2020 Review: Hitter Z-Contact% Improvers

Let’s move along in our 2020 review of underlying skill metrics to the plate discipline rates. While the shortened season makes it difficult to evaluate many metrics, and especially counting stats, plate discipline rates don’t take as long to reach a reasonable sample size because it uses a pitch-based denominator which ends up as a larger number than most other rate denominators. From 2015 through 2019, Z-Contact% had a correlation coefficient with K% of about -0.82 when requiring a minimum of only 100 plate appearances. That’s pretty darn strong! So let’s review and discuss the Z-Contact% improvers versus 2019, that recorded at least 100 plate appearances in each season.

Z-Contact% Improvers
Name 2019 K% 2020 K% K% Diff 2019 Z-Contact% 2020 Z-Contact% Z-Contact% Diff
Bo Bichette 23.6% 21.1% -2.5% 81.1% 91.5% 10.4%
Austin Riley 36.4% 23.8% -12.6% 73.7% 83.3% 9.6%
Raimel Tapia 22.4% 18.4% -4.0% 81.2% 89.9% 8.7%
Rowdy Tellez 28.4% 15.7% -12.7% 81.1% 89.3% 8.2%
Jesus Aguilar 22.0% 18.5% -3.5% 82.7% 90.5% 7.8%
Evan Longoria 22.0% 18.7% -3.3% 82.9% 90.6% 7.7%
Wil Myers 34.3% 25.7% -8.6% 77.6% 85.2% 7.6%
Eric Hosmer 24.4% 17.9% -6.5% 84.9% 91.8% 6.9%
Giovanny Urshela 18.3% 14.4% -3.9% 84.6% 91.4% 6.8%
Luis Rengifo 22.9% 24.5% 1.6% 82.5% 89.3% 6.8%
Jackie Bradley Jr. 27.3% 22.1% -5.2% 76.4% 82.4% 6.0%

Of the 11 hitters that improved their Z-Contact% by at least six percent, 10 of them also enjoyed a significant improvement in strikeout rate. Only one suffered an increased strikeout rate, but it was by a marginal amount, less than two percent.

Young future star Bo Bichette was the league’s biggest improver and only hitter to increase his Z-Contact% by double digits. Surprisingly, his strikeout rate improvement was actually the worst of the improvers. With his combination of power and speed, he’s going to be a fantasy darling for years to come. However, he could help himself if he upped his walk rate, which would result in more times on base, leading to more stolen base opportunities and chances to score runs. It would also allow him to remain atop the lineup to maximize his times to the plate, as opposed to be dropped in the order to a run producing role where he loses 50+ plate appearances.

This was a much needed improvement for Austin Riley, who wasn’t going to last as a regular with his plate discipline metrics from 2019. Interestingly, he vastly improved his plate discipline metrics, but because his power output declined, he wound up with an identical wOBA to 2019. This version of Riley is probably the more promising one for future production though, so it’s good to see this change, especially given how massive the decline in strikeout rate was.

Raimel Tapia was a mostly full-time player and although his power completely disappeared, he ended up posting a career best wOBA, as his strikeout fell below 20% for the first time, which paired with an insane .392 BABIP. Tapia was a singles hitting dynamo, which worked out okay enough this time, but you can’t expect a .392 BABIP every year! If he ever enters the season with a guaranteed full-time job, he’s worth monitoring because he’s still showing a willingness to steal bases.

After a strong small sample size breakout, Rowdy Tellez is going to appear on lots of sleeper lists this offseason. His huge increase in Z-Contact% led to his strikeout rate nearly being halved, which is quite an accomplishment. He did post strikeout rates in the mid-to-high teens during the majority of his minor league career, so it’s not like this came out of nowhere. As a burly left-handed hitter prone to grounding into the shift, his BABIP is always going to be at risk, meaning his strikeout rate is going to determine whether his batting average is decent (2020) or kills you (2019).

I really, really wanted to buy into a Jesus Aguilar rebound, but failed to do so. While he did rebound somewhat in a real baseball sense, he was still pretty much replacement level in shallow mixed leagues, as the power requirement at the corner slot is high. I’m not sure what happened to his power as he isn’t so old to think it’s legitimately in decline and his underlying metrics supported his 20%+ HR/FB rates in 2017 and 2018. Perhaps those skills will resurface again in the next couple of years, and he’ll certainly be cheap enough to speculate.

