Starting pitchers get the job done in various ways; some excel at bat-missing and/or command. Others are more adept at managing contact on balls in play. The very best are able to clear the bar in all three areas. Sample sizes for the 2016 season have increased in size to the point that we actually should begin paying attention. Last week, we checked in with NL ERA qualifiers regarding their early-season contact-management performance; this week, it’s the AL’s turn.
The data being examined today runs through May 29, and includes all ERA qualifiers as of that date. Pitchers in the table below are listed in Adjusted Contact Score order. For those of you who have not read my articles on the topic, Adjusted Contact Score is the relative production, on a scale where 100 equals average, that a pitcher “should have” allowed based on the exit speed/angle of each ball-in-play yielded. Here goes:
|NAME||AVG MPH||FB MPH||LD MPH||GB MPH||POP %||FLY %||LD %||GB %||ADJ C||K %||BB %||ERA –||FIP –||TRU –|
Most of the column headers are self-explanatory, including average BIP speed (overall and by BIP type), BIP type frequency, K and BB rates, and traditional ERA-, FIP-, and “tru” ERA-, which incorporates the exit speed/angle data. Each pitcher’s Adjusted Contact Score (ADJ C) is also listed. Adjusted Contact Score applies league-average production to each pitcher’s individual actual BIP type and velocity mix, and compares it to league average of 100.
Cells are also color coded. If a pitcher’s value is two standard deviations or more higher than average, the field is shaded red. If it’s one to two STD higher than average, it’s shaded orange. If it’s one-half to one STD higher than average, it’s shaded dark yellow. If it’s one-half to one STD less than average, it’s shaded blue. If it’s over one STD less than average, it’s shaded black. Ran out of colors at that point. On the rare occasions that a value is over two STD lower than average, we’ll mention it if necessary in the text.
Before we get to the pitchers, a couple words regarding year-to-year correlation of pitchers’ plate-appearance frequencies and BIP authority allowed. From 2013 to -15, ERA qualifiers’ K and BB rates and all BIP frequencies except for liner rate (.14 correlation coefficient) correlated very closely from year to year. The correlation coefficients for K% (.81), BB% (.66), and pop up (.53), fly ball (.76) and grounder (.86) rates are extremely high. While BIP authority correlates somewhat from year to year — FLY/LD authority is .37, grounder authority is .25 — it doesn’t correlate nearly as closely as frequency. Keep these relationships in mind as we move on to some player comments.
First and foremost, a hat tip to the best all-around starting pitcher in the AL, Chris Sale. Much has been made of his lower K rate, and greater focus on pitching to contact thus far this season. His K and BB rates remain clear strengths, and Sale has indeed been the premier contact-manager among AL starters this far.
This isn’t exactly a brand new development; his Adjusted Contact Score has consistently been better than league average, and was an exceptional 76 in 2014. He has been particularly adept at throttling fly-ball authority thus far in 2016, with an Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 62. Personally, I prefer the higher-K version of Sale, which affords him some contact-management slack; his traditional numbers suffered last year due more to his poor team defense than any specific contact-management tendency. He’s a contemporary inner-circle great, along with Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta and perhaps Noah Syndergaard.
Those who have read my work are aware of my affinity for Marco Estrada, the 2015 AL Contact Manager of the Year. He’s right in there battling it out for AL supremacy in 2016. He gets it done in a fairly unique manner; you’ll find most extreme fly-ball pitchers way down on the list of contact-management leaders. The Blue Jay righty’s pop-up rate is a clear strength, in the 83rd percentile, and he has an uncanny knack for muffling fly-ball authority; his Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score thus far is 66.
A low line-drive rate allowed is a key driver behind a strong Adjusted Contact Score. Unfortunately, as previously explained, liner rates are quite variable from year to year, and even from start to start, and regression to the mean should be expected for all but the select few hurlers who have established a true talent for avoidance of squared-up contact. Estrada is one such pitcher, but what about other line-drive avoiders among the early AL leaders, like Mat Latos, Rich Hill, Edinson Volquez, Jordan Zimmermann and Danny Salazar?
