2016 Hitter Contact-Quality Report: AL Left Fielders

After a short break for the holidays, it’s time to jump back into the saddle and continue our position-by-position look at 2016 hitter performance using ball-in-play data. We’ve gone around the horn in the infield — finishing there with National League third basemen — and now move to the outfield, starting with AL left fielders. Be forewarned: this was not a very productive group. Things will pick up a little bit next week when we deal with their senior-circuit counterparts. As a reminder, we’re utilizing granular exit-speed and launch-angle data to measure how position players “should have” performed in comparison to their actual stat lines.

The players below are listed in Adjusted Production order. Adjusted Production expresses, on a scale where 100 equals average, what a hitter “should have” produced based on the exit speed/launch angle of each ball put in play. Each player’s Adjusted Contact Score, which weeds out the strikeouts and walks and states what each player should have produced on BIP alone, is also listed. Here goes:

AL Left-Field BIP Profiles
NAME AVG MPH FLY MPH LD MPH GB MPH POP % FLY % LD % GB % ADJ C K % BB % wRC+ ADJ PRD PULL %
Kim 91.6 90.3 94.9 91.8 0.8% 26.1% 20.6% 52.6% 106 14.7% 10.4% 119 124 37.3%
J.Upton 92.3 91.9 98.5 91.3 4.8% 38.2% 18.3% 38.7% 159 28.6% 8.0% 105 119 39.2%
A.Gordon 88.3 89.7 93.8 82.8 2.0% 35.9% 24.2% 37.9% 137 29.2% 10.3% 85 106 44.6%
Grossman 86.7 88.0 88.4 85.1 2.1% 34.8% 25.3% 37.8% 101 24.7% 14.1% 127 100 41.5%
Me.Cabrera 90.4 87.0 93.0 93.1 3.4% 31.6% 21.9% 43.2% 81 10.7% 7.3% 114 100 38.7%
Saunders 90.8 92.3 97.4 86.8 2.4% 34.4% 22.5% 40.7% 119 28.1% 10.6% 117 99 41.3%
Rasmus 89.1 91.1 96.0 81.7 2.0% 41.1% 21.1% 35.8% 120 29.0% 10.3% 75 96 53.0%
J.Marte 89.8 91.3 94.3 88.6 5.9% 33.2% 14.9% 46.0% 95 20.8% 6.3% 114 90 50.5%
Guyer 87.6 87.9 90.9 85.9 3.4% 34.6% 21.5% 40.5% 85 15.9% 5.5% 122 87 41.7%
Gardner 86.9 86.4 91.0 85.1 2.7% 24.3% 20.7% 52.3% 71 16.7% 11.0% 97 86 33.6%
C.Gomez 87.8 91.7 93.0 83.9 5.0% 29.7% 21.0% 44.3% 110 30.0% 7.5% 83 82 44.6%
Holt 86.3 86.7 90.7 85.1 1.3% 20.4% 23.8% 54.5% 72 17.9% 8.3% 86 79 36.4%
Aoki 87.6 87.1 91.3 86.7 2.7% 19.4% 17.2% 60.8% 59 9.6% 7.3% 106 78 31.2%
Crisp 85.6 87.0 88.6 82.7 1.6% 36.5% 21.9% 40.0% 62 15.7% 9.2% 90 75 41.4%
R.Davis 86.8 87.2 89.7 85.5 3.7% 32.3% 19.0% 45.0% 74 21.4% 6.7% 85 71 43.6%
AVERAGE 88.5 89.0 92.8 86.4 2.9% 31.5% 20.9% 44.7% 97 20.9% 8.9% 102 93 41.2%

Most of the column headers are self-explanatory, including average BIP speed (overall and by BIP type), BIP type frequency, K and BB rates, wRC+ and Adjusted Production, which incorporates the exit speed/angle data. Each hitter’s Adjusted Contact Score (ADJ C) is also listed. Adjusted Contact Score applies league-average production to each hitter’s individual actual BIP type and velocity mix, and compares it to league average of 100.

