Who needs an introduction? This piece is simply about the best pitches from 2020. I looked at a number of factors when making these determinations including run value, whiff%, K%, xwOBA, and hard hit%. I’ll cover the four main pitch types: fourseam fastballs, changeups, sliders, and curveballs. Let’s start with the heater!
Best Fourseam Fastball from 2020 (Minimum 300 thrown) – Walker Buehler
This one was extremely close between Walker Buehler and Freddy Peralta. So close in fact, that I deferred to run value per 100 pitches thrown. Here is the pertinent data.
Fourseam Fastball - Buehler vs Peralta
While Freddy generated more strikeouts via a better whiff%, Buehler induced more weak contact with a crazy-low xBA and xSLG. The tie-breaker for me was the run value. While extremely close, Buehler just edged out Peralta in this one. Buehler averaged 96.8 mph on his heater and didn’t give up a single home run and allowed just one barrel all season. Peralta on the other hand averaged just 93.0 mph which is insane considering how successful it’s been. He did allow one homer and three barrels, so that information justifies the choice of Buehler over Peralta.
Walker Buehler, fastball up and away, against Brandon Lowe. He got him whiffing three times. The command was impeccable. pic.twitter.com/7WqSs65G4J
Jacob deGOAT of course finished 2020 with the best fastball among starters with at least 500 thrown. He somehow added velocity (1.7 mph to be exact) from a year ago and this marks the fourth straight year he’s been able to improve his average fastball velocity. deGrom manages an insane 42.9% K-rate with his heater which would be a solid rate for a slider. His .186 batting average allowed was easily the best among starters with over 500 FB thrown, second best was Lucas Giolito with a .201 BA against. deGrom features three plus-plus pitches. His slider might be his third-best pitch and it manages a 45% whiff rate. His change earned a 40% K-rate and a .253 xwOBA. Even if deGrom loses a mph off his heater next year, he’s still my top SP for 2021.
Best Changeup from 2020 (Minimum 200 thrown) – Devin Williams
Rookie sensation, Devin Williams provided unquestionably the best changeup in 2020. He threw it 227 times, generating a 61.2% K% with a mind-boggling 61.1% whiff rate. It allowed just an 0.032 batting average and ZERO extra-base hits. The expected metrics backed it up as well with a 0.110 xwOBA on just a 9.5% hard-hit rate. I would have loved to see what he could have done across a full 162. He was on pace for 150 strikeouts which would have ranked 55th among ALL pitchers in 2019.
Maeda tossed 291 changeups this year and had the highest whiff% (45.6%) and K% (40.9%) among starting pitchers with at least 200 changeups thrown. Yeah, he was awesome but it makes Williams’ numbers above just seem impossible. Either way, Maeda’s change was great in 2020. It’s so successful because it induces so many swings outside the zone In 2020, batters chased 50.5% of the time, a career-high. When hitters actually made contact with the pitch, it was put on the ground over 2/3rds of the time and allowed just one barrel and zero homers all season. An unlikely champ but well deserving. Good luck getting him outside of the top-20 SPs next year.
Best Slider in 2020 (Minimum 200 thrown) – Dinelson Lamet
“Dinelson Lamet and his equal opportunity Slider. This pitch does not discriminate based on batter handedness.”
Dinelson Lamet has this one in a runaway. He easily threw the most sliders in 2020 (559 thrown) which was 53.4% of the time. This pitch is straight nasty. Hitter’s 47.4% whiff rate (5th) and 51.4% K% (1st) is insane considering Lamet only has two pitches. He’s allowed just three home runs against his slider since the start of 2019 with over 1,100 thrown. In 2020, Lamet allowed an xwOBA of just 0.175. This one was easy.
