Contact Quality: Just a Part of the Puzzle, 2014 AL Hitters

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve discussed many of the various aspects of the emerging granular batted-ball velocity/exit angle data that is all the rage today. In the next few articles, we’re going to bring it all together, and review the best and worst contact-makers (and allowers) in both leagues in 2014. Today, we’ll cover the AL offensive contact-quality leaders and laggards. You will notice that contact quality, while extremely important, is far from the singular defining characteristic of a hitter.

With the advent of StatCast, batted-ball exit speed/angle data has finally begun to wend its way into the public domain. Though it is very valuable information, one must resist the temptation to rank players or even teams by their ability to hit the ball hard, as there is a whole lot else to take into consideration. Like strikeouts and walks, obviously, to name two factors. Excessive ground-ball pulling tendencies and the overshifts they bring also can do serious damage to a player’s overall production, as we shall see. Player speed can also have a significant positive or negative impact on one’s actual performance.

Below is a list of the top-ten AL hitter contact scores for 2014 among the 77 qualifiers for the batting title. This is a measure of contact quality which is scaled to a league average of 100. Every one of each player’s batted balls was essentially placed in a neutral environment, and credited with MLB average performance based on its speed and vertical and horizontal angles off of the bat:

M.Cabrera 201 194 1 152 8
Trout 193 155 7 162 4
C.Davis 186 123 17 91 63
C.Carter 177 119 20 110 31
J.Abreu 163 144 10 171 2
Ortiz 163 177 3 143 9
Moss 163 133 15 114 22
Encarnacion 155 169 5 152 7
Dunn 149 113 26 111 29
V.Martinez 147 193 2 181 1

Each player’s contact score (denoted as C Score) is listed in the first column. Their Ks and BBs are added back in the second column, yielding an overall adjusted production score, assuming a neutral environment. The third column lists their AL rank in that category, among the 77 batting-title qualifiers. The fourth column lists their actual production relative to the league (this runs closely in tandem with OPS+). The fifth and last column lists their AL rank in that category.

For each player, we’ll peel back a couple layers and discuss why his contact score is so high. It might not just be authority; it could be line-drive frequency, pop-up infrequency, or any one of a number of other factors. We’ll also discuss any significant variations between their contact quality and their overall actual production.

1 – Miguel Cabrera – He might as well have been built in a lab. He had the highest average batted-ball velocity in the league, with average fly-ball and liner speed over a full standard deviation above the league average, and average grounder velocity over two standard deviations above average. He not only hits the ball hard very often, he almost never hits it softly. It’s not all authority, either; his pop-up rate ranked in the 16th percentile among AL hitters, and his liner rate ranked in the 91st percentile. His walk rate dropped a bit last season, and both it and his K rate now rank in the average range. This and his almost complete lack of speed caused his 2014 overall actual production figure to fall to 8th in the AL. This is a special, special player just past his career peak.

2 – Mike Trout – Believe it or not, but in this crowd, Trout’s average batted-ball authority isn’t that special; only Adam Dunn ranked lower than him among the 2014 AL Top 10. He hit his average fly ball over one-half standard deviation above AL average, and his liners and grounders over one standard deviation above last season. He ran an unnaturally high fly-ball rate in 2014 (90th percentile) and a minuscule grounder rate (11th percentile). He was also an excessive ground-ball puller, with a 6.12 pull ratio that tempts infields to overshift him. Alas, his top-of-the-scale speed trumps even the occasional overshift: he batted .346 AVG-.392 SLG on the ground anyway. His very high K rate caused him to lose 38 basis points off of his contact score once the Ks and BBs were added back. The pros outweigh the cons; a historic power/speed combo coupled with the flower of youth carries the day.

3 – Chris Davis – Here we have our first example that there is more to life than batted-ball authority. Davis’ average fly-ball and liner velocities were over a standard deviation above the AL average, though his average grounder velocity was in the average range. Obviously, his primary bugaboo was his ridiculous K rate, the highest among AL qualifiers, costing him a 63 basis point drop from his 186 contact score to his context-adjusted 123 production figure, the biggest such drop in the league. He had another big problem, however; his excessive 7.27 grounder pull ratio invited regular overshifting, and he produced just a .129 AVG and .140 SLG on the ground. This turned the third-most authoritative contact-maker in the AL into its 63rd (out of 77) most productive batting-title qualifier.

4 – Chris Carter – A slightly less extreme version of Davis. His 16.7% pop-up rate was by far the highest among AL qualifiers. Like Trout, he had an unnaturally high fly-ball rate (86th percentile, excluding the pop ups), and an almost invisible grounder rate (1st percentile). He hit the hardest fly balls in the AL last season: he was the only AL qualifier with an average fly-ball velocity over two standard deviations above league average. His liners and grounders both averaged over one standard deviation above. Like Davis, he was an extreme ground-ball puller, with a 7.78 pull ratio. Despite overshifting, Carter managed to hit .279 AVG-.291 SLG on the ground, largely due to luck, which has clearly turned on him this season. His massive K rate cost him 58 basis points from his contact score of 177 to his overall context-adjusted production mark of 119, and dropped him outside of the top 30 in the AL in actual production.

