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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Montgomery’s Monumental Mound Montage (and other notes from 6/30/15)

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Before we get into what Mariners left-handed rookie starting pitcher Mike Montgomery has done this season, let’s look at what his background has been like.  Montgomery was originally drafted by the Royals in the 1st round of the 2008 draft, but he had performance issues in 2011 and 2012 when he was in the upper levels of the Minors.  In 2011, he had a 5.32 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in 150.2 IP at AA.  In 2012, he had 6.07 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in 149.2 IP splitting time between AA and AAA. The extremely poor seasons undoubtedly had the Royals souring on Montgomery, which is likely one of the reasons that they felt it was okay to include him in a trade that sent him along with Jake OdorizziWil Myers, and Jake Leonard to the Rays in exchange for James Shields and Wade Davis.

In the Rays organization, he showed small improvements, but for the most part he was still appearing as a disappointment. In 2013 at rookie-ball, high-A, and mostly AAA, Montgomery had a 4.59 ERA and 1.42 WHIP.  In 2014 still with the Rays, he had a 4.29 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 126 IP at AAA.  So now it was the Rays who had seen enough of the lefty and they shipped him off to the Mariners for Erasmo Ramirez one week before the 2015 season began.

Montgomery began the 2015 season at the Mariners AAA affiliate and was showing his best stuff since 2008-09 when he was in the low minors in the Royals organization.  To begin the year, Montgomery had a 3.74 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 53 IP over 9 starts, and was also displaying some of the best that he’s ever shown in strikeout rate (7.98 K/9) and walk rate (2.55 BB/9).  So when James Paxton went down with an injury just four short weeks ago, Montgomery was called up from AAA to make his Major League debut for the Mariners.

Over his first four starts, Montgomery had decent performances, but was nowhere near dominating.  His 2.73 ERA and 1.14 WHIP were nice, but the 12 K/8 BB in 26.1 IP were far from impressive and suggested that he was getting a bit lucky in the ERA and WHIP departments in his first tour through the league.  However, the now 26-year old rookie (it’s his birthday today, July 1), took things to a new level in his 5th start of the season against the team that drafted him, the Kansas City Royals.  Despite the fact that the Royals have been the hardest team to strikeout all season long, Montgomery not only struck them out 10 times, but he also pitched a complete game shutout scattering just 5 singles without issuing a walk. Maybe it was the revenge factor against his former organization that traded him away that drove him to the surprise game, but whatver it was, it was certainly something for the baseball community to take notice of.

His very next start came on Tuesday evening at Petco Park versus the Padres, and he ended up tossing a 1-hitter with 7 K/4 BB for his second complete game shutout in a row.  So with back to back CGSO, Montgomery has delivered a monumental mound performance, becoming the first Mariners pitcher to complete such a feat since Freddy Garcia in 2001.  The first shutout against the Royals could have been passed off as a bit of luck as a once in a lifetime type of game, but to repeat with another shutout has to give him some merit.

What gives Montgomery’s shutout performances some validity is that he had the strong strikeout numbers to go with it, which was a drastic change from his paltry strikeout rate of 4.10 K/9 from his first four starts.  And as a former 1st round pick, there was obviously something to like about Montgomery at some point.  So even if it took 6-7 years, perhaps this is a situation where a pitcher is finally figuring things out.

Montgomery gets another nice matchup in his next start against an A’s team that performs better against righties and ranks in the bottom half of the league in wOBA and ISO versus lefties.  So if he is on the waiver wire, it wouldn’t be a terrible spot to pick him up and start him for.  But after that start, it’s going to get tricky for Montgomery because Hisashi Iwakuma is on track to return sometime before the All-Star break, and that could mean that Montgomery will be booted from the rotation. It is also possible that Roenis Elias could be the pitcher to be removed, so Montgomery owners will want to hold onto him until everything is settled.

I am still not entirely sold on Montgomery, but for now he should be picked up in deeper leagues in the event that he does continue to blossom and show that these two shutout games aren’t just flashes in the pan.

Let’s check out the rest of Tuesday’s games.

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We Are All Marco (and other notes from 6/24/15)

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“Which one of you is Marco?”

“We are all Marco.”

Name that movie!

Of course that is none other than everyone’s favorite sex trafficking classic Taken, starring Liam Neeson who brings some serious badass-ery as ex-government agent Bryan Mills.  But on a day that Blue Jays pitcher Marco Estrada flirted with perfection, we all weren’t Marco, but rather we all wanted Marco who is just 13% owned in Yahoo fantasy leagues at the time of writing this post.

