Toughest and easiest pitchers to hit hard

There is an endless debate in baseball about whether creating weak contact is a pitcher skill or if the pitcher is just a bystander when it comes to what the batter does with his offerings. Complicating things, we’re told, is that hard-hit rates take long to stabilize. Line drives are 650 balls in play, slugging 550 at bats and isolated slugging 630 at bats, according to Fangraphs.

But we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s almost June. We need to make calls. Even if the well-hit rates now that we get from video scouts at MLB-stat provider Inside Edge are only 25% skill and 75% luck, it’s still meaningful data. We should at least know the pitchers who currently for whatever reason are limiting hard contact. And the more extreme this number is relative to the league average, the more likely it is to be due to pitcher’s skill. While Fangraph’s numbers are general guidelines, remember that there is not only the size of the sample but its weight.

Back in March, we said here that Lance McCullers could win the Cy Young if he could stay healthy. The latter is still in question but the former is beyond debate — his stuff is that good. Thus far in 2017, McCullers has a .080 well-hit rate (of at bats, including strikeouts) about half the MLB average of .151. I get questions all the time about what to do with McCullers. He could breakdown. But he’s worth that risk because if he stays healthy, he will be a prime championship asset.

Next up after McCullers is Michael Fulmer at .105. There is some divergence always between Fulmer’s ERA and his Ks and BBs but this explains that he at least misses the sweet-spot of the bat, if not the bat entirely. And he throws very hard, too.

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Chris Sale unsurprisingly is .106, nothing to say about him. He’s kicking the crap out of The Green Monster. Sale is followed by Jason Vargas (.115), Tyler Chatwood (.116), Andrew Triggs (.116), Tanner Roark (.117), Dallas Keuchel (.120) and Carlos Martinez (.120). Notice that there is far less variance from average with the pitching statistics here in well-hit than there are with the hitters. That’s because hitters do control most outcomes on average (about 60%). But the definition of pitching excellence is regaining more of that measure of control. These pitchers seem to do that when it comes to limiting contact.

I could not trade Roark in the 15-team Friends and Family format. I get that he is not strikeout dominant (he is underrated here though). But he is going to eat innings and those innings are likely to be ERA friendly — more so than presently (3.86). I expect Roark to have an ERA of about 3.10 the rest of the year.

Chatwood is owned in just 13% of leagues but I can’t tolerate Colorado. Triggs is probably for real, given most question that. The same goes for Vargas.

If you want someone good in the stat who is widely unowned and in a good pitching environment, the first name that comes up is Robert Gsellman (.124, 12th), on just 7% of Yahoo rosters. Note the Mets are for some reason reportedly ready to demote Gsellman to the bullpen despite two straight good starts with Monday’s being outstanding.

On the other end of the spectrum, the trailers are Matt Harvey (fifth-worst of 102 .212). He’s followed by Johnny Cueto (.203), Gerrit Cole (.194) and two guys coming on of late: Robbie Ray (.194, 12th worst) and Trevor Bauer (.189, 14th worst).

Harvey requires a leap of faith. Is he capable of regaining the feel of his off-speed pitches now that the calendar says he should be fully recovered from his thoracic outlet injury that deprived him of feeling in his fingers? This is the wager. Harvey’s velocity has been good all year and his performance rose to that level finally in his last start. But you’ll probably have to trade for Harvey despite his terrible performance to date given he’s owned in 80% of leagues. This is that theoretical selling window but I have to give Harvey a month of starts past May given the extent of his 2016 surgery.

Bauer is unowned in 65% of leagues and has been on a strikeout tear the last three starts (22) while limiting walks (5). But he’s still victimized by the long balls and these overall well-hit rates say that’s no fluke. You’re not going to get anything for him but you can for Ray (83% owned). Ray and Bauer are in the same bucket for me. Trade Ray and claim Bauer. Win, win.

Cueto was always an example for controlling well-hit as he has been consistently good at it. So there’s a good chance that this stretch is indeed random. Don’t move him.

I get the feeling that you can trade Cole and a weaker hitter for Roark and a stronger hitter and I put Roark and Cole right now in the same bucket. I’m always up for selling Cole and there’s always a market for him.