Best Slider other than the GOAT Lamet (Minimum 200 thrown) – Dylan Bundy
The Honorable Mention team includes Max Scherzer, Zach Plesac, and Luis Castillo (yes, my guy LC shows up again as he improved his slider in 2020). But, the award goes to comeback pitcher of the year, Dylan Bundy! In his first season out of Baltimore, Bundy found himself in a much better ballpark and a situation where he started throwing his best pitch more frequently. I’ve been a fan of Bundy for a while now,
Dylan Bundy slider last 2 yrs
12.4 Pitch Value on 607 thrown
2.8 Pitch Value on 722 thrown
The point of the Tweet is that his slider was great in 2018 and even better in 2019 by the metrics but based on Pitch Value, did not produce the same results. Trust the metrics! In 2020, Bundy threw 255 sliders and his K% of 50% matches his whiff rate. As great as his slider has been in the past, it still allowed a barrel% of around 5%. This year, he did not allow a single barrel against his slider. That led to an extremely impressive 0.162 xwOBA against.
Best Curveball in 2020 (Minimum 200 thrown) –Tyler Glasnow and Shane Bieber
Tyler Glasnow and Shane Bieber are essentially a virtual tie for the best curveball in 2020.
Curveball - Glasnow vs Bieber
First, let’s start with Tyler Glasnow. Wow, look at that strikeout rate! While his curve misses a ton of bats, it also induces weak contact when hitters actually make contact. The only reason it’s not the clear cut winner over Bieber’s curve is that Glasnow gave up a .277 SLG compared to a .143 SLG for Bieber. I included the xSLG for each pitch and that clearly shows that Glasnow was just a bit unlucky. He gave up three homers off his curve and while two were crushed, the other was hit at 97 mph and went 332 feet. The difference between Glasnow and Bieber’s curve is when Glasnow makes a mistake, it’s hit. Bieber has a deeper arsenal, so it’s more difficult to guess what’s coming. Glasnow has two pitches. Every once in awhile a hitter is going to guess right when Glasnow makes a mistake. The other advantage to Bieber’s curve is he buries it. See the GIF below. When hitters make contact, the average launch angle against his curve is -13 degrees! Those are worm burners. Glasnow’s while solid, is -4 degrees. Sure, Bieber gives up harder contact but if keeps it on the ground, it doesn’t matter.
Typically, at the midway point of the regular season, I cover BABIP outliers to buy and fade for the second half. However, since we only had a 60 game season, I’ll cover buys and fades for 2021. During the 2019 season, I wrote this piece and by in large, regression set in for most of these hitters in the second half. Let’s apply that same thinking to these hitters for 2021. Keep in mind that the expected BABIP (xBABIP) I calculated below is descriptive, so it doesn’t mean the player’s past performance is what we should expect going forward. That being said, outliers are where there’s a much higher probability regression to set in. There are a number of factors that may not be covered in the xBABIP equation that I’ll touch on in the player blurbs below.
Shift and pull rates
Now let’s cover the BABIP overperformers from 2020. I’m going to stay away from fully analyzing Rockies’ hitters as they regularly show up on these overperformers list when discussing BABIP. Coors Field boosts BABIP by 30-35 points on average and xBABIP does not include Park Factors in it’s equation. So, we can somewhat ignore Ramiel Tapia, Trevor Story, Charlie Blackmon, and to some extent Nolan Arenado. But, more on him later.
2020 BABIP Overachievers
Cedric Mullins (OF – BAL)
Baltimore churned out some value especially late in the season with the addition of Ryan Mountacaste and to a lesser extent, Austin Hayes. Meanwhile, Cedric Mullins managed to quietly produce three homers and seven steals while hitting .270 in 153 plate appearances. However, he somehow managed a .350 BABIP with just a 31.7% hard-hit rate and an atrocious popup rate that was nearly double the league-average. Weak contact and popups appear to be Mullins’ MO early in his career. His defense could buy him some playing time, but I’m staying away from him as a sleeper in 2021.
Alex Verdugo (OF – BOS)
Verdugo has always been a high-contact hitter capable of carrying high batting averages. It was true in the minors and so far he has a .290 BA in 709 career plate appearances in the bigs. However, his xBABIP from 2020 was frighteningly low. His hard hit% declined from a year ago and his strikeout rate jumped by 7%. Typically, that combination doesn’t provide a higher batting average but for Verdugo, it did. Now, he does have one thing going for him, Fenway Park. Outside of Coors Field, Fenway allows the highest BABIP for hitters. Over the last three seasons, Fenway Park has allowed a BABIP of .327! I think it fair to say Verdugo is a strong candidate to outperform his xBABIP once again in 2021. I just wouldn’t expect a .300+ BA unless he cuts his K% below 15%.
