Late-Season AL Contact-Management Update

The season’s final week has begun, with intriguing races for playoff spots continuing in both leagues. It’s the home stretch of award season, as well; while strikeouts and walks often get lots of attention in the Cy Young discussion, the role of contact management is often overlooked. To that end, we examined the contact-management ability of qualifying NL starters last week. This week, it’s the AL’s turn in the barrel.

The data being examined today runs through September 19. Pitchers in the table below are listed in order of Adjusted Contact Score. 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:

AL Contact-Management Data (Thru 9/19)
Sabathia 0.325 0.507 93 0.287 0.461 75 76 36.7% 48.4% 12.5%
S. Wright 0.297 0.433 73 0.302 0.456 78 80 43.8% 62.3% 12.8%
Quintana 0.319 0.509 92 0.314 0.481 86 77 38.5% 57.1% 21.2%
Kluber 0.294 0.492 82 0.308 0.513 90 73 31.7% 51.6% 19.5%
Sale 0.302 0.482 83 0.317 0.510 92 72 33.3% 51.6% 17.1%
Tanaka 0.296 0.452 76 0.329 0.497 93 83 32.0% 51.6% 25.0%
Fister 0.323 0.525 96 0.324 0.506 93 102 29.2% 49.1% 17.6%
Porcello 0.286 0.463 75 0.316 0.524 94 80 36.1% 47.7% 15.2%
Verlander 0.290 0.524 86 0.308 0.545 95 75 45.4% 51.1% 17.2%
McHugh 0.381 0.617 133 0.333 0.512 97 86 35.3% 55.9% 20.4%
Estrada 0.273 0.488 75 0.317 0.545 98 91 37.0% 56.3% 21.8%
Iwakuma 0.330 0.531 99 0.325 0.533 98 98 36.4% 57.4% 23.5%
M. Perez 0.299 0.444 75 0.331 0.525 99 118 28.4% 46.1% 19.2%
Rodon 0.370 0.587 123 0.337 0.515 99 89 40.9% 51.5% 26.0%
Nolasco 0.329 0.545 101 0.322 0.542 99 97 33.7% 53.6% 23.1%
Bauer 0.315 0.490 88 0.328 0.532 99 97 38.3% 39.1% 24.5%
Volquez 0.345 0.526 103 0.329 0.535 100 107 26.0% 48.1% 20.9%
Keuchel 0.331 0.542 102 0.337 0.524 100 94 27.5% 52.0% 26.1%
Smyly 0.337 0.595 114 0.320 0.556 101 90 38.1% 51.1% 22.8%
Stroman 0.337 0.525 101 0.347 0.524 103 96 26.0% 41.0% 27.9%
Hamels 0.326 0.513 95 0.333 0.548 103 93 33.3% 47.5% 22.0%
Miley 0.356 0.583 118 0.334 0.547 104 103 23.4% 48.4% 20.7%
Gausman 0.342 0.558 108 0.333 0.549 104 88 30.6% 46.3% 22.1%
Odorizzi 0.309 0.532 93 0.330 0.558 104 97 31.1% 55.5% 21.7%
D. Price 0.339 0.545 105 0.333 0.554 105 84 37.4% 48.4% 21.6%
Santiago 0.307 0.555 97 0.316 0.592 106 112 35.8% 41.5% 26.2%
Graveman 0.316 0.489 88 0.344 0.546 107 115 25.9% 41.4% 20.6%
Aa. Sanchez 0.291 0.436 72 0.344 0.548 107 103 32.7% 43.9% 25.9%
Shoemaker 0.340 0.535 103 0.333 0.567 107 92 35.5% 46.4% 22.7%
Kennedy 0.310 0.544 96 0.326 0.581 107 94 38.8% 45.5% 22.1%
Duffy 0.324 0.549 101 0.331 0.573 107 82 33.6% 49.0% 25.9%
Tomlin 0.333 0.611 115 0.331 0.576 108 101 28.8% 48.1% 16.8%
Dickey 0.319 0.570 103 0.337 0.569 109 112 29.5% 47.4% 19.4%
Ventura 0.313 0.500 89 0.341 0.563 109 115 38.3% 46.1% 21.2%
Tillman 0.303 0.520 89 0.341 0.571 110 106 25.7% 47.1% 22.4%
Weaver 0.349 0.608 120 0.333 0.594 112 124 36.7% 57.1% 13.6%
E. Santana 0.311 0.485 86 0.344 0.576 112 106 36.8% 52.9% 18.5%
Archer 0.334 0.566 107 0.333 0.596 113 89 33.3% 48.9% 25.7%
Happ 0.300 0.493 84 0.348 0.571 113 103 39.9% 47.8% 26.3%
Fiers 0.342 0.581 113 0.349 0.573 113 109 34.3% 50.4% 17.4%
Pineda 0.377 0.645 138 0.345 0.593 116 90 30.8% 50.0% 27.1%

