Limiting Hard Contact: The AL’s Two Stars

Much of modern sabermetric thought regarding pitcher evaluation has been based upon the theory that most types of contact are created somewhat equally. High and low BABIPs allowed are usually attributed to good and bad luck, and FIP, which is directly based upon BABIP, is oft cited as the go-to individual pitching statistic. Well, not all contact is created equal. This week, we’re going to use a fairly basic method of evaluating contact management ability, and look at the leading contact managers in both leagues. As it turns out, there’s a head-to-head battle for supremacy in both the AL and NL.

This upcoming weekend, I will be giving a presentation about the best contact managers of all time at the Saber Seminar in Boston. These hurlers were identified utilizing a fairly simple method. Simply strip away all of the strikeouts and walks from every ERA-qualifying starting pitcher’s record. Take the remaining results allowed, assign run values to all of them, and scale each pitcher’s performance on all balls in play to the league average. The resulting figure is the pitcher’s unadjusted contact score. In any given year, there may be a great deal of noise in an individual pitcher’s unadjusted contact score – team defense, ballpark, luck, etc., they’re all in there. Over a pitcher’s career, however, the good contact managers manage contact well, and the bad ones, well….don’t. I’ll leave the history for next weekend in Boston, however – for now, let’s focus on 2014, and today, upon the American League.

First of all, let’s take a quick peek at the leading contact managers in both leagues going back to the 2000 season. Bear in mind that the run-scoring environment has changed quite a bit since the turn of the century, but since these are relative numbers, they remain on the same scale.

2000 Pedro Martinez 62 Mike Hampton 68
2001 Joe Mays 68 Russ Ortiz 70
2002 Derek Lowe 56 Odalis Perez 72
2003 Barry Zito 62 Russ Ortiz 71
2004 Jake Westbrook 77 Al Leiter 68
2005 Barry Zito 76 Roger Clemens 59
2006 Chien-Ming Wang 73 Derek Lowe 76
2007 Roberto Hernandez 76 Chris Young 62
2008 Daisuke Matsuzaka 73 Derek Lowe 77
2009 Felix Hernandez 72 Chris Carpenter 66
2010 Clay Buchholz 66 Tim Hudson 69
2011 Jeremy Hellickson 71 Matt Cain 70
2012 Jered Weaver 70 Gio Gonzalez 70
2013 Justin Masterson 79 Jose Fernandez 63

All in all, pretty interesting lists. Basically, it’s a bunch of pitchers who outperform their FIPs. That right there tells you about the limitations of that statistic. Lots of extreme ground ball and popup generators are on the list – Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson and Russell Ortiz belong to the former group, Barry Zito, Jered Weaver and Chris Young represent the latter, among others. Inner circle great all-around pitchers like Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens are there……and so are Joe Mays and Odalis Perez. Yes, luck can certainly play a role in a single given season. Of course, there are more batted-ball oriented tools at our disposal now, enabling us to ferret out luck and other contextual factors with deeper analysis. For now, though, let’s focus simply on the unadjusted contact score number.

Thus far in 2014, two pitchers are running well ahead of their AL peers (through 8/9/2014) with regard to contact management. They are:

Garrett Richards – .267 AVG-.355 SLG – 59 Unadjusted Contact Score
– Felix Hernandez – .272 AVG- .385 SLG – 65 Unadjusted Contact Score

These are both exceptional figures – Richards’ mark of 59 ties Clemens for the second best contact score of this century, while Felix’ mark would lead the AL in any single season since 2003.

For Richards, 2014 has been a major breakthrough. He had often outperformed his K rate, and therefore, his projected FIP, during his minor league career, but had been a somewhat pedestrian performer in his previous major league experience. An ongoing spike in his average fastball velocity – from 94.5 MPH in limited 2011 action up to 96.3 MPH, the highest among MLB ERA-qualifiers in 2014 – has keyed his ascent.

As for Felix, he has obviously long ranked among the very best starting pitchers in the game today. His status as a contact manager, however, has fluctuated throughout the years. He has a career unadjusted contact score of 93, better than league average but not nearly in the elite range, despite pitching his home games in spacious Safeco Field for his entire career. He did lead the AL with a 72 mark in 2009, but that was with the vaunted Franklin Gutierrez mega-defense behind him. Of course, his K and BB rates have been exceptional throughout his career, and those drove his success, as they do the majority of elite pitching talents. The re-emergence of his Changeup of Death this season has taken him to new heights, as it is both missing bats and inducing weak contact at career-best levels.

Now that we’ve identified these two aces as the premier AL contact managers based on the raw, unadjusted numbers, let’s hold them up against the scrutiny of context. Are these two guys legitimately elite contact managers, or have they had some help along the way? Let’s review their 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data for some clues. First, the frequency information:

FREQ – 2014
F.Hernandez % REL PCT
K 28.1% 138 87
BB 4.8% 62 6
POP 4.4% 58 3
FLY 22.7% 81 7
LD 18.0% 86 4
GB 54.9% 126 98
———— ———— ———– ———–
G.Richards % REL PCT
K 24.5% 121 80
BB 7.8% 101 75
POP 5.3% 69 4
FLY 24.4% 87 13
LD 20.7% 99 41
GB 49.6% 114 89

Felix’ frequency profile is the all-around gold standard. While Clayton Kershaw is better overall thanks to his outlandish K rate, this is as close to a technically perfect profile as can be. His K rate is near the top of the scale (87 percentile rank) and his BB rate near the bottom (6 percentile rank) – but we’re here to talk about contact management, not K and BB rates today. Such exceptional K and BB rates, however, do give a pitcher substantial margin for error with regard to contact management. Hernandez could be an average contact manager this season and potentially walk away with the Cy Young Award. His exceptional batted-ball profile in addition to his K/BB excellence elevates his season from great to potentially historic. His fly ball (7 percentile rank) and liner (4) rates are near the bottom of the scale, while his grounder rate (98) is at the top. It’s hard to do damage when you can’t elevate the baseball off of the ground. All of these batted-ball percentile ranks are career bests for Hernandez.