Adalberto Mondesi (SS – KCR)
Mondesi went from an early-round bust to league winner in just two months. He’s certainly a flawed hitter but can provide fantasy gold in an era where steals are at a premium. I’d be lying if I told you I could predict where Mondesi’s BABIP will fall in 2021 but I can try! I have an issue with the .281 xBABIP spits out for him. His speed alone is an outlier that messes with the equation. In any season with over 200 PA, he hasn’t posted a BABIP below .335. He’s also improved his HH% and hit more grounders. Unfortunately, that came at the expense of line drives. In other words, his xBABIP docked him for a poor line drive rate. Line drive rates take forever to stabilize, so I’m not trusting the low mark from 2020. It’s, something to monitor but Mondesi seems safe for another .335ish BABIP in 2021.
Alec Bohm (3B – PHI)
Bohm’s rookie campaign went a bit under the radar. It’s probably because he only hit four homers and played in a Phillies team that really struggled. Obviously, a .410 BABIP is not sustainable (unless your TA), so that’s coming down. However, in the small sample, he still managed a very solid .347 xBABIP. I’ll be honest, I really like Bohm’s approach. He does everything well and he profiles as a high-BABIP hitter. If he can improve his launch angle, we are looking at a .280-.300 hitter with 25-30 HR pop.
David Peralta (OF – ARI)
I think some people may look at Peralta’s .300 BA in 2020 and expect him to provide value there in 2021. It makes sense, he’s always been a solid BA source. But, I don’t see it that way. He’ll turn 34 next year and his quality of contact has faded the last two seasons. There’s no real upside here and he’s only attempted one steal over the last two seasons. A .270 BA with 12-15 HR and no speed feels like waiver wire fodder to me.
Michael Conforto (OF – NYM)
Did Conforto take a step forward in 2020? The simple answer is no. His barrel rate remained unchanged and his hard hit% dipped a little. He lowered his launch angle hitting more line drives and had a more all-fields approach but, come on. A .412 BABIP! Those pointing to his career sub-.300 BABIP is a bit lazy though. He dropped his pull% by 13%. That doesn’t seem like an accident. Of course, fewer pulled balls will result in fewer home runs. As a lefty though, fewer pulled pull balls with result in a higher BABIP as he’ll be able to beat the shifts. OK, so he wasn’t the same hitter in 2020. But, will he revert back, keep his changes, or fall somewhere in the middle? The latter is the most likely result. So, maybe we cant bank on 30 homers but I don’t think he’ll be a BA liability either. So, let’s say he goes .275 with 25 homers and 5-8 steals? Meh, his early ADP is around 70 so I think he’ll be over-drafted in 2021.
Nelson Cruz (OF – MIN)
Cruz goes against everything we know about aging curves. Expecting regression from a 40-year old seems obvious but we can’t simply just do that with Cruz. He’s a machine with an insane 57 homers over his last 173 games. He can’t do this forever, right? Well, there were some signs of decline. A slight dip in hard hit% and his K% increased for the second straight season. He’s always struggled against breaking balls and he took a step back against offspeed pitches as well. However, he still feasts on fastballs. His struggles against non-fastballs shows up in xBA which was his lowest in the Statcast era. There’s a real chance he strikes out 30% of the time and hits .250 with 25-30 homers next year. There’s also the possibility of hitting .300-40. For me, I’ll project .265-32.
Willy Adames (SS – TBR)
I was into Adames coming into 2020 as he was dirt-cheap in drafts. Given the depth at the shortstop position, it made sense. Adames doesn’t have great power or elite speed but coming into 2020 he was just 24 years old, showed progress in his quality of contact, and was locked in as SS for the Rays. Not much to lose at pick 300. While he did improve his barrel rate and hard-hit rate in 2020, his strikeouts went through the roof (36.1%). Strikeout rates seemed to be wonky for a lot of players in this shortened season, so I’m inclined to lean on the larger sample from 2019 in terms of K%.