The first three columns represent the actual production allowed by each qualifying starting pitcher; the Unadjusted Contact Score expresses actual production relative to the league average of 100. The next three columns represent the production each pitcher “should have” allowed based on the exit speed and launch angle of each BIP allowed. Adjusted Contact Score expresses projected production relative to the league average of 100. “Tru” ERA- is also listed; this simply adds back the K and BB into the mix along with the projected production data and compares the overall result to the league average of 100.

One note: if you read last week’s NL Contact Management article, you might notice that the average AL Adjusted Contact Score is higher than the NL average. This is largely due to the presence of the DH in the AL; as you might guess, DHs hit the ball harder than pitchers. At the end of the season, I will calculate and apply a league adjustment to remove this effect. In any event, the order of the pitchers above, and their “Tru” ERAs, are unaffected.

The last three columns are some fun but helpful indicators. For purposes of this exercise, fly balls are batted balls hit at a launch angle between 20 and 50 degrees vertically. If you split that vertical expanse exactly in half, at 35 degrees, you’ll note a huge production difference between the “high” and “low” fly balls. Overall, hitters are batting .328 AVG-.895 SLG on fly balls this season. The “high” flies (34.1% of the fly ball population) result in a .100 AVG-.265 SLG. The “low” flies (65.9% of the total) are golden, resulting in a very loud .444 AVG-1.215 SLG. Each pitcher’s “high” fly percentage is shown in the third column from the right.

I’ve long discussed the fly-ball “donut hole” on these pages. Hitters are batting a paltry .116 AVG-.213 SLG on “can of corn” fly balls with exit speeds between 75-95 MPH. Each pitcher’s “corn” percentage is listed in the second column from the right. The qualifying pitchers above combined to post a cumulative 49.8% “corn” percentage.

MLB hitters are batting .237 AVG-.258 SLG on ground balls this season, but the vast majority of the damage is being done on grounders that are struck at 100 mph or harder. Hitters are batting a lusty .421 AVG-.454 SLG on such grounders. Each pitcher’s “hard” grounder percentage is listed in the rightmost column. The qualifying pitchers above combined to post a cumulative 21.4% “hard” grounder percentage.

Let’s discuss the AL leaders and laggards, as well as some pitchers whose unadjusted contact scores are much better or worse than they “should” be:

AL Leaders

1 – CC Sabathia (Yankees) – You might be surprised by this one. Mr. Sabathia has successfully reinvented himself as a contact manager, setting the stage for a productive decline phase. Not only does he have a pronounced grounder tendency, he has a pronounced weak-grounder tendency. Check out his 12.5% hard-grounder rate, the best mark among AL qualifiers. Somehow, hitters are batting .270 on the ground against Sabathia, so his actual numbers don’t stand out. Adjusted for context, CC actually has the fourth best “Tru” ERA- in the AL, better than teammate Masahiro Tanaka. Oh, and he appears to be a cinch to win the full-season contact-management crown, as the runner-up as of 9/19 is unlikely to qualify at year’s end.

