Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Fun with Statcast

It's an exciting time to be alive! We will look back on this moment in time and tell our grandchildren and great grandchildren about what it was like to experience all this first hand. We were a part of the first year of Statcast! If you aren't sure what I'm talking about, Statcast is the revolutionary new tracking system put in place by MLB. Statcast goes above and beyond previous tracking systems (like PITCHF/x) by recording and analyzing every movement on the baseball field, from how fast a curveball spins to how fast defenders run to catch a ball to how hard a ball is hit off the bat. Statcast is the reason we get cool videos like thisIt's also provided nerds like me with a lot of data to analyze. And we have a breakthrough! Hitting the ball hard is a good thing...

I guess we probably didn’t need a state of the art tracking system to tell us that hitting the ball hard consistently is a good thing, but here we have it nonetheless. Taking a look at the leaders of average batted ball velocity (courtesy of reveals a who’s who of top hitters in the majors. In the table below, we have the top 20 hitters by average batted ball velocity (minimum of 50 ABs). I’ve also provided the wOBA (a weighted average of a hitters full offensive production) and, for those less saber minded, my own unscientific classification system:

Let’s get the exceptions out of the way first. Third on the list is journeyman Justin Ruggiano, not exactly a pillar of offensive clout. Thrown onto the list are other guys like Tommy Pham, a young Cardinal diamond in the rough find without much of a prospect track record and only half of a season of above average hitting to his name. Danny Valencia is another name that doesn’t quite seem to fit; 2015 was a career year for him, though. Finally, Mark Trumbo has the lowest wOBA on the list, but he’s an all power hitter who crushes the ball when he makes contact, he just struggles with the whole concept of making contact.

On average, though, these guys hit for a .374 wOBA, a pretty stellar mark. 14 of the 20 also get a legit or young legit rating in my highly technical classification system. Generally, these guys can rake. Again, this isn’t exactly ground breaking but it’s cool to be able to measure this. The biggest question these numbers raise isn’t whether hitting the ball hard is a good thing, the answer to that is clearly yes, but whether players can repeat this ability. Is hitting the ball hard actually a skill? Is it comparable to arm strength in that it is consistent over time or does exit velocity fluctuate dramatically from year to year? We don’t have the numbers to prove it one way or the other but it seems logical that the ability to consistently hit the ball hard is more skill than luck.

Operating under that assumption, let’s take a look at how well the 2016 Nationals hit the ball in 2015:


Everyone who had Ryan Zimmerman as the team leader in batted ball velocity, put your hand up. OK, stop lying, you didn’t call that, put your hand down. As it goes for most of the team, Zimmerman’s health is really what might hold him back. After hitting the DL midway through the 2015 season, Zimm came back on a tear at the plate. The batted ball velocity readings back the numbers up: Zimmerman was still making solid contact. If Ryan can stay on the field, signs point to him still being able to hit.

Wilson Ramos
is an enigma. He hit for one of his lowest batting averages and flashed very little power in 2015. Nationals’ fans know from previous years, though, that Ramos has shown the ability to drive the ball with authority and the batted ball velocity numbers back that up, even during his disappointing 2015 season. His exit velocity numbers are not too far off of the league leaders. If Ramos can make a few tweaks to his swing to catch back up to the fastball and improve his contact rate, maybe Ramos won’t be the black hole in the 2016 lineup that he was in the 2015 lineup. At least Statcast gives us a reason for a semblance of hope.

Ah Clint Robinson. He was robbed of the 2015 Nook Logan award so it’s nice to see him listed so high on this list. He’s looking at a bench role in 2016 but his bat from the left side is a great platoon option for Zimmerman at first. He loves to pull the ball, making him susceptible to the shift. But if he can keep hitting the ball this hard maybe he can hit it hard enough that the shift won’t even matter.

It’s a little shocking to see Bryce Harper at only the 70th best batted ball velocity, trailing Clint Robinson. Based on his power I was expecting him to be the team leader, not Zimmerman. Bryce did post the 10th hardest hit ball of the season, though, so he’s still on one batted ball velocity leaderboard. Considering the year Bryce just posted, this average exit velocity doesn't worry me too much.

Daniel Murphy
and Anthony Rendon posting nearly identical scores isn’t too surprising. I would think if Rendon stays healthy, he will likely post a slightly higher velocity in 2016 than Murphy, but these guys take similar approaches at the plate. They both make a lot of contact and drive the ball on a line into the gaps. I wasn’t crazy about the Murphy deal at first, but I think I’m coming around a little bit and his exit velocity stats from 2015 help push the needle a little bit more.

Jayson Werth
falls close to the middle of the pack here. He’s still in the top 50% of the league based on 2015 stats but the question with him is similar to Zimmerman: can he stay healthy? Despite all his struggles in 2015, he still showed a good eye at the plate. That will serve him well in 2016 but will all his shoulder and wrist injuries continue to sap his power or will a full offseason to heal and strengthen mean Werth will do better than 199th in batted ball velocity in 2016?

It was shocking to see Bryce so low, but Michael A Taylor’s spot on this list is probably the most surprising. We know Taylor has power (just take a look at his home run in Colorado that went nearly 500 feet). He doesn’t make enough contact at this point in his career to be an above average hitter, but power was supposed to be his calling card. This measurement shows that he hasn’t been able to take that batting practice power into games with him on a consistent basis. If I were to bet on any player improving their position on this list in 2016, though, I would go with MAT. With a season in the majors under his belt, I expect him to make better contact in 2016.

Oh Danny Espinosa. My podcast co-host Paul Hurt will love to see how low Danny is here. As a clearly biased observer, I will use this opportunity to point out that there are still some kinks in the Statcast system. Not all balls are recorded properly and bunts are especially confusing for the system. Espinosa had his fair share of bunts, both of the sacrifice variety and bunts in an attempt for a hit. Perhaps they are throwing the measurements off? Or maybe Paul has a point here and my Espinosa love isn’t completely justified.

Finally, we wrap up with what must be the least surprising result: Ben Revere. He’s technically not in last place in the majors but the handful of the guys behind him are part time players with less than 100 at bats to their name in 2015. His game is slapping the ball around the infield, so it’s not surprising to see him so low. While I’ve come around a bit on the Murphy signing, I’m still not convinced that Ben Revere will have much of a positive impact in a Nationals uniform, and this stat certainly isn’t helping things. It’s still possible to hit ground balls hard and the harder the ground ball, the more likely it is to find a hole. Revere doesn’t even hit his ground balls very hard, though, and that has to be a concern.

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