Latos is an extreme case, combining an Adjusted Contact Score of 80 with the lowest K rate among AL ERA qualifiers. Latos has quelled fly-ball authority expertly thus far, with an Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 69. His BIP mix, however, is quite unremarkable; he lacks a go-to grounder or pop-up tendency. Even with his strong contact-management performance thus far, he’s charitably been an average starter to date; that’s his upside. Best guess, there are more liners and hard fly balls in his future, and nowhere to go but down, unless his K rate recovers a bit.
Hill is an interesting case, one of those “if only he could stay healthy” guys. Hill’s pop-up tendency sits in the 81st percentile, a combination of true talent and home park advantage. Unlike most pop-up guys, Hill runs a healthy grounder rate, which bodes well for continued contact-management success. His fly-ball authority suppression has been strong; he’s posted a 72 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score to date. The low liner rate is a short-term bonus, likely to regress as we move forward.
Over time, Volquez has gradually nudged both his K and BB rates into the average range, and his better-than-average contact-management skills have allowed him to become a viable mid-rotation starter. He’s allowed a lower-than-average liner rate in 2014 and 2015, and sits way down in the ninth percentile thus far in 2016; it’s beginning to look like a true talent. His grounder rate is in the 85th percentile, and though he allows relatively authoritative contact in the air (128 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score), his ballpark and outfield defense helps him there.
Before recently landing on the DL, Jordan Zimmermann had been cooling off after an exceptional start. His contact-management success thus far has been keyed by a low liner rate and a strong pop-up tendency (89th percentile). The pop ups are real, but the liners aren’t; he’s actually posted higher-than-average liner rates the last two seasons. Overall, Zimmermann has graded out as an average contact-manager over time, and the fairly steep decline in his K rate this season is, in my opinion, the most telling indicator in his portfolio. League averageness is beginning to beckon.
Salazar has come a long way since arriving on the scene as a swing-and-miss generator with poor contact-management skills. That said, his minuscule liner rate, second lowest among AL qualifiers, is the primary driver of his 89 Adjusted Contact Score to date. Yes, his high pop-up rate (79th percentile) is a welcome development, but even then, once the liner rate regresses, you’re looking at an average range contact-manager due to the relative lusty contact authority he allows. He’s barely dodging damage on fly balls, as he’s allowing a preponderance of 90-94 mph fly balls, at the upper boundary of the fly-ball “donut hole.” Just a touch more authority, or temperature, or wind, etc., and his contact score could spike a bit.
That leaves us with three other pitchers, Ricky Nolasco, Steven Wright and Jose Quintana, with overall Adjusted Contact Scores below 90, who have benefited from low liner rates to date. Nolasco’s traditional numbers aren’t very good, but if you peel back a couple layers, a very strong case can be made for him as one of the few bright lights in the Twins’ early-season disaster. His K and BB rates have both moved in the right direction, and he’s held authority of all BIP types in check. There’s still some fly-ball risk, as his frequency is high and his authority allowed, like Salazar’s, is close to the danger zone.
Wright has been a godsend for the Bosox, allowing the weakest overall and second-weakest fly-ball and ground-ball average authority among AL qualifiers. To post a solid 87 Adjusted Contact Score despite a subpar BIP mix featuring a high liner rate allowed is quite a feat; there’s actually some room for growth here as the season progresses.
Quintana is an interesting case. He has allowed an amazing .108 AVG-.243 SLG on fly balls this season, for an Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 9. Adjustment for context doesn’t hurt him much, either, inflating his adjusted fly-ball mark only to 43. Quintana lives in that 75-94 MPH fly-ball “donut hole,” where outs are the rule. There’s a bit of regression to be expected on fly-ball production allowed, but arguably even more in a positive direction with his liner rate. Quintana is above average in all three key pitching measurables — K and BB rates and contact-management — in the AL, arguably only he and teammate Sale are clear members of that fraternity.
Let’s next take a peek at the bottom of the above list for some surprise names. How about Chris Archer, bringing up the rear, with an excruciatingly high 143 Adjusted Contact Score. He’s got some of the best stuff in the game, and his very high K rate gives him margin for error with regard to contact-management, but he’s using that margin and then some. He’s allowing loud contact across the board, with the second-highest Adjusted Fly Ball (182) and Line Drive (114) Contact Scores in the league. Toss in a high liner rate allowed, and it’s an ugly scene. His command within the zone has been nearly nonexistent to date. As even an average contact-manager, Archer would be a major star, but he’s got some work to do.
