When the Hard Hit Rates Don’t Match the BABIP (and other notes from 6/29/15)

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Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox kept the bats of a powerful Blue Jays offense in check all evening on Monday and he defeated them by posting a line of 8 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 K.  He improved to 6-6 with a 3.48 ERA and 1.24 WHIP with both healthy strikeout and walk rates (8.55 K/9, 2.05 BB/9).  Buchholz’ issue this season is that he has the occasional blow up game to cancel out some of the great work that he does.  And as I said after his last start, if he can receive some better fortune then he could have better looking stats.  It’s probably too late now, but he would have been in a position to be the Red Sox All-Star representative if he had some better luck up to this point.  To see how Buchholz is sitting on the wrong side of things, we look at league stats for pitchers hard hit rate and BABIP.

Hard hit rate is a statistic that is becoming more prevalent in the conversation in the performance of players, similar to the way that BABIP (batting average on balls in play) did several years ago.  Hard hit rate is just what it sounds like — it is the rate at which a ball is hit at a “hard” impact and it can be used for evaluating both hitters and pitchers alike.  For hitters, the harder a ball is hit, the more that it shows that they are squaring up the ball with good contact and the greater likelihood of a hit and positive offensive production.  For pitchers, the harder the ball is hit against them would suggest that they are more likely to have poor results, giving up more hits and runs.  BABIP for hitters is the rate at which balls that are put in play (i.e. any official at-bat that does not result in a home run or strikeout) go for hits.  For pitchers, BABIP is the rate at which they allow hits on balls that are playable by a defense.

So using the stats provided by FanGraphs, looking at the top 15 in lowest hard hit rate for pitchers entering June 30, 2015, we find Buchholz come in at the 11th lowest with 23.9%.  So with a pretty low hard hit rate, we would expect that Buchholz would have a pretty low BABIP or at least around the league average in BABIP, which is generally somewhere around .300. But it is the exact opposite that we are seeing from the Red Sox righty.  Buchholz actually has the 12th highest BABIP at .332.  So the fact that he has been one of the better pitchers in limiting hard contact but has one of the higher BABIP marks in the league would suggest one of two things (or both): 1.) Poor defense behind him  2.) Lots of bad luck

So now we turn to defensive statistics, yet again on FanGraphs, to see what the Red Sox defense has been doing this season.  They come in below the league midpoint in DEF (defense rating) and UZR (ultimate zone rating), but they are not ranked too low in either — 17th in DEF at 0.3 and 19th in UZR at -6.4 — so they can more or less be classified as a league average defensive team as opposed to a poor defensive team.  Because of this, we would have to lean towards attributing Buchholz’ contradictory hard hit rate and BABIP to bad luck, and it can further be shown in the fact that his xFIP of 3.19 and SIERA of 3.22 sit a bit lower than his 3.48 ERA.  As we approach the season’s official 81-games played halfway point (the All-Star break is commonly given the misnomer as the halfway point), Buchholz could be in for some better times if he keeps pitching at the level that he is (or better) and receives some added luck on his side.

Using this same method, there are a few other pitchers whose hard hit rates don’t match up with their BABIP.  Let’s take a look at the following:

  • Gio Gonzalez – .354 BABIP (2nd highest), 25.6% hard hit (21st lowest) / Nationals: -8.7 DEF (22nd), -10.7 UZR (22nd)
  • Tyson Ross – .346 BABIP (5th highest), 24.1% hard hit (13th lowest) / Padres -31.6 DEF (29th), -34.6 UZR (29th)
  • Jose Quintana – .335 BABIP (10th highest), 24.7% hard hit (15th lowest) / White Sox: -37.6 DEF (30th), -34.6 UZR (30th)
  • Jeff Samardzija – .329 BABIP (16th highest), 26.1% hard hit (24th lowest) / White Sox: -37.6 DEF (30th), -34.6 UZR (30th)
  • Mike Pelfrey – .315 BABIP (29th highest), 20.5% hard hit (1st lowest) / Twins: -6.2 DEF (19th), -4.2 UZR (18th)

Gonzalez comes up ten thousandths of a point shy of having the highest BABIP in all of the Majors (Nate Eovaldi currently has the highest), but he isn’t getting hit all that hard.  However, his Nationals defense has been pretty bad.  I would expect some regression here just given how high his BABIP is, but with the poor defense and career high line drive and ground ball rates, it’s not necessarily all bad luck that he is receiving.