2 – Steven Wright (Red Sox) – Before the Red Sox’ massive second half, when all cylinders were firing and then some, this guy kept them relevant in the first half. His BIP mix is much more fly-ball heavy than Sabathia’s, but Wright clearly has squelched authority across the board more significantly than any other AL qualifier. He ranks second in high-fly rate, and first by a country mile in can-of-corn percentage. In addition, he is narrowly behind Sabathia in second place in hard-grounder percentage. In Fenway, a fly-ball pitcher is a dead man walking if he can’t manage authority; Wright will have to continue to operate without a safety net moving forward.

3 – Jose Quintana (White Sox) – Quintana is much more of a fly-ball pitcher than Wright, and pitches his home games in almost as fly-ball friendly a home park. He manages fly-ball authority expertly; he ranks sixth in high-fly and third in can-of-corn percentage. This guy is clearly not a fluke. He’s above average at everything, while not wowing you in any singular way.

4 – Corey Kluber (Indians) – Kluber has come a long way from his earliest days, when he allowed an awful lot of hard contact sandwiched between his many strikeouts. He’s slightly above average in our three fly-ball and grounder indicators, and lacks a go-to BIP mix strength. He’s actually been a little lucky on grounders, yielding only a .158 AVG, well below his projected level. Still, his K and BB ability, coupled with even average contact-management skill, makes him an ace; when he’s above average in that department, he’s a short-list Cy Young candidate.

5 – Chris Sale (White Sox) – All the talk in the early going this season was about Sale’s new “pitch to contact” style. Now that we have nearly a full season of data in the books, we can clearly see that Sale almost can’t go wrong. He’s above average in two of our three indicators, especially in hard-grounder rate, where he ranks sixth among AL qualifiers. He needs to manage authority well, as his BIP mix is quite fly-ball heavy. When you add K and BB back into the mix, Sale narrowly leads the AL in “Tru” ERA-, a lead that is buttressed slightly by the innings load he has carried. Among AL qualifiers, my Cy Young ballot through 9/19 would read: 1. Sale, 2. Kluber, 3. Justin Verlander, whose strong qualitative contact-management tendencies are undermined a bit by a fly-ball-heavy BIP mix.

AL Laggards

41 – Michael Pineda (Yankees) – I worked for the Mariners when Pineda reached the majors, and even then the amount of authoritative contact he allowed was a concern. His hard-grounder rate is off the charts high, behind only Marcus Stroman among AL qualifiers. His high-fly percentage is worse than league average as well. He also has a key BIP-mix flaw: he has an extremely low pop-up percentage for a hurler who gives up at least a somewhat material number of fly balls. Of course, his K/BB excellence still gives him a chance to be a star, if he can only become a near-average contact manager.

40 – Mike Fiers (Astros) – On the positive side, the main reason for Fiers’ 2016 contact management is an elevated liner rate, something likely to regress moving forward. All other BIP rates, for hitters and pitchers, correlate quite well from year to year. Not so liners, especially for pitchers. Fiers’ hard-grounder rate is actually the eighth best on this list. He’s no star, but Fiers doesn’t project as a poor contact manager moving forward.

39 – J.A. Happ (Blue Jays) – It wasn’t too long ago that this guy was actually getting some Cy Young play. Please. While his high-fly percentage is fourth best among AL qualifiers, his hard-grounder rate is third worst. Despite that latter fact, hitters are somehow batting only .176 on the ground against him. Happ actually measures up as a below-league-average starting pitcher according to “Tru” ERA.

38 – Chris Archer (Rays) – Yes, Archer has the stuff and talent to be a superstar, but his abjectly poor contact-management skill at present must be addressed first. He too has allowed a very high hard-grounder percentage to date, sixth highest among AL qualifiers. He’s slightly below average in the two fly-ball indicators as well. Another discouraging factor: Archer’s contact score could have been even worse, as he has allowed a relatively low liner percentage this year, something that could regress the wrong way moving forward.

