A Few Offbeat Player “Families”

Jose Altuve has succeeded despite a liner rate that’s due for some positive regression.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

The All-Star Game and its various related events are behind us, and the game has collectively taken a breath for a couple of days (except for the Cubs and White Sox, but I digress). The numbers for the first half are in the books, giving us an opportunity to reflect on what has already happened and what it might portend for the second half of the season.

In this space I will often analyze players by examining plate appearance frequency and contact quality (for hitters) and contact management (for pitchers) information for pitchers, using granular data to see how players “should be” performing to get a better handle on their true talent and performance levels. Today, let’s use some of this data in a slightly different manner, identifying players with common statistical markers that can tell us something very good or very bad about those player “families.”

Generally, we expect players who make tons of contact to fall a bit short when it comes to contact quality, and players who swing and miss often to compensate with loud authority. Below are some hitters who break from those expectations, for better or for worse.

Contact Frequency/Quality Mismatches
J.Ramirez 11.6% 142
Altuve 12.1% 139
Reddick 13.4% 120
D.Murphy 9.3% 132
Posey 10.4% 113
Votto 10.9% 145
Buxton 30.7% 82
T.Anderson 26.9% 92
Villar 30.0% 95
Schwarber 28.2% 86

The first column indicates each hitter’s K rate. The second lists their Unadjusted Contact Score (UN C SC). This represents their actual production relative to the league (average = 100) on all batted balls. Basically, it’s a proxy for their wRC+, except that their Ks and BBs are stripped away from their batting line.

For all of the tables in this article, color-coding is used to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations higher than 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.

Most of our high-contact achievers gained their spots on this list by recording high line-drive rates. Daniel Murphy posted the highest liner rate of any qualifying MLB regular in the first half. Josh Reddick (97th percentile), Buster Posey (96th) and Jose Ramirez (80th) aren’t far behind.

Joey Votto has regularly posted very high liner rates throughout his career, but 2017 has been an exception. His liner rate isn’t far above the NL average, sitting in the 56th percentile. Jose Altuve is an even more eye-opening case. Altuve’s big first half has been recorded despite a well-below-average liner rate; he currently sits in the 29th percentile among AL regulars. How good could he be with a little upward regression in the second half?

The aforementioned group of players have very high floors because of their ability to make contact. Some good fortune in the very volatile liner-rate category can push them far above their floors. The first half of 2017 is about as good as it can get for Reddick, for example, who doesn’t annually churn out liners. The guys at the bottom of the list are living in a very different world, where their floors are low because of low contact rates, and their subpar contact quality/authority has dug their holes a little deeper.

Jonathan Villar and Kyle Schwarber have compounded their contact problems by failing to square the baseball up with any regularity. Villar, a grounder machine, sits in the 30th percentile in liner rate, Schwarber way down in the 2nd. To make matters even worse, Schwarber has a significant pop-up problem (91st percentile). At least they can point to likely upward regression of their liner rates.

Byron Buxton and Tim Anderson can’t even look forward to that. Buxton and Anderson have struggled in the first half despite posting liner rates in the 67th and 57th percentiles, respectively. There’s not a lot to look forward to in the near term offensively for either player, so they had better contribute standout premium position defense.

Next, let’s look at players whose pop-up and fly-ball rates are out of whack. Generally, if a player elevates the ball more often than most, it stands to reason that his infield pop-up rate will also be higher. These players buck that trend — again, for better or for worse.

Pop Up/Fly Ball Rate Mismatches
Judge 1.1% 36.5%
Sano 1.6% 41.5%
K.Davis 1.9% 40.3%
Lindor 2.0% 40.3%
Joyce 2.1% 42.6%
Votto 0.4% 40.8%
Gyorko 1.4% 39.6%
Thames 1.6% 42.5%
Carpenter 2.3% 48.4%
Bruce 2.4% 46.3%
Odor 8.2% 31.5%
Buxton 7.6% 29.3%
J.Reyes 8.5% 35.5%
Stanton 7.6% 30.3%

The upper section of the table is essentially a who’s who of some of the big power-hitting stories of the first half, players who have increased their launch angles without succumbing to some of the pitfalls of that approach. You can strike out as much as Aaron Judge and Miguel Sano do if you hit the ball hard enough and avoid giving away more free outs via the pop up.

