For the American League version of this same exercise, click here.
The final page has been ripped from the old calendar, and 2015 is finally upon us. Before “The Offseason – Phase II” kicks in for earnest next week, let’s again take a look at some leftover 2014 data over this extended weekend. This time, let’s take a look at the offensive ball-in-play (BIP) frequency and production leaders and laggards in the National League.
Below are the top- and bottom-10 American Leaguers in popup, fly-ball, line-drive and ground-ball percentage, for hitters with a minimum of 215 total balls in play last season:
|POP %||FLY %||LD %||GB %|
As we did in the American League, let’s hustle through the frequency data, as the real fun is in the production data. We would certainly all agree that, from a hitter’s perspective, a popup is a very bad thing. After all, major league hitters produced a.015 AVG and .019 SLG on them last year. Despite this, some very good hitters have high popup rates. They swing hard, and quite often, popups and Ks are the price you have to pay for the corresponding production. There weren’t many such “good” hitters among the 2014 NL popup rate leaders, however. There are some high-risk, high-reward types, such as Curtis Granderson and Evan Gattis, but there are unfortunately some high-risk, no-reward types like Zack Cozart and Wilmer Flores, as well.
The popup laggard list is more interesting. Guys who don’t whiff or pop up often are potential batting title contenders; keep the names of Christian Yelich and Jon Jay in mind in this regard in the coming years. Also, Ryan Howard’s name jumps off of the page among the popup laggards. He whiffs a ton, hits a bunch of fly balls…..but never pops up? Howard is far from worth his insane contract, but has value as a platoon 1B/DH for someone. On a per-at-bat basis and in the right role he can still be quite productive.
The fly-ball and ground-ball leaders and laggards have a lot of the same names. As we discussed in the AL version of this article just before Christmas, very few hitters hit more fly balls (excluding popups) than grounders, and on balance, that group’s cumulative performance can be expected to decline in the following season. There were nine such NL players meeting that criteria in 2014 — the listed fly-ball leaders except for Didi Gregorius, Howard and Mark Reynolds, plus Aaron Hill and Corey Dickerson.
The fly-ball laggards, by definition, put a cap on their power production by rarely elevating the baseball. Most of the laggards generally don’t hit the ball very hard, so this isn’t a big surprise. For players like Yelich and Wilson Ramos, who are quality ball-strikers, increasing their fly-ball rate into even the average range could have a big payoff down the road.
Line-drive rates naturally fluctuate a great deal from season to season for most players, much more so than other batted-ball types. Still, seeing a player who had an ordinary season on the line-drive leader list, or a player who had a very good season on the line-drive laggard list can place such a season in a very interesting context. Ryan Ludwick and Chris Johnson, to name two, had mediocre campaigns despite massive liner rates. What happens when normal regression cuts their liner rates down to size? On the other hand, Andrew McCutchen and Hunter Pence had exceptional years despite low liner rates. They are capable of even better things with normal positive line-drive rate regression.
Next, let’s delve into the production by BIP type data. For each major BIP type, each leader and laggard’s AVG and SLG is listed, as well as his production relative to the league average for that BIP type, scaled to 100:
|FLY AVG||FLY SLG||REL FLY||LD AVG||LD SLG||REL LD|
|GB AVG||GB SLG||REL GB||BIP AVG||BIP SLG||REL BIP|
First, it should be noted that SH and SF are counted as outs for the purposes of this presentation, so the figures above do not 100% line up with actual 2014 BABIP.
That noted, let’s take a look at the fly-ball production leaders, a list composed of some of the game’s most powerful ball-strikers, and a bunch of guys who play their home games in Colorado. Based on hard and soft fly-ball rates, I assigned each NL regular a fly-ball authority score ranging from 86 to 109. Paul Goldschmidt and Giancarlo Stanton were the only two 109s, and five of the other eight leaders scored between 105 and 107. Dickerson, at 101, had the lowest authority score, but Coors Field helped him significantly. Devin Mesoraco hit the ball hard (106 authority score), but was the second most pull-focused righty hitter on fly balls last season. There are an awful lot of older-player indicators suggesting a decline for Mesoraco in 2015.
