One of my favorite statistics is Well Hit Average (WHAV) because it seems to be the next step in understanding the nexus between luck and skill that has challenged us for so long. Unfortunately for the entire world, it's not publicly available and we have to get by with weekly snippets from Mark Simon over at ESPN Stats and Info. Normally, Simon provides the leaderboard for hitters which is plenty interesting, but at my request this week he sent out a tweet with the Well Hit Average Against leaders and it was predictably enthralling.
By request from @neilweinberg -- pitchers who give up lowest rate of "hard-hit balls" per AB pic.twitter.com/dMi6kervPc— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) August 20, 2013
*Note that Simon made a typo in my Twitter handle. If you're looking for me, @NeilWeinberg44 is the correct one
Generally speaking, we'd likely think that pitchers who induce fewer hard hit balls will be better than those who allow more. About 17% of all at bats end in hard hit balls, meaning that walks are separated out of the sample along with sacrifices, and weird things like catcher interference. That said, a pitcher who doesn't walk a ton of batters and has a low WHAV against should have a lot of success. It shouldn't really matter if a pitcher strikes out a ton of batters or if he gets fewer whiffs and fewer hard hit batted balls. There will be variation in outcomes, but not letting the other guy smoke the ball should be a positive quality no matter how you do it.
And if you scan the top 40 or so players listed in Simon's link, that idea holds water. National League starters tend to rank higher for obvious reasons, but on balance the top guys are the guys we think are the best in the game. Clayton Kershaw and Matt Harvey are first and second. Tim Hudson and Justin Masterson induce weak contact with their sinker. Names like Bumgarner, Strasburg, Sale, and Scherzer are all in the top 15. It's not perfect, but the top guys in WHAV are generally above average to great starters.
But there is one name that I can't get over. It doesn't really make much sense. Right there at number six, Kyle Kendrick. What?
Don't get me wrong, Kendrick is a nice number six starter and serviceable as a number five. He's having his best season by fWAR, but it's only 1.6 with fewer than 40 games left to play. He has a career 4.31 ERA and 4.67 FIP, all in the NL. He's fine, but he's not a star. If he was 35th on this list, I wouldn't really notice. But he's sixth.
Here's a random sampling of players who allow more hard hit balls than Kendrick. Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Adam Wainwright, David Price, and Felix Hernandez. And they all have much better strikeout rates. Which makes Kendrick's number pop even more because strikeouts are, by definition, not well hit balls. Kendrick is better than those guys before you factor out the strikeouts, meaning that his WHAV/Balls in Play is that much better than this excellent competition.
What's going on here?
There are a few possible explanations. First, WHAV could be a fluky stat that needs a bigger sample to even out. Because the information isn't public, I can't give you a great response other than to say that most of the guys on this list seem to belong. If WHAV was a statistic that required a large sample, it seems like we'd have other weird names at the top of the list, but that isn't the case.
Another possibility is that the devil is in the distribution. WHAV has three classifications - soft, medium, and hard - meaning that it's a possibility that while Kendrick doesn't allow hard hit balls, he allows a very high number of medium hit balls relative to his competition. If we assume Kershaw allows a 45-45-10 distribution, Kendrick might be looking at 10-78-12. Given that this is a three-pronged classification, it could just be something silly like that.
But let's leave those explanations aside because we're just common folks who don't have access to some of this great data. Let's assume that WHAV is predictive based on the sample we have and that Kendrick doesn't have a funky distribution. Is there something about Kendrick that indicates he might be able to suppress hard hit balls without getting good results?
The first thing you notice is his strikeout rate. You have to drop all the way down to 25th to find someone with a K/9 as low as Kendrick's. There are some who have K/9 in the mid to upper 6's, but only a pair below 6.0 and Kendrick is way ahead of his fellow low strikeout, low WHAV friend.
His slugging percentage against is much higher than others on the list, too. No one else in the top 14 has a SLG above .400. We can chalk some of that up to a hitter friendly home park, but this is a ground ball pitcher who doesn't have a homerun problem.
You'll also notice he has a pretty high batting average against compared to his company on the list, which makes sense. He would have to or this would get confusing. It's already confusing. Let's summarize what we know.
Most pitchers who have low WHAV against have a lot of success. Most pitchers who have low WHAV have high strikeout rates. Kyle Kendrick doesn't really belong with this group based on just about everything he does. We have a sense that his sinker is responsible. He has a pretty high GB% and he relies on that pitch quite a bit, but the guys on this list who throw the sinker and get ground balls get better results, even with bad defenses (think Doug Fister).
It's important to note that Kendrick's walk rate is pretty good. He's not putting lots of men on base via the free pass. He's not allowing hard hit balls. But here we are talking about a guy who isn't anywhere close to being an elite starter. My goal here was to highlight how weird this is and I don't have a great answer, but I have an educated guess.
His stuff is so ordinary that it actually gets batters to swing at pitches they should take because they appear easy to hit. Check out the plate discipline numbers:
You can read the table, but allow me to highlight something. League average O-Contact% is about 67%. Kendrick, despite pretty typical numbers everywhere else, allows an 81% O-Contact%. Batters swing at his pitches outside the zone and instead of missing at a normal rate, they make contact. And it's bad contact. (Only Bartolo Colon has a higher O-Contact% among qualifying starters)
Kendrick is benefiting from the excessive hubris of opposing hitters. They think they can hit him even when he leaves the zone. Apparently, they can't. He allows way more contact than the average pitcher but most of that extra contact is out of the zone. And I would imagine out of the zone contact is weaker contact.
Kendrick's WHAV is so low because he's trading what should be walks and strikeouts for weak contact, but weak contact will produce worse results than strikeouts because sometimes weak contact results in hits. Especially with Michael Young and Ryan Howard playing behind you.
If we assume that Kendrick would have an average WHAV if batters were more patient against him, this makes a lot of sense. He's artificially lowering his WHAV against through his inability to get strikeouts. Hitters should take their walks, but can't resist because he looks so easy to hit.
It turns out, when he leaves the zone, that isn't exactly the case.
. . .
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Neil Weinberg is a Staff Writer at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.
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