Cells are also color-coded. If a hitter’s value is two standard deviations or more higher than average, the field is shaded red. If it’s one to two STD higher than average, it’s shaded orange. If it’s one-half to one STD higher than average, it’s shaded dark yellow. If it’s one-half to one STD less than average, it’s shaded blue. If it’s over one STD less than average, it’s shaded black. Ran out of colors at that point. On the rare occasions that a value is over two STD lower than average, we’ll mention it if necessary in the text.

It should be noted that individual hitters’ BIP frequency and authority figures correlate quite well from year to year, with one notable exception. As with pitchers, individual hitters’ liner rates fluctuate quite significantly from year to year, for all but a handful of hitters with a clear talent (or lack thereof) for squaring up the baseball.

Projecting performance based on BIP speed/angle opens us up to a couple biases that we didn’t need to address when evaluating pitchers. Pitchers face a mix of pull- and opposite-field-oriented hitters, more and less authoritative hitters, etc. Hitters are who they are each time they step up to the plate, and we must choose whether or not to address their individual tendencies.

I have adjusted the projected ground-ball performance for hitters who meet two criteria. First, they’ve recorded over five times as many grounders to the pull side than to the opposite field and, second, they exhibit a resulting deficiency in actual versus projected grounder performance. Such hitters’ projected grounder performance was capped at their actual performance level. Such hitters’ Adjusted Contact Scores and Adjusted Production figures are in red fonts.

I have decided not to adjust for the other primary factor that can skew actual versus projected performance based on exit speed/angle — namely, player speed. We’re attempting to assess hitter contact quality here; let’s keep speed/athleticism separate. As a result, we’ll see some slow, hard-hitting-to-all-fields sluggers overperform on this metric, and some more athletic players underperform. Contact quality is just part of offensive baseball; let’s attempt to isolate and evaluate it on its own.

It really is staggering to see the limited output of AL left fielders in 2016, especially once adjusted for contact quality. All of three left-field regulars posted Adjusted Production figures over 100, and it’s probably not the three most of you would have guessed.

To get to the playoffs last season, Orioles’ brass certainly had to make some good decisions, but their bad ones sure were doozies. The largest, most consequential blunder was the relegation of Zach Britton to bystander status in the wild card game, but their attempt to wash their hands of Hyun Soo Kim after a poor spring training very nearly kept them out of the postseason in the first place.

Joey Rickard started the season as the regular left fielder, but by season’s end Kim was garnering the bulk of the playing time. He’s a high-floor, moderate-upside type with a strong K/BB foundation, and a little more pop than you might think. His Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 89 suggests that he might have a 15-home-run season in him at some point. Bear in mind, however, that the O’s have barely let Kim even try to bat against lefties. I’d take the training wheels off, to see what they truly have in this guy. At the very least, he’s a very productive platooner who can bat at or near the top of the lineup.

The Tigers made a lucrative, long-term commitment to a still-youthful Justin Upton last season and, his high ranking on this list notwithstanding, the relationship didn’t get off to a great start. The big problem is a poor K/BB foundation that has slipped farther away from him rather than improving with age. The contact quality is very strong: his Adjusted Fly Ball, Liner and Grounder Scores are 192, 124 and 144, respectively. He underperformed on all three (161, 104 and 105 Unadjusted Contact Scores, respectively); his overall Adjusted Contact Score of 159 far outdistanced his unadjusted mark. His liner rate has been very low for two years running now. Upward regression in that category would be a huge boon. Still, you can only be so good with such a poor K/BB foundation.

Alex Gordon wasn’t nearly as bad as he appeared last season, but there are still some reasons for worry moving forward. Like Upton, he underperformed on all three key BIP types (101 vs. 141, 82 vs. 97 and 49 vs. 72 Unadjusted vs. Adjusted Fly Ball, Liner and Grounder Contact Scores), and he rarely pops up for someone with such a high fly-ball rate. His overall Adjusted Contact Score of 137 far outdistanced his unadjusted mark.