However, his SwStr% and zone contact rates were atrocious. I think projecting him around his career mark of 29% seems reasonable for 2021. He’s been able to sustain moderate success despite elevated strikeout rates due to a .348 BABIP. We are talking about over 1100 plate appearances, so that’s a large enough sample to believe in his elevated BABIP profile. His Sweet spot% is very good as is his line drive rate. I do worry about his heavy-pull approach change this year but think that regresses some. If Adames isn’t going to use his 83rd percentile sprint speed to swipe bags, I think he’s just going to be a .240-.250 hitter with 20-25 homer pop. If he chips in 6-8 steals, he’s solid value.Early ADPs, per @SmadaPlaysFantasy has him going after pick 250 once again. This was a long-winded way of saying, Adames may once again be a nice value as your MI in 15 team formats.
Jeff McNeil (2B/3B/OF – NYM)
I’ve never been a believer in McNeil’s power. He was being drafted right near D.J. LeMahieu coming into 2020 and while similar players, I didn’t get it. Here’s what I said after the 2019 season.
Tweet (1 of 2)
Someone help me out here:
Jeff McNeil 2020 Steamer Pro
DJ LeMahieu 2020 Steamer Pro
McNeil took a step back in terms of barrel% and average exit velocity in 2020 yet still hit .311. What’s odd is that his career xBA is .286 but his career BA is a fantastic .318. Maybe there’s something that isn’t captured in the xBA or xBABIP equation that McNeil excels at. While his metrics are poor, the one thing he does well is put the bat in the ball. He has a sub-20% whiff% against all pitch types. So, while I think he’ll maintain a solid BA, I’ll take the under on .311.
Now, to the power. He has more home runs than barrels since the start of 2019. Anyone projecting him for 20-25 homers in 2021 may be disappointed. 23 of his 27 homers over the last two years have come from the pull side. His pull% declined in 2020 and maybe there’s a rebound in 2021 but what will the ball look like? Without the juiced ball, McNeil profiles as a 12-15 homer hitter. Speed? Don’t count on it. He’s managed Just five steals in his last 185 games. Fortunately, his early ADP in is between 100-110. That seems about right. If his ADP creeps up inside of 90 overall as it was in 2020, i’ll be out.
I mentioned Nolan Arenado earlier and found it interesting that his that he didn’t show up on the underachievers list despite a lowly .241 BABIP. In fact, his xBABIP was slightly lower at .236, second lowest among qualified hitters! He was awful in 2020 but the shoulder likely had something to do with it. I’m expecting a bounce back but to 100%. There’s also the real possibility he’s moved at some point in 2021.
Typically, at the midway point of the regular season, I cover BABIP outliers to buy and fade for the second half. However, since we only had a 60 game season, I’ll cover buys and fades for 2021. During the 2019 season, I wrote this piece and by in large, regression set in for most of these hitters in the second half. Let’s apply that same thinking to the hitters below for 2021. Keep in mind that the expected BABIP (xBABIP) I calculated below is descriptive, so it doesn’t mean that’s what we should expect going forward. That being said, she’s outliers are where I expect regression sets in closer to the hitter’s actual skillset. There are a number of factors that may not be covered in the xBABIP equation that I’ll touch on in the player blurbs below including
Shift and pull rates
The table below includes a list of the largest underachievers in terms of BABIP aka the biggest gap between xBABIP minus BABIP. The minimum qualifications are 150 at-bats. You’ll notice a bunch of slow-footed left-handed batters with high pull rates. I wrote a piece last offseason covering the hitters who have been shifted on over 50% of the time and in many cases these players underperformed their xBA. Many of them you’ll see on this list below which can explain at least a portion of the difference between xBABIP and BABIP. In the cases of Matt Carpenter, Kole Calhoun, Kyle Schwarber, Matt Olson, and Max Kepler, they all qualify as pull-happy lefties with average to below-average speed. These hitters regularly show up on underperforming outlier lists so I wouldn’t necessarily expect much of a BABIP rebound as some of the others on this list.