5 – Jose Abreu – Quite a debut season. Abreu’s profile is much different than most power hitters’. His fly-ball rate was quite low, in the 23rd percentile among AL qualifiers in 2014. A very high liner rate (93rd percentile) helped compensate; time will tell if he’s one of the few hitters that can maintain at that level. Both his average fly-ball and liner velocities were over a full standard deviation above league average, but his average grounder velocity was in the league-average range. Because of his low fly-ball frequency, his average overall exit speed ranks way below the previous four hitters discussed. His ability to maintain a near league-average K rate — his contact score dropped just 19 basis points when the Ks and BBs were added back — and his ability to use the entire field both worked in his favor. Toss in his extremely friendly home park, and Abreu’s actual production ranked second in the AL.

6 – David Ortiz – Big Papi’s average fly-ball, liner and ground-ball velocities all exceeded one standard deviation above league average last season. He actually added 14 basis points to his contact score as a result of his strong K and BB rates. His primary issue was (and still is) his excessive ground-ball pulling tendency; he posted a pull ratio of 9.92 last season, inviting overshifts and causing him to post just a .179 AVG and .179 SLG on the ground as a result. This accounts for his much lower actual production mark of 143.

7 – Brandon Moss – A pretty surprising name. His contact score is quite high because of his unnaturally high fly-ball rate (96th percentile) and low grounder rate (5th percentile). Fly balls are hit quite a bit harder than grounders, on average. Moss also posted a very high pop-up rate, in the 88th percentile. His very high K rate causes his contact score to drop by 30 basis points once the Ks and BBs are added back. He hit both his fly balls and grounders over a standard deviation harder than the league average but, oddly, his average liner velocity was in the average range. Moss was the single most excessive ground-ball puller in the AL last season, with a pull ratio of 12.00. The negative effect of the Ks and the pulled grounders dropped him out of the top 20 AL producers last season, and the many orange to red flags in his profile led to an offseason change in venue.

8 – Edwin Encarnacion – Encarnacion’s average fly-ball, liner and grounder authority were all over a standard deviation above AL average, and if not for a pop-up rate in the 93rd percentile and a liner rate in the 11th, he would have had an even higher contact score than his 155 mark. His very strong K and BB rates added 14 basis points, up to a 169 context-adjusted production mark. As it was for a few others on this list, his excessive ground-ball pulling tendency was a problem. His grounder pull ratio was 7.19, and he batted just .210 AVG-.231 SLG on the ground despite strong authority. His ability to selectively pull fly balls enabled him to maintain a strong 152 actual production figure. His K rate has suddenly spiked this season, sharply cutting into his production.

9 – Adam Dunn – Ah, a retired guy, among the top 10 in AL contact quality last season. His BIP profile was typically odd in 2014. As usual, he posted an unnatural fly-ball rate, in the 89th percentile, with a grounder rate in the 9th. While he hit his fly balls at an average of over a half and his liners over a full standard deviation above league average, he hit his grounders at an average of over a standard deviation below league average. Thanks both to this and his abject lack of speed, he batted just .157 AVG-.157 SLG on the ground. His massive K rate lopped 36 basis points off of his contact score, and both his context-adjusted and actual production barely ranked in the top 30 among AL qualifiers. Not what you want from a one-dimensional DH.

10 – Victor Martinez – More proof that’s it not all about contact authority. Martinez did hit the ball hard last season, hitting his fly balls over a half and his liners and grounders over a full standard deviation harder than league average. More importantly, however, were some qualitative factors. His pop-up rate was in the 31st percentile, but most impressively, he posted the lowest strikeout rate among all AL qualifiers. That’s right, all of the spray hitters at the bottom of this list — the Nori Aokis, the Derek Jeters — struck out more than Martinez. This boosts his contact score by 46 basis points when the Ks and BBs are added back, propelling him to the very top of the AL in actual production. Of course, age/injury have made him look like a very different hitter thus far in 2015, but he has an awfully strong foundation to fall back upon as he attempts to get back on track.

You’ll notice that the names of Jose Bautista, Adrian Beltre, Michael Brantley and Robinson Cano do not appear above. They also ranked in the top ten in AL actual production last season, but not among the top ten in contact score. Bautista’s is a particularly interesting case; he has dialed down the authority a bit in recent seasons, but has compensated by reining in his pop-up rate and moving his K and BB rates steadily in positive directions. The others were solid ball-impacters with a strong propensity for making contact. There is an awful lot more to hitting than contact authority, and a very big piece of it is contact frequency.

Just for fun, here is a facsimile of the first table, only this time with the bottom 10 AL contact scores listed:

Aoki 63 83 64 100 47
Infante 64 74 75 78 75
Andrus 64 73 76 83 73
Eaton 67 76 71 119 17
Jeter 67 74 74 75 76
Kinsler 71 79 69 101 44
A.Escobar 72 75 73 88 67
Gillaspie 73 80 68 112 24
Y.Escobar 73 89 59 88 68
K.Suzuki 74 91 55 101 43

Many of the usual suspects are on this list: middle infielders, catchers, etc. — that is, guys who bring different sorts of value to the table. The Royals, for example, are not paying Alcides Escobar to be an offensive juggernaut. In the rightmost column, however, you will notice that a handful of these guys actually brought more offensive value to the table last season than did a couple of the names on the top-ten contact-score list. Sure, there was luck involved in some cases — Conor Gillaspie, I’m talking to you — but there’s also speed and an awful lot of contact frequency at play.

Bottom line; as you peruse the new StatCast data, and see the name of, say, Logan Morrison, near the top of the average velocity list, think a little deeper. Don’t ignore the excessive fly-ball, or ground-ball pulling tendencies, to name two, that can put a damper on the effectiveness of some hard-hitting players.

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I swear I was just looking at the exit velocity data and my first thought was “Logan Morrison???”.

Good stuff as always.