37 (tie) – Ervin Santana (Twins) – This is kind of an odd one, as Santana is a bit above average in all three of our indicators. He has given up a higher percentage of liners and 100-plus mph fly balls than most, however, and that packs a punch. The BIP mix is not very good and his K and BB rates no longer represent material strengths, so his best path forward is a narrow one.

37 (tie) – Jered Weaver (Angels) – Once the Contact Management King, Weaver’s line remains quite intriguing. He’s above average in all three indicators, with the third-highest “corn” percentage and third-lowest hard-grounder rate. Why then, is he near the bottom of the heap? Well, he doesn’t induce nearly as many pop ups as he used to, he allows plenty of very hard fly-ball contact, and as a one-year bonus, is running a very high liner rate allowed.

The Lucky Ones

1 – Aaron Sanchez (Blue Jays) – The difference of -35 between his Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores easily paces the AL. The long-term prognosis for both Sanchez and teammate Stroman is quite good, but both need to chop down their hard-grounder rates; Sanchez ranks seventh worst among AL qualifiers, and is below average in both fly-ball indicators as well. Hitters batted under .200 against Sanchez on the ground, despite the sound authority. He’s a league-average-ish starter at present, with plenty of upside.

2 – Happ (Blue Jays) – See above. Unadjusted/Adjusted difference of -29.

3 – E. Santana (Twins) – See above. Unadjusted/Adjusted difference of -26.

4 – Martin Perez (Rangers) – Perez, as a pitcher, is a metaphor for the Rangers as a team. Both team and player’s actual records far outstrip their underlying fundamentals. Yes, Perez yields tons of grounders, and yes, all three of his contact-management indicators are better than league average, but they don’t support a 75 Unadjusted Contact Score. His actual production allowed on flies, liners and grounders are all well below projected levels, partially due to solid infield defense, but partially due to luck. Unadjusted/Adjusted difference of -24.

5 – Marco Estrada (Blue Jays) – Here stands our 2015 AL Contact Manager of the Year. He hasn’t been quite as outstanding this year, though he still induces plenty of pop ups and fares quite well on our two fly-ball indicators, including a seventh-place ranking in can-of-corn percentage. He has held hitters to well below projected production on both liners and grounders, thanks both to random chance and strong team defense. Yup, that’s three Jays on the lucky list. Unadjusted/Adjusted difference of -23.

The Unlucky Ones

1 – Collin McHugh (Astros) – Bizarrely unlucky, with an Unadjusted/Adjusted difference of +36. He’s above average in all three of our indicators, featuring a sixth-place finish in “corn” percentage. He’s been quite unlucky on both fly balls and liners, allowing quite a few cheap homers along the way. He’s the poster child for context, ranking 40th out of 41 in Unadjusted Contact Score, but 10th in the Adjusted version.

2 – Carlos Rodon (White Sox) – Unadjusted/Adjusted difference of +24. His indicators are a mixed bag; his high-fly percentage is exceptional (third in the AL), his hard-grounder percentage quite poor (fifth worst). He’s been hurt by his home park in the air, and by bad luck and defense on grounders, on which hitters are batting an amazing .340.

3 – Pineda (Yankees) – See above. Unadjusted/Adjusted difference of +22. In addition to the aforementioned factors, Yankee Stadium does him no favors in the air down both lines.

Later this week, we’ll add non-ERA qualifier Clayton Kershaw into the NL Contact Management/Cy Young mix, and next week we’ll do the same with Zach Britton in the AL.

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6 years ago

Could the Jays IF defence be partially responsible for making Sanchez/Happ look “lucky” on groundballs? Donaldson/Tulo is a stellar left side of the IF, Travis is solid (though his hand injury has affected his play lately). In the OF they have Pillar who catches everything.

So what you’re considering “lucky” might be the result of a bunch of quality defensive players making good plays behind them. Bonus of having a good defence behind you.