Like Hernandez, Richards has a significant, though not as extreme ground ball tendency (89 percentile rank). His fly ball (13) and line drive (41) percentile ranks are both solidly better than the MLB average, but again, aren’t as insane as Hernandez’. While Richards’ K rate (80 percentile rank) is quite high, so is his BB rate (75). Richards’ K/BB rates give him some margin for error with regard to contact management, but his exceptional though not-quite-as-elite-as-Felix batted-ball mix doesn’t really require it.

Now let’s take a look at the production by BIP type allowed by both pitchers, both before and after adjustment for context, to get a better feel for the batted-ball authority they have allowed:

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.227 0.485 52 73
LD 0.584 0.805 81 91
GB 0.217 0.243 82 65
ALL BIP 0.272 0.385 65 67
ALL PA 0.191 0.231 0.271 50 51 1.97 1.94 1.99
————- ———- ———- ———- ———- ———- ———– ———– ———–
FLY 0.228 0.435 46 66
LD 0.692 0.872 105 94
GB 0.150 0.150 36 65
ALL BIP 0.267 0.355 59 72
ALL PA 0.195 0.258 0.259 56 65 2.54 2.15 2.52

The actual production allowed by both pitchers on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. In the three right-most columns, their actual ERAs, calculated component ERAs based on actual production allowed, and “tru” ERAs, which are adjusted for context, are all presented. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

First of all, as noted in the frequency tables, neither pitcher allows many fly balls. In addition, neither allows much damage on the few fly balls they do allow, with Hernandez and Richards allowing unadjusted fly ball contact scores of 52 and 46, respectively. There are two ways to successfully limit damage on fly balls – to manage the vertical angle and the exit velocity off of the bat. Splitting the fly ball category into upper and lower groups equidistant in size from the popup and line drive borders yields starkly different results. The “higher” fly balls yield an .098 AVG-.234 SLG, while the “lower” ones yield a .380 AVG-.990 SLG. Roughly 35% of fly balls reside in the upper group, 65% in the lower. While neither Hernandez and Richards allows particularly “high” or “low” fly balls on average, both pitchers successfully limit the authority of fly balls in both groups.

Hitters are batting .031 AVG-.125 SLG (1 for 32, a homer) on high fly balls against Hernandez this season, and .323 AVG-.662 SLG on low fly balls. Hitters are 0 for 32 against Richards on high fly balls, and are batting .344 AVG-.656 SLG against him on low fly balls. Richards’ four-seam fastball is his best weak-fly generator, while Hernandez’ is his sinker. Both, particularly Hernandez, have the advantage of spacious home parks, but even after adjustment for context, their REL PRD – or adjusted contact score – on fly balls are exceptional – 73 for Hernandez, 66 for Richards. Both pitchers also allow less than MLB average line drive authority – 91 REL PRD for Hernandez, 94 for Richards.

Then there’s all of those ground balls, the key BIP group for both hurlers. Hernandez has allowed .217 AVG-.243 SLG on grounders this season, for an unadjusted grounder contact score of 82, while Richards has yielded an amazing .150 AVG-.150 SLG, for a miniscule unadjusted grounder contact score of 36. Again, let’s split grounders into “high” and “low” groups, with the high group equal in exit angle range to the two fly ball groups. “High” grounders are just under 60% of the whole, “low” ones the other 40%. Batters hit .331 AVG-.365 SLG on “high” grounders, and only .114 AVG-.120 SLG on “low” grounders.

Both pitchers have allowed a lower than MLB average percentage of “high” grounders – 48.5% for Hernandez, and 51.9% for Richards. Hernandez has yielded .307 AVG-.351 SLG on “high” grounders, Richards, just .247 AVG-.247 SLG. On “low” grounders, Hernandez yielded .132 AVG-.140 SLG, Richards, just .044 AVG-.044 SLG. Once you normalize both pitchers’ performance based on their hard/soft grounder rates, however, their REL PRD on grounders – their adjusted grounder contact scores – are exactly equal at 65 – there is some good fortune in Richards’ materially lesser actual grounder production allowed. Hernandez chiefly utilizes his changeup to generate “low” grounders, while Richards primarily uses his four-seamer and slider to do so. It must be noted that a 65 adjusted grounder contact score is basically off of the charts – these guys are the best at not only generating a high quantity of ground balls, but are also the best at generating the lowest, and weakest ground balls. Not only is not all contact created equal – not all ground ball contact is created equal, either.

Adjusted for context, Felix’ overall contact score creeps ahead of Richards’, by 67 to 72. Both pitchers’ overall resumes gets even better once the K’s and BB’s are added back – their “tru” ERAs of 1.99 and 2.52, respectively, can be laid right on top of their actual ERAs. Both hurlers dominate in multiple ways – while the good, old-fashioned dominance of missing bats should never be ignored, these two also deserve attention for the manner in which they suffocate contact. Such talents are real, and are often at the root of the differences between ERA and FIP.

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7 years ago

Great stuff once again Tony.

I thought it was cool that this article, as well as the lead article in THT today, look at contact skill on all balls hit fair (including HRs). While BABIP is good for analyzing the impact of fielding support, including HRs in these contexts makes so much more sense.

After all, if limiting HRs is one of a pitcher’s “true” skills, isn’t that really a proxy for limiting hard contact?