First I’ll touch on some elite hitters who showed up on the underachievers list. While not outliers, it’s encouraging to know that their production is very likely something they can maintain over the course of a full season. Fernando Tatis Jr., Corey Seager, Luke Voit, Ronald Acuna Jr., and Mookie Betts all underperformed their xBABIP by at least 0.030. Acuna, Betts, and Tatis are all top-5 picks next year, nothing changes for them. For Seager and Voit, I’ll be ranking both inside the top-50. Seager has a chance to hit .330 with 30 homers if healhy and Voit is a legit threat to hit 45+ homers whle hitting .275+. A few others to note include Alex Bregman, Franscisco Lindor, and George Springer. All were very unlucky in 2020. Bregman and Lindor were first round picks in 2020 but will both fall into the second round. I think both will be great values in 2021. I’ll be all over Springer in 2021. He’ll be 31 next year and has kind of been labeled as a boring veteran. I could see his ADP settle around 50 overall with some sexier options jumping him. His metrics look great and his strikeout rate has settled in below 20%. I’d peg him for a .280 BA with 35 homers.
BABIP Underachievers - 2020
Gregory Polanco (OF – PIT)
What the hell happened to Polanco this year? He was mostly healthy but hit a dreadful .153 with a career-high 37.4% strikeout rate. He’s been riddled with injuries over the last four years missing over 200 games since the start 2017. Most recently, he dealt with offseason shoulder surgery before the 2020 season. Typically, a hitter will show poor quality of contact upon return from a shoulder injury, but not Polanco. He ended up with a career-best barrel rate and a hard-hit rate. He even managed a strong 30% line drive rate and cut his previously ugly popup%. He sold out for power, there’s no doubt but he clearly deserved better. I don’t know what to make of GP for 2021 because he’ll still be just 29 years old. He’s a lefty who was a victim of the shift and the strikeout rate concerns are real. If he cuts it below 30%, he could be a hit .250 with 25-30 homers. If he can’t fix his contact issues, he’ll see the bench or worse as he’ll be in the last year of his deal (club options in 22-23).
Chrsitian Yelich (OF – MIL)
You’re probably not surprised to see Yelich on this list. He still absolutely crushed the ball finishing in the top two percent in HH% and exit velocity. Let’s take a look at his exit velocity histogram.
The majority of his batted balls were hit over 95 mph with the two largest groups being between 100-105 and 105-110. That’s where an elite hitter wants to be. His issues were solely related to the strikeout rate. He finished with a 30.8% strikeout rate which was more than 10% worse than a year ago. He became extremely patient, to a fault. That boosted his walk rate but really got him into deep counts elevating his K%. He also struggled early in the season with a zone contact% under 75% but bounced back in September with a Z-Con% around 85-86%. I have virtually zero concerns with Yelich going into 2021 even if his strikeout rate settles in around 25%. Pep this, if Yelich would have had neutral luck with his BABIP given his expected stats, he would have hit .265. That’s w/ the ugly K% which I think comes down quite a bit. Easy buyback here.
Nick Castellanos (OF – CIN)
I made no reservations about my love for Castellanos going into 2020 especially given the move to Cincinnati. He got a massive park boost for power which came to fruition hitting 14 bombs in 60 games. That’s a 38 homer pace across 162 games or 11 more than his previous career-high. What I failed to consider is the BABIP drop he may see with a less expansive home outfield. His 2020 BABIP fell over 70 points below his career average. xBABIP still believes he’s a beast pegging him for a .360 xBABIP. I’m a little skeptical about him holding that mark and an elevated K% looms. That being said, I had him right around 50 overall in 2020 and nothing’s changed. He should still hit .275 with 35 homers and 100 RBI in 2021.
