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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Marlins First Baseman Bour is Not a Bore (and other notes from 5/29/15)

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***For clarification, from what I’ve gathered, “Bour” is pronounced the same as “bore” or “boar.”  Not pronounced the same as “Bauer.”

So maybe Marlins first baseman Justin Bour is portly shaped like a boar at 6’4″/250 lbs., but he is proving to be far from a bore as he began to see some regular playing time even before Mike Morse landed on the DL.  But now that Morse is on the DL, the first base job would appear to be Bour’s to runaway with, and so far so good for the 27-year old left-handed slugger.

Consider this:  Bour now has 4 HR on the season and the pitchers he has taken deep are Jordan Zimmermann, Brad Brach, Gerrit Cole, and now Matt Harvey after Friday’s bomb that proved to be the game winner for the Marlins.  That’s 3 of the top starting pitchers in the National League and also pitchers that do not allow a whole lot of home runs.  He is now hitting .361 with 4 HR, and 9 RBI in 61 AB.

I’ve been talking about Bour and his power potential for a few days now, and he really needs to be owned in more leagues.  Yes, he’s not going to hit in the high .300’s, and chances are that he won’t even hit anywhere above .300, but Bour is a hitter who has never shown any significant propensity to striking out.  His Minor League career strikeout rate is a respectable 17.5% and he never once struck out at a 20% clip at any stop in the Minors.  In limited action last year with the Marlins, he did strikeout 22.9% of the time, but this season in 14 games at AAA he struck out just 9.7% of the time.  And in his time in the Majors so far this season, he is at a very nice 15.2% mark.  So he does appear to have a greater feel for the strike zone than most hitters that carry his type of power potential, which is a big plus when mining for up and coming power hitters.

About that power potential, Bour’s yearly best total in his professional career was 23 HR at high-A ball in 2011.  But in 2013 and 2014 at AA and AAA, Bour’s HR per AB rate was 1 HR every 19.5 AB.  And now at 27 years old, Bour should be entering his prime where his power potential could achieve new levels.  Bour may not see regular playing time against left-handed pitching in his first extended go-round in the Majors, but he is looking like a very nice play against righties at the very least, as he is being inserted into the cleanup role right behind Giancarlo Stanton.

So if you are in the need of some power then it wouldn’t hurt to give Bour a go, as he likely won’t kill your team in AVG either.  I would think of him along the same lines of Adam Lind.

Now let’s see what else happened on Friday’s slate!

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U Can’t Touch This, Hammel Time! (and other notes from 5/19/15)

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Well, when you got three different Jason Hammel‘s coming at you like a Denny’s Grand Slam hologram card like in the picture above, I imagine it would be hard to touch him!  Do you remember those hologram collector’s cards from Denny’s?  When I was a kid, Friday nights were always “out to eat dinner” nights with my parents and brother.  The places that we would frequent the most included Coco’s, Bob’s Big Boy, Flakey Jake’s, and of course Denny’s.  Denny’s had the promotion if you ordered one of their signature “Grand Slam Meals” then you would receive a collector’s Grand Slam hologram card by Upper Deck.  So being the collectors that we were, we would venture out to Denny’s restaurants to try and collect all the different players cards that they had to offer.  We wouldn’t just go to the local Denny’s, because each restaurant location had different cards.  So we would go to Denny’s a couple towns over in each direction to try and get them all.  But I just remember ending up with one too many Danny Tartabull cards.

But anyway, onward to talk about MC Hammel.  Hammel pitched on Tuesday at Petco Park versus the Padres and had an excellent game giving up one unearned run on 3 hits and 0 walks while striking out 8 Padres in 7 IP in a no-decision.  The brilliant effort leaves him with a 3-1 record, 2.70 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 49 K/6 BB in 53.1 IP.  Now we have seen Hammel go on some pretty good runs over the last few years, but what stands out about this 8 start stretch to begin the season is the low amount of walks.  His 6 walks in 53.1 IP translates to a walk rate of 1.01 BB/9, which would easily be a career best and he would be quite the force if he can maintain it.

