The GM Meetings are in progress, and another offseason of frantic player movement seems about to begin in earnest. In the meantime, let’s continue our offseason series of granular BIP-based player performance evaluation.
Earlier this week, we used exit speed and launch angle data to analyze how ERA-qualifying AL starting pitchers “should have” performed in 2016. Today, we take a similar look at qualifying NL starters.
Starting pitchers get the job done in various ways. Some excel at bat-missing and/or command; others are more adept at managing contact on balls in play. The very best are able to clear the bar in all areas. Pitchers in the table below are listed in Adjusted Contact Score order. 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 and -angle of each ball-in-play yielded. Here goes:
|NAME||AVG MPH||FB MPH||LD MPH||GB MPH||POP %||FLY %||LD %||GB %||ADJ C||K %||BB %||ERA –||FIP –||TRU –|
Most of the column headers are self-explanatory, including average BIP speed (overall and by BIP type), BIP type frequency, K and BB rates, and traditional ERA-, FIP-, and “tru” ERA-, which incorporates the exit-speed and -angle data. Each pitcher’s Adjusted Contact Score (ADJ C) is also listed. Adjusted Contact Score applies league-average production to each pitcher’s individual actual BIP type and velocity mix, and compares it to league average of 100.
Cells are also color-coded. If a pitcher’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.
Before we get to the pitchers, a couple words regarding year-to-year correlation of pitchers’ plate-appearance frequencies and BIP authority allowed. From 2013 to -15, ERA qualifiers’ K and BB rates and all BIP frequencies except for liner rate (.14 correlation coefficient) correlated very closely from year to year. The correlation coefficients for K% (.81), BB% (.66), and pop-up (.53), fly-ball (.76) and grounder (.86) rates are extremely high. Despite the lack of year-to-year liner rate correlation, it is a significant driver of any given year’s Adjusted Contact Score. You have to go a long way down both the AL and NL lists before finding a pitcher with a materially above average liner rate.
While BIP authority correlates somewhat from year to year — FLY/LD authority is .37, grounder authority is .25 — it doesn’t correlate nearly as closely as frequency. Keep these relationships in mind as we move on to some player comments.
Kyle Hendricks is our 2016 NL Contact Manager of the Year with a 75 Adjusted Contact Score. You’ll notice a trio of Cub starters near the top of this list. Gather starting pitchers with length, solid K/BB profiles, exceptional contact-management skills, place a very strong team defense behind them, and you might win some hardware. Hendricks’ Unadjusted Contact Score was even lower, at 66, thanks to unusually low production allowed on grounders (.156 AVG-.169 SLG, 43 Unadjusted Production, adjusted upward for context to 93). Hendricks allowed the least authoritative fly-ball contact in the NL — 62 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score — and his average fly-ball velocity allowed was over two full STD lower than average. In addition, he had a strong though not extreme BIP mix with a clear grounder tendency. Soft fly balls and lots of grounders is a winning combination.
Carlos Martinez finished a close second behind Hendricks with an 80 Adjusted Contact Score. It’s all about BIP mix with the Cards’ righty. He logged the second-highest grounder rate among NL qualifiers, and he almost matched Hendricks in fly-ball authority suppression, actually allowing an even lower average fly-ball velocity while posting the second best Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score in the league at 79. While Hendricks wins the 2016 Contact Management honors, I’d argue that Martinez’ BIP mix provides an even better foundation for similar excellence moving forward.
After winning 2015 Contact Manager of the Year honors, Jake Arrieta finished third in the NL in 2016. His Unadjusted Contact Score of 64 actually paced the league; he had even better luck on grounders (.128 AVG-.148 SLG, 30 Unadjusted Contact Score, adjusted upward for context to 83) than his teammate Hendricks. Yup, that Cub infield defense was pretty special indeed. Arrieta didn’t limit fly-ball authority nearly as well as Hendricks or Martinez, but finished a close third in the rankings due to an exceptional BIP mix and the third-best grounder-authority suppression in the league.
Tanner Roark was a silent hero for the Nationals this season, largely due to his contact-management skills. His BIP mix was almost identical to Hendricks, though he didn’t manage fly-ball authority nearly as well. Roark’s Unadjusted Contact Score of 70 was even better than his Adjusted 83 mark, as he had very good fortune on fly balls (.253 AVG-.623 SLG, 56 Unadjusted Contact Score adjusted upward to 87 for context). Roark absolutely requires contact-management excellence for material success; you have to drift quite a bit further down the list to find another pitcher with materially worse-than-average K and BB rates.
Jon Lester rounds out the Cub trio in the top five. Like his teammates, Lester recorded an Unadjusted Contact Score (75) well below his adjusted mark (88). There’s that Cub defense again. Lester’s big variance was on line drives, where he allowed an amazingly low .519 AVG-.615 SLG; that’s 58 Unadjusted Liner Production, marked up to 90 for context. His BIP mix is relatively unremarkable, but he limits authority quite well and has no glaring weaknesses anywhere in his profile.
Kenta Maeda asserted himself as a strong contact manager in his first year on this side of the pond. His standout BIP trait is a strong pop-up tendency — unusual for someone with an average-range fly-ball rate. Maeda also squelched line-drive and grounder authority; his 89 and 71 Adjusted Liner and Grounder Contact Scores both paced the NL. His average overall-, liner- and grounder-authority allowed were all over two STD lower than NL average. A relatively ordinary BIP mix featuring a low-end-of-the-average-range grounder rate kept him out of the NL top five.
