From a team perspective, one of the big stories of the first half has been the utter dominance of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sure, most prognosticators thought they would be good, but this good? Their sheer dominance over the last couple months has been nothing short of historic, 1939 Yankees type stuff.
The identity of their lead dogs hasn’t been all that surprising. There’s Clayton Kershaw, the best of the best among starting pitchers — once again healthy and offering elite quality and quantity of contribution. Kenley Jansen is a human zero machine out of the bullpen. Occasionally, hitters even make contact against him. Corey Seager might still be a very young man, but his excellence has come to be expected. And while the immediacy and magnitude of Cody Bellinger’s production might be a bit surprising, he was almost unanimously considered an elite prospect.
We can talk (and have talked, just last week, about Kershaw) about those guys another time. Today, let’s turn toward three supporting players who have made surprisingly large contributions to the larger team effort. Third baseman Justin Turner is one of their core guys, but did you have him down for .377/.477/.583 at the break? Utilityman Chris Taylor is the least likely of the club’s six double-digit homer producers. And it’s Alex Wood, at 10-0 and with 1.67 ERA, who’s making a strong run at the Kershaw/Max Scherzer tandem for Cy Young honors.
How real are their first-half contributions? Let’s drill down into their plate-appearance-frequency and batted-ball-quality data to get a better feel.
In the two tables below, such data is provided for all three players.
|Name||UNADJ C||U-FLY-A||U-LD-A||U-GB-A||ADJ C||wRC+||PRJ PRD|
|Name||UNADJ C||U-FLY-A||U-LD-A||U-GB-A||ADJ C||ERA –||FIP –||TRU –|
The first table lists each players’ K and BB rates, as well as the breakdown of all of their BIP by category type. For this table, color-coding is used to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations higher than league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.
The second table includes each player’s Unadjusted Contact Score. This represents, on a scale where 100 equals league average, the actual production level recorded/allowed by each player on balls in play. Basically, it’s their actual performance with the Ks and BBs removed. Their Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores for each BIP category are then listed. Adjusted Contact Score represents the production level that each player “should have” recorded/allowed if every batted ball resulted in league-average production for its exit-speed/launch-angle “bucket.”
Finally, overall Adjusted Contact Score, and for hitters, actual wRC+ and Projected Production, and for pitchers, actual ERA-, FIP-, and “tru” ERA- are listed. Projected Production and “Tru” ERA add back the Ks and BBs to the Adjusted Contact Score data to give a better measure of each player’s true performance level.
Neither Chris Taylor nor Justin Turner was expected to become an offensive force at the major-league level. Each year, I compile my own list of minor-league position-player rankings, based on production and age relative to league and level. It basically serves as a follow list, a starting point from which traditional scouting takes place to tweak the order. Taylor qualified for this list four times, finishing progressively lower each season (Nos. 59, 71, 245, and 307 from 2013 to -16). Turner qualified twice, at No. 212 in 2007 and No. 253 in 2010. I was with the Mariners when we selected Taylor in the fifth round out of Virginia. We thought he was a big leaguer, for sure, but a big bat? Not quite.
Taylor had exactly one MLB homer in 318 plate appearances entering the 2017 season. Obviously, Turner had a higher set of expectations, as he was a coveted free agent last offseason. Still, while he has been a contact hitter who batted around .300 with middling power numbers through the minors and his early major-league seasons before busting out for 27 homers (while sacrificing some average) in 2016, he was never a star talent. Nothing pointed toward a .377 average with more walks than whiffs.
How are they getting it done? Both players have been very adept at avoiding the free out on balls in play — i.e., the pop up. Both had pop-up rates over a full standard deviation lower than the NL average in the first half. That’s a big enough plus for Taylor, who had a pop-up issue earlier in his career. It’s an even bigger deal for Turner, however.
Turner has fully bought into the whole raised-launch-angle thing that is currently in vogue. As recently as 2014, his average launch angle was 9.9 degrees. Last year, it was 17.2. This year, it stands at 16.9 degrees. Most guys with high average launch angles hit plenty of pop ups. Turner hits almost none. To hit so many flies without popping up is quite a feat, one of two core skills that fuels Turner’s production.
The other is a very high liner rate. If you’ve read my articles on related topics in the past, you know that liner rates, both for hitters and pitchers, tend to be quite volatile from year to year, much more so than for other BIP types. A chosen few hitters can be relied upon to square up the baseball at a high rate, year in and year out. Justin Turner is such a player. His liner rate placed in the 77th, 95th, and 82nd percentiles, respectively, among NL regulars between 2014 and -16. He could top all of those marks this season.
