Roark and Hendricks: Kings of Contact Management

If you follow me on Twitter, you know how this ends. Statistically speaking, though, you probably don’t follow on me Twitter, so you probably don’t know how this ends. Then again, maybe you really do know how this ends, because when you clicked this link, you probably had to read the title first. Or maybe you didn’t! Honestly, I don’t want to pigeonhole you. Maybe you’re the kind of person who clicks links all willy nilly with zero regard for content. I’m sure SEO folks love you but also lose their minds trying to understand you.

No matter. Let’s pretend you didn’t read the title. Now you’re presented with blind résumés. Can you guess who Players A and B are?

Blind Résumés
Name IP GS W K/9 BB/9 GB% PU%* Soft% Med% Hard% xFIP WAR
Player A 104.2 17 8 7.65 2.49 52.2% 3.5% 25.8% 51.0% 23.3% 3.86 2.2
Player B 124.2 19 9 7.65 2.60 52.5% 1.1% 26.5% 50.0% 23.5% 3.67 2.7
*pop-up rate (PU%) = FB% * IFFB%

Did you have to cheat? It may actually be more difficult than you thought. You know the names already, but perhaps you got them out of order: Kyle Hendricks is Player A and Tanner Roark is Player B. But look at that! Hendricks and Roark are almost perfectly identical within every metric. Roark even edges Hendricks in xFIP, innings per start, and WAR per start. It’s kind of a big deal, given Hendricks is owned in more Yahoo! leagues than Roark (85% to 78%).

It’s less of a big deal than I thought it’d be, though. I didn’t realize Roark ranked 22nd among all pitchers on ESPN’s Player Rater (Hendricks is 16th). Given the lack of attention he has received this season, I’d say Roark’s performance has largely flown under the radar. And so has Hendricks’, for that matter. (The two are very underrated — Hendricks is only the 55th-most-owned starting pitcher in Yahoo! leagues; Roark, 69th-most-owned.) Hendricks finds his edge in inducing pop-ups more frequently, further benefiting his batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Aside from that, the only thing that separates Hendricks and Roark is 50 points of BABIP — enough to account for 40 points of ERA and 15 points of WHIP. It’s a big gap, mind you, but it’s only skin deep.

So, maybe this is a post about Roark and Hendricks. Because the two share something in common: per this author’s judgment, they lead the league in contact management (by Soft% or Hard%) for qualified starting pitchers. (Neil Weinberg highlighted Hendricks’ proficiencies in a slightly different light in early June.)

It’s the kind of skill that xFIP underrates because it does not incorporate in-play base hits (aka non-home runs), thereby ignoring BABIP. And pitchers who excel at contact management — think Jake Arrieta — tend to post better-than-average BABIPs that help suppress their outcome ratios (ERA, WHIP). It’s a skill that’s hard to appreciate, but it doesn’t necessarily go unnoticed.

In fact, the fantasy community was, as Strong sad might say, all upons a young lad named Sonny Gray the last two years. For sake of comparison, I created a new version of the first table that includes his 2015 season:

Blind Résumés II
Name Year K/9 BB/9 GB% PU%* Soft% Med% Hard% xFIP
Kyle Hendricks 2016 7.65 2.49 52.2% 3.5% 25.8% 51.0% 23.3% 3.86
Tanner Roark 2016 7.65 2.60 52.5% 1.1% 26.5% 50.0% 23.5% 3.67
Sonny Gray 2015 7.31 2.55 52.7% 2.5% 18.3% 56.6% 25.1% 3.69
*pop-up rate (PU%) = FB% * IFFB%

Again, I could have omitted all their names and I still think even the most discerning fantasy analyst’s eye could not tease apart the three of them without more context. Gray was drafted 20th overall among starting pitchers in 2015 and 2016, both of which fell within the top 80 players overall. That’s a big deal.

Only issue here might be the obvious: Gray has disintegrated spectacularly in 2016, pitching the tune of a 4.30 xFIP and 5.12 ERA. The strikeouts are down, the walks are up. But perhaps most central to today’s theme: the hard contact is way up, ranking in roughly the lower third percentile of qualified starters. That might be the cautionary tale here. Contact management skills can erode, and they can erode overnight.

But it would be unfair to glaze over the fact that Gray’s issues are twofold. He’s simply less effective than he was last year. Assuming he retained whatever skills he lost, there was a chance he could repeat his 2014 and 2015 performances. Fewer swings on bad pitches, more contact in the zone — Gray’s breaking pitches have forsaken him this season.

Moreover, Roark and Hendricks are even better at limiting hard contact than Gray has ever been. They’ve both been better than Arrieta. Stephen Strasburg. Johnny Cueto. Max Scherzer. Corey Kluber. Noah Syndergaard. You get the picture. They’re pacing the league.

Looking into the future, then, one might conjecture that Roark and Hendricks have a better chance than Gray to sustain this kind of elite contact management in the long term. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of evidence that, in a vacuum, Soft% or Hard% correlate strongly with BABIP or with itself year over year, the latter of which bears importance on the sustainability of such skills. Intuitively, though, I think we know that at least the former doesn’t make sense — batted ball success can’t be completely immune to trajectory and exit velocity. At this point, it’s a matter of properly specifying a model, which includes accounting for pitching improvements and declines at a peripheral level (increased velocity, added pitch, etc.).

Until then — and I won’t be the guy to do the modeling, at least not yet — let’s pretend that Roark and Hendricks can do this again. Roark looks like the 3.1-WAR version of himself from 2014 except for the displacement of four-seam fastballs with curve balls, the latter of which is the better ground-ball pitch by a mile. Hendricks looks like the same plus-command dude who delivered the league’s 18th-best xFIP in 2015 yet continues to be underrated even when he has the outcomes to match the underlying performance. Heck, Hendricks is arguably worse than last year. He just has a prettier BABIP and strand rate (LOB%) this time around, is all.

Pitchers who strike out fewer hitters inherently have a smaller margin of error than high-strikeout pitchers. That’s a fundamental tenet of National Socialism fielding independent statistics, and it’s something that Gray and Marcus Stroman have demonstrated — that overvaluing contact management can be a fatal mistake in regard to fantasy drafts.

Thus, it’s wise to not overestimate the values of Roark, Hendricks, and pitchers like them when entering the 2017 season. Granted, they’ll likely be underrated anyway, just because they don’t have flashy, top-prospect tags attached to them. Funny how cognitive biases color our perspectives.

Anyway — honestly, I don’t know where this was meant to go. It’s mostly a reflection on player valuation, both contemporaneous and anticipated, for a certain breed of pitcher. There’s probably a happy medium between how we once valued Gray and Stroman and how we currently value Roark and Hendricks. Somewhere in the mid-40s among starting pitchers seems reasonable.

The latter two do have a slight edge over the former two, though: hitters pull balls in play less often against them — pulled batted balls correlate positively with power — and Hendricks induces the most impressive pop-up rate of the lot. The risks are shared, but in this author’s opinion, these two are a little bit safer in the long run. We’ll see how the ADP plays out next year, though.

In the meantime, don’t be afraid to buy shares of Hendricks and Roark with overvalued name-brand dudes who are underperforming or are simply mediocre. Outside of Hendricks’ BABIP, which should, but may not, regress toward something a little more reasonable, these two are legitimate contributors in standard mixed leagues, not sell-high candidates. Treat them accordingly.

Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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