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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Yahoo! Joins the DFS Party (and other notes from 7/8/15)

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In a fantasy world where daily fantasy sports (DFS) games are becoming more and more popular due to the instant gratification and large cash prizes that they can provide, it was only a matter of time before one of the big names of the season long fantasy sports world began to offer the daily games that sites such as FanDuel and DraftKings have popularized over the last few years.  On Wednesday, Yahoo! launched their version of daily fantasy sports offerings beginning with MLB contests.

Yahoo! provided an update to their fantasy sports application that now provides dual access to both the season long leagues and the daily fantasy contests.  With one click on the screen, it’s easy to switch on over from one to the other. Overall, the app could use some work in comparison to DraftKings great piece of work, but I’m sure that it will evolve in time.

It would appear that Yahoo! has made their DFS platform for MLB a bit of a hybrid between FanDuel and DraftKings.  The scoring system overall is much more similar to that of FanDuel in the sense that the wins for pitchers are a big thing.  For an example, a win on Yahoo! is worth four times the amount of a pitcher strikeout.  On DraftKings, a pitcher win is only worth two times the amount of a pitcher strikeout.  However, the scoring system on Yahoo! takes a page out of DraftKings’ book by not having any point penalties to hitters for strikeouts.  And as far as lineup configuration goes on Yahoo!, you must select two pitchers just like on DraftKings, as opposed to only one pitcher like on FanDuel.

Right now, it should pay off in the short term to play DFS guaranteed prize pool tournaments on Yahoo!  There’s going to be some extreme overlay in the early going due to things just starting out.  Overlay is created in GPP’s when the total numbers of entrants multiplied by the entry fee does not equal or exceed the amount that is listed as the “guaranteed” dollar amount to be paid out.

For instance, on Wednesday there was a tournament on Yahoo! that offered a guaranteed $10,000 in prizes and it was a $2 entry.  So there had to be at least 5,000 entrants ($10,000 divided by $2) to ensure that Yahoo! did not have to add money of its own to the guaranteed prize pool of $10,000.  But in this particular tournament there were only 3,163 entries at $2 a piece for a total of $6,326, which meant that Yahoo! had to contribute $3,674 of their own money to equal $10,000. And before the tournament, it was already established that the top 20% of the maximum amount of 5,682 entries would be paid out.  20% of 5,682 is 1,420.  But with only 3,163 total entries, that meant that the top 45% (1,420 divided by 3,163) of the entries would cash in the tournament, and with the chance to win the top prize of $2,000.  So a situation like this provides a lot of value and should be taken advantage of by submitting multiple entries — it gives the ability to win more money with less competition.

So I would recommend giving the Yahoo! DFS games a look, especially in the early going to try and grab some value with the overlay situation.  Also, the competition might be softer since the Yahoo! DFS games should attract a lot of the season long players that Yahoo! has — players who may not have ever played DFS before.  Now let’s take a look at Wednesday’s slate of baseball action.

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Attention C-Mart Shoppers (and other notes from 6/28/15)

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Cardinals 23-year old righty Carlos Martinez has been enjoying a wonderful season in his sophomore year and first year as a full-time member of the starting rotation.  He had a meeting with the division rival Cubs on Sunday night baseball, the same dynamic young Cubs offense that handed him his worst start of the season back on May 4 when they touched him up for 7 runs on 9 hits and 4 walks in just 3.2 innings.  So Martinez was out for some revenge on the nationally televised game and he earned it with a line of 6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 K with the victory to improve to 9-3 with a 2.80 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 100 K/39 BB in 93.1 IP.

With the shiny 2.80 ERA, Martinez is outpitching his xFIP of 3.17 and his SIERA of 3.36.  It would appear that he is getting a bit of fortune on his side with a .284 BABIP and 83.3% strand rate.  The BABIP isn’t low enough where we would think that he is in for a huge regression though, because he has a solid defense behind him and he has been adept at limiting hard contact this year at 25.7% (23rd lowest in the league).  However, the strand rate sits at 3rd best in the league and that should begin to regress at least a little bit, which would negatively affect his ERA.  But overall, it is hard to believe that this breakout performance is a fluke.  More likely, it is a case of a young talented pitcher with electric stuff learning how to pitch at the Major League level.

Where Martinez has improved the most over last year is in his ability to get left-handed hitters out.  Last season, working mostly as a relief pitcher, Martinez gave up a .297 AVG and .462 SLG to lefties and a .244 AVG and .301 SLG to righties. So far this season, lefties are still hitting for more power against him, but the hits are coming at a far less rate.  He’s holding lefties to a .221 AVG and .393 SLG this season, and righties are at a .223 AVG and .313 SLG.

