Hitter Contact-Quality Report: Center Field

With the extended holiday weekend behind us, we get back to the business at hand: our position-by-position look at hitter contact quality. Only three positions to go. Last time, it was left fielders. This time: a fun-filled group of center fielders. As we have in the previous installments, we’ll use granular ball-in-play data, such as BIP type frequencies, exit speed and launch angle to perform this analysis.

The data examined today runs through June 14. Players are separated by league, and 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 CF BIP Profiles
Name Avg MPH FLY MPH LD MPH GB MPH POP% FLY% LD% GB% ADJ C K% BB% wRC+ ADJ PR Pull%
Trout 91.5 91.1 98.3 87.3 1.6% 33.2% 23.4% 41.8% 157 19.4% 15.2% 162 165 40.8%
J. Bradley 90.9 95.5 95.6 86.3 4.2% 30.5% 18.0% 47.3% 125 19.4% 10.3% 155 127 43.7%
Desmond 91.6 89.7 98.2 89.9 1.0% 28.2% 21.5% 49.2% 135 22.1% 6.2% 121 117 28.1%
A. Jones 90.2 92.5 94.5 86.3 0.5% 38.7% 12.9% 47.8% 103 18.6% 6.7% 87 102 42.0%
A. Jackson 88.4 87.3 95.5 83.6 1.4% 31.0% 30.3% 37.3% 96 19.2% 8.4% 79 97 35.6%
Cain 89.9 89.2 89.8 92.0 2.2% 29.3% 22.1% 46.4% 106 22.8% 6.9% 99 94 34.8%
L. Martin 90.0 92.5 89.6 92.6 3.7% 43.0% 14.0% 39.3% 107 26.1% 9.8% 118 93 47.9%
Ellsbury 87.2 82.3 94.2 89.0 4.5% 26.2% 21.0% 48.3% 67 13.5% 8.4% 111 82 36.7%
Pillar 88.0 88.2 96.3 84.4 6.1% 31.5% 17.8% 44.6% 80 14.9% 2.6% 84 79 40.3%
Maybin 85.7 84.5 90.6 84.4 1.3% 17.7% 21.5% 59.5% 61 12.3% 9.4% 143 79 34.9%
Da.Santana 89.1 88.2 94.6 88.8 3.5% 23.2% 18.6% 54.7% 86 22.1% 4.6% 70 75 35.4%
R. Davis 86.7 89.3 88.1 85.0 2.7% 32.0% 17.3% 48.0% 72 23.8% 8.8% 95 69 45.7%
C. Gomez 85.6 91.5 92.9 79.2 3.3% 30.8% 18.7% 47.3% 100 35.4% 6.9% 48 63 39.4%
Burns 83.0 75.4 86.5 86.6 5.8% 20.1% 19.0% 55.0% 53 10.3% 3.4% 63 61 33.8%
D. Jennings 87.3 89.2 93.3 84.7 5.8% 29.8% 14.4% 50.0% 60 25.2% 8.6% 61 58 42.5%
AVERAGE 88.3 88.4 93.2 86.7 3.2% 29.7% 19.4% 47.8% 94 20.3% 7.7% 100 91 38.8%

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.

Any discussion of AL center fielders has to begin with Mike Trout. His 2016 profile is pretty clean; gone is the increasing pull tendency that was beginning to muddy the waters a couple years back. A top-of-the-scale walk rate and a very low pop-up rate are among the more subtle components of his offensive game, but they conspire to make his floor extremely high while enabling him to more easily approach his considerable ceiling. One might think that his liner rate is due for some negative regression, but Trout is one of the chosen few who can maintain that level over time. He crushes those liners, too. Believe it or not, there’s additional upside within reach, as his fly-ball authority to date has been relatively unremarkable.

Jackie Bradley Jr.’s line gives us another opportunity to talk about the Fenway Factor. Through June 14, Bradley was batting an insane .556 AVG-1.644 SLG (336 Unadjusted Production) on fly balls. The Green Monster’s ability to intercept fly balls had something to do with that: adjusted for context, Bradley’s Adjusted Fly Ball Production was a still strong but much lower 188. On top of that, Bradley also had good fortune on the ground (148 Unadjusted vs. 101 Adjusted Grounder Contact Score). Bradley has really crushed the ball in the air, harder than any AL non-DH we’ve examined so far. Can he maintain that? I have some doubts.

