Late-Season NL Contact-Management Update

We’re headed down the regular-season home stretch, with nearly a full campaign’s worth of data in the books. In my next two posts, we’ll measure the contact-management performance of qualifying starting pitchers in both leagues. Today, let’s look at the National League.

The data being examined today runs through September 12. 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:

NL Contact-Management Data (thru 9/12)
Hendricks 0.261 0.413 61 0.290 0.427 71 66 38.5% 56.4% 16.0%
C. Martinez 0.297 0.417 71 0.304 0.444 77 79 32.8% 52.6% 18.7%
Roark 0.299 0.422 72 0.299 0.464 79 81 35.1% 57.3% 18.9%
Arrieta 0.251 0.397 56 0.302 0.469 80 78 26.9% 47.1% 15.7%
Scherzer 0.284 0.520 84 0.294 0.504 84 61 42.8% 51.3% 20.6%
J. Nelson 0.327 0.519 96 0.315 0.496 89 100 36.8% 47.0% 24.7%
Maeda 0.306 0.477 83 0.317 0.494 89 76 33.1% 48.8% 12.8%
Davies 0.323 0.515 94 0.316 0.497 89 86 33.1% 56.2% 18.5%
Eickhoff 0.321 0.543 99 0.308 0.517 90 87 41.9% 54.7% 22.4%
Lester 0.289 0.461 75 0.319 0.502 91 80 28.6% 52.4% 21.1%
Cueto 0.303 0.448 77 0.323 0.501 92 83 39.4% 50.4% 17.7%
J. Garcia 0.337 0.550 105 0.321 0.512 93 93 33.7% 51.0% 21.1%
Syndergaard 0.346 0.501 99 0.332 0.497 94 72 38.1% 51.4% 17.0%
Samardzija 0.310 0.524 92 0.317 0.533 96 96 34.1% 42.1% 19.4%
G. Gonzalez 0.325 0.518 95 0.326 0.524 97 91 32.3% 51.6% 15.2%
Koehler 0.325 0.513 94 0.330 0.520 97 104 29.8% 55.0% 17.9%
Hammel 0.299 0.520 88 0.317 0.546 98 97 29.6% 56.8% 28.9%
Greinke 0.335 0.565 107 0.324 0.540 99 95 33.6% 48.0% 21.1%
Straily 0.285 0.513 83 0.316 0.556 100 102 33.1% 55.2% 18.5%
Bettis 0.332 0.526 99 0.337 0.524 100 104 29.9% 46.5% 21.0%
Strasburg 0.322 0.531 97 0.326 0.543 100 76 37.7% 54.7% 15.0%
Wainwright 0.345 0.528 104 0.338 0.527 101 101 26.5% 54.3% 15.4%
Bumgarner 0.302 0.503 86 0.320 0.560 102 79 41.1% 50.3% 19.2%
Hellickson 0.313 0.544 96 0.330 0.546 102 97 30.6% 53.0% 22.4%
deGrom 0.336 0.505 97 0.335 0.547 104 91 34.2% 47.0% 18.2%
Colon 0.316 0.506 91 0.343 0.536 104 107 37.8% 52.4% 19.5%
Leake 0.339 0.526 101 0.339 0.543 104 103 36.0% 48.8% 27.6%
Gray 0.333 0.528 100 0.342 0.541 105 92 29.2% 45.8% 21.3%
Teheran 0.284 0.480 77 0.325 0.575 106 94 35.6% 47.3% 26.6%
Lackey 0.283 0.474 76 0.346 0.567 111 96 45.4% 47.7% 24.0%
Finnegan 0.295 0.540 90 0.339 0.584 112 119 32.5% 52.3% 21.0%
J. Fernandez 0.362 0.543 112 0.368 0.544 114 75 33.3% 45.7% 17.0%
Corbin 0.363 0.598 123 0.349 0.580 115 123 20.2% 46.8% 27.5%
R. Ray 0.383 0.596 129 0.352 0.593 118 94 28.8% 39.6% 23.9%

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.

