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Alex Wood, Andrew Triggs, Jason Vargas and the starters that limit hard contact

Using MLB’s Statcast data, I break down the starting pitchers that have done the best job so far at limiting the damage on contact.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we are one quarter of the way through the baseball season, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at some Statcast data from baseballsavant.com.

I like to dive into the Statcast results regularly throughout the season to identify players whose results might not be matching their skills or whose results are matching their skills, but I have a hard time believing it. This week, I’m focusing on starting pitchers that are limiting hard contact better than the rest. By limiting hitters to weak contact at an elite level, pitchers can overcome poor walk rates, poor strikeout rates, low velocities, and high flyball rates and still succeed.

These types of pitchers are often overlooked because they don’t have flashy stuff or eye-popping stats, but they can get the job done and force hitters into swinging at pitches they don’t really like and can’t square up.

When a hitter does square a ball up and hit it at a high exit velocity and in the optimal launch angle range, Statcast calls it a “barrel”. I like to look at barrels/BBE (batted ball event) and average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives to identify pitchers that excel at minimizing hard contact.

Here’s the first leaderboard. This is the barrels per BBE. I have limited it to just the top 31 (arbitrary cut-off alert!), but we really just care about the top of the top anyway. Note that this data was pulled on Monday evening, so it may not be up to date when you are reading this.

Player Brls/BBE
Alex Wood 1.90%
Jason Vargas 2.20%
Andrew Cashner 2.40%
Brandon McCarthy 2.50%
Andrew Triggs 2.60%
Ervin Santana 3.10%
Jon Lester 3.30%
Jharel Cotton 3.40%
Kyle Hendricks 3.80%
Jimmy Nelson 3.80%
Matt Cain 3.80%
Cole Hamels 4.00%
Jesse Hahn 4.20%
Kyle Freeland 4.30%
Adam Wainwright 4.40%
Wade Miley 4.50%
Blake Snell 4.60%
Scott Feldman 4.70%
Zach Eflin 4.80%
Trevor Cahill 4.90%
Mike Leake 4.90%
Jose Quintana 5.00%
Charlie Morton 5.00%
Clayton Richard 5.10%
Robert Gsellman 5.10%
Tyler Chatwood 5.20%
Jacob deGrom 5.20%
Michael Wacha 5.20%
Tanner Roark 5.20%
Amir Garrett 5.20%
Danny Duffy 5.30%

Here’s the leaderboard for average exit velocity on FB and LD.

Player Avg FB/LD EV (mph)
Jordan Montgomery 88
Brandon McCarthy 88.8
Jake Odorizzi 89
Scott Feldman 89.4
Andrew Cashner 89.7
Michael Wacha 90
Jose Urena 90
Jason Vargas 90
Jimmy Nelson 90.1
Andrew Triggs 90.2
Tanner Roark 90.2
Jhoulys Chacin 90.2
Mike Pelfrey 90.2
Jake Arrieta 90.3
Jon Lester 90.5
Adam Wainwright 90.6
Matt Cain 90.6
Ervin Santana 90.6
Julio Teheran 90.7
Max Scherzer 90.8
Yu Darvish 90.8
Dan Straily 90.8
Jharel Cotton 91.2
Michael Fulmer 91.5
Miguel Gonzalez 91.5
Kenta Maeda 91.5
Cole Hamels 91.5
Jose Quintana 91.6
Tyler Glasnow 91.7
Lance McCullers 91.7
Dylan Bundy 91.7

For those wondering, here are the names on both lists so you don’t have to search:

Jason Vargas, Andrew Cashner, Brandon McCarthy, Andrew Triggs, Ervin Santana, Jon Lester, Jharel Cotton, Jimmy Nelson, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Adam Wainwright, Scott Feldman, Jose Quintana, Michael Wacha, and Tanner Roark.

Now, that group aren’t all dominant aces. In fact, some of them have been just bad this season. For those guys, their contact avoidance skills are just enough to keep them in the big leagues at this point. I’m looking at you Matt Cain, Scott Feldman, Adam Wainwright, Andrew Cashner, Tanner Roark, and Ervin Santana. Welp, that turned out to be most of the list. Yikes. It turns out you do need to limit walks and/or strikeout guys in addition to limiting damage if you want to be a good pitcher.

Of the guys we have left, two are off to unexpectedly good starts in Jason Vargas and Andrew Triggs. If you saw this coming from them, good for you. I was interested in Triggs after his solid debut in 2016, but he has exceed my expectations, despite his recent rough outing against Boston. Vargas is even more out of left field because he is an often injured 34-year-old lefty that throws an 86-mph fastball. He’s reduced his walks this year and taken full advantage of his great home park by allowing lots of flyballs, but making sure to limit them to the harmless variety. There is some validation to what these two are doing.

For those, like me, worried about Jimmy Nelson after a terrible 2016 season, his appearance one these lists should be encouraging. His walk and strikeout rates are decent and he seems to be very good at limiting damage this year. This is a guy that others might be avoiding, but that the Statcast data indicates might be better than everyone thinks.

Quintana, Hamels, and Lester need no discussion. Like Nelson, Wacha had a forgettable 2016, but he has been amazing to start 2017. He has better walk and strikeout numbers than almost everyone on this list and has been limiting hard contact. I hope you bought low in drafts this year and are reaping the rewards. I foolishly stayed away, but he is a much better pitcher this year (e.g. his swinging strike rate is up 1.1%).

Brandon McCarthy is in a crowded Dodgers rotation, but he has been excellent and I see no reasons (other than health and “phantom” DL stints that the Dodgers have been using) to avoid him. He is looking as close to the great 2014 version of himself as he has the past three years.

While Jharel Cotton isn’t in the same league this year as Wacha or McCarthy, I still think he might be a good buy low in deeper leagues (still too much risk for shallow leagues). His walk rate is too high and he has allowed too many homers, but with the contact suppression ability and three pitches with 10+% swinging strike rates (his most common three pitches), there is hope for that unsightly 5.68 ERA to come down into the 3s. I’m not going to guarantee it, but I still think his skills will ultimately bring down his ERA and WHIP.

As for the guys that are only on one list or the other, there are certainly some interesting names. Alex Wood has been quietly great and underrated this season. No, seriously, 10.88 K/9, 2.72 BB/9, 68% GB%, 1.90 FIP, 2.39 xFIP!?!?!? That’s nuts. That’s ace-like. His velocity boost has had a huge impact. Kyle Hendricks continues to limit hard contact, but has a worse defense behind him this year, fewer strikeouts, and more walks, so his results are worse.

Blake Snell walked so many he was sent down, Charlie Morton’s velocity is up, as are his strikeouts, so he’s suddenly mixed league relevant, Trevor Cahill is also suddenly useful, and if Jordan Montgomery would just stop walking everybody, he could be a breakout pitcher.

It’s nice to see some pitchers we already knew were good on these lists. On the exit velocity list, you’ve got Odorizzi, Teheran, Scherzer, Darvish, Fulmer, and McCullers. Plus, Dylan Bundy and his semi-breakout season.

Anyway, those are my rambling, hopefully-semi-coherent thoughts about these lists. Go ahead and poke around for yourself. When paired with strikeouts, limiting walks, and groundballs, hard contact limiting can produce elite results. Even without one or two of those ingredients, a pitcher you might not think could be successful can succeed. Just look at Jason Vargas, Kyle Hendricks in 2016, or Michael Wacha for examples of guys that might have been overlooked based on low velocity fastballs, poor previous results, etc. but whose ability to limit damage pushed them over the top. Tschus!