Taylor has also hit plenty of liners this season, but I wouldn’t bank on that continuing. In fact, I will guarantee you that his current 25.9% liner rate will regress downward by the end of the season.
Then there’s the K rates. Turner has always made contact at a high rate, and he has taken that to a new level this season. His 10.6% strikeout rate is over a full STD lower than league average; in fact, it’s almost two STD lower. Taylor has been whiffing like a power hitter. Both hitters are walking at a reasonably higher-than-average clip.
Looking at the second table, you’ll note that both have been well-above-average performers on balls in play, with Taylor and Turner posting Unadjusted Contact Scores of 169 and 162. Taylor has been extremely lucky on fly balls to date (184 Unadjusted vs. 81 Adjusted Contact Score): he has 10 homers despite hitting only seven fly balls at 100 mph or higher. His Adjusted Contact Scores on liners (109) and grounders (134) indicate that Taylor has been striking the ball better than most would have expected entering the season.
Turner’s batted-ball authority isn’t very eye-catching; his Adjusted Contact Scores of 109, 98, and 91 for flies, grounders, and liners, respectively, are all in the average range. He has been extremely lucky on liners, having recorded a .825 AVG and 1.018 SLG on them for a 150 Unadjusted Contact Score. He’s an extreme ground-ball puller, pulling over five times as many grounders than he’s hit the other way. This makes him an overshift candidate and limits his production on the ground. It’s an issue, but a small one given the overall excellence of his technical profile.
Putting everything together, Taylor’s Projected Production level of 99 falls way short of his 122 wRC+. He isn’t a power hitter and likely won’t ever be one. I’d go out on a limb and say he’ll never again reach double-digit homers in a full season after 2017. That said, this is a pretty strong profile for a utility infielder, is it not? The K rate is a big issue, and that liner rate is definitely coming down, but can your 300- to 350-at-bat utility infielder be relied upon for a 90-95 wRC+ moving forward? Taylor can continue to be a nice complementary piece on a winning club.
As for Turner, he’s the right-handed Matt Carpenter. He has figured this whole thing out. No, he’s not a .377 hitter, but he’s very close to a .300/.400/.500 true-talent hitter. He’s as good as he’s going to get, but it’s plenty good enough. He’s maximized his fly rate, minimized his whiff rate, and can be relied upon to churn out liners on an annual basis. He’ll hit for average for years, though his power totals will wane more quickly.
So those are the hitter. Now, let’s talk about the pitcher listed above, Alex Wood. I also compile a top-pitching-prospect list each year, based on K and BB rates relative to league and level, adjusted for age. He qualified twice, at No. 115 and No. 41 in 2012 and 2013. A nice prospect, though not an elite one.
He’s got a funky delivery and some injury history, but when he’s on, he performs the two primary tasks required of high-end pitchers, compiling strong K and BB rates, and managing contact. In his case, he does the latter by inducing tons of ground balls.
Looking at his frequency profile, the massive grounder rate, over two STD above league average, stands out. That’s among the very highest in either league. He struck out nearly a batter per inning in his first full MLB season, but his current 30.7% K rate is uncharted territory that no one could have foreseen.
A bit more subtle has been his ability to squeeze out a decent amount of pop ups despite hitters rarely hitting fly balls. His 2.6% pop-up rate is actually in the middle of the MLB pack despite the fact that his fly-ball-rate allowed is almost at the very bottom. The best MLB starters are able to get outs up and down in the zone; teammate Kershaw might be the very best at it. Perhaps it’s rubbing off.
His Unadjusted Contact Score of 54 is exceptional, and there isn’t a ton of luck involved. Sure, he’s been a bit fortunate on flies (41 Unadjusted vs. 73 Adjusted Contact Score) and liners (54 vs. 89), but not excessively so. His Adjusted Contact Score of 73 is still excellent. He yields tons of grounders, and he’s actually been a bit unlucky (91 vs. 85) on them.
Add back the Ks and BBs, and Wood’s “Tru” ERA- of 53 isn’t that far out of line with his ERA and FIP. It’s actually better than Kershaw’s 64, tied with Chris Sale’s 53, and just behind Max Scherzer’s 50 cited in last week’s article. Now those guys have pitched way more innings than Wood, but quality-wise, he’s right in there duking it out with them.
Great teams having great years get great seasons from great players — and outlier seasons from some of their supporting players. Taylor is having an outlier season. Turner is an underrated player who is quietly seeking his ceiling. And Wood just might be in the process of giving the Dodgers a second ace. Things can change quickly, but right now, all three players are in a very good place at a very good time for their club.