Contact Rate and Player Production

There are a ton of sabermetric stats out there to process in today’s game. Everyone has his own fancy metric that he follows for a batter’s value, whether it’s wOBA, BPV, or WAR. However, I rarely look at just one number, because as is the case with the three examples, they’re composites. When making rankings or deciding on trades and keepers, I like to know the whole story of a player, or at least as much of the story as I can access. It’s important to avoid ignoring a potential red flag simply because the rest of the picture looks good. Granted that most players have at least some minor inherent risk, but when the risk moves from minor to moderate, you need to knock the player’s value down a few pegs, even if past value indicates he’s a star.

This preseason, I was decided to buy high on guys with low contact rates. I figured that with the rising K/9 of pitchers (which means rising K% of hitters) and the dropping league BA, I could ignore the red flag of a bad contact rate. Even if the guy swings and misses a lot, if he can hit 30+ HR or provide 20/20 value, I figured I could accept the risk in BA, which seemed to be the most obvious result of a bad contact rate (ct%). Yes, it’s possible that a bad ct% will really only affect a batter’s BA when it comes to standard 5×5. However, horrible ct% can impact a player in other ways — such as losing playing time due to the very visible swing-and-miss tendencies. The most recent example of this is Joc Pederson, whose horrible second half has led to him losing the starting role. Other examples of bad ct% contributing to awful seasons include two players that I kept this offseason: Ian Desmond and Chris Carter.

Top 2015 Performances vs. Contact Rate

First I’m going to start with a look at top valued batters in 2015 and how many have ct% well below the league average, which usually hovers around 78-79%. I’m willing to ignore a few points below the average, but when you start dipping below 74%, it’s time to take notice. I took the top-50 hitters in runs above replacement (RAR), and then I looked for ct% below 74%. In that top-50, there were two batters with a ct% of 74%, one batter at 73% (Trout), and then four batters below 70%. In the grand scheme of things, Trout making my “bad ct%” cutoff of below 74% was just barely, at 73%, and he could likely be excluded given the others are much lower, below 70%. Therefore, here are the remaining four batters in order of lowest ct%.

Player Name RAR rank Contact% 5×5 stats
Chris Davis #40 63% .255/72/35/89/2
Kris Bryant #27 64% .262/70/20/75/12
Giancarlo Stanton #41 66% .265/47/27/67/4
JD Martinez #12 69% .288/74/33/84/2

Yes, I know anyone would be happy to have these players on his team this year. They’re top-50 in RAR for a reason. Davis and Martinez are in the top-15 batters by CBS’s 5×5 ranks. Stanton has missed significant time but still ranks as the #47 batter this year. Bryant is #28. That’s all well and good.

The glaring issue to me is that out of the top-50 batters in RAR, only 4 of 50, or 8% of them, have horrible contact skills. It’s possible to do well with a bad ct%, but it’s clearly a harder task than if you have even an average ct%.

Let’s look at the top-50 wOBA hitters now. I’m going to use 73% contact or lower. Once again, Granderson barely misses the cutoff at 73%, and the rest are below 70%. If I throw him out like I did Trout in the RAR rankings, that leaves me with 3 batters in the top-50 for wOBA who have an awful ct%, below 70%.

Player Name wOBA Rank Contact% 5×5 Stats
Kris Bryant #25 64% .262/70/20/75/12
Joc Pederson #47 64% .214/58/23/47/3
Lucas Duda #41 69% .247/57/21/56/0

Do the math, folks: 3 batters out of 50 means 6% made the list with this deficiency. It is possible to be a strong player with a very bad ct%, but I’d rather gamble on players with league average contact or better. In the long run, you’re much safer that way. Now, let’s look at my two keepers plus some names on the RAR and wOBA rankings.

Spotlight on Bad Contact Rates

Kris Bryant has the dubious honor of making the top-50 lists of both RAR and wOBA. The good news is that he is a top-50 guy this season. The bad news is that he’s in a very tiny minority when it comes to producing with a dangerously low ct%. He has a generally good eye due to his 13% walk rate. He has a high BABIP that doesn’t seem sustainable given his unimpressive LD%, and it shows in his half-season splits. His first half featured a very high BABIP and a .275 BA, but when his BABIP came down in July, his .243 BA in the second half matches the decline. His minor league equivalents predicted the low contact rate at the MLB level. I’m worried that the mirage of his BA not being affected by a low ct% will disappear in the long-term. That being said, he seems capable of repeating everything from his rookie campaign except the BA, so a potential 25/15 third baseman will have value.