Moving on to Ross, I talked about bad defenses and how they can affect pitchers in “Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense,” and his defense has been the second worst in all of baseball.  So while he should improve some, his 62.8% ground ball rate is not conducive for the poor infield defense that he has behind him and things may not get too much better.

Then both Quintana and Samardzija pitch in front of the league’s absolute worst defense (also mentioned in “Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense”), so it is no surprise that we see them appear in this statistical review.  Like with Ross, some improvement should be seen, but if the White Sox keep deploying the same defensive players and strategy then it might be tough sledding for them to show drastic improvements in their overall stats.

Then there is Pelfrey who got obliterated for the second time in four starts on Monday to give him a much uglier stat line and to push him up the BABIP charts a lot.  He’s more in the same boat as Buchholz with a mediocre defense rather than a poor one.  So he could see some better days, but because of his minimal strikeout appeal, he is not a great fantasy target to begin with.  But with some better luck, he can provide decently in ERA.

Something interesting though that all six of the aforementioned pitchers have in common is that they all appear in the top 21 highest medium hit rates.  So while they may not be allowing a lot of hard hit balls, they all give up a lot of medium hit ones.  So perhaps it is these medium hit balls that these average or below average defenses are struggling to defend due to either poor range or misguided defensive alignments.  Nonetheless, I would still expect Buchholz to have some better days ahead of him if he continues to pitch at the level he has been.

Let’s now look at the remainder of Monday’s action!

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Spend a Ton o’ Bux on Buxton? (and other notes from 6/13/15)

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With the Twins on a 5-game losing streak to fall out of 1st place in the AL Central, they are still in a good position to contend for a playoff spot being just 2 games back of the Royals and currently possessing one of the two AL Wildcard spots, though there is lots of baseball to be played.  They have been one of the most surprising teams of the season as they were predicted to finish last place in the division by most baseball outlets.  But they want to make a statement and show the league that they mean business and they plan on competing all the way through the end of September, and that big statement that they are making is promoting top outfield prospect Byron Buxton to the Majors for his debut on Sunday.

The Twins have been running out a combination of Jordan Schafer, Shane Robinson, and Aaron Hicks out in center field this season, none of which have been very impressive nor expected to be a big part of the Twins future.  So it’s been a bit of a void in their lineup and with both Schafer and Hicks on the DL now, the time has come for Buxton to make his long awaited debut.

Buxton was the #2 overall pick in the 2012 draft (behind Carlos Correa) and he displays tremendous all-around tools.  In 2013 between A and high-A ball, Buxton hit .334 with 12 HR, 77 RBI, 109 R, and 55 SB.  Much of his 2014 season was lost due to a wrist injury and then a concussion, so he was limited to just 31 games.  The 21-year old began this season at AA and had been doing pretty well with a triple slash line of .283/.351/.489 to go with 6 HR, 37 RBI, 44 R, and 20 SB.  He obviously has some great talent, but what can we expect from him as a rookie and should we be spending a ton o’ bux on Buxton when bidding on him off the waiver wire?

What Buxton doesn’t have going for him that I feel fellow recently called up top prospect Carlos Correa does is playing on a team that actually has a chance to compete.  Yes, the Twins have been doing well and have been playing great baseball, but I don’t think that they have an actual chance to be competing in the pennant race and they will fall out of contention soon.  If the Twins do indeed start to scuffle and Buxton isn’t performing well, then he will be ticketed back to the Minors, whereas I believe Correa is here to stay no matter what.  So there is some risk in spending big on Buxton, but I would imagine that he does adequately enough to stick around.