Interestingly, Ramos, among the fly-ball laggards frequency-wise, is among the leaders production-wise. There is a great deal of upside to his offensive game if he can learn to elevate the ball more often without sacrificing contact or authority.
The fly-ball laggards are overall an unsurprising group composed of players with well below average fly ball authority scores. A.J. Ellis is an interesting exception, however. He had a 103 fly ball authority score, equal to that of two of the leaders, Ramos and Anthony Rizzo. Ellis is no star, to be sure, but he is no .191/.323/.254 hitter, either.
The liner-production lists tend to feature some big surprises, as luck is a much more significant factor with this batted-ball type. Among the leaders, David Peralta, Josh Rutledge and Travis Snider are three notable names whose overall numbers were puffed up quite a bit by their unusually significant production on liners. The liner authority scale runs from 91 to 109, and those three sit in the 99-101 range, way behind the likes of Stanton and Matt Holliday, who reside at the top of the scale.
Among the liner laggards, Jay Bruce — who finished dead last in NL liner production — is the clear outlier. He smoked his liners to the tune of a 105 authority score, but was the only NL regular to bat below .500 on a batted-ball type on which the NL batted .672 as a whole. Bad luck, nothing more, nothing less.
Ground-ball-production leader lists are generally populated by a combination of elite ball-strikers and fast runners. An underrated but significant factor is the avoidance of weak, roll-over grounder contact. Then there’s that luck factor. How on earth did Juan Uribe bat .405 on grounders in 2014? True, he did a nice job of minimizing weak contact on the ground, but still. Rutledge reprises his luck-based liner leaders presence on the grounder list. Ditto fellow Rockie Stubbs, a fly-ball leader, who is fast, but shouldn’t be hitting .353 on grounders, especially with a grounder authority score of 95 on a scale ranging from 85 to 107.
There are a bunch of slow runners among the grounder-production laggards, including catchers like Ramos, Ellis and Travis d’Arnaud. There are also a couple of the most extreme ground-ball pullers in the game — lefty hitter Howard, and righty hitter Jhonny Peralta — who are easy overshift decisions, smothering their grounder production.
The lists on the bottom right are the leaders and laggards on all BIP types combined. The leaders include the NL’s two best baseball-impacters (Stanton and Goldschmidt), three Rockies (Stubbs, Dickerson and Troy Tulowitzki), and strong second-tier ball-strikers like Mesoraco, Matt Kemp, McCutchen and Justin Upton. And there’s Justin Turner. He’s a solid complementary player, a nice bat for the positions he plays, who brings versatility to the table. That said, Turner is poised for a big offensive decline in 2015.
By and large, the list of laggards on all BIP types combined is not a very surprising one. Most of those listed are weak, paddling grounder hitters with a sprinkling of high-risk, no-reward popup guys, and an injured Allen Craig. Then there’s Ellis. He simply doesn’t belong with these other guys offensively, but somehow was the NL’s weakest performer on balls in play last season. His walk rate remains way above the league average. He hit the ball way harder than his fellow fly-ball laggards, but batted .134 AVG/.284 SLG on them, despite the fact that his home park was friendly to hitters last season. He batted .141 AVG/.141 SLG on grounders, and though he is a slow-footed catcher, he’s not an extreme puller on the ground. Ellis is at least an average offensive catcher, and probably better, moving forward. The presence of Yasmani Grandal will cut into his playing time, but on a per-at-bat basis, look for Ellis to experience major gains in 2015.
Hopefully you had a healthy, happy holiday season, surrounded by loved ones. Let’s take the next 72 hours or so to take in a heaping dose of that other sport that will be on television constantly, and strap back in for more baseball proceedings on Monday.