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Trying to find similarities between Rays' successes and failures against LHP

Could hard contact be an even bigger deal for the Rays?

MLB: Game One-Oakland Athletics at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the 2017 season, the Rays (and their headier fans) figured the lineup against left-handed pitchers would be one of the team’s weaknesses. They have a lefty-heavy lineup, and the team lost Steve Pearce, Brandon Guyer, and Taylor Motter, their top three hitters against lefties in 2016.

As it turns out, those worries were legitimate, as the Rays have struggled against southpaws by just about every metric possible. Their wRC+ of 85 against lefties ranks 22nd in baseball this season and is far cry from their wRC+ of 116 against righties. The team has a record of 8-15 in games facing left-handed starters, a winning percentage that ranks 29th in baseball this season - only the Reds are worse Perhaps the most stark and telling stat of all: their OPS against righties is .810; against lefties it is just .678.

With that in mind, the Rays face left-handed pitcher Daniel Norris on Friday evening, so the time is ripe to see what can be learned by looking over a few of those 23 games the Rays have had against left-handed starters this season.

To make the search a bit more exact, games in which the starter had an ERA between 3.00 and 5.00 were eliminated. The point here will be to find lefties against whom the Rays have either had a lot of success against or really struggled against. The middle class doesn’t do much for the purposes of this article.

That gets our sample down to 17, but there are plenty of repeat pitchers, so there won’t be 17 different breakdowns. For example, within that group of 17, four of those starts were by Francisco Liriano, two of which were good starts and two of which were blowups. Since that’s an even split, those four games will be eliminated. Of the remaining 13, eight were good starts for the opposing lefties, while five were good results for the Rays.

Let’s take a closer look at our sample.

Pitchers who shut down the Rays: Sean Manaea, Jose Quintana, Ariel Miranda, CC Sabathia, Jason Vargas, Wade Miley, Chris Sale, CC Sabathia (again)

The first name that jumps out is Sabathia because he is on there twice. Sabathia is a pitcher who has relied on an elevated groundball rate this season to maintain his late-career success. He has also done a good job of inducing soft contact in the past two seasons. Let’s see how this group of seven ranks in groundball and soft contact rates in 2017:

Groundball and Soft Contact Rates (Successful Pitchers)

Pitcher GB% Rank (of 83) Soft% Rank (of 83)
Pitcher GB% Rank (of 83) Soft% Rank (of 83)
Manaea 46.7% NQ 18.8% NQ
Quintana 40.9% 54th 20.1% 28th
Miranda 35.3% 76th 20.0% 29th
Sabathia 49.8% 16th 19.9% 32nd
Vargas 36.9% 71st 19.3% 38th
Miley 54.3% 10th 21.5% 14th
Sale 38.2% 67th 15.2% 67th

It’s pretty clear, right off the bat (no pun intended), that groundball rates can be eliminated. Only Miley joins Sabathia among the top half of qualified starters in groundball rate, with Miranda, Vargas, and Sale all quite fly ball heavy this season.

The “limiting hard contact” half of the chart is a bit more interesting. Five of the six qualified starters rank in the top half of the league in limiting hard contact, with only Sale both qualified and below league average (Manaea would come in just below average if he had enough innings). The Rays, as a team, have the third-highest hard hit ball rate in 2017, as well as the third-highest HR/FB rate. For a team that relies on the long ball for runs quite frequently, it’s easy to see how an opposing pitcher who can limit hard contact would give the Rays some issues.

Moving over to pitch type, only R.A. Dickey uses his fastball less than Sabathia, so could there be something to the Rays struggling against lefties who veer more heavily towards off-speed pitches?

Fastball Usage and Velocity (Successful Pitchers)

Pitcher FB% Rank (of 81) FBv Rank (of 81)
Pitcher FB% Rank (of 81) FBv Rank (of 81)
Manaea 53.6% NQ 92.0 NQ
Quintana 63.0% 9th 91.8 47th
Miranda 60.2% 20th 92.0 43rd
Sabathia 26.0% 80th 90.8 63rd
Vargas 51.3% 49st 86.0 79th
Miley 60.5% 16th 90.7 65th
Sale 47.7% 64th 94.6 11th

Doesn’t look like much. Sale and Vargas are relatively sparing with the fastball, but Quintana, Miranda, and Miley are heavy fastball usage pitchers.

