Three of a Kind: 3 Pitchers You Want Based on Soft Contact% and Z-Contact% Analysis
I used to play poker with a guy from France. This Frenchman was the epitome of “never met a hand he didn’t like” and would often stay in on a deuce-seven off suit. I remember him winning a big hand with similarly terrible cards and asked, “Frenchman, how can you justify staying in on such a terrible hand?”
His response: You can’t win if you’re not in it.
Now, he obviously didn’t win every hand, but more often than not, he’d press his luck and come out on top in the end. It was remarkable and has informed my own poker playing since. Essentially, he’s advocating for taking a calculated risk and finding value with a bad hand. In terms of fantasy, we’re looking for a lot of value in the “bad hands.” To find that value, we need to go a bit beyond raw K numbers and K/9, FIP, and xFIP, and dig a bit deeper.
A metric that is often overlooked – or at least not explored heavily – is a pitcher’s ability to induce weak contact (soft contact %). Equally of interest is a pitcher’s ability to keep contact low on pitches located in the zone (zone contact %). The argument goes that a pitcher who has a high soft contact % (i.e. minimizes hard-hit balls) and a low zone contact % (i.e. minimizes contact on pitches in the zone) would be more likely to induce weak contact even on pitches in the zone. A pitcher like that becomes an interesting target, especially when combined with a K rate metric such as K-BB%. And when you’re in the midst of later rounds and mid-tier pitchers start to resemble each other, being able to differentiate ability is hugely important.
So that’s what I’ve set out to do.
Below, I’ve identified three pitchers all of whom I’d be comfortable taking above ADP. I’ve also included a couple of honorable mentions and a buyer beware just to round out the analysis. Cards are on the table. Let’s flip ‘em.
Adrian Houser has been a sleeper pick for 2020, much like Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes were for 2019 (the former heads the rotation, the latter will start in the bullpen). Woodruff owners were certainly pleased with value to draft cost and we’re hoping for more of the same with Houser.
He’s currently listed as the number 2 in Milwaukee according to Roster Resource so he has the confidence of the front office. With only 111.1 total innings pitched as a starter and reliever, there’s some cause for concern that he’ll hit a cap, but Woodruff logged 120+ last year which would be just fine for what you’ll pay for Houser. Again, looking for late-round value here.
His z-contact % for 2019 sat at 84.6% (ditto for 2018 as well) - Mike Clevinger and Gerrit Cole were at 76.1% and 77.1% respectively for tops in the league. However, what is also exciting about Houser is that he was able to generate weak contact at a 17.8% clip. This favors comparably when looking at top tier arms like Clevinger (19.9%) and Cole (19.6%). Houser’s 17.3% K-BB% doesn’t hurt you either as he logged 117 Ks in those 111.1 innings.
Houser’s current NFBC ADP sits at 102 after guys like Cole Hamels and Jon Gray. With his ability to keep contact weak and low on pitches in the zone, I’d be comfortable taking Houser in the high 85-89 range.
What a difference a trade (then not a trade, then trade again) makes! Kenta Maeda’s cost is already on the move up FantasyPros ECR (risen 9 spots in the past two weeks) and NFBC ADP and this is a hype train I’m boarding. Choo choo.
Maeda is as steady as they come in terms of the value he’s provided with the workload he’s given. Nothing super flashy, but at his current ADP of 76, I’m comfortable taking a safer floor than the upside of guys like Luke Weaver (71) and Sean Manaea (64). Without the rotation shenanigans of the Dodgers, I think Maeda will be given a full workload this year – possibly touching 180-200 IP.
But what’s he giving us for weak contact and z-contact rates? Out of a 142 qualified pitchers that I analyzed (minimum 90 innings) Maeda was ranked 3rd with a 22% soft contact rate and 14th in zone contact percentage. I’m buying at those numbers. For his career he’s at 20.4% and 82.4%. His K-BB% is a touch better than Houser’s at 18.9% so he’s also getting you those valuable Ks.
