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

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. Starting this week, we’re bringing it all together, reviewing the best and worst contact-makers (and allowers) in both leagues in 2014. Earlier this week, we covered the AL offensive contact-quality leaders and laggards. Today, it’s the NL hitters’ turn. 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 NL hitter contact scores for 2014 among the 65 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:

Stanton 202 174 1 176 2
J.Upton 167 138 15 132 16
Kemp 164 144 10 142 9
Byrd 163 119 25 111 36
Freeman 157 161 5 146 5
McCutchen 151 167 3 176 1
Rizzo 149 158 6 161 3
Ozuna 148 120 24 117 33
A.Gonzalez 148 156 7 131 18
Duda 147 143 12 134 14

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 NL rank in that category, among the 65 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 NL 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 – Giancarlo Stanton – Stanton’s 202 contact score nosed out Miguel Cabrera’s 201 for first in all of baseball last season. He crushed all types of batted balls, hitting his fly balls and liners over two standard deviations, and his grounders one standard deviation harder than the NL average. However, his fly-ball rate was quite low, only in the 44th percentile among NL qualifiers. This caused his overall average batted-ball velocity to rank third in the NL behind — get this — Adam LaRoche and Matt Kemp. Stanton hit his fly balls a lot harder than those two, but they both hit a lot more of them. Stanton’s very high K rate cost him 28 basis points off of his contact score once the Ks and BBs were added back, though his very strong BB rate was a mitigating factor. One thing to watch moving forward: Stanton had a high grounder pull ratio of 6.11, inviting infield overshifts. He crushes the ball through those shifts now, but combined with his high K rate, that pulling tendency gives him high batting average risk moving forward. For now, though, enjoy the show.

2 – Justin Upton – Upton showed a very strong qualitative contact portfolio in 2014: his pop-up rate was low for a power hitter (in the 56th percentile), but he hit a high but not excessive number of fly balls (82nd percentile). He used the entire field, and was nowhere near an overshift consideration in the infield. In terms of raw authority, it was a mixed bag: his fly-ball authority was over one and his grounder authority over a half standard above the average of NL qualifiers, while his liner authority was in the average range. His high K rate cost him 29 basis points off of his contact score, dropping him out of the top-ten producers in the NL last season. If he can cut out a little bit of the weak contact and rein in the whiffs a tad — not to mention maybe finding himself at least a neutral park to play in — Upton might have a big-time breakthrough in his immediate future.

3 – Matt Kemp – Here’s another guy with an interesting array of pluses and minuses. On the positive side, Kemp had an extremely low pop-up rate for a power hitter last season, in the 10th percentile. His average fly-ball, liner and grounder authority were all over a full standard deviation higher than the NL average. On the other hand, he was one of the most extreme ground-ball pullers in the game, with a grounder pull ratio of 10.00. As a result, he was regularly overshifted and produced a puny .186 AVG and .212 SLG on the ground. That, coupled with his poor K-BB differential for a power hitter, gives him minimal margin for error. He hasn’t been able to replicate his very high 2014 liner rate (76th percentile), and he has really missed Dodger Stadium, which rewards middle-of-the-field power more than his new Petco home.

4 – Marlon Byrd – Here is Exhibit A supporting the premise that there is way more to life than batted-ball authority. Byrd lived on the edge in many respects last season. His fly-ball rate, in the 87th percentile, was very high though not quite excessive. His raw authority was good but not great: his fly balls and grounders averaged over one-half standard deviation above the NL mean, while his liners averaged over one half standard deviation below it. He was yet another extreme ground-ball puller, with an 8.08 grounder pull ratio. He got lucky and produced a .309 AVG and .316 SLG on grounders anyway, a figure ripe for 2015 regression. His very poor K and BB rates cost him 44 basis points off of his raw contact score, dropping his actual production into the bottom half of the 65 2014 NL batting title qualifiers. Quite predictably, 2015 hasn’t been very kind to him to date.

5 – Freddie Freeman – The next three guys on this list are pretty legit. Qualitatively, Freeman is pretty special. His pop-up rate was minuscule for a power hitter (16th percentile) and, as usual, he was a line-drive machine (99th). His K-BB differential was very strong, actually allowing him to add four basis points to his contact score. His authority wasn’t as extreme, with his fly-ball authority over one and his liner authority over one-half standard deviation above the NL average. His grounder authority was in the average range, and like many of the previously discussed hitters, Freeman had an excessive grounder-pulling problem last season, with an 8.80 pull ratio that caused him to produce a .202 AVG and .227 SLG on the ground. Without that solitary blemish, and with better foot speed, Freeman would possess the portfolio of a perennial batting title contender, with power.

6 – Andrew McCutchen – McCutchen had a brilliant all-around offensive season in 2014 despite posting one of the lowest liner rates in the NL (6th percentile). Authority-wise, he was exceptional across the board, with fly-ball, liner and grounder authority all averaging over one standard deviation above the NL average. His average grounder authority was the highest in the league; though he pulled on the ground very often (9.00 pull ratio), he rarely rolled over weakly. He recorded a .327 AVG and .345 SLG on the ground despite that pull ratio, potentially a harbinger of 2015 regression. His exceptional K-BB differential added 16 points to his raw contact score, propelling him fractionally above Stanton as the most productive regular in the NL last season. His liner rate is low again in 2015, which is of some concern, but there is simply too much good stuff here to keep this guy down much longer.