If I had an NL Cy Young vote, I would cast it for Max Scherzer. An otherworldly K-BB profile second only to the late Jose Fernandez, coupled with a solid contact-management performance over a massive number of innings, gives him the edge over Hendricks in my book. In the first few years of his career, Scherzer was a poor contact manager, but the development of a strong pop-up tendency along with somewhat improved fly-ball authority suppression (107 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score) got him below 100 in 2016. His low liner rate might be expected to regress upward in 2017, but a Max Scherzer with an overall Adjusted Contact Score anywhere near 100 is a scary dude. That sky high fly ball rate could be a real problem once his stuff begins to backslide, however.
Now for a couple under-the-radar up-and-comers, the Brewers’ Zach Davies and Phils’ Jerad Eickhoff. Eickhoff doesn’t walk anyone, and the only real positive on his contact -nagement profile is a strong pop-up rate, but there are no clear weaknesses here. He was better than his actual numbers, as he allowed a .269 AVG-.296 SLG (129 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground while the underlying granular data supported a much lower 99 mark. As for Davies, he throttled fly-ball authority quite well, a must in hitter-friendly Miller Park. Hitters batted .388 AVG-.946 SLG (129 Adjusted Contact Score) on fly balls he allowed, compared to an adjusted mark of 85.
Johnny Cueto and Noah Syndergaard are elite hurlers, solid contact managers who would have rated even higher if they could have nudged their liner rates down into the “blue” category. Cueto did get fairly lucky on the ground (.187 AVG-.209 SLG, 63 Unadjusted Contact Score, adjusted upward to 94 for context), but had a grounder-heavy BIP mix and maintained Adjusted Contact Scores below 100 on all major BIP types. Syndergaard is scary good and getting better, with an elite K/BB profile and a strong grounder tendency. He clearly has the elite Contact Manager starter set; in future years when he posts low liner rates, he’ll contend for the top spot.
I’m not buying Dan Straily. That fly-ball rate was scary high, and wasn’t accompanied by a similarly high pop-up rate. The liners he allowed were crushed, and his walk rate was well above NL average. Once that liner rate regresses upward, all bets are off. On the other hand, his 2016 numbers should have been better: he allowed freakish .331 AVG-.379 SLG (199 Unadjusted Contact Score) production on the ground, marked down to 107 for context.
Despite a low liner-rate allowed, Madison Bumgarner was merely a league-average contact manager this season. He likely pitches to his spacious ballpark a bit: he posted a 117 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score vs. a 73 Unadjusted mark. He’s become a fairly extreme fly-ball pitcher, something with which he can get away at home.
Is Jeremy Hellickson worth the $17.2 million qualifying offer he received from Philadelphia? On one hand, he was incredibly lucky on grounders in 2016, allowing a meager .143 AVG-.149 SLG (35 Unadjusted Contact Score, adjusted up to 93 for context). On the other, his very high 2016 liner rate is likely to shrink moving forward. Other positives include strong overall authority management and a high pop-up to fly-ball ratio. In the Phils’ fiscal shoes, I can understand extending the offer, though he just might accept it.
Julio Teheran is likely to miss the friendly confines of Turner Field. No NL hurler saw their Fly Ball Contact Score adjusted farther upward (from 77 to 126) for context. His BIP mix was quite fly-ball heavy, and his liner rate is very likely to regress upward moving forward. If his new park plays more hitter-friendly, Teheran could be in for a really rude awakening in 2017.
No, Adam Wainwright‘s K rate isn’t what it used to be, but don’t be too quick to write him off. The biggest factor in his 2016 struggles was his unnaturally high liner-rate allowed. He suffocated contact authority of all types, with the lowest average grounder-velocity allowed and the second-best Adjusted Grounder Contact Score (81). Yes, he is in his decline phase, but there are productive seasons ahead for Wainwright.
I didn’t like Mike Leake‘s contract when he signed it, and I don’t like it now. All he brings is innings bulk. Yes, he gets grounders, but they’re hit hard, and no, he doesn’t walk hitters, but that’s more than offset by his low K rate. League average is basically a best-case scenario for Leake, so mediocre ROI on his contract is quite likely.
Jon Gray still has some work to do, but he has a chance to be the best starter the Rockies has ever developed. He should evolve into a high-K, low-BB guy, he manages authority at an acceptable level, and his high 2016 liner rate is a good bet for regression in the right direction. A fine-tuned version of Gray with a 95-ish Adjusted Contact Score can be an All-Star-caliber starter.
RIP, Jose Fernandez. What an odd season. A legendary K-BB spread, coupled with a poor 112 Adjusted Contact Score, driven almost solely by a stratospheric liner rate that would have an easy regression call moving forward. How good could he have become? Sadly, we’ll never know.
John Lackey was one lucky cat in 2016. Here’s some number association: 64-106, 76-101, 86-119, 81-113. Those are Lackey’s Fly Ball, Liner, Grounder and overall Adjusted Contact Scores for this season. Without his wondrous defense and (at least in 2016) pitcher-friendly home park, Lackey was basically a league-average starter.
Oh, Robbie Ray. His K rate was fourth-best among NL ERA qualifiers, but his season was undermined by one of the poorest contact-management performances in recent memory. Where does one begin? With his league-worst 166 Fly Ball Adjusted Contact Score (Teheran’s 126 was second worst)? His 177 Unadjusted Grounder Contact Score (adjusted down to a still league-worst 127 for context)? The good news is that he has nowhere to go but up. The Diamondbacks as a whole managed contact horribly, and the new regime just might call attention to that fact. A league-average contact-management performance would make Ray a star.