It hasn’t exactly been a smooth road for Francisco Lindor, at least at the plate, in the first half. His fly-ball rate spiked sharply upward, from the 14th to the 21st and now to the 88th percentile in his third big-league season. At his age and physical development stage, it’s simply too many fly balls, too soon.

Joey Votto has long prided himself in his ability to avoid the pop up; he has never ranked higher than the 11th percentile in that category, and is in the 2nd percentile this season. His fly-ball rate, however, had been trending downward since 2012, but has surged this season, up into the 88th percentile, without affecting his pop-averse status.

Jedd Gyorko is a new member in the low pop-up group; he had never finished below the 36th percentile in pop up rate. This year, he sits in the 14th. Jay Bruce may have saved his career by kicking a longstanding pop-up tendency this season. Never before had he recorded a lower-than-average pop-up rate; this year, he’s sitting in the 39th percentile despite a very high fly-ball rate.

Some interesting cases appear in the “for worse” section. Buxton is just a mess offensively, but like Billy Hamilton, he will get forever and a day to figure it out because of the defensive value he delivers. Rougned Odor runs the risk of going the way of Jose Lopez. All of those homers are nice, but he hits them at the expense of a lot of free outs via he whiff, the pop up, and the pulled grounder. Jose Reyes is cooked. Call up Amed Rosario, already!

Then there’s Giancarlo Stanton. The 2017 season could represent the fifth in which he records an above-average pop-up rate and a below-average fly-ball rate. This is a long-term issue, and unless it is addressed, his contract will become an albatross. If he had a 40% fly-ball rate, you could live with those pop ups; it would basically be Jose Bautista in his prime. At his current fly rate, he needs to cut the pop ups in half.

One last hitter-centric table. As stated earlier, line-drive rates are extremely volatile compared to those of other BIP types. That said, there are some hitters who have a documented talent for squaring up the baseball. Below are the four hitters best meeting that criteria over recent years:

Consistent Line-Drive Generators
13 14 15 16 17
Mi.Cabrera 91 91 96 81 99
Castellanos xxx 96 79 97 98
Mauer 92 92 86 98 87
Carpenter 98 90 98 93 80

The numbers listed in each column represent each player’s liner-rate percentile ranks for each season going back to 2013. Pretty incredible. Miguel Cabrera is obviously a hitting artisan, and Matt Carpenter has totally changed his hitting style without cutting into his line-drive totals.

Joe Mauer’s power is essentially gone, but despite an abject lack of speed, his floor is quite high because of his ability to churn out liners. Nick Castellanos is an interesting case. He crushes the baseball, hits a bunch of liners, doesn’t pop up much, but has yet to fully deliver on his potential. Part of the issue is the spacious middle third of his home park, and his K/BB profile leaves a bit to be desired.

Now, on to the pitchers. As we did with the hitters, let’s first look at some K-rate/contact-quality mismatches:

Contact Frequency/Quality Mismatches
Sale 35.9% 92
Kluber 33.8% 88
Severino 28.4% 97
McCullers 28.0% 86
Carrasco 27.5% 96
Darvish 25.9% 84
Scherzer 35.5% 69
Kershaw 31.4% 84
Greinke 28.7% 91
Strasburg 27.4% 92
C.Martinez 26.8% 89
J.Zimmermann 16.1% 132
M.Perez 16.2% 118
Tomlin 17.5% 135
Gausman 18.4% 132
Cain 12.8% 113
Davies 14.7% 110
C.Richard 15.9% 120
M.Moore 17.9% 140

Some of the most dominant pitchers in the game have done a solid job of managing contact this season. Remember, however, that we are just looking at Unadjusted Contact Score, or actual hitter performance allowed here. We’re not measuring how hitters “should have” performed against these pitchers based on their exit speed/launch angle mix.

For instance, Luis Severino has allowed fairly authoritative contact in the air this season, but the middle third of Yankee Stadium has helped hold hitters in check. Carlos Carrasco has been similarly fortunate on fly balls, while Clayton Kershaw has been very fortunate on ground balls.

Some of the other elite pitchers earned their spot on this list without any good luck factored in. Max Scherzer is an interesting case. His batted-ball mix is far from ideal: he’s a serial fly-ball generator and was a poor contact manager early in his career. Now, his pop-up-rate allowed is massive, and he limits authority on all BIP types below league-average levels.

Lance McCullers and Carlos Martinez are two of a rare breed that combines well-above-average K and grounder rates. McCullers has been even better than his Unadjusted Contact Score suggests this season; he’s been unlucky on fly balls, allowing some just-enough homers down the lines in his odd shaped home park.

The low K/high Unadjusted Contact Score group is populated by quite a few hurlers yielding tons of liners to date. Martin Perez (99th percentile), Josh Tomlin (96th), Jordan Zimmermann (93rd), Kevin Gausman (88th) and Matt Cain (86th) all fit that criterion. At least they can look forward to potential downward regression in that category. Gausman’s performance has been particularly alarming, as his K rate has plunged. The narrowness of his repertoire is one his many issues.

Zach Davies has been hurt by a hitter-friendly home park (again, we’re not using Adjusted Contact Score here). His grounder rate sits in the 80th percentile. I’m still optimistic about his future. Clayton Richard has also been quite unlucky, posting a poor Unadjusted Contact Score despite the highest grounder rate in the NL.

Then there’s Matt Moore. He’s posted an MLB-worst 140 Unadjusted Contact Score despite allowing liners at only an MLB-average clip. He doesn’t even have liner-rate regression to look forward to. More about him later.

Lastly, let’s again duplicate a table first generated for the hitters. These pitchers have posted mismatched pop-up and fly-balls allowed through the All-Star break:

Pop-Up/Fly-Ball Rate Mismatches
Tanaka 4.2% 29.2%
J.Chacin 4.0% 25.7%
M.Moore 2.4% 39.5%

A small, yet intriguing group here.

Both Masahiro Tanaka and Jhoulys Chacin get a lot of grounders, but also get more than their share of pop ups. That’s a nice, and rare, combination. Both have also been successful at avoiding liners to date, with liner-rate percentile ranks of 18 and 6, respectively. Tanaka needs to do this, and post a nice K/BB rate, as he tends to allow some very loud contact in the air.

Chacin has been a big positive in San Diego. Once a promising ground-baller in Colorado, he was derailed for a while by injuries, but has now shown an ability to get outs up and down in the zone. He’s a keeper.

Lastly, it’s Matt Moore again. It’s pretty tough to post a fly-ball-rate allowed of over one standard deviation higher than league average while inducing pop ups at a rate of over one-half STD lower than average. Moore is lost right now, and is as good a poster child as any for the 2017 San Francisco Giants.

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5 years ago

Is Judge really a fly ball hitter with a 36.5% FB%? There are 169 qualified players as of my typing right now. The median (#84) is 36.1%. Judge is at 38.7% as of this moment (must have had a couple extra fly balls yesterday to raise it a little from 36.5%, HIs IFFB% also went up to 2.5%). That’s not really a fly ball hitter. He’s really been a line drive hitter (24.0%, 22nd of 169) this year who just happens to crush the ball.

5 years ago
Reply to  Anon

As he shows here, Judge is 1 standard deviation above the mean in FB rate.

Therefore, he hits more flyballs than is typical.

John Morgan
5 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

I think that “orange” is actually a very confused yellow, which means Judge is only half a standard deviation above normal, or, y’know, pretty normal.