Ian Desmond’s resurgence as an outfielder in Texas has been of the most refreshing stories of the season. He’s made subtle improvements to both his K and BB rates, and has hit the ball extremely hard on a line and on the ground. His pull percentage is over two STD below league average; teams simply must play him honest. His pop-up rate is extremely low, and his fly-ball rate has some room for growth. An average range liner rate is big news for Desmond; he sat in the 12th and second percentiles in the NL in 2014 and 2015, forcing his batting average downward.

Adam Jones’ overall pull percentage isn’t very high, but it’s sufficiently high on the ground to trigger a penalty. Despite solid straight-ahead speed, he batted .169 AVG-.186 SLG (54 Unadjusted Contact Score) on grounders through June 14 . Truth be told, Jones has done well to post league-average production despite an extremely low liner rate. He’s actually been a bit unlucky (116 Unadjusted vs. 154 Adjusted Contact Score) in the air to date.

That’s it for the better-than-average hitters in the AL center-field group. Austin Jackson somehow has managed the difficult feat of combining below-average production with a ridiculously high 30.3% liner rate. He’s been unlucky on those liners, batting just .579 AVG-.842 SLG (84 Unadjusted Contact Score). Jackson is the reigning “donut hole” fly-ball king: he’s batted just .174 AVG-.261 SLG (16 Unadjusted Contact Score) in the air.

It’s been a somewhat disappointing offensive season for Lorenzo Cain to date. After crushing his liners in recent seasons, his line-drive authority has been quite poor in 2016, over a full STD below league average. Plus, he’s actually been quite lucky on those liners, batting .818 AVG-.955 SLG (139 Unadjusted Production) with authority that suggests an 88 adjusted mark. Still, near league-average offense combined with Cain-level defense represents an attractive overall package.

The Mariners bought low on Leonys Martin and have been rewarded with a Lorenzo Cain-esque package of their own. Their respective authority profiles are virtually identical, while Martin’s BIP frequencies are a mixed bag, including a maxed-out fly-ball rate and a low liner rate that will likely positively regress moving forward. Martin’s 2016 numbers through June 14, again like Cain’s, are puffed up a bit by overperformance on liners; he’s hitting .667 AVG-1.056 SLG (121 Unadjusted Contact Score) despite authority supporting only an 88 mark.

Jacoby Ellsbury’s traditional numbers suggest league-average performance to date, but there’s been an awful lot of good luck involved. Among the AL regulars we’ve covered to date, only Jose Iglesias hits his fly balls more weakly than Ellsbury. Plus, he’s way outperformed both his liner (149 Unadjusted vs. 97 Projected Contact Scores) and grounder (216 vs. 112) authority projections. Sure, speed and left-handedness have a little to do with it, but I’m sure glad I don’t have to pay this contract going forward.

Kevin Pillar possesses a mixed bag of offensive traits. His low K rate gives him some margin for error with regard to contact-management, but his low BB rate takes it away. He hits his liners very hard, but has a very high pop-up rate for a non-power hitter, and his uppercut swing yields weak grounder authority. Bottom line, it’s a good thing that he plays the heck out of center field, as the entire offensive package is unlikely to produce at a league-average level.

Cameron Maybin certainly has given the Tiger lineup a shot in the arm since taking over for Anthony Gose. It must be said, however, that he has almost certainly been the luckiest hitter in the AL this season. He never elevates the baseball, and his BIP authority is well below average across the board. Through June 14, he batted an incredible .400 AVG-.400 SLG (283 Unadjusted Production) on the ground, despite authority that supports a 67 adjusted mark. He also was batting .867 AVG-.933 SLG (146 Unadjusted) on liners, compared to a 92 adjusted mark. Yes, he is quite athletic, and his low K rate is a plus, but major attrition should be expected in his offensive numbers.

How hard is it to be productive with a massive K rate? Ask Carlos Gomez. It’s far from his only issue — I mean, look at that poor grounder authority, over two STD below league average — but his overall Adjusted Contact Score is squarely at a league-average 100, nearly the equal of Adam Jones. With a league average K rate, he’d be about a league-average performer, or for his position, a little better. Instead, he’s been the definition of replacement-level offense.

NL CF BIP Profiles
Name Avg MPH FLY MPH LD MPH GB MPH POP% FLY% LD% GB% ADJ C K% BB% wRC+ ADJ PR Pull%
Cespedes 93.4 93.4 95.9 92.1 5.2% 35.7% 25.3% 33.8% 153 24.0% 9.0% 148 131 40.9%
McCutchen 91.3 93.9 94.6 84.9 5.5% 40.4% 23.2% 30.9% 137 24.5% 9.7% 96 120 45.3%
Pederson 93.3 93.8 97.0 93.3 3.0% 39.1% 18.8% 39.1% 137 25.6% 11.4% 119 120 39.4%
Blackmon 88.2 88.7 92.8 85.0 1.8% 33.1% 28.3% 36.7% 104 14.3% 8.5% 112 117 43.5%
Herrera 89.6 84.8 91.3 96.0 2.8% 33.7% 23.0% 40.4% 98 17.8% 14.4% 134 116 24.9%
Fowler 89.1 87.8 95.3 85.9 0.6% 32.9% 25.3% 41.2% 114 22.0% 11.9% 142 112 39.7%
Span 86.6 85.8 88.4 87.1 1.8% 21.9% 20.9% 55.3% 85 10.8% 10.5% 99 111 38.7%
Grichuk 92.8 93.8 98.2 90.7 3.4% 39.8% 12.2% 44.6% 120 24.0% 8.1% 84 105 46.0%
Ozuna 91.9 89.9 94.9 93.5 3.7% 34.2% 19.5% 42.6% 114 21.1% 7.2% 141 105 35.8%
Nieuwenhuis 91.7 96.1 93.9 88.1 3.5% 27.1% 23.5% 45.9% 119 33.1% 14.7% 90 93 45.9%
Owings 88.8 86.3 92.2 89.0 0.0% 24.6% 20.3% 55.1% 93 19.4% 7.7% 98 93 32.9%
M. Taylor 87.6 91.3 97.7 78.9 2.9% 25.3% 25.2% 46.6% 100 30.7% 4.3% 58 68 51.9%
Jay 86.8 88.0 91.2 84.2 1.5% 19.6% 23.7% 55.2% 73 22.1% 5.1% 102 65 37.2%
Hamilton 83.1 81.4 83.0 85.3 4.3% 23.1% 23.1% 49.6% 62 18.4% 4.6% 86 61 33.8%
M. Smith 85.8 89.5 90.9 82.9 1.0% 23.8% 14.9% 60.4% 52 22.7% 8.7% 94 55 33.3%
AVERAGE 89.3 89.6 93.2 87.8 2.7% 30.3% 21.8% 45.2% 104 22.0% 9.1% 107 98 39.3%

Sure, there’s a defensive cost to playing Yoenis Cespedes in center field, but at least you get to bask in the offensive bonus of such a deployment. It’s been essentially a best-case scenario for Cespedes thus far, batted-ball wise: he crushes each BIP type, his liner rate is as high as you could expect, and his fly-ball rate exceeds his grounder rate. He has had some good fortune on fly balls, with a 190 Unadjusted vs. 141 Adjusted Contact Score. Through June 14, he’d recorded 14 95-99 mph fly balls vs. 13 100-plus fly balls; most other power hitters have comfortably more in the 100-plus range. We’re nitpicking, however; sure the K and BB rates could be better as well, and while Cespedes indeed could be at the outset of his decline phase, he’s still a very valuable property.

OK, what’s Andrew McCutchen doing in the #2 slot on the NL list? Well, he’s been unlucky on fly balls (121 Unadjusted vs. 170 Adjusted Contact Score) and liners (76 vs. 102). In one trip to Detroit alone, he made a few 100-plus mph fly-ball outs to the middle of the field. So, there’s nothing to worry about here, business as usual? Not so fast. McCutchen’s grounder authority is uncharacteristically low, and he’s devolved into an extreme puller on the ground. He’s batting .154 AVG-.154 SLG (42 Unadjusted Production) on the ground, and could well continue to do so if he doesn’t revert to using the entire field. His K rate is up, his BB rate is down, his high pop-up rate is an issue, and his fly-ball rate is about maxed out. Unfortunately, the ultimate hit-before-power guy now features many of the negative traits of the power-before-hit guy. He’s better than his numbers, but not by as much as he should be, and has been.

In fact, McCutchen has basically become Joc Pederson. Same overall Adjusted Contact Score and Production through June 14, with matching excessive grounder-pulling penalties to boot. The big issue with Pederson is how much his offensive game depends on maintaining a very high fly-ball rate. He’s running a 227 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score through June 14, the best among MLB center fielders through June 14, including Mike Trout. While Pederson projects as a highly productive regular in the short term, he’s going to need to make some adjustments to keep it up over the long haul. It’s one thing for a 30-year-old McCutchen to begin to display some “old player” skills; it’s another to rely upon them at age 24.

Like his teammate DJ LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon is a player who really doesn’t benefit much from the ample offensive benefits afforded by Coors Field. His greatest skill appears to be his ability to run a high liner rate; sure, his 28.3% 2016 mark is due for some regression, but he posted a mark in the 84th percentile last season. His very low K rate gives him a very high offensive floor, and the low pop-up rate helps as well. He projects as a relatively safe 110-ish wRC+ guy over the next few seasons, without the oomph most Colorado regulars provide.

Odubel Herrera is one interesting player. His walk rate has almost tripled this season, which has to be unprecedented for a second-year guy. He absolutely crushes the ball on the ground, but is among the weaker fly ball-strikers around. His numbers to date have been inflated by extreme overperformance on grounders: through June 14, he was hitting .440 AVG-.460 SLG (354 Unadjusted Contact Score). Still, his K-BB breakthrough offers hope for the future, substantially raising his floor, and offers pathways for additional growth. Fewer, or slightly harder, fly balls could be his next frontier.

The Cubs have suffered from some quite predictable regression of late, though the player whose performance most invited it, Dexter Fowler, was on the sidelines at the time. His strong start was fueled by a very high liner rate, well above his typical, slightly above-average level. His authority levels have been quite ordinary; he’s been lucky on liners (146 Unadjusted vs. 104 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounders (137 vs. 83) to date. He’s a nice offensive player, but not the star his current numbers suggest.

I tend to cite Willie Randolph in these articles from time to time, on the rare occasion I come across a contemporary player with league-average offensive ability and a below-average contact score. These guys just don’t exist in numbers anymore, though Denard Span is one such throwback. Span doesn’t strike out, and walks at a reasonable rate, so that he can ride a vanilla BIP frequency/authority profile all the way to league averageness. He hits tons of grounders, a good thing as a high percentage of his fly balls sit in that 75-94 mph “donut hole” that yields no production. He’s been a bit unlucky this year, going 0-for-4 on fly balls between 100-104 mph with launch angles in the 20s. That’s really hard to do.

I don’t believe that Randal Grichuk’s early-season performance warranted a demotion to Triple-A. His struggles were a direct result of his puny liner rate, and he was extremely unlucky on fly balls (83 Unadjusted vs. 198 Adjusted Contact Score). He’s one of only three center fielders in either league with materially above-average authority across all BIP types, and his K and BB rates, while both still subpar, have shown progress. With expected positive regression in his liner rate, he’s not much different than the 2015 version. He’ll be back.

Those who have read my work in the past know that I love me some Marcell Ozuna. That said, one cannot ignore the role of good fortune in Ozuna’s performance this season. Through June 14, Ozuna batted an absolutely insane .477 AVG-.538 SLG on ground balls, for an off-the-charts 441 Unadjusted Contact Score. He’s been helped by the new dimensions of his home park: his Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score is actually just below average at 95, thanks to a preponderance of fly balls in the “donut hole.” Like Cespedes, he has more 95-99 mph (15) than 100-plus mph (10) flies. Love him for the long term, but expect some negative regression the rest of 2016.

We hoped you liked reading Hitter Contact-Quality Report: Center Field by Tony Blengino!

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Anthony Calamis
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Anthony Calamis

He is going to come pretty close to passing Cobb in OFF, too. He’s currently 33.6 away, we’re about halfway through 2016, and he has +34.4 OFF in 83/162 team games, just over 51% of the team games.