The Thanksgiving holiday now over, our examination of MLB hitters’ contact quality rolls on, utilizing granular exit-speed and launch-angle data. We’ve already reviewed first basemen and DHs; next up is an interesting group of AL second basemen.
The players below are listed in Adjusted Production order. Adjusted Production expresses, on a scale where 100 equals average, what a hitter “should have” produced based on the exit speed/launch angle of each ball put in play. Each player’s Adjusted Contact Score, which weeds out the strikeouts and walks and states what each player should have produced on BIP alone, is also listed. Here goes:
|NAME||AVG MPH||FLY MPH||LD MPH||GB MPH||POP %||FLY %||LD %||GB %||ADJ C||K %||BB %||wRC+||ADJ PRD||PULL %|
Most of the column headers are self-explanatory, including average BIP speed (overall and by BIP type), BIP type frequency, K and BB rates, wRC+ and Adjusted Production, which incorporates the exit speed/angle data. Each hitter’s Adjusted Contact Score (ADJ C) is also listed. Adjusted Contact Score applies league-average production to each hitter’s individual actual BIP type and velocity mix, and compares it to league average of 100.
Cells are also color-coded. If a hitter’s value is two standard deviations or more higher than average, the field is shaded red. If it’s one to two STD higher than average, it’s shaded orange. If it’s one-half to one STD higher than average, it’s shaded dark yellow. If it’s one-half to one STD less than average, it’s shaded blue. If it’s over one STD less than average, it’s shaded black. Ran out of colors at that point. On the rare occasions that a value is over two STD lower than average, we’ll mention it if necessary in the text.
It should be noted that individual hitters’ BIP frequency and authority figures correlate quite well from year to year, with one notable exception. As with pitchers, individual hitters’ liner rates fluctuate quite significantly from year to year, for all but a handful of hitters with a clear talent (or lack thereof) for squaring up the baseball.
Projecting performance based on BIP speed/angle opens us up to a couple biases that we didn’t need to address when evaluating pitchers. Pitchers face a mix of pull- and opposite-field-oriented hitters, more and less authoritative hitters, etc. Hitters are who they are each time they step up to the plate, and we must choose whether or not to address their individual tendencies.
I have adjusted the projected ground-ball performance for hitters who meet two criteria. First, they’ve recorded over five times as many grounders to the pull side than to the opposite field and, second, they exhibit a resulting deficiency in actual versus projected grounder performance. Such hitters’ projected grounder performance was capped at their actual performance level. Such hitters’ Adjusted Contact Scores and Adjusted Production figures are in red fonts.
I have decided not to adjust for the other primary factor that can skew actual versus projected performance based on exit speed/angle — namely, player speed. We’re attempting to assess hitter contact quality here; let’s keep speed/athleticism separate. As a result, we’ll see some slow, hard-hitting-to-all-fields sluggers overperform on this metric, and some more athletic players underperform. Contact quality is just part of offensive baseball; let’s attempt to isolate and evaluate it on its own.
There is quite a bit less red, orange and yellow than we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on the DH and first-base tables. That’s not to say that this isn’t an offensively accomplished group in its own right; they just get it done differently. You’ll note that the average wRC+ (109) of this group is quite a bit higher than the projected production level (98) suggested by the exit-speed and launch-angle data. There’s some randomness involved, but also quite a bit of athleticism (see previous paragraph) and technical expertise. There are some bat handlers here, including a couple of players with a pronounced ability to selectively pull the ball in the air for power.
Jose Altuve holds the top spot. The foremost of his many offensive attributes tends to fly a little bit under the radar: it’s his minuscule K rate, which affords him significant margin for error with regard to contact quality. This was the first season since 2013 that his overall authority level reached the average range. His speed is a big help; he batted .244 AVG-.283 SLG (109 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground, though the granular data supported only a 78 adjusted mark. On the flip side, Altuve is not one of those rare players who churns out tons of liners on an annual basis; his previous liner rate percentile ranks were 21, 50, 57 and 22 from 2013 to -16. This might turn out to be Altuve’s career year, but a whole lot of good stuff remains ahead.