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 50.7% “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 20.2% “hard” grounder percentage.

Quickly, let’s discuss the NL leaders and laggards, as well as some pitchers whose unadjusted contact scores are much better than they “should” be:

NL Leaders

1 – Kyle Hendricks (Cubs) – Barring a collapse in his last few starts, Hendricks will be the 2016 NL Contact-Management champion. His Adjusted Contact Score of 71 is a bit higher than his unadjusted mark of 61. Some have minimized his success, chalking it up in large part to the Cubs’ sterling team defense. While that defense is the best in the NL based on my granular BIP-based method that measures actual vs. projected defense against one’s opponents, and that ballpark has leaned pitcher-friendly this year (especially in the cooler early part of the schedule), Hendricks’ contact-management ability is real. While he has posted a pronounce, though not extreme, grounder tendency this season, it’s more about the authority with Hendricks. Only five NL qualifiers have posted a higher high-fly or lower hard-grounder percentage, and only two a higher can-of-corn fly percentage. He’s a pretty tough guy to square up.

2 – Carlos Martinez (Cards) – With an Adjusted Contact Score of 77, just above his unadjusted mark of 71, the Cards’ hard-throwing righty is currently running second. It’s all about the grounder rate with Martinez; he’s currently running second among NL qualifiers in that category. His authority indicators don’t stand out nearly as much as Hendricks’; his can-of-corn and hard-grounder rates are slightly better than NL average, while his high-fly percentage is actually worse than league average. One really strong strength truly can carry a pitcher to contact-management success.

3 – Tanner Roark (Nationals) – Roark’s Adjusted and Unadjusted Contact Scores as of 9/12 were both just higher than Martinez’, at 79 and 72. Like Hendricks, Roark has a high, though not extreme, grounder rate, and attributes most of his contact-management success to the squelching of authority. His can-of-corn percentage is highest in the NL, and his high-fly and hard-grounder percentages are both slightly better than league average. He’s been a lifesaver for the Nats this season, and should not be allowed to return to the swingman role from whence he came.

4 – Jake Arrieta (Cubs) – Your 2015 NL Adjusted Contact Score champ (73) — yes, this stuff does correlate from year to year — ranks first in Unadjusted Contact Score in 2016 (56), but fourth in the adjusted version (80). Arrieta has posted the fourth-highest grounder rate to date among NL qualifiers, and those grounders have been hit quite weakly; he has the fifth-lowest hard-grounder rate among that group. He hasn’t quite repeated his 2015 contact-management exploits due to the hard fly-ball contact he has allowed; he has allowed the third-lowest percentage of high fly balls among NL qualifiers.

5 – Max Scherzer (Nationals) – Scherzer’s 2016 Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores through 9/12 are identical at 84. For much of his career, the Nationals’ ace has been a below-average contact manager due to high incidence of hard-hit fly balls. Over time, he has ameliorated this issue by developing a strong pop-up tendency and taking the edge off of some of the hard fly-ball contact. He has posted the second-highest high-fly-ball rate among NL qualifiers thus far this season. Oh, and once you add back the K and BB, he stands alone with the best “Tru” ERA- in the NL. If I had to fill out a Cy Young ballot from the above list of qualifiers, I’d go: 1. Scherzer, 2. Hendricks, 3. Noah Syndergaard. Clayton Kershaw? We’ll address him next week.

NL Laggards

34 – Robbie Ray (Diamondbacks) – Despite great K and BB numbers and plus stuff, Ray stands dead last in the NL in both Adjusted (118) and Unadjusted (129) Contact Score. He fares quite poor in all three of our indicators; he has the fifth-worst high-fly percentage, the worst (by far) can-of-corn fly percentage, and the sixth-worst hard-grounder percentage. Lots of upside, but some work to do here. Scherzer’s contact-management improvement over time offers hope.

