isn’t the best of the above group, but it’s easily in the top half. He’s healthy and legitimately pitching some of the best ball of his career.

Ivan Nova, Pirates
Interestingly, there are some low-K pitchers on this list of contact survivors. Nova has the lowest walk rate among them, over two full standard deviations below league average. He has been extremely fortunate on all BIP types to date, with his Unadjusted Contact Scores well below his adjusted marks across the board (79 vs. 103 on fly balls, 84 vs. 103 on liners, 54 vs. 92 on grounders, 73 vs. 99 overall).

Nova is showing a bit of a grounder tendency, but not to as significant an extent as in past seasons. In addition, the grounders he’s allowing have been hit harder than all of the other grounder inducers on this list, at an average of 84.8 mph. His “tru” ERA- of 98 is worse than both his ERA- and FIP-. Expect quite a bit of regression in the wrong direction as the season continues to unfold.

Carlos Martinez, Cardinals
Here sits one of the true elite NL starters, combining bat-missing and contact management skills. Martinez is actually allowing quite a few less grounders than in the recent past, but given that this drop has been accompanied by an upward spike in his pop up rate, it’s not a big deal at all. It’s extremely uncommon for a pitcher to have above average BIP frequency rates at both ends of the launch angle spectrum.

Martinez has allowed modestly softer than average authority across all BIP types (93, 97 and 89 Adjusted Contact Scores on flies, liners and grounders), and his overall Adjusted Contact Score of 84 ranks fourth among the above group. With his strong track record of contact management, I’d peg him as the front runner for full-season NL Contact Manager of the Year honors. His 70 “tru” ERA- ranks second among this group; he’s a legit Cy Young candidate.

Jaime Garcia, Braves
Garcia was unlucky on the relatively few fly balls he allowed last season, expediting his exit from St. Louis. Always an extreme ground baller, Garcia’s 56.7% grounder rate through last Friday exactly matches his 2016 mark. He compounds that attractive frequency profile with solid authority suppression across the board (74, 92 and 90 Adjusted Fly Ball, Liner and Grounder Contact Scores).

He needs to manage contact more than ever, as his K rate is beginning to slip away from him; for the first time in his career, it’s markedly lower than league average. Garcia’s “tru” ERA- of 88 sits snugly between his 73 ERA- and 98 FIP-.

Ty Blach, Giants
Here’s our fourth of five consecutive prolific ground ball inducers. Blach’s K rate is a microscopic 10.5%, so successful contact management skill isn’t a luxury; it’s necessary for survival. He’s successfully muted contact both in the air (74 Adjusted Contact Score) and on the ground (87).

He’s the only pitcher listed above whose “tru” ERA- is lower than his ERA-. Despite this fact, his “tru” ERA- is only fractionally better than a single pitcher listed, and is barely better than average. To thrive in the rotation long-term, Blach will likely need to at least modestly enhance both his K and grounder rates. Just not enough margin for error here.

Mike Leake, Cardinals
Our third Cardinal. Speaking of improving around the edges, Leake would be a good role model for Blach. He still doesn’t strike out many hitters, but his K rate is up, and Leake’s suppression of authority across BIP types has been much improved this season.

He has been very lucky on fly balls (43 Unadjusted vs. 94 Adjusted Contact Score) but almost equally as unlucky on liners (141 vs. 99). Most importantly, he has dramatically improved at limiting authority on the ground (69 Adjusted Contact Score). While his 89 “tru” ERA is above both his ERA- and FIP-, this is new territory for Leake; he’s not only eating innings, but his true-talent level is now on the right side of 100.

Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks
Three of our four remaining pitchers are, like Carlos Martinez, among the elite NL strikeout aces, in addition to being early-season contact survivors. Ray’s name is quite notable on this list, as in 2016, his 125 Adjusted Contact Score was the worst among NL ERA qualifiers. What’s going on?

Well, first off, let’s not get overly excited. Ray has been extremely lucky across all BIP types, with his Unadjusted Contact Score well below his adjusted mark on flies (92 vs. 119), liners (62 vs. 110), grounders (104 vs. 132) and overall (81 vs. 115). Hitters are batting only .500 AVG-.690 on liners, compared to the MLB average of .650 AVG-.869 SLG. Not a lot of skill in that; Ray’s average liner authority of 96.3 mph is second highest of the above hurlers.

All of that said, Ray’s pop up rate allowed is up sharply, and with such a massive K rate, you don’t need to be an ace contact manager to be a star. Just be in the average range. He’s not quite there yet, but he’s made progress.

Max Scherzer, Nationals
Talk about role models; Like Ray, Scherzer solely relied on his K/BB gifts early in his career, ranking as one of the game’s poorer contact managers. This delayed his ascent to the elite level of MLB starters. He’s arrived, and stayed there.

Scherzer is an extreme pop up inducer who now limits contact of all BIP types at marginally better than MLB average levels (Adjusted Contact Scores of 98, 97 and 89 on flies, liners and grounders, respectively). He allows so many fly balls than when his raw stuff falls merely a notch, the damage allowed in the air could cause a rapid decline from his peak. That’s a story for another day, however. When you strike out over a third of the batters you face, walk no one, and post a 90 overall Adjusted Contact Score, it computes to a 57 “tru” ERA-. By any measure, that’s easy Cy Young winner territory.

Kyle Freeland, Rockies
And our National League Contact Manager of the Year through June 16 with a 78 Adjusted Contact Score is, of course, Kyle Freeland. Whoda thunk it? A very underrated aspect of the Rockies’ emergence this season is their ability to combat the Coors effect with a fleet of good, young contact managers. Even in the absence of Jon Gray, and with 2016 elite contact suppressor Tyler Anderson struggling, Freeland, Tyler Chatwood, Antonio Senzatela and friends are getting it done.

Freeland has posted the second highest grounder rate allowed of any qualifying NL starter to date, narrowly behind the Padres’ Clayton Richard. His average launch angle allowed of 2.1 degrees is the lowest of the pitchers listed above. On balance, those grounders haven’t been struck very well, as his 76 Adjusted Contact Score is fourth best. He needs to be a strong contact manager to thrive, given his low K rate and mediocre K-BB spread. His 93 “tru” ERA- is better than his 102 FIP-, but not nearly as good as his 70 ERA- to date.

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Any review of top NL starters, from seemingly any angle, just about has to include this guy. Take a step back and realize that, based on his underlying numbers, Kershaw is actually having a bit of an “off” season, at least for him. His K rate is down, his BB rate is up, and his Adjusted Contact Score is a notch worse than league average at 101.

All of that said, he’s still beyond elite. His BB rate is over two full STD lower than average and his K rate is over one STD above, which whittles his “tru” ERA- down to 74. He’s actually been hit quite hard in the air (139 Adjusted Contact Score), but has throttled authority on the ground (71 Adjusted Contact Score). Frequency-wise, he was able to pull off that rare higher-than-average pop up and grounder daily double in 2016, but has watched his grounder rate tail off a bit this season. All of this said, it’s easy to find the blemishes on the Mona Lisa; Kershaw remains a high-end work of art.

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Interesting, in 2016 Cubs had 3 of the top 5 (Hendricks, Arrieta, and Lester), but so far in 2017, they have no one in the top 10.

They’ve also fallen from first (.745) to eighth (.713) in Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency leaderboard.