How about velocity? Sabathia averages only 90.8 mph on his fastball, and that half of the chart seems a bit more intriguing. Only Sale is better than league average in terms of fastball velocity this season, and he’s almost an outlier - everyone struggles against him.

Could it be that the Rays struggle against junky lefties? Let’s go over to the left-handed starting pitchers against whom the Rays were able to find success.

Pitchers who the Rays got to: Derek Holland, Martin Perez, Drew Pomeranz, Daniel Norris, Drew Pomeranz (again)

The first point that needs to be made here is one that may simply be the most obvious answer: this is a worse group of pitchers. Holland has a decent ERA this season, but his peripherals are begging for regression. Norris and Pomeranz have been right around league average, but they’re not nearly Sale or Vargas.

However, that doesn’t mean this group doesn’t also share some similarities. Let’s add those four names above to the two previous charts, while flipping soft contact for hard contact:

Groundball and Soft/hard Contact Rates (All LHP)

Pitcher GB% Rank (of 83) Soft% Rank (of 83)
Pitcher GB% Rank (of 83) Soft% Rank (of 83)
Manaea 46.7% NQ 18.8% NQ
Quintana 40.9% 54th 20.1% 28th
Miranda 35.3% 76th 20.0% 29th
Sabathia 49.8% 16th 19.9% 32nd
Vargas 36.9% 71st 19.3% 38th
Miley 54.3% 10th 21.5% 14th
Sale 38.2% 67th 15.2% 67th
------- ------- ------- Hard% -------
Holland 38.3% 66th 38.8% 9th
Perez 43.3% 48th 35.5% 22nd
Pomeranz 41.4% NQ 35.5% NQ
Norris 41.5% 53rd 42.9% 1st

Well, the hard contact rates for the southpaws the Rays have gotten to is certainly interesting.

All four pitchers have been terrible about allowing tons of hard contact this season, which goes in line with them not being as strong a group of pitchers, but also goes in line with the Rays potentially thriving against pitchers who allow lots of hard contact.

Hard contact is certainly related to poor results, but there are plenty of pitchers who can allow hard contact and still have strong results (Robbie Ray, Zack Greinke, Jacob deGrom). The Rays seem to punish those high hard hit contact lefties more than other teams.

Fastball Usage and Velocity (All LHP)

Pitcher FB% Rank (of 81) FBv Rank (of 81)
Pitcher FB% Rank (of 81) FBv Rank (of 81)
Manaea 53.6% NQ 92.0 NQ
Quintana 63.0% 9th 91.8 47th
Miranda 60.2% 20th 92.0 43rd
Sabathia 26.0% 80th 90.8 63rd
Vargas 51.3% 49st 86.0 79th
Miley 60.5% 16th 90.7 65th
Sale 47.7% 64th 94.6 11th
------- ------- ------- ------- -------
Holland 49.2% 60th 91.5 52nd
Perez 60.4% 17th 94.0 20th
Pomeranz 52.1% NQ 91.2 NQ
Norris 54.2% 36th 93.4 27th

As far as fastball usage and velocity, there don’t seem to be any real trend, but again, this is a rather small sample size being dealt with.

* * *

It certainly appears that the Rays have even more success against lefties who allow a high percent of hard contact and can struggle at times against crafty lefties who do well to induce soft contact. This is certainly a small sample size study that has some flaws to it, but it’s tough to do broad stroke studies when the sample set is as small as “Rays hitters against left-handed starting pitchers in 2017” - it’s the nature of the game.

Heading into tonight’s game, it’s great to see that the Rays hit Norris for four runs in 4 ⅔ innings when the two last met on April 20. Maybe even better news is that Norris has allowed the highest hard contact rate of any pitcher (lefty or otherwise) in 2017.