Another difference between Correa and Buxton that I see is Correa appears to be more advanced in his ability to put the ball in play, which should help him to see more success early on in his career.  Buxton has a career 20.2% strikeout rate in the Minors, which isn’t horrible, but I think that number is going to rise a lot in his first tour of the Majors and it’s going to prevent him from contributing positively with his batting average.

However, what Buxton might lack in batting average, he can make up for with his blend of power and speed.  The power is not as prevalent as the speed, but it’s something that is sure to develop as his carer goes on and he can someday be a 20-25 HR hitter.  His speed though is off the charts and should be something that makes an immediate impact as long as he can get on base enough to attempt stolen bases.

I believe that Correa is a more complete offensive player right now, but Buxton might edge him out in upside.  But given that Correa plays a much shallower position of shortstop while Buxton plays the deepest position of outfield, Correa is definitely the more valuable fantasy commodity for this season.  For the rest of the season, I will give Buxton the line of:  .248 AVG, 5 HR, 37 RBI, 38 R, 16 SB, 88 K, 25 BB in 319 AB.  However, Buxton’s long term potential may be unmatched and he is the most hyped outfield prospect since Mike Trout.

Let’s see what else happened during Saturday’s slate!

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Prince’s Return to Royalty (and other notes from 5/23/15)

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After suffering a season-ending neck injury last season that limited him to just 42 games in his first season as a Texas Ranger, first baseman Prince Fielder has not missed a game this season and has already surpassed last year’s games played total this year by playing in his 43rd consecutive game on Saturday.  Fielder actually has been sort of a modern day iron man, not like the Tony Stark version of Iron Man, but like Cal Ripken Jr. and his incredible games played streak.  Nobody will ever come close to Ripken’s amazing streak in this day and age where players are babied a lot more, but Fielder has played in all 162 games in 4 of his 9 full seasons and never having played less than 157 games in a season until the unfortunate neck injury from last year.

Given his nearly immaculate health history, it should come as no surprise that Fielder has roared back with a vengeance, but many (myself included) had doubts about his ability to.  Here is what I said about him in the pre-season:  “Players of his body type do not have a history of aging well as they reach 30 years old (see Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, Ryan Howard), and Prince was already beginning a decline before he got traded to Texas before the 2014 season. Of course his 2014 season was a lost cause as he struggled out of the gate and then had a season-ending neck injury.  A bounce back effort could be in store for the big guy, especially with a full season calling the Ballpark in Arlington his home, but I would also not be surprised if he never hits 30 HR in a season ever again.”

Fielder is making me eat my words as much as he eats tofu burgers (which is likely a lot since he is reportedly a vegetarian), as he is on an incredible terror hitting .368 with 6 HR and 17 RBI in the month of May.  The outburst has brought his season line to .351 AVG, 8 HR, 30 RBI, 20 R, and 0 SB, putting him amongst the top first baseman in fantasy baseball. His batting average is inflated due to a .364 BABIP, and his batted ball profile shows us that there is no significant differences to his career rates to tell us that he can maintain an batting average this far over .300.  However, he is putting the ball in play at a career high rate as he has only struck out 11.1% of the time.  Fielder has shown improvement in this area over the recent years, and in 2012 his very good strikeout rate of 12.2% allowed him to hit for a career high .313 AVG.

While there’s no doubt that his BABIP will come down, with the excellent rate he is putting the ball in play, Fielder may have little issue hitting .300 for the second time in his career.  His walk rate is also significantly down to 6.3% (compared to his career rate of 12.8%), but that’s not too much of a concern when his strikeout rate is low as well. As for his power, Fielder’s HR/fly ball rate has been on the decline since 2011, but his rate this season is right around 14.0%, which is very comparable to his 13.5% rate in 2013 with the Tigers and it is around that mark that I expect him to settle in at by season’s end.  It’s not the 35-40 HR that was expected from him in his prime, but 25-30 HR for the season is still going to be quality and he is on pace for defeating most people’s expectations of him for the 2015 season.

For the remainder of the season, I will give Fielder the line of:  .294 AVG, 19 HR, 73 RBI, 60 R, 1 SB

Now let’s check out the rest of the action from Saturday.  Continue reading