Gary Sanchez (C – NYY)
What are we going to do about Gary Sanchez next year? He had by far the lowest BABIP of any qualified hitter in 2020 to go with an atrocious 36% strikeout rate. We’ve seen suppressed BABIPs before from Sanchez but not like this. His batted ball distribution was BETTER than in 2019 but he did pull the ball over 50% of the time and was crushed by the shift (.218 wOBA vs the shift). Only one other time in his career has he had a BABIP this low over a 60 game stretch. That being said, he crushes the ball on contact, better than any catcher, by far. Because of his poor speed and results against the shift, he’ll likely never have another BABIP over .250 so he’s probably outside of the top-three catchers for 2021. It’s going to difficult to stomach a batting average at .200 for a full season.
Shohei Ohtani (DH – LAA)
Here’s the first player on this list who may have a massive discount. It also depends on how he’s used, whether or not he pitches, etc. Then there’s still Albert Pujols lingering for one more season. I think Ohtani was hurt this year. Before 2020, his career BABIP was .352. There’s no way that I buy Ohtani as a .200 hitter. His exit velo was down but I think that’s a product of an injury. He’s too good of an athlete in his prime to fall off that quickly. He was also suppressed a little by the shift which I don’t expect to change. He still plays in a great park for home runs to centerfield where he excels. I’ll hold firm that Ohtani is a top-50 hitter if he receives everyday at-bats.
Cody Bellinger (1B/OF – LAD)
I don’t need to say much about Bellinger. His strikeout gains carried over from 2019 but he may have sacrificed some hard contact. There was also some weird stuff going on at the start of the season about him changing his swing. It made no sense and hurt his production early without a full season to recover. He’s also still running, pacing for 16 SBs across a full season which is right in line with his previous two seasons. He’s been healthy, missing only six games between 2017 and 2018. Still just 25 years old, he’ll be a top-12 pick for me in 2021.
Bryan Reynalds (OF – PIT)
Reynolds is going to be a completely forgotten man next year in drafts. He’s boring, plays for an awful team, and completely fell on his face in 2020. However, this is a guy who has never hit below .312 at any level including his rookie season in 2019 where he hit .314. He saw a jump of 6% in strikeout rate without much merit. His plate approach, chase%, and contact rates remained nearly identical from a year ago. He even boosted his barrel rate but also added more weakly hit balls. Overall, it seems like very little has changed from a year ago. The weakly hit balls are reflected in his xBABIP which at .307 is still about 70 points below his career-numbers. I think there’s a little bit of pop here and wouldn’t be surprised to see him come back with a .290 average and 20 homers with a handful of steals. Looks a little like Jeff McNeil just a lot cheaper.
Bryce Harper (OF – PHI)
So xBABIP thinks Harper should have hit .300 in 2020. So, with that being said, the soon to be 28 year old Harper would have hit .300 with 35 homers and 22 steals across a full season. Not so fast though. He’s another victim of the shift. He hasn’t outperformed his xBA since his 2017 season when he was only shifted on 21% of the time. His shift rates have been over 50% since then and continue to climb. Either way, Harper cut his K% significantly in the shortened season and is still in his prime. I’ll lock him in for a .275 BA, 35 HR, and 15+ steals.
Eduardo Escobar (2B/3B – ARI)
I can’t believe I’m saying this but I might be in on Escobar next year. He was a complete fade for me coming into 2020. He went from being one of the luckiest hitter in terms of power in 2019 to one of the most unfortunate in 2020. Not only did he hit just four homers on nine barrels but his BABIP plummeted. I don’t think he will finish around .312 but something around a BABIP of .280 seems legit. He should once again hit in the middle of the DBacks lineup and provide solid run production. I think he’ll hit .260 with 20+ homers but will be drafted after pick 200.
There are so many great metrics available at our fingertips when analyzing hitters. Certainly Barrel percentage is the best measure of a player’s power, O-Swing percentage or Chase rate is a measure of a hitter’s plate discipline. I could go on and on but while metrics like xwOBA attempt to be all-encompassing to a hitter’s value, I like to look at certain metrics in conjunction with other metrics to help draw conclusions about players. In this small sample season, not all metrics will stabilize. We cannot simply trust how a player performs this year and assume that’s his new baseline.
