One of the stories of the 2016 Chicago Cubs season – among many, many wonderful stories – is the emergence of a crew of pitchers who, while also being good in the ways the modern, analytical school of thought tells us they’re good, are also simply good at, like, not getting smacked around.
In recent years, it’s been one of those things that we know exists – some pitchers, setting aside strikeouts and walks, are harder to put good wood on – but quantifying it in a way that stands up to scrutiny has been tough. Fortunately, with increasingly available public data and in-park collection methods, it’s becoming a little easier to discern whether a pitcher is simply benefiting from a great defense, or if he’s helping them as much as they’re helping him.
Even still, I want to caution that the various quality of contact metrics available to us these days are not perfect. There’s still a fair bit of necessary subjectivity embedded in the data for now, and we also don’t quite yet know how much “noise” there is in a given sample of data (i.e., even if a guy is giving up a ton of hard contact, how much of that is attributable to his ability, and how much is just a fluke?).
But when you can evaluate guys on the type of contact they’re giving up, as well as the strength of contact, that can help provide a little more support for any conclusions you might draw about an ERA that is lower than you’d otherwise expect from the peripheral statistics.
That goes double when there are multiple sources out there evaluating contact.
For example, we can look at FanGraphs’ soft contact leaderboard and find that Kyle Hendricks is pacing the field, and Jake Arrieta comes in at number nine. We also see that those two are three and four, respectively, in the least amount of hard contact given up. And Jon Lester shows up on that list, too, at number 11. (Lester is 37th on the soft contact list, which is still better than average.)
Mark Simon just sent out the latest hard hit data from ESPN – a different source than what FanGraphs uses – and you’ll see familiar names:
Which pitchers yield hard contact least often? Rich Hill leads the way. Check out rest of the leaderboard pic.twitter.com/X2PlmAPh3D
— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) September 12, 2016
Given that the names there at three, six, and seven, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Hendricks, Arrieta, and Lester are legitimately good (this year, at least) at containing hard contact. To the extent you’re willing to give them credit for that as a skill (I am), then you would also say that their ERA’s, which outperform the fielding-independent statistics, are not just the product of a killer defense (though that undoubtedly helps). Some of it is because they are not getting hit as hard as other pitchers, which yields less damage.
And, hey, by the way – how about number nine on that list? That’s Cubs sixth starter Mike Montgomery, on whom the FanGraphs data would agree; Montgomery’s 25.5% hard hit rate this year matches Arrieta’s, which would be fourth best in baseball if he had enough innings to qualify. That’s certainly interesting, isn’t it? (Montgomery’s soft contact rate at FanGraphs is slightly below league average, for what it’s worth.)
The Cubs have yet to announce when Montgomery’s next start will be, but he’s likely to get a couple before the season is up, if not more. And from there, he’ll be a candidate for the Cubs’ rotation in 2017. If Montgomery’s got a legit ability to limit hard contact, that could give him a leg up that we might not otherwise be able to see in his peripheral statistics from this year’s kinda-sorta tryout.