The weapon that has been effective for him in guiding him toward this improvement against lefty bats is the development of his changeup.  According to PITCHf/x data, Martinez threw a changeup just 2.9% of the time in 2014, but this year he is going to that offspeed pitch 15.6% of the time.  And it’s the changeup that is inducing both ground balls (66.7%) and swinging strikes (19.5%) at the highest rate of any pitch for him.

Martinez’ 2015 campaign has been more than the Cardinals could have asked for, but early on in the season I suggested that Martinez would probably be put on some sort of innings cap since he only pitched 99.2 innings last season and his career high for a single season is only 108 innings from 2013.  Cardinals management recently came out and said they believe Martinez could exceed 170 innings this year, which is a higher limit than I would have thought because often time teams don’t like their young, inexperienced pitchers to have much more than a 30-40 inning increase from either the previous season or their career high.  But if he does exceed 170 innings, I wouldn’t imagine that he goes too much higher than that.

This would mean that the Cardinals may have to get creative in the second half to limit his innings and to have him available for the post-season.  But with the 9 game lead that the Cardinals currently have in their division, if they can maintain it, then they could afford to skip Martinez’ start when they have an off day scheduled and/or put him in the bullpen in September.  Doing so, also could work out in the team’s benefit because after the All-Star break when Martinez is in uncharted territory for himself in innings pitched, he could begin to show signs of wearing down — poorer command, decreased velocity, etc.  So extra rest or a shift to the pen could be beneficial on both ends if that happens.

So if you own Martinez, then it could be a sneaky move to begin to shop him around for another piece that could help your fantasy team.  Because if/when Martinez begins to display any sort of fatigue in the second half of the season, then other fantasy owners are not going to find him as attractive and they will hear rumblings from larger media outlets (or perhaps the Cardinals organization themselves) that Martinez will be treated more carefully with skipping his turn in the rotation or moving to the pen.  Besides being completely shut down for the year, being moved to the pen would be the worst case scenario, unless it is to close games due to a Trevor Rosenthal injury.  If Martinez is in the pen as a setup man in September then he will not be doing much to help any fantasy squads, especially for the playoffs in head-to-head leagues. So I would say that it is okay to ride him while he’s going well, but just beware of the events that may unfold and to be open minded about trading him away in season long redraft leagues.

Now let’s check out what else happened during Sunday baseball!  Continue reading

The Butler Did Do It, But Can He Continue To? (and other notes from 6/12/15)

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Joey Butler of the Tampa Bay Rays has been the team’s primary DH since being called up and he has been scorching as of late and with a 3 for 5 game on Friday night, Butler is now hitting .342 with 4 HR, 16 RBI, 14 R, and 3 SB in 34 games.  Now I am all for riding hitters while they’re hot, so by all means let the Butler service your team for now, but before picking him up you need to know that the Butler might start hitting like an old maid in short time.

Up to this point, Butler has been a career Minor Leaguer who is now with his third organization.  Butler had received just 21 Major League appearances before this season, and at 29 years old he is not some emerging hot shot prospect who is taking the baseball world by storm.  He has had some nice success as a Minor League hitter with a career .294 AVG, 15-20 HR power, and some sneaky double digit SB speed.  So I am not meaning to say that Butler is a terrible player who doesn’t deserve any consideration, but we need to see the reality in this fantasy situation.

The reality is that Butler should soon begin a swift downfall.  His excellent batting average is being driven by an astronomical .456 BABIP, which would rank as the highest in the Majors if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.  It is true that his 27.7% line drive rate would rank favorably  as the 9th highest and his 10.8% soft hit rate would rank as the 11th lowest, but those rates are likely to trend in the wrong directions soon.  But even if he does happen to keep up those rates, no player can sustain a BABIP like that and he has his strikeout rate working against him as another factor that should bring his AVG down.  Butler has struck out 27.9% of the time, which is a pretty high rate.  It’s not quite in the territory of his teammate Steven Souza, but it’s still up there and it is very realistic since his swinging strike rate of 16.3% would rank as the 5th highest in the league.  To make things worse in the plate discipline area, his high strikeout and swinging strike rates are paired with a horrific 1.6% walk rate.  Butler had a 11.1% career walk rate in the Minors, so he does have some upside to do better there, but it’s not likely something that is going to change over night to make a drastic turn.

The fact of the matter is that Butler has been an extremely free swinger and while free swingers can succeed in the league, like Adam Jones or the retired Vladimir Guerrero, free swingers with high strikeout rates will have much more limited success in the long term, if any success at all.  But like I said, using hitters in fantasy while they are hot is a fine strategy, but it’s knowing when to cut them loose that is equally as important.

Let’s take a look at the rest of Friday’s action.

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