Most of Cole Hamels‘ line in the above table looks pretty solid. High grounder rate, overall authority allowed in the average range, very high K rate. His one negative, however, has been a big one. He’s allowed much harder than league-average authority in the air, good for a 200 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score to date. Yup, he’s the one allowing more damage than Archer in the air. Hamels has never been an elite contact-manager, but I would expect some regression into the average range, allowing him to remain a well above-average starter in the near term.
Lastly, let’s take a look at some other interesting cases, where “tru” ERA- differs greatly from ERA- and FIP-, in one direction or the other:
– Carlos Rodon (89 “tru” ERA-, 102 ERA-, 98 FIP-): Not a huge difference among the metrics here, but there is one notable outlier stat. Rodon allowed a .359 AVG on grounders through May 29, but “should have” allowed a .256 AVG-.280 SLG mark. That’s responsible for a solid chunk of the difference between his “tru” ERA and the more mainstream metrics.
– Drew Smyly (75, 99, 100): OK, OK, his numbers have changed markedly since May 29, but I’m still on Team Smyly. Huge K rate, strong BB rate, massive pop-up rate. With all of the fly balls he allows, the short-term troughs are going to be low, but the overall package remains extremely attractive. He does not have a fly-ball authority problem, on balance, and the “tru” ERA methodology looks upon him much more favorably as a result.
– Collin McHugh (87, 125, 84): Despite very ordinary traditional numbers, McHugh’s “tru” ERA is strong thanks to his ability to stifle overall BIP authority; he’s tied for best in the AL with Wright by this measure. His Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 48 is one of the AL’s best, and after adjustment for context, his actual .333 AVG-.368 SLG allowed on grounders (212 Unadjusted) drops to an 88 Adjusted Grounder Contact Score. McHugh had an 85 Adjusted Contact Score in 2015, and could well be back in that range before long.
– Sonny Gray (109, 155, 127): Obviously, injury was a major factor here, but even then, “tru” ERA put a lot more faith in Gray’s underlying contact-management ability. Though his authority allowed is high across the board, Gray’s strong grounder tendency prevented his contact score from getting too far out of whack. Look at it this way: with absolutely everything breaking wrong in the first two months, Gray posted a 109 “tru” ERA; that’s the definition of a high floor.
– Wade Miley (101, 126, 127): Miley gets hurt in both ERA and FIP by his high homer rate to date. Despite all those longballs, Miley’s fly-ball authority allowed to date has been rather unremarkable (115 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score). He’s never allowed more than 23 homers in a season, and he plays his home games in Safeco Field, which is still quite pitcher-friendly. I’m guessing he doesn’t allow another 12 homers the rest of the way.
– Aaron Sanchez (102, 79, 77): Yes, Sanchez has looked awfully dominant at times of late, but there’s still room for growth here. His grounder rate is nearly off the charts, and his raw stuff at least holds promise for elevated K rates down the road. Why the relatively high Adjusted Contact Score of 108, however, keying a “tru” ERA well above his ERA and FIP? Well, grounder authority counts for something, as well. He may yield tons of grounders, but they’re hit much harder than average (125 Adjusted Grounder Contact Score), limiting their positive impact. When the ball is elevated against him, it’s scalded, as evidenced by his 172 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score.
Teammate Marcus Stroman also has similar issues to work through; he allows even more grounders than Sanchez, but has allowed the highest overall velocity of any qualifying AL starter. If Sanchez and Stroman can enhance their deception a bit and limit sweet-spot contact, they’ll increases their chances of reaching their considerable upsides.
– Chris Tillman (105, 70, 88): On the positive side, Tillman’s K rate is way up this year, enhancing his chances of being a long-term rotation asset. He has never been a particularly good contact-manager, however, with a fly ball-heavy BIP mix and ordinary authority allowed figures. This year, he has benefited from exceptional luck on ground balls; he allowed a .133 AVG (31 Unadjusted) through May 29, with his Adjusted Grounder Contact Score moving up to 95 after adjustment for context.