Incredibly, this is the highest Z-Contact% of Evan Longoria’s career, though I’m sure he’s posted a mark this high over various 209 plate appearance spans in the past. He hasn’t been on the shallow mixed league radar in years, but his skills remain stable, so he appears to still have something left in the tank for deep mixed and NL-only leaguers. Obviously, he’s as boring and seemingly upsideless as it gets, but that simply makes it more likely he comes at a discount, and you still need to buy $15 of value for $10 if you want to win.

After a down 2019, Wil Myers’ Z-Contact% rebounded back to about his career average. So this isn’t so much improvement as it is simply getting back to where he had been. Whatever happened in 2019 that caused his contact ability to decline now looks to have been the fluke, rather than the beginning of a major decline. While both his HR/FB rate and ISO reached career best heights, he swiped just two bases in three attempts. Previously, his strong fantasy appeal was due to his power and speed contributions. If he’s now just down to power contributions, it makes him harder to stand out from the pack. His .288 average from this season aside, he’s now just another of many 25+ homer guys with forgettable batting averages.

Eric Hosmer has appeared on several of my 2020 review lists, so add yet another where his name shows up. After a two year dip in Z-Contact% and strikeout rates over 20%, Hosmer rebounded back to where he had been before. That said, this was still a career best Z-Contact%, though like I said in Longoria’s blurb, I’m sure he’s done this over 156 plate appearances before. Everything looks good here for Hosmer and he even swiped four bases, after stealing none in 2019. No one enters a draft hoping to roster Hosmer, but leaving yours with him is looking better now than it has in many years.

I salivate over hitters with both power and a low strikeout rate and Giovanny Urshela did both this year with his Z-Contact% and strikeout rate improvements. While he didn’t quite show the power from his 2019 breakout, this was a very solid follow-up and definitely confirms that he has established a new baseline. With a walk rate that nearly doubled as well, this was a really nice growth year. You would be forgiven if you thought Urshela was still a young somewhat recent prospect, but he’s actually going to be entering his age 29 season next year. So I don’t think there’s another step we haven’t seen yet, but this is definitely more offense than I think many ever expected from him.

Luis Rengifo is the only hitter on this list that actually saw his strikeout rate rise, despite a significant improvement in Z-Contact%. It looks like two things may have driven that — a decline in Z-Swing%, meaning he was taking more called strikes, and a drop in O-Contact%, so he was making less contact of pitches outside the zone. Both of those factors worked to offset the improvement in Z-Contact%.

Once again, Jackie Bradley Jr. got off to a slow start, posting a .268 wOBA with 0 homers through August 21. It wasn’t until the next day that he hit his first home run. So he was probably dropped in the majority of shallower leagues, which means that his former owners missed all the good he provided over the rest of the season (7 homers, .314 average, .403 wOBA). Bradley’s Z-Contact% has reached this level before, back during his first two seasons in 2013 and 2014, and then again in 2016, but he was coming off his worst career mark last year. Bradley is a tough own because he’s not far above replacement level even when things are going well, so whenever he slumps, it’s fair to question whether he’s done stealing bases or he’s going to hit .220 all year. And of course, as soon as you give up no him, he goes on an extended hot streak!

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Joe Wilkeymember
2 years ago

Bichette’s K% probably didn’t go down very much because he swung at EVERYTHING. His O-Contact% dropped 4 points while his O-Swing% rose 7 points. He swung at 50% more pitches out of the zone than league average. Not going to have a very good walk rate or a significantly improved strikeout rate with that approach.

I have yet to figure out what is going on with Myers. His numbers all point to average-ish to above average K% and BB%, but he’s been below average the last couple of years. Something to dig deeper on, I guess.

Not sure I’m relying on a plus walk rate from Urshela going forward, with an 82%+ contact rate and a 30%+ O-Swing rate, a 10% walk rate isn’t sustainable, probably looking at more in the league average range.

Joe Wilkeymember
2 years ago
Reply to  Joe Wilkey

And by league average, I mean somewhat below league average.