Maybe I'm developing a bit of an obsession over Randal Grichuk. He's not my favorite Cardinal, speaking as a fan. The boring answer to that question is usually Matt Carpenter, Aledmys Diaz, or Stephen Piscotty, depending on my mood. However, as an analyst, I can't stop writing about him. Last time I wrote about Randal I was covering his hot streak after returning from his second demotion to Memphis. Within said article, I made the claim that Randal was probably just the same Randal he's always been, and that we should expect him to be a streaky player because of his large dependence on results on-contact.
I used one method, K-BB%, when Randal had improved his strikeout and walk numbers early on in the year, to show how improved non-contact numbers would make it easier for him to be a more productive overall hitter. Those improved numbers did not continue. However, I wanted a method that quantified his reliance on contact better. As part of an ongoing project to better describe contact quality, I built a method for calculating on-contact wOBA and non-contact wOBA. The purpose there was to replace on-contact wOBA with an expected on-contact wOBA based on the player's statcast-recorded batted ball stats, and see how that changed expectations going forward.
Today though, I just wanted to look at results. First, we'll look at just Cardinals players. I calculated both non-contact wOBA and on-contact wOBA for every Cardinal in 2016 with over 200 PA. Then, I took each player's on-contact wOBA minus their non-contact wOBA to get what I called wOBA differential. The stat is supposed to describe how reliant a player is on their results on contact. Here are the results:
Jeremy Hazelbaker's non-contact issues are well known here, with a 29.4% K% buoyed a bit by a league average-ish 8.3% BB%. But to be honest going forward I wouldn't expect him to place this high, as it would rely on continuing his strong results on contact in the form of a .253 ISO (the projections expect a .154 ISO going forward). He's also posted his numbers in under half the PA that Grichuk has. Brandon Moss is kind of close, but it falls off pretty hard after that. I would have guessed that OBP-monster Greg Garcia would have had the lowest differential, instead that goes to Kolten Wong, thanks to a line of 9.5 BB%, 14.5 K%, .109 ISO, and .266 BABIP.
How does Grichuk do when compared to the rest of the league? Well, he's quite exceptional. Here's the top 10 wOBA differential scores for all hitters with 450 PA or more (Grichuk's exact total) in 2016:
In 2016, Grichuk has been the second most reliant hitter on his results on contact of 162 players. The rest of the top 10 are similar hitters: low-walk, high-strikeout players who do a lot of damage through the air. Some walk at a more respectable rate. Freddie Freeman is the biggest exception, with a decent non-contact wOBA dwarfed by the largest on-contact wOBA of 2016 at this point.
The most interesting part might be Grichuk's consistency with regards to his dependence on contact quality. Let's look at the same thing, but for 2015. Also, we'll have to adjust the plate appearances down to 350 PA in order to include him:
Grichuk was in a tier on his own in 2015, with a 39 point lead on Chris Colabello in 2nd place, about the same lead of second place over Yoenis Cespedes in 8th place. Grichuk had the third best results on contact in 2015, behind only Bryce Harper's outrageous season and Chris Davis. What you'll notice if you look at these two charts long enough is that Randal is the only player that appears on both lists. His non-contact wOBA was nearly the same in both years, but Grichuk had much better results on-contact in 2015.
With Randal taking first place last year and second place so far this year, he very well maybe the hitter most reliant on contact quality in all of Major League Baseball! At the very least, he's second to Miguel Sano, owner of a 36.1% strikeout rate and 11.1% walk rate on the year. So, essentially, Randal's contact quality matters more to his production than almost any other player.
How is that contact quality under the surface? Earlier I mentioned my work with BaseballSavant.com's Statcast data. Currently, the information I've been working with has been the Exit Velocity and Launch Angle of each batted ball. I replace each player's batted ball outcome with the league average outcome at that specific launch angle and exit velocity. In that way, we peel off one layer of variance in a player's results on contact. Here's Grichuk's marks in xBABIP, xHR/HRPBB, and xwOBA on-contact:
As a primer, if you haven't read my post introducing the home run stats used here, HRPBB stands for Home Run Possible Batted Balls, and is any batted ball that is hit at between 18 and 42 degrees, inclusive. The large majority of home runs occur on batted balls within those angles.
Randal's wOBA on-contact has dropped 74 points this year, but his expected wOBA on-contact between the two years differ by just 17 points. His expected home run power is virtually the same, and the expected BABIP's differ by just 12 points, despite a 68 point difference between both years. My xBABIP currently doesn't take into consideration Grichuk's speed (plus) or how often he's shifted against (minus), but in Randal's case, it's probably mostly a wash.
Let's look at Randal's contact quality a little closer with Baseball Savant's angle map for 2016:
Randal has struggled to hit the ball in home run-friendly angles and BABIP-friendly angles, but has made up for it by hitting the ball hard. He doesn't get the ball into the Line Drive angles (10-25 degrees) very often, and he doesn't get into the best angles for homers very often (22-32 degrees) either. He has a lot of balls hit over 30 degrees and without enough velocity to get out of the park. On the other side, his batted balls lower than -10 degrees are also hurting his BABIP.
The plus side is that when he does hit the ball in optimal angles, he's clobbering the ball. Grichuk is hitting everything hard from about -2 to 25 degrees. The lower end of that range has good BABIP potential when you're hitting it hard. The higher end has good homer potential, again, when it's hit hard. The middle of that range tends to be hits even if it's not hit hard. When they are hit hard, they tend to be doubles. That's where Grichuk is making up for all those other poor angle batted balls.
Things look encouraging for Grichuk. Even though his angle profile isn't pretty, the velocity makes up for it. The velocity seems more repeatable than success based on angle. Of course, as a player who thrives on contact quality, Randal will always be streaky. A hitter's floor is defined by their ability to take a walk and avoid strikeouts, so Randal will always look bad when the results on contact aren't there. However, he does have 800 PA in the Statcast era, and the data we have on it suggests that he does indeed have superior contact quality.
Grichuk will probably never beat the 137 wRC+ he posted in 2015, but a slightly above-average hitter who plays center and adds value on the bases is a nice player to have cost controlled for the next four years. That may not sound exciting, but I absolutely love the extreme way in which he makes it work.