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Not all contact is created equal

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New statistics, such as measures Mets GM Sandy Alderson uses, are emerging into the mainstream that will change the way we evaluate players

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Over the years of following baseball, new statistics have emerged that changed the way we viewed the game. Pitcher wins and RBIs were once valued statistics, but we’ve come to learn over time that those statistics are not good ways of measuring the skill level of a specific player.

New data is emerging in the mainstream recently measuring the quality of contact generated by hitters. The statistic is called hard hit rate, and it is provided a video tracking service to MLB teams such as the Yankees. The statistic is subjectively determined by a video review team using measures like exit velocity, trajectory and contact on the sweet spot of the barrel. ESPN’s Mark Simon popularized this statistic on twitter this year. I write about this statistic a lot because I foresee it becoming a big part of fantasy baseball in the future.

I remember listening to an interview a few years ago with the outstanding former Baseball Prospectus writer Jason Parks, who is currently working in the scouting department for the Chicago Cubs, and he said something that really stuck with me. He talked about how professional talent evaluators inside baseball evaluate hitters based on measures similar to this stat; hitters will often get down on themselves when they hit the ball hard and it gets caught, but they shouldn't because quality of contact is exactly what progressive front offices are evaluating them on. The player evaluators are less concerned with the numbers on the stat sheet and more concerned with the process. If this is how the highly paid front offices are evaluating players, it makes sense that fantasy owners ought to start using a similar method of player evaluation.

One recent example of this is Sandy Alderson’s front office with the New York Mets. Alderson decided to keep Lucas Duda over Ike Davis based largely on measures such as exit velocity off the bat. Newsday's Marc Carig, one of the best beatwriters in the sport, wrote:

Based on those same measures, Duda has ranked among the best in the game when it comes to the velocity of the ball off his bat, known as "exit speed."

That evidence proved compelling enough for the Mets to defy convention.

Ike Davis once hit 32 homers in a single season. And despite his recent struggles, some within the organization were hesitant to cut ties with him, a nod to his track record.

Duda, on the other hand, has never hit more than 15 homers in a season.

Yet it was Davis who was traded to the Pirates.

For the Mets, exit speed is a critical measure because well-struck balls are more likely to turn into hits.

"The harder a ball is hit, the more likely it is to be hit on the line, [to go] for distance," Alderson said. "It's just a more granular measurement of the process rather than the result."

The Mets noticed the trend playing itself out last season, when Alderson said Duda finished "in the upper echelon" of big-league hitters.

According to the team's internal metrics, the number of Duda's batted balls above 100 mph was more than double the league average. It was enough to make him second among National League first basemen in exit speed, behind only the Reds' Joey Votto.

Alderson was less concerned with the traditional numbers on the stat sheet and more concerned with the process at the plate, or the type of contact the hitter was generating. This is the way I think the baseball public, including fantasy baseball, needs to go, too.

The decision by Alderson to keep Duda and trade Davis turned out to be a fantastic move. Duda had a breakout season, compiling a 136 wRC+ with 30 HR, while Davis produced a significantly lower wRC+ of 108 with only 11 HR.

Pitching and quality of contact

If hitting the ball hard is a good thing for hitters, it makes sense that giving up hard contact is a bad thing for pitchers.

This is why I suspect that the theory that pitchers have little control over balls in play is off base. Inside Edge has published data that supports the idea that pitchers do indeed have some control over the results on balls in play:

Batting average by batted ball type:

Hard: around .700

Medium: around .400

Soft: around .140-.150

% of _ that are hard hit:

Home runs: about 100%

Triples: over 80%

Doubles: over 70%

Singles: about 30%

Outs: about 7%

According to that data, pitchers who give up a greater degree of softer contact will have better results than pitchers who give up a greater degree of harder contact. That is why it is important to consider quality of contact when using FIP and xFIP.

Pitchers can control the quality of contact against them by throwing pitches with a lot of movement, by locating their pitches well, and by remaining unpredictable. Conversely, pitchers who throw flat pitches, locate their pitches poorly and remain predictable will give up a larger amount of harder contact.