Maeda is also moving to Target Field which is ranked 18thin ESPN’s Park Factor (the higher the ranking the more runs the park gives up). Not quite as nice as Dodger Stadium’s 24th ranking, but still decent. Defensively Josh Donaldson is an upgrade at the hot corner which should help as well. Put it all together and I’m easily drafting Maeda above guys like Mike Minor and the aforementioned Weaver.
Bang bang! Is that a garbage can being smacked? Oh no, just Urquidy pounding the zone with his 93-mph fastball.
Michael Simione actually did a deep dive on Urquidy and his “two faces” so check that out, too, if you have time.
If you’re looking for a dart throw in the later rounds, Jose Urquidy is your guy. Word might be getting out though as his NFBC ADP has already climbed to 89 for all pitchers. Urquidy had a bit of a mixed bag in 2019 posting July clunkers like his 4 IP/6 ER/1 K game at Cleveland and September gems like his 5 IP/1 ER/10 K game versus Oakland. Like Michael said – two-faced.
Still, he’s listed as the 4th starter for Houston and the club has expressed confidence in him as evidenced by starting – and winning! – a World Series game last year. His 19.8 K-BB% is appetizing (and even tastier at 26+% across 103 innings of minor league ball), but for this analysis, he also offers an 81% z-contact rate and 20% soft contact. Yes, please.
Houston, of course, has a lot of talent to draw upon so it’s possible Urquidy has a short leash. Josh James and Forrest Whitley are waiting in the wings, no doubt.
Still, in terms of draft cost, I think Urquidy is a value pick. The sample size is small at the major league level, but the same was true for guys like Frankie Montas (more on him in a bit), Woodruff, and Domingo German – and those gambles paid off handsomely.
Matt Strahm: was there any other hyped arm going into 2019 – besides his teammate Chris Paddack – than Strahm? He struggled with command unfortunately and was eventually relegated to the bullpen. Still, I like his 84% z-contact% and 17.4% soft contact is viable. He still has the strikeout potential with the 19.7% K-BB%. Keep him on your watch list or draft him if you’re going 0-closer and keep tabs on his performances. If he’s looking like a better option than Zach Davies, or if Garrett Richards gets hurt, I can definitely see Strahm getting another look, even with the highly touted MacKenzie Gore set to debut sometime this year.
James Paxton: Full disclosure, before news of the injury broke, Paxton had Maeda’s spot in my list. In a bit of a weird year, Paxton was top 20 in terms of z-contact % (80.9%), but middling for soft contact (17.2%). The strikeouts will always be there for Paxton and at 20.8% K-BB%, there is definitely value on what was a down 2019. If you have a third IL spot in your league, I think I’d pull the trigger on him at a bit earlier than ADP (if the injury news is baked into those rankings when you draft) and if he drops, definitely scoop him up.
Buyer Be(a little)ware
Frankie Montas was a sleeper that came through last year – well, at least till he got suspended. He comes into 2020 with lofty expectations and fantasy owners are drafting with confidence (ADP 41) that he can dominate hitters with the splitter he developed last year.
I’m not saying you fade the guy, but I am here to tap the brakes just a bit.
The data we’re analyzing here shows an 84.9% z-contact (not great), 14.8% soft contact (also not great), but buoyed by a 20.3% K-BB%. I recommend keeping tabs on spring training and to see how he looks. If you’re drafting soon and you like him, by all means get your guy. But if you have the luxury of a wait-and-see, that’s where I’m at with Montas right now – and I write that as a geeked Montas owner last year!
These metrics are only a part of the puzzle of analyzing starting pitching. They’re helpful in triangulating late-round value which, in my opinion, is how fantasy leagues are won.
For the poker players out there, they’re the flop you can use with your two down cards. But you still have the turn and the river to go. Know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em. And know where to look for value in the bad hands – and to draft them ahead of ADP.