33 – Patrick Corbin (Diamondbacks) – Corbin ranks second from the bottom in both Adjusted (115) and Unadjusted (123) Contact Score. Hmm… do we need to look much further for reasons for Arizona’s struggles this season? Contact management and team defense. Three of the four highest Unadjusted Contact Scores in the NL belong to these two and Zack Greinke, all D’backs. All three have worse Unadjusted than Adjusted Contact Scores, an indictment of the defense. Corbin? Well, he’s not the same guy he once seemed to be, with subpar K and BB rates and some poor contact-management indicators. His high-fly percentage is off the charts low, last in the NL by a mile, and his can-of-corn percentage is last by at least a half-mile. Toss in the third-highest hard-grounder rate in the NL and it’s not a pretty picture.

32 – Jose Fernandez (Marlins) – Fernandez ranks third from the bottom in the NL in both Adjusted (112) and Unadjusted (114) Contact Score. There are some silver linings here. The largest factor at play here is his extremely high liner-rate allowed; while the frequency of all other BIP types allowed correlates closely from year to year, this is not the case with relatively volatile liner rates. His hard-grounder rate is actually quite good, tied for seventh best among NL qualifiers, and his fly-ball indicators are mixed. Obviously his K and BB rates are phenomenal, and his strong 75 “Tru” ERA- reflects them. The big question: how good can this guy be even an average contact-manager? At least as good as Scherzer was this season.

31 – Brandon Finnegan (Reds) – Finnegan actually had a better-than-average Unadjusted Contact Score (90), but adjustment for exit speed/launch angle downgrades him considerably to a 112 Adjusted mark. His BIP indicators are fairly unremarkable; he’s around the league average in high-fly, can-of-corn and hard-grounder percentages. He did allow a somewhat high liner rate, which should regress a bit moving forward, but his biggest issue is simply a poor BIP mix that lacks a singular strength to build upon. He’s a fly-ball guy who doesn’t induce many pop ups or minimize authoritative fly-ball contact in any meaningful way. From my perspective, his stuff would play up if returned to the bullpen.

30 – John Lackey (Cubs) – Look at this one… Lackey’s Unadjusted Contact Score of 76, the sixth-best mark in the league, is way out of whack with his Adjusted mark of 111, the fifth worst. What gives? Here’s your guy that has been helped greatly by both his defense and his park. His indicators are a mixed bag; his high-fly percentage ranks first in the NL, though his hard-grounder percentage is the fourth highest. The 2016 version of Lackey is a durable, league-average-ish pitcher made to look like a star by the context surrounding him.

The Lucky Ones

1 – Lackey (Cubs) – We just discussed him above. The difference of -35 between his Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores paces the NL.

2 – Julio Teheran (Braves) – His Unadjusted Contact Score is 77, his Adjusted Score 106, for a difference of -29. Teheran has been pretty lucky on the ground, where he has allowed the fourth-highest hard-grounder rate among NL qualifiers, but the biggest factor in his favor is a home park that keeps well-hit fly balls in the yard. Adjusted for context, Teheran has been just a slightly better than league-average starter, with a 94 “Tru” ERA-.

3 – Arrieta (Cubs) – Covered above. Unadjusted/Adjusted difference of -24. Still, a proven, excellent contact-manager any way you slice it.

4 – Finnegan (Reds) – Covered above. Unadjusted/Adjusted difference of -22.

5 – Jon Lester (Cubs) – His Unadjusted Contact Score is 75, his Adjusted Score 91, for a difference of -16. Three Cubs out of five pitchers on this list. Yes, they’re good, but they are lucky to have this defense and the 2016 version of Wrigley Field behind them. Lester’s indicators aren’t positive; his high-fly percentage is fourth worst among ERA qualifiers, and his hard-grounder rate is a bit below average, as well.

We hoped you liked reading Late-Season NL Contact-Management Update by Tony Blengino!

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Ariel Berkowitz
Ariel Berkowitz

I wish there were a rule that Kershaw had to be included in this type of analysis.


Author said Kershaw will be covered next week. Stay tuned.