Over the course of his career, Hammel has had a slightly better than average walk rate with 2.99 BB/9 heading into the 2015 season.  However, he did showoff one of his best seasons in the category last year with a 2.25 BB/9, so maybe he was on to something.  But is Hammel going all 2014 Phil Hughes on us this year when Hughes had a miniscule 0.69 BB/9 and an all-time best strikeout to walk ratio of 11.63?

Hammel’s great first pitch strike rate of 63.0% backs up the low walk rate, but his PITCHf/x rate of pitching within the strike zone 50.9% of the time, although higher than the recent years and 28th best in the Majors this year, is not indicative of a walk rate as low as he has.  For comparison, out of the top 7 pitchers in BB/9 in 2014 (all 1.41 BB/9 or lower), 6 of the 7 pitchers were in the top 10 in zone% ranging from 52.6%-61.1%.  Hammel could end up being that one who does sneak in to the top of the rankings in BB/9 despite not being one of the elite in zone%, but the odds are against him.

So what can we expect from Hammel the rest of the season?  Even if his walk rate does not remain as low as it currently is, which I don’t believe it will, he definitely seems to have turned a corner with his command and control dating back to last season.  So he can surely end up maintaining a walk rate under 2.00 BB/9.  His slider is his out pitch and it is good enough to allow him to keep a strikeout rate at or above 8.00 K/9.  Some areas that he may see some regression in are in his HR allowed and BABIP.  Currently, he is allowing HR at a rate of 0.84 HR/9, which is well below his marks the last couple of seasons.  And his BABIP of .262 is likely not sustainable, and although it may not get as high as his career mark of .304, it is surely to increase at least somewhat.  One more thing with Hammel is that he has never gone very deep into games and he has had some injuries that he has dealt with over the last few seasons, so he is not exactly the perfect model of health.

But with all this being said, Hammel still should be a fairly productive pitcher for the rest of the season.  For the remainder of the season I’ll give him:  9 W-6 L, 3.48 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 122 K/31 BB in 137 IP.

Now let’s see what else happened on Tuesday…

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Thor Drops the Hammer on the Brew Crew (and other notes from 5/17/15)

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***I apologize for the delay in these notes from Sunday 5/17/15.  I had jury duty all day Monday!  But I am catching up.

Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets is commonly known as “Thor” amongst his teammates and soon the whole baseball community will be calling him that and will understand the power he wields.  After watching him pitch on Sunday versus the Brewers, I see why he has that moniker, with his big frame and flowing locks of blond hair.  He even has “Thor” embroidered on his glove so obviously it is something that he embraces, but who wouldn’t?  Whether it’s the Norse mythological god or the Marvel superhero character that he is being likened to (though essentially it is the same thing since the Marvel character is based off Norse mythology), it must be nice to be seen in the same light as someone so mighty.

Syndergaard shut down the Brewers on Sunday, going 6 IP allowing 1 ER on on 3 H and 1 BB while logging 5 K on his way to his first Major League victory.  After his first Major League start last week versus the Cubs at Wrigley Field, I said that his mediocre start went as I would have expected out of him in his debut, as he had some command and control issues but was able to miss some bats to get the strikeouts.  Well, before his second Major League start with the Brewers, I told a friend that this matchup  was much more favorable for Syndergaard and I expected him to come out and show an ace type of line.  The reasons that I told my friend that I believed this were because this was his first start in front of his home crowd that he would be pumped up for and he already got the big league jitters out at Chicago, and that the Brewers are not a patient hitting team as they ranked third to last in walk rate, which would help Syndergaard have better results in the end.  I watched this whole start and I loved what I saw from Syndergaard.  I know that I said after his first start that he’s not a must own in redraft leagues, but I am going to say that he is very close to a must own (if not one) after seeing him with my own eyes.  I don’t think that he will be as dominant as Matt Harvey was in his first full season, as he will likely experience some growing pains and some control issues every now and again, but in the right matchups he is going to be a very good play.

