Soft Hit Rate Leaders (and other notes from 7/19/15)

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Sunday’s matinee slate of games included a slew of ace pitchers taking the hill, but by the end of the day there were two performances that stood tall from all the others, and they were Zack Greinke shutting down the Nationals and Dallas Keuchel reigning supreme in Texas.  Greinke was masterful in 8 shutout innings of work and a season high 11 strikeouts, as he extended his scoreless innings streak to an outstanding 43.2 innings over the last 6 starts.  Keuchel was just as untouchable as he worked 7 shutout innings with a career high 13 strikeouts.  These two pitchers have been getting the job done all season long and each of them leads their respective league in ERA.  They also have another thing in common, and that is they both appear among the league leaders in soft hit rate.

A few weeks ago in “When the Hard Hit Rate Doesn’t Match the BABIP,” I examined some pitchers who had very high BABIP (batting average on balls in play) marks but who also held lower than average hard hit rates.  That particular scenario would suggest that those pitchers were either the victims of poor luck or poor defenses, or both.  So now we will take a look at the league’s best in allowing soft contact on batted balls and see what we can find in the results.

According to FanGraphs, entering Sunday, the top 15 in soft hit rate are as follows along with their BABIP:

  1. Francisco Liriano – 28.8% soft hit rate, .248 BABIP
  2. Dallas Keuchel – 24.8% soft hit rate, .255 BABIP
  3. Brett Anderson – 24.6% soft hit rate, .318 BABIP
  4. Cole Hamels – 24.0% soft hit rate, .297 BABIP
  5. Jeff Locke – 23.8% soft hit rate, .315 BABIP
  6. Max Scherzer – 22.9% soft hit rate, .242 BABIP
  7. Chris Sale – 22.8% soft hit rate, .292 BABIP
  8. Drew Hutchison – 22.8% soft hit rate, .350 BABIP
  9. Carlos Martinez – 22.3% soft hit rate, .287 BABIP
  10. Zack Greinke – 22.3% soft hit rate, .233 BABIP
  11. Trevor Bauer – 22.0% soft hit rate, .268 BABIP
  12. Wei-Yin Chen – 21.7% soft hit rate, .255 BABIP
  13. Chris Archer – 21.5% soft hit rate, .287 BABIP
  14. Gerrit Cole – 21.4% soft hit rate, .305 BABIP
  15. Shelby Miller – 21.4% soft hit rate, .276 BABIP

Balls that have softer impact off a hitter’s bat are more likely to go for easy outs, whether it is a lazy fly ball or a slow rolling ground ball, which will prevent base hits and also prevent runs from scoring.  So it should come as no surprise that on this list we find several pitchers who have been among the league’s best this season, and it includes 7 pitchers who appear in the current top 15 in ERA and 6 pitchers who appear in the current top 15 in WHIP in the Majors.  So clearly there is at least some correlation with higher soft hit rates translating to better overall stats.

Because balls that are softly hit generally go for easier outs more often, that should also translate to pitchers with higher soft hit rates to also have lower BABIP marks.  This is reflected in the list above where 11 of the 15 pitchers all have BABIP marks that are under .300, and 5 of the pitchers appear in the top 15 of lowest BABIP’s in the league.  So this provides some validation to the low BABIP’s of many of these pitchers and suggests that we shouldn’t necessarily expect a whole lot of regression for these players.

On the flip side, there are a few player on this list that have higher than average BABIP marks.  So let’s look at those players and see if maybe we can expect some overall improvement from them as we are progress into the second half of the season.

First up is Brett Anderson of the Dodgers.  Anderson’s high soft hit rate is backed up by the fact that he also has the lowest line drive rate in the league at 13.5%.  Line drives are usually categorized as hard hit balls, so the less line drives a pitcher allows, the higher his soft hit rate should be.  But despite having the knack of preventing line drives and inducing soft contact a lot, Anderson’s BABIP is a bit inflated at .318, which is higher than his career mark at .309.  The Dodgers defense ranks 13th in the league in DEF rating, so they aren’t a bad defensive team by any means, which gives even more curiosity as to why Anderson would be stuck with the higher BABIP.  So it would be reasonable to expect that Anderson can improve over the rest of the season if he can continue pitching the way that he has so far.  He currently has a 3.17 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, but he may be more deserving of an ERA under 3.00 and a WHIP closer to 1.20.  He’s not a huge strikeout pitcher (6.42 K/9) and he has a long history of injuries, but he could make for a nice trade target in season long fantasy leagues due to this discovery.

Next up is Jeff Locke of the Pirates.  Locke has a decent 3.68 ERA, but his 1.42 WHIP is a bit brutal and it is odd to see him currently posting a career high BABIP at .315 despite also currently having a career best soft hit rate.  His line drive rate at 22.9% is one of the highest out of the pitchers on the above list and is the 20th highest in the league, so that could be a stumbling block for him and a reason why he has the higher BABIP despite the good soft hit rate.  While Locke could be in for some better fortune in hit prevention, it probably should not be expected.

Drew Hutchison of the Blue Jays is an interesting case here.  He has the 8th best soft hit rate in the league, yet he has the 2nd highest BABIP.  Immediately it might be assumed that Hutchison has just been a victim of bad luck to have a BABIP at .350, but looking further into it, Hutchison also has the 4th highest line drive rate in the league at 25.0% and his hard hit rate of 31.1% is on the higher side as well at 24th highest in the league.  So despite being among the leaders in soft hit rate, he does appear to be giving up his fair share of well struck balls as well.  He should improve on his 5.19 ERA and 1.47 WHIP, but he’s no slam dunk to have a complete turnaround in the second half.

Finally, there is Pirates ace Gerrit Cole who has a .305 BABIP despite ranking 14th in soft hit rate.  Both Cole’s line drive rate at 21.1% and his hard hit rate at 25.8% are not very high marks, so the thought would be that he should be able to post a lower BABIP having one of the better soft hit rates in the league.  But his defense ranks 25th in DEF rating, so that could be the primary reason why his BABIP is a tad higher than average.  However, Cole has been able to pitch very effectively as one of the better pitchers in the league up to this point in the season, and he should continue to.  But there is room for more upside if he can get some better defense behind him.

So all in all, it appears that Anderson is the lone pitcher on this list that we could reasonably say has been on the unlucky side of things and could see some overall improvements as the season goes on.  And all the other pitchers on the list should all be considered candidates to maintain their current performance level, though some regression will come for some of these pitchers.

Let’s take a look at the rest of Sunday’s slate now.

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