The two metrics I’m looking at today are hard hit percentage and whiff rate. Hard hit% is simple. It’s the number of balls hit at or above 95 mph divided by the total number of batted balls. The league average is 34.8% this year. By itself, the metric is powerful. Just, take a look.
At under 95 mph, wOBA hovers around .200. Nothing special about that but also the harder or softer the ball is hit below 95 mph doesn’t really matter. So, obviously, we want players with a high hard hit%. The next metric I want to include is whiff rate (Whiff%). It’s simply the number of swings and misses divided by the number of swings. The league average is around 24.5%. While each of these metrics has a different denominator, together, they can tell an interesting story about a player. These metrics require approximately 80 batted balls for HH% and 100 PA for whiff% to stabilize. The league-average HH%-Whiff% in 2020 is 10.3%. Here’s the top-10 from 2019.
Hard Hit% Minus Whiff% - Top 10 2019
Pretty good list, no? Of course, it includes Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, so that’s great. It also includes breakouts D.J. LeMahieu, Rafael Devers, and Matt Chapman. Let’s take a look at the largest surgers in 2020 among qualified hitters.
Hard Hit Minus Whiff% - Surgers
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Unsurprisingly, Corey Seager tops the surgers list. He’s very likely going to be a top contender for comeback player of the year. His hard hit% is an impressive 56.1% while carrying a league-average whiff rate. He currently leads the Majors in Barrel% and the only reason he’s not leading the league in homers is his launch angle. He hits a few too many ground balls, but I’m not going to complain if he continues to mash like he’s doing now.
An abdominal injury that occurred in late-July last year really hurt Luke Voit’s production down the stretch in 2019. Well, he’s healthy again and absolutely mashing. His Whiff% isn’t as bad as you’d think for a guy with a 25%+ strikeout rate at just 25.9%. If we remove his injury-riddled final two months of 2019, Voit has a .386 OBP and 47 homers across 712 plate appearances as a Yankee. This is what a healthy Voit looks like. That’ll do.
Juan Soto is tied with Fernando Tatis Jr. for the best HH-Whiff% in 2020. They are both just 21 years old! Along with Acuna, these are going to be the faces of MLB for the next decade-plus. As impressive as Soto was at age-20, he’s even better this year. At the plate, he’s the best comp to Mike Trout I’ve seen, in my lifetime. I wouldn’t be surprised if he outperforms Trout next season and should be drafted as a top-5 hitter in fantasy leagues in 2021.
Speaking of young talent, enter Eloy Jimenez! He already has 42 home runs in 162 career games. The only thing he hasn’t shown yet is patience. AKA, the ability to take a walk. That seems to be a philosophy with the White Sox, especially with their young hitters. His improvements this year are solely with his hard hit% but his batted ball quality is elite. He’ll be another exciting young player to watch this decade.
The only thing keeping Mike Trout over Juan Soto is the fact that Trout is still getting better! It’s insane. He’s 29 years old, so at some point, he’s going to plateau/decline. But, 2020 is not that year. Trout is still the King.
Freddie Freeman may be having the best season of his career. He’s walking more, striking out less, and has a career-best OPS (1.016) this season. Unfortunately, we won’t get to see him perform for 162 games this year. I’d like to see a little more loft to boost those power numbers but I don’t think owners are complaining.
You may want to check in on impatient Vlad Gurrero Jr. owners to see if they are willing to part ways with him. Not every top-tier prospect becomes a star immediately despite the recent success of several phenoms mentioned in this article. He’s only seen slight improvements in ISO and wRC+ but a closer look into his underlying metrics shows major skills growth HH%, exit velocity, and BRL% despite hitting the ball on the ground more frequently. He’s also walking at a higher clip which is a good sign. He’s so close to breaking out. If he works this offseason to adjust his launch angle, I think we’ll see the .300-35 HR player we’ve all envisioned.