So with Syndergaard, the Mets have Thor who wields a mighty hammer (his devastating curveball) that only he has the strength and power of picking up.  Mets’ incumbent ace who has returned from Tommy John surgery, Matt Harvey, has earned the nickname of “The Dark Knight” for being the hero that the borough of Queens in New York City had been waiting for to come and save them to instill hope within the Mets organization that they could rise again soon.  So what other superheroes do the mets have on their pitching staff? Jacob deGrom is a really skinny guy as in his 6’4″ frame he only weights 180 lbs. and he looks like he is going to break whenever he is up to bat.  He also was a relative unknown before his 2014 breakout rookie campaign.  So for these reasons I will deem him as Steve Rogers, a frail young man who was enhanced to perfection to become Captain America.  Jon Niese can be Hawkeye just for the mere fact that he is a lefty and the Jeremy Renner portrayal of Hawkeye in The Avengers films is also left-handed (though in the Marvel comics he was right-handed).  And Bartolo Colon can be Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy for reasons that may or may not have to do with the attraction (or lack thereof) of each of their faces.

Let’s go ahead now and recap the Sunday fun day action.

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Fantasy Baseball Players to Avoid and Target for 2015: Outfield Edition

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When doing fantasy baseball drafts, it is important to know ahead of time the players that you want to avoid and the players that you want to target.  Having this game plan in mind will help you in the flow of the draft to make quicker and easier decisions when you are on the clock.  For players you want to avoid, just simply pay no attention to them and let some other sucker draft the soon to be bust.  For players you want to target, keep an eye on them and know when the latest is that you might be able to draft them.  Take a look at average draft position (ADP) stats and form some sort of plan.  The worst thing that can happen in a draft is to not be prepared and having to end up making a panic pick as the clock winds down.  Don’t let that happen to you!  Below is a list of outfielders who I personally would avoid or target.

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This Year’s Jose Abreu Will Be Jorge Soler

When preparing for a new season, fantasy baseball enthusiasts are always wanting to know who is going to be the next big breakout player.  Drafting or picking up a player on waivers for his breakout season gives fantasy owners a feeling of superiority, a feeling of omniscience in some sense.  Whether that feeling is justified or not is another question.  But even if your team comes in last place, you can take ownership that you “knew” Jose Bautista would bust out for 54 HR, or that your hunch that R.A. Dickey would knuckle his way into a Cy Young Award panned out.  So at The Backwards K, there is a series of posts titled “This Year’s…” where I will tell you who I think this year’s version of a 2014 breakout player will be, providing some background and analysis.

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Around the internet I have seen White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu referred to as “El Dolor Grande,” which is the Spanish translation of “The Big Hurt.”  For those who don’t know, The Big Hurt is the moniker that long-time White Sox broadcast announcer and the most hometown biased announcer ever, Hawk Harrelson, gave to one of the premiere sluggers of the 90’s, Frank Thomas.  Although Abreu’s plate discipline skills pale in comparison to Thomas’ (though any player’s would), Abreu certainly causes pain to many baseballs, so El Dolor Grande is a fitting nickname.  But if Thomas is The Big Hurt and Abreu is El Dolor Grande, how come Paul Konerko never got a badass nickname?  All he got was “Paulie” as if he was a talking bird or one of the worst “comedians” of the 90’s.

Abreu had established himself as one of the top hitters in Cuba and he was able to defect from his motherland and he signed a 6-year/$68 million contract with the White Sox in August of 2013.  That type of commitment in years and dollars to a player that had never seen a pitch in the Majors was very interesting, but clearly the Sox were heavily intrigued.  There was no doubting that he had massive power potential, but there were questions if he could handle Major League pitching.  Well, I don’t think there are any more doubts about that as Abreu had one of the best seasons of any hitter last year as he took home the American League Rookie of the Year Award.  Overall, Abreu hit .317 with 36 HR, 107 RBI, 80 R, and 3 SB.

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