If you recall, Estrada also took a no-hitter into the 8th inning of his previous start against the Orioles before giving up a hit and a run in that 8th inning.  In his start on Wednesday at Tampa Bay, he was perfect through 22 batters after Josh Donaldson made one of the top plays that we will see this season, full on diving into the stands along the third base line to catch a foul ball.  The very next batter then hit a soft dribbler to Donaldson at third base and he charged in on it, barehand grabbed it, and then fired it over to first base, but the runner beat the throw by the slimmest of margins to break up the perfect game and the no-hitter.  Estrada went on to pitch 8.2 shutout innings, allowing 2 hits and no walks while striking out 10.  However, he was unfortunate to not come away with the victory as his offense could not muster any runs while he was still in the game.

With the amazing effort of near perfection, Estrada now has a 3.45 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 63 K/23 BB in 73 IP.  His ownership level in season long fantasy leagues is sure to skyrocket, but is it worth it to pick him up?  The quick answer is yes it is worth it as long as you’re not dropping anyone of value, because there is little harm in picking up players who are hot.  But you have to know what kind of player that he is so that your expectations are kept in check.

Estrada has been around the league for several years now and he’s always been a pitcher to post ERA’s that are higher than his SIERA because of the fact that he is one of the more extreme fly ball pitchers in the league and gives up a lot of home runs.  In fact, he led the league last year in HR allowed with 29 despite having only pitched 150.2 innings.  However, he has always had the knack for posting above average strikeout rates and walk rates with career marks now at 8.37 K/9 and 2.46 BB/9.  Estrada is at his best when he is locating his changeup well, because that is his bread and butter pitch.  It is also a pitch that he is throwing at a career high rate this season, upwards of 32.0% of the time, so he seems to be having a good feel for it.

It was expected that with Estrada joining the AL East after spending his whole career in the NL that he would become even more homer prone and would see a downtick in his strikeout rate.  Well so far, his strikeout rate is down from his career rate, but he is actually managing a career best HR allowed rate at the moment, which is the primary reason for his success this season.  If he can keep preventing the long ball then he is going to have a good chance to put up a career best season.  However, it is tough to say if he will be able to do so or not.  I would lean towards him not doing so because of the division that he pitches in, so he could see an inflation in his numbers soon.  But even so, he should be a positive contributor in WHIP without hurting the ERA too much, and also chipping in a decent amount of strikeouts.  If you need the pitching help then I think that it is okay to grab Estrada, but just know that he will have starts where he just gets pounded by the long ball.

Let’s see what else happened on Wednesday!

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I’m the Biggest Ross That You’ve Seen Thus Far (and other notes from 6/19/15)

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I have talked about Nationals pitcher prospect Joe Ross in each of his last two starts since he got the call up to the Majors a couple weeks ago.  He is the younger brother of Padres pitcher Tyson Ross and I described him as a very intriguing prospect that had good control, great strikeout potential, and heavy ground ball tendencies.  This all sounds like a formula for success!  Ross debuted against the Cubs and likely had the debut jitters in that one as he gave up 3 runs in 5 innings.  But his next start was against the Brewers and he appeared to be much more comfortable, giving up just 2 runs in 8 innings while striking out 8.  And in each game he got a lot of ground ball outs.

In his third start of the season on Friday, Ross was truly brilliant as he tossed 7.1 innings allowing 1 run on 7 base runners while whiffing 11 Pirates (and he came highly recommended in the DFS strategy post for Friday).  The excellent game improved his record to 2-1 with a 2.66 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and 23 K/2 BB in 20.2 IP, and he has the very pretty ground ball rate of 56.6%.

Tanner Roark and Ross have been in the rotation for the Nationals due to the injuries to Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg.  However, Fister is set to return so that is going to send Roark to the bullpen with the Nationals opting to keep Ross in the rotation for the time being.  But once Strasburg is ready to come back, Ross will either be sent back to the Minors or perhaps be kept on as a reliever.  Either way, it’s not great for his fantasy outlook for this season, but we may want to hold on to him to see just how well Strasburg fares in his return from the DL.  In keeper and dynasty leagues though, Ross is a must grab as he is definitely looking like he might be the biggest Ross that we’ve seen thus far, better than his older brother.

Let’s check out the rest of Friday’s action.

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