About those reasons for concern, however… he barely avoided an excessive grounder-pulling penalty, which would have been quite severe in his case. His grounder authority is extremely weak, so pulling or not, his batting average will be subject to strain. Even more importantly, his K rate spiked dramatically. His liner rate also has nowhere to go but down; it was in the 94th and 93rd percentile the last two seasons. League-average offensive performance is about what the Royals should expect moving forward.

The Twins have struggled in the recent past for many reasons, but one has been an over-reliance on small-sample successes at the major-league level. Danny Santana says hello. There’s a new regime in place, and how they react to Robbie Grossman’s 2016 surprise season will be telling. Grossman sees a lot of pitches, and walks and whiffs much more than his peers. That part of him is real. His extremely high liner rate, however, isn’t. It’s coming down, perhaps big time. Even with that elevated rate. Grossman’s overall Adjusted Contact Score was merely 101 (versus Unadjusted 137) thanks to well below-average BIP authority across all BIP types. He overperformed on all three major BIP types (146 Adjusted vs. 87 Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score, 106 vs. 88 Liner, 97 vs. 87 Grounder). He’s a nice, OBP-oriented extra outfielder or platooner, but not a key piece.

Melky Cabrera’s BIP authority profile is unusual among regular MLB outfielders. His Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score is a minuscule 37, next to last among this group. Only a relatively hitter-friendly home park, which enabled his slightly higher 57 unadjusted mark, gives the illusion that Cabrera retains any long-ball power. He never strikes out, however, and hits his grounders harder than almost anyone, providing him with a high batting-average floor. He’s a .280/.340/.390 type, a reasonably valuable offensive player unless the macro trend toward more homers continues and intensifies. In that case, don’t expect Cabrera to join the party.

Michael Saunders is one of a number of corner-outfield power bats available in the free-agent marketplace. There’s a lot to like here, but there are limitations, as well. Only Saunders among this group impacts the baseball comparably to Justin Upton. Like his Tiger counterpart, he strikes out a ton, but unlike him, he’s an extreme grounder-puller, placing his batting average under even more pressure. Like Gordon, he’s the rare fly-ball hitter who doesn’t pop up much, and he has also posted some strong liner rates in recent seasons. Unless he cuts that K rate, however, he will merely be an average offensive player, with most of his value power-based. The upside remains tantalizing, if he can address his issues.

Similar themes abound with Colby Rasmus, to an even more extreme degree. Like Gordon, he is one of the weakest grounder-impactors out there. Like Upton and Saunders, he doesn’t pop up much while hitting tons of fly balls (a good thing) while striking out constantly (a bad thing). He is one of the more obvious infield overshift decisions in the game, an extreme grounder-puller who batted .143 AVG-.143 SLG (33 Unadjusted Contact Score) on the ground. He was quite unlucky in the air (100 Unadjusted vs. 168 Adjusted Contact Score) and on a line (88 vs. 108), but even with a boost from an overall Unadjusted Contact Score of 87 to an adjusted 120 mark, he’s still a below-average offensive player. There’s a ton of risk in his offensive game (his fly-ball rate has nowhere to go but down), and his ceiling is diminishing. He’s a power “harvester” who’s about done harvesting.

Someone had to be the Angels’ qualifying left fielder, and Jefry Marte it is. His sample is small compared to the other qualifiers here, but it paints a clear picture of the player. Marte is a dead-puller who is totally power-focused; he likely had to do this to even get this one extended major-league shot. His exit speeds by BIP type are unremarkable, but his tunnel-vision focus on pulling for distance bought him some homers: his Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 148 outstripped the 118 level supported by the speed/angle data. He’s a pop-up machine who performed at a reasonable level despite a very poor liner rate, which might positively regress moving forward. He’s the small side of a left-field platoon at best, and is more likely Triple-A insurance.