7 – Anthony Rizzo – Believe it or not, Rizzo’s qualitative attributes outshone his raw authority last season. He had a high liner rate (79th percentile), and has so far in 2015 proven that he is one of the few hitters capable of maintaining at or above that level. He was not an excessive ground-ball puller, and opposing infields overshifted at their own risk. His fly-ball and grounder authority both averaged over a half standard deviation above the NL mean, and his liner authority was actually over a half standard deviation below; there was quite a bit of weak contact mixed in with the hard. Most impressively, his very strong K-BB differential boosted his contact score by nine basis points, ultimately making him the third-most productive hitter in the NL. He was actually a bit unlucky in 2014, producing just a .197 AVG and .219 SLG on the ground despite moving the ball around. His next-level 2015 breakout appears to be very real.

8 – Marcell Ozuna – Ozuna was my big breakout candidate for 2015, and I’m still not backing off on him. His contact score ranked this high despite a relatively low liner rate (19th percentile), as his fly-ball and liner authority both averaged over one and his grounder authority averaged over a half standard deviation above league average. He was not an extreme ground-ball puller, moving the ball around and avoiding overshifts. The obvious shortcoming? Poor K and BB rates, costing him 28 basis points off of his context score, and dropping him out of the top-30 most productive offensive players in the NL last season. This year, the K rate is still an issue, but the walks are up, and he’s hit into an awful lot of tough luck. He’s not Stanton, but he is Baby Stanton, and should be expected to ramp up his homer total in short order.

9 – Adrian Gonzalez – Except for the decline in his BB rate in recent years, Gonzalez has settled in as a nearly perfect hitter, technically speaking. In 2014, his pop-up rate was very low for a power hitter (25th percentile), and his liner rate, as usual, was sky high (91st). His fly-ball rate was very high but not quite excessive (88th, excluding pop ups). His very manageable K rate allowed him to add eight basis points to his contact score. Authority-wise, he was solid, with his fly balls and grounders averaging over a standard deviation above the NL mean and his liner authority residing in the average range. His overall production was knocked down to 18th in the NL by poor performance on grounders (.204 AVG, .210 SLG) despite solid authority and lack of an excessive pulling tendency. Quite honestly, his 2015 surge is not a big surprise.

10 – Lucas Duda – There were quite a few red, or at least orange, flags present in Duda’s 2014 performance. Very few major leaguers’ fly-ball rates are higher than their grounder rate, and those who fit this profile usually see their performance suffer in the following season. Duda’s fly rate (98th percentile) was 10% higher than his grounder rate (2nd) last season. On top of that, he was an excessive ground-ball puller (10.11 pull ratio) who produced just a .196 AVG and .224 SLG on the ground as a result. Positives? His fly-ball authority was over one and his liner and grounder authority were both over one-half standard deviation above the NL average, and relatively solid K and BB rates lopped only four basis points off of his contact score. This year, his line is productive, but, well, weird. He’s pulling the ball much less, and only has three homers to date. His liner rate is over-the-top high, simply unsustainable. Expect some cooling off in the short term, but continued moderation of his extreme fly ball and pulling tendencies would be good for him in the long run.

You’ll notice that names like Jayson Werth, Yasiel Puig, Justin Morneau, Jonathan Lucroy and Buster Posey did not make the list of top-ten contact scores. They did, however, rank among the ten most productive NL hitters last season. Morneau, Lucroy and Posey did so by almost never striking out, combined with solid though not extreme contact authority. Frequency of contact is of similar importance to contact quality. Werth’s K rate was a bit higher, but his K-BB differential was similarly strong. Puig’s speed turned outs into singles, singles into doubles, and doubles into triples. Contact authority is very important, but it is only one of many factors that contribute to production.

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

B.Hamilton 48 52 65 82 62
Revere 56 67 63 97 51
Cozart 56 64 64 65 65
Segura 61 72 61 73 64
D.Gordon 64 69 62 100 49
Rollins 73 91 51 106 44
B.Crawford 73 79 60 102 47
Simmons 74 92 50 80 63
Hechavarria 74 81 59 90 55
LeMahieu 79 83 56 91 54

Most of these players bring value of a different sort to the table; there is a lot of speed here in the persons of Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon, especially, as well as defense-first shortstops like Andrelton Simmons, Jean Segura and Zack Cozart. Three of these players — Jimmy Rollins, Brandon Crawford and Gordon — actually managed to produce at an NL average level last season. Rollins did so by curling fly balls down the line from both sides of the plate, something that is not working nearly as well in Dodger Stadium, which is much more generous to hitters in the middle of the field. Crawford is a nice fit for his home park: his fly-ball power is to dead pull, the only homer-friendly soft spot, and his liners to the gaps that are doubles everywhere else are triples at AT&T Park. With Gordon, it’s obviously all about speed, speed and more speed.

Crushing the baseball is nice, but in and of itself, it doesn’t accomplish much. It is when hard contact is merged with some combination of contact frequency, and expert control of vertical and horizontal angle off of the bat, among other factors, that it is translated into true production.

We hoped you liked reading Contact Quality: Just a Part of the Puzzle, 2014 NL Hitters by Tony Blengino!

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Do you have Goldschmidt’s C-score? He’s not here because he was hurt, but it would be interesting to see where he lands.