Adam Eaton is an odd name to this list. He’s hitting the ball surprisingly hard but they are all on the ground. He’s actually improved his HR/FB% which reflects his gains in terms of this metric but again, a 10% jump in ground ball rate kills any power gains he might have. He’s hitting a measly .215 but I think he’s extremely unlucky in terms of BABIP that sits a .252 (career-.332). I’m not buying Eaton and he’ll be 32 years old without ever really showing much power in the past.
Randal Grichuk’s gains this year are less related to quality of contact and more about making more contact. During his Cardinals career, he struck out 30% of the time. Since joining the Blue Jays, it dropped to a more respectable 26%. This year, however, he’s sitting at 21.5%. On the surface, it looks good. But, he’s still chasing pitches outside the zone at a similar clip and making the same amount of contact on pitches in the zone. That means he’s able to make contact on more ball outside the zone. So, he’s figured out a way to increase his plate coverage which explains his decrease in strikeout rate. Typically, contact on pitches outside the zone isn’t great for a hitter. That’s why I think his BABIP will regress. I think this is a positive sign for Grichuk but not sure how much I will trust him going into 2021.
Cesar Hernadez is definitely hitting the ball harder this year but it hasn’t shown up in his results. He’s pounding the ball into the ground. Even with his improved HH%, he still falls below league average. At age 30, I don’t think there’s much to see here.
Hard Hit% Minus Whiff% - Fallers
- - -
Noooo, my beloved Shin-Soo Choo. At age-37 least year, Choo was a monster with a HH% in the 95th percentile. Despite his advancing age, he had improved his HH% for three straight seasons prior to 2020. He was due for regression, but, it’s not just HH%. He’s also whiffing about 4% more often. I hate to say it about one of the most underrated fantasy assets over the last decade, but it may be time to move on from the Choo Choo Train.
I’m disappointed to see my Dark Horse AL MVP Yoan Moncada on the decliners list. He’s never had a HH% or average exit velocities this low in his career. Personally, I think he’s hurt. Prior to August 12th, his HH% was over 40%. He then missed a game on 8/12 due to “nagging body aches.” Since then, his production has suffered. I can’t say for sure but I know a healthy Moncada would not be hitting the ball so poorly. I’ll be buying back in next season at a discount.
Josh Bell is having a miserable season after his 2019 breakout. His HH% is down a bit from last year but it’s still strong. It’s not the main culprit for his plummeting numbers. He’s simply struggling to make contact. It’s not just one pitch type either. His whiff% is up over 10% against all pitch types (fastballs, offspeed, and breaking balls) from a year ago. This will end up being a lost season for Bell. He’s still in his prime and hitting the ball with authority, so I could see him as a bounceback depending on the price in 2021.
Not even the backdrop of Coors Field can salvage Ryan McMahon’s batting average. He’s hitting just .214 with an xBA one point below the Mendoza Line. He’s been completely useless against breaking balls (0.183 xwOBA) with an insane 53.7% whiff% against the bendy pitches. His quality of contact is simply not good enough to maintain a 36% K-rate. I’m out on McMahon until he improves his contact.
Anthony Rendon showing up on the fallers list just shows how amazing he was last year. After topping the HH%-Whiff% list last season, he’s fallen some, but still in the top 80th percentile. We witnessed his best season in 2019 and now he’s just back to his baseline performance, which is still great. I don’t have any concerns here.
Speaking of one’s best season, Marcus Semien had his in 2019. He showed steady progress over the last several years only to fall back to a 2017 version of himself this year. He’s at a league-average whiff% but was 6% better than league average last year. It’s led to a jump in K% by nearly 8%. It’s not just the strikeouts either. He’s not hitting the ball hard. It doesn’t help that his surrounding cast isn’t playing like they did in 2019. I’m beginning to think 2019 will be the outlier in Semien’s career.
Charlie Blackmon is 34 years old. At this stage of his career, his power metrics are pedestrian at best. The only thing keeping him from being Jeff McNeil is Coors Field. (Psst, I’m not a believer in McNeil’s power despite the recent outburst). He hasn’t stolen bases since 2018 and now his power appears to be declining. He’s dangerously close to being an average/runs play in fantasