Who Has Generated the Most Weak Contact This Year?

On Monday I touched on Tony Blengino’s presentation on contact management that he gave this past weekend at Saber Seminar in Boston. Tony measured the pitchers who were best able to manage contact by looking at HITf/x data, data to which us normal people have no access. But I theorized that something like sOPS+ (like ERA- but with OPS allowed) could be a replacement for the HITf/x data. I thought that sOPS+ might be able to tell us which guys are better at inducing weak contact and thus which guys can have an ERA that beats their ERA estimators.

When I say “tell us” I should clarify that could mean two different things. It’s the classic explanatory versus predictive problem. Yes, sOPS+ can explain why a pitcher’s ERA is lower than his ERA estimators in a given season, but, as it turns out, it can’t tell us whether he’ll be able to do so the next season. I spent some time last night looking at whether sOPS+ in year one correlated well with the gap between ERA and SIERA in year two. The answer is no. While the correlation was stronger than it was between ISO allowed (another weak contact indicator) and the ERA-SIERA gap, it was still far too small to be meaningful.

It’s obvious that things like sOPS+ and ISO allowed don’t stabilize quickly. And that should not come as a surprise given that we know certain batted ball data takes a long time to stabilize. That doesn’t mean it’s not a skill. It simply means you can’t look at any pitcher’s sOPS+ or ISO allowed in the offseason and rely on it too much in projecting them for the next season. But when I say you can’t look at “any” pitcher, I mean you can’t just look at any old pitcher. I do think there are some you can look at.

As I noted on Monday, we’ve seen guys like Johnny Cueto and Matt Cain post elite numbers in these “weak contact” stats, and they managed to do so for many consecutive seasons. I went back and tested the correlation between sOPS+ in year one to the ERA-SIERA gap in year two for only the pitchers with an sOPS+ one standard deviation above the mean or more, and the correlation was about 3.5 times as strong. It still wasn’t strong enough to call anything predictive. But I think we can look at the elite sOPS+ guys and assume they have a better chance of displaying that “skill” in the future. That said, let’s take a look at this year’s elite “weak contact” starters.

Garrett Richards -0.64 0.258 41
Adam Wainwright -1.15 0.267 45
Johnny Cueto -1.03 0.225 58
Matt Garza -0.57 0.255 66
Felix Hernandez -0.41 0.261 67
Kyle Gibson -0.32 0.271 67
Alfredo Simon -0.91 0.254 67
Tanner Roark -0.88 0.269 69
Jordan Zimmermann -0.30 0.314 70
Chris Young -2.15 0.226 72
Sonny Gray -0.61 0.283 74
Scott Kazmir -0.70 0.269 75
Ryan Vogelsong -0.17 0.305 76
Roberto Hernandez -0.92 0.249 77

These are the 15 qualified starters with an sOPS+ that is one or more standard deviations above the mean. Unsurprisingly, all 15 have an ERA that is outperforming their SIERA. Only two have a BABIP that is above league average, and seven have a BABIP that is lower than the generally accepted “normal” range of .270-.310. If these pitchers are able to carry over the weak contact skill to next year, as the evidence suggests they’re more likely to do, they will be better able to stave off regression in terms of run prevention even if their BABIP normailzes. More hits don’t hurt so much as long as they aren’t giving up more quality hits.

In terms of the individual names, much has been written here lately about the man atop the list, Garrett Richards. Blengino detailed how elite Richards has been at limiting hard contact this season. It’s nice to see sOPS+ match up Tony’s HITf/x data. And then Jeff Sullivan followed up and detailed exactly how Richards has been able to limit hard contact. Long story short, Richards has been fantastic this year thanks to a new found ability to manage contact. Based on how well he has done that, I would argue he’s much more likely to continue doing so than others.

Moving down the list we see other elite names like Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright and our old weak contact friend, Johnny Cueto.  No need to convince you they’re good. But there are some more interesting names towards the top of this list. Matt Garza was working on the best ERA of his career prior to hitting the DL, and this is an explanation of how he was able to do that despite a drop in his strikeout rate. If the Brewers do get him back in the rotation in the next couple of weeks, he’s worth adding if he was dropped in your league.

Kyle Gibson? Kyle Gibson. Limiting hard contact is essential if you’re going to get your ERA under 4.00 with the second worst strikeout rate among pitchers with 130+ IP, and that’s what Gibson has done. Eno recently noted that Gibson has good secondary stuff but can’t seem to get enough whiffs because he throws his fastball too much. However, Eno also noted his fastball usage has been on the decline and two of his three best strikeout games came recently in outings where he used his fastball less. If there is upside in the strikeout department with the ability to manage contact, Gibson could be a nice pickup. He’s owned in less than 10% of ESPN.com leagues.

So that’s how Alfredo Simon was doing it. Simon is similar to Gibson in that he’s keeping his ERA well below his ERA estimators despite having a miniscule strikeout rate. You could look at his recent performance and think he’s crashing back to reality after his ridiculous first month of the season, but he was really strong in June and July after struggling a bit in May. Any argument concerning his recent performance would be focused on three August starts, one of which was in Coors and one of which was against Cleveland, the second best team in the league against right-handed pitching.

After that we see a couple of Washington pitchers who are universally owned along with a couple studs and some other interesting names. But the further we move down the list, the less confident I am that these pitchers will be able to repeat this “skill.” Next week I’ll take a look at the guys on the other end of the spectrum.

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You can find more of Brett's work on TheFantasyFix.com or follow him on Twitter @TheRealTAL.

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Ryan Brock

So does this mean we could use some combo of sOPS+ and SIERA-ERA to evaluate what pitchers have been good due to getting weak contact vs. which pitchers have gotten lucky due to sequence of events? It wouldn’t be predictive, but it could be highly useful in the early part of the season in fantasy leagues when trying to evaluate whether or not to pick up guys like Garret Richards, Alfredo Simon, Tanner Roark, etc.