As I said earlier, Joc Pederson has struggled mightily in contact rate all season, but he found a new low in August (59% so far) that prompted the Dodgers to remove him from a full-time role. The sad part is that even though his 2014 numbers were a very small sample, that ct% is in line with what he’s done this year, and so were his major league equivalents (MLEs) in 2014 (61%). The power is obvious, and though he seems capable of stealing bases, it hasn’t yet been part of his MLB game. Like Bryant, he has a rather low LD%, but his BABIP isn’t high — hence the .214 BA. He sports a great walk rate, so OBP leagues aren’t feeling the sting as badly. He swings at fewer pitches than the league average, particularly at pitches outside the zone — he simply swings and misses a lot (14.3% compared to the MLB average of 9.8%). He and Bryant are young and talented enough to adjust, and perhaps some time off and/or facing primary righties for a bit will get Pederson back on track. It goes without saying that they’re still keeper gold.

Now we get to the guys I opted to keep, even if they aren’t in the top-50 ranks. Ian Desmond has been a staple at the top of SS rankings for several years. Even with a dip in BA in 2014, he managed a third consecutive 20/20 campaign. There were some warning signs in 2014, however. His BA dipped, and it wasn’t explained away due to an unlucky BABIP, which was in line with his career level. He suffered a large drop in ct% from 76% in 2013 to 69% in 2014, along with a spike in ground ball rate from 43% to 50%. Fantasy owners could live with a .255 BA as long as he kept up his 20/20 ways, and it was just one facet of his game that only affected BA, so surely he could bounce back. As it turned out, the contact issue remains through 2015, and he’s sitting at 69% for a second year. His GB% has risen even higher to 53%, and his hard hit rate has dropped for four years now despite all the homers. Speaking of homers, his HR/FB is still strong at 16%, but with higher GB% comes a lower FB%. Some of his other negatives (swinging strike rate and swinging out of zone rate both higher than MLB average) aren’t all that different from his career numbers, so the biggest culprit really seems to be his ct% (and GB% because when he is making contact, it’s weaker and in the ground). I am passing on Desmond in all formats in 2016 until I can see his contact rate, GB%, and maybe even his hard hit rate rebound. If you can snag Desmond in, say, the 19th round, then by all means take him. However, I don’t see his ADP falling quite that far based on his 20/20 ability in 2012-14. He’s not worth a top-10 SS investment in 2016.

As for Chris Carter, I was very aware of his bad contact rate, and I didn’t have hopes of it improving. He was what he was, and at least he walked a lot — the high BB% certainly helped me because we used OBP instead of BA. In 2013-14 we drooled over his amazing power in just 500 AB. Like Adam Dunn, most of us could stomach the .220 BA in 2014 when he hit 37 HR with 88 RBI. But a continued horrible ct% has led to a BA well below the Mendoza line, and he’s lost a lot of playing time because of it. There’s some seemingly bad luck in BABIP, but he also has his lowest LD% of the last four years, plus a high FB% further lowers his overall BABIP, so he’s not helping himself. Because he walks a lot, he doesn’t swing out of the zone very much, but his swinging strike rate is well over the league average. The fact is that awful ct% leaves him open to a lot of chance: either he hits a home run or he strikes out. (Or he walks — a classic three true outcomes guy.) But when you strike out a third of your AB, and you don’t make much contact other than homers, and your team is in the playoff hunt, you aren’t going to keep getting full-time AB. He’s a major risk, and I knew that going into 2015, but I hoped he’d at least repeat his 2013-14 levels.

 

I learned my lesson the hard way. Don’t ignore contact rate, and you won’t have to learn the same lesson. It makes sense that the more you put the bat on the ball, the higher your chance of being a successful hitter. Very few swing-and-miss guys can repeat a breakout, and they can collapse at any time. Adam Dunn did it for years, sure, but everyone remembers his horrific 2011 season, and there was no extremely obvious cause that you could point at and say, “Ah-ha! That’s the reason! He’ll be fine next year.” Ian Desmond was a top-3 SS for years, arguably even the #1 SS, and then he fell apart due to a drop in ct% and a spike in GB%. Sell high on your low contact guys doing well, and be sure to avoid them in drafts whenever possible.

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Kevin Jebens
Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.
Kevin Jebens

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