Three of our remaining players ended the season in the AL champion Indians’ outfield rotation. First up among them is Brandon Guyer. Sorry, big guy, but I don’t include hit-by-pitches in my offensive projections. We’re measuring a different type of contact quality here. When you get down to it, his offensive strengths are limited to an ability to make contact and an ability to allow the ball to make contact with him. His liner rates have been decent, usually just above league average. He still has some shelf life as a complementary outfielder, a tough out who brings few extras to the table.

Brett Gardner has had the good fortune of playing his home games in Yankee Stadium, obscuring his distinctly below-average fly-ball-striking ability. His Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score was a puny 44, but as usual, he curled some homers around the foul pole. Still, he hit only seven after combining for 33 in 2014-15, when his fly-ball frequency was much higher. His K/BB foundation did improve quite a bit in 2016, so he clearly has a future, in New York or elsewhere. He’s the type of guy who can be a league-average offensive player with an Adjusted Contact Score in the 80-85 range, a la Willie Randolph in a previous era.

Carlos Gomez has always been a complex offensive player, arriving in the majors before his bat was ready, and then growing into his considerable physical gifts during his time in Milwaukee. He’s still a maddening mix of strengths and weaknesses. His K/BB foundation is horrendous, especially the most important part of it, the K rate. His fly-ball rate plunged in 2016, while his pop-up rate remained high. He impacts the ball fairly well in the air and on a line, but his grounder authority is poor. There still is some power here: his 121 Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score fell well short of his adjusted 152 mark. Look for a low batting average and OBP in 2017, but a potential return to the 20-homer club.

Brock Holt is a nice complementary player, bringing versatility and a reliable ability to hit line drives; that 23.8% liner rate wasn’t a fluke. That said, his bat plays better in Fenway than it would just about anywhere else. His 158 Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score far outdistanced the adjusted 73 mark supported by the granular data. If he is on these pages as a “regular” next offseason, chances are the Sox season didn’t go all that well.

No one paddles the ball as weakly in the air as Nori Aoki, he of the 27 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score. In a sense, he’s Ichiro lite, in that a BIP-centric analysis like this doesn’t tell the whole story. As usual, he overperformed on the ground (165 Unadjusted vs. 90 Adjusted Grounder Contact Score), as his slap-and-run approach buys him an extra step or so down the line. He is what he is: a reasonable OBP, no-power guy whose numbers you can pretty much pencil in before the season begins. Unless you have a dire need for an OBP guy at the top of the order, it’s better to look elsewhere; he’s best cast as an extra outfielder.

Two more to go, both Indians at the end of the season. Talk about “harvesting.” Most players who are dead grounder-pullers are power guys looking to extract every last ounce of power left in them. Coco Crisp isn’t exactly that type of player. In an attempt to remain offensively relevant Crisp has become a dead-pull, extreme fly-ball hitter. His 33 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score was among the lowest among 2016 regulars at any position, but the extra pulling helped him scratch out 13 homers and an adjusted mark of 58, enough to keep him in a good club’s lineup. There’s absolutely no reason for a club to run him out there with any sort of frequency in 2017. He’s had a nice run.

Rajai Davis, he of the Bernie Carbo/Hal Smith-esque quickly overshadowed World Series homer, already has a 2017 home, in Oakland. The value he brings is not reflected well in this type of analysis. He’s a speed guy, through and through. His numbers with the bat weren’t great last season, and they were inflated by good luck on line drives (117 Unadjusted vs. 87 Adjusted Contact Score). His K rate has shot upward in recent seasons, and his BIP authority has never been good. There is definite bust potential with regard to his non-stolen-base numbers in 2017.

We hoped you liked reading 2016 Hitter Contact-Quality Report: AL Left Fielders by Tony Blengino!

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no Khris Davis?