This was a strong bounce-back season for a healthier Robinson Cano. In fact, it could have been even better, as Cano is one of those guys who spits out liners year after year, and he didn’t in 2016. His K rate drifted downward this season, and Cano also sprayed the ball around on the ground much more than in recent past seasons, when he had developed a fairly extreme pull tendency, inviting overshifts. I wouldn’t bank on 39 homers, or even 30, again anytime soon, but Cano has certainly set a firm baseline for a productive decline phase.
Brian Dozier‘s profile is quite a bit extreme in many ways. His pop-up and overall pull percentages annually rank at or near the very top among MLB regulars. He avoids an extreme grounder-pulling penalty because he hits the ball so softly on the ground that there’s no reason to dock him further. Dozier batted .435 AVG-1.370 SLG (207 Unadjusted Production) in the air, adjusted down to 152 for context, the best among this group. Dozier is a master of identifying the pitches he can selectively pull in the air for distance. That said, there’s downside risk around every turn: a whole bunch of air could easily be squeezed out of his 2016 actual fly-ball and grounder production. On the flip side, his liner rate was low, and could bounce upward. I’m taking the under on Dozier moving forward.
Logan Forsythe tends to get lost in this impressive group of AL second sackers. There are no soft spots in his profile; the only shadings in any of his cells are yellow, in the overall-authority and line-drive-rate categories. Remember, the shading is based on relationship to all AL regulars, not just second basemen. Expect his liner rate to regress downward moving forward, but his power to increase. In past years, he hit many more fly balls than in 2016, and a return to form in that category can be expected. His floor is high, and his ceiling is moderate; I’d take Forsythe on my club.
Jason Kipnis, in some ways, is a left-handed version of Forsythe. His liner rate tends to be elevated on a regular basis, and he hits those liners hard. One drag on his performance is his extreme pull tendency on the ground. If he could lick that issue, Kipnis would reside among the very best offensive second basemen in the game. At this point, he likely is who he is, so the Indians will have to settle for a solidly above-average player rather than a star.
Now for a group of particularly intriguing players, for one reason or another. Dustin Pedroia‘s projections utilizing this method routinely lag his actual numbers, for a variety of reasons. First, there’s Fenway. He batted .323 AVG-.789 SLG (83 Unadjusted Production) in the air this season, while his exit-speed/launch-angle data supported only an adjusted mark of only 45. Routine fly outs become doubles or even homers in Fenway, and no one exploits its tendencies better than Pedroia.
Then there’s his annual overperformance on grounders, which arises from his abilities to use the field and get a quick start out of the box. He batted .275 AVG-.299 SLG (132 Unadjusted Production) on the ground, compared to an adjusted mark of 85. His exceptional K/BB profile makes him exactly a league-average (100 projected production) offensive player despite a meager 78 overall Adjusted Contact Score. He’d be solid for any club, but Fenway enables his bat to play way up.
Rougned Odor somehow batted .255 AVG-.295 SLG (119 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground despite constantly pulling the ball; this allowed him to avoid a penalty, to which he’ll be subjected in the future when his luck runs out. Odor is one of only three AL second basemen — along with Cano and Jonathan Schoop — to post 100-plus Adjusted Contact Scores on all three major BIP types. That said, he will have a difficult time becoming a truly valuable offensive player if he doesn’t do something about that walk rate. In addition, he appears to be one of those rare players who avoids hitting liners on a regular basis; relative to the league, his low 2016 liner rate was the best of his career. He stands squarely at a crossroads: does he want to be great, or age like a lefty Jose Lopez?
Like Pedroia, Ian Kinsler is a technician whose actual performance has regularly exceeded any projections based on granular exit-speed and launch-angle data. He’s the first player on the above list to post materially below-average exit speed, overall, on liners and on grounders. He is a master of selectively pulling the ball for distance in the air. That said, warning signs abound here. His liner rate has fluctuated wildly from year to year and has nowhere to go but down. His fly-ball rate is maxed out. Though his K rate, his foremost offensive attribute, remains low, it is trending upward. His Fly Ball Adjusted Contact Score is a meager 59. I’m looking for a significant drop-off from Kinsler in 2017. Buyer beware in the trade market.
Three AL second basemen hit 10 or more fly balls at 105 mph or greater in 2016. Cano and Odor hit 13; the third member of the group is Jonathan Schoop, at 11. But wait, the table above says Schoop’s overall authority is below average. What gives? While he occasionally destroys the baseball, Schoop’s authority is all over the board. He possesses an inefficient, all-or-nothing swing and his plate discipline is virtually nonexistent. For a player who hits so few fly balls, he sure does hit a ton of pop ups. While he did play all 162 games in 2016, Schoop really didn’t step forward qualitatively with the bat. He’s another 2017 crossroads guy: there’s a star in there somewhere, but he’ll have to make some adjustments for it to come out.
Some of these players are much better or worse than their 2016 numbers; I’d venture to say Starlin Castro‘s numbers were a pretty fair approximation of his true talent. He impacts the baseball reasonably well for a middle infielder, though the offensive bar was raised a bit when he slid over from shortstop. He apparently will never learn to work the count, so will never develop into anything more than a complementary offensive player. His liner rate has been all over the place during his career and settled pretty close to league average this season. Ignore the peaks and valleys; in 2016, we saw what Starlin Castro is.
It seems like quite a while ago that Brett Lawrie was considered a surefire offensive star. A low-K guy as a Blue Jay, Lawrie’s offensive game has gotten away from him since his departure. His K rate has exploded, he’s devolved into more of a pop-up machine than Brian Dozier (and without the pull power), and he even “earned” a small ground-ball-pulling penalty. I know him well, as Canada was part of my area of responsibility when we drafted him in Milwaukee, and I can’t help but wonder if there’s an underlying eyesight/visual-skills issue here. He never used to miss hittable pitches like he does now.
Whit Merrifield got a shot as a 27-year-old rookie when Omar Infante finally turned into a pumpkin last summer. On the strength of an unrepeatably high liner rate and off-the-charts grounder performance (.390 AVG-.455 SLG, 281 Unadjusted Contact Score, adjusted way down to 85 for context), he was merely marginally acceptable. He sprays the ball around, almost never pops up, but projects as Johnny Giavotella with a little more authority and a lot less contact.
At one point in his career, Jed Lowrie could be relied upon for well above-average contact frequency and representative contact authority. He’s slid way backward on all fronts and is now one of the weaker baseball-impactors around. Only an elevated liner rate kept his overall numbers in the somewhat respectable range, and he can’t count on that moving forward. Fun fact: his Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 28 is the lowest of any player covered thus far. Yup, higher than Johnny Giavotella (37).
While guys like Pedroia and Kinsler materially outperformed their BIP-based productions, Devon Travis did so by an even greater margin — and doesn’t appear to have to possess a defining skill to account for the difference. Travis batted a ridiculous .747 AVG-.960 SLG (124 Unadjusted Contact Score, adjusted down to 91 for context), and an even more ridiculous .302 AVG-.362 SLG on grounders (172, down to 97). His many injuries seem to have whittled away at his offensive ability. I’m not terribly optimistic moving forward.
Lastly, Mr. Giavotella. Yes, he makes tons of contact, and yes, he has shown a tendency to square up the baseball, posting high liner rates in both 2015 and 2016. On the other hand, all of the rest of his contact is hit so weakly (37 and 80 Adjusted Fly Ball and Grounder Contact Scores) that it simply doesn’t matter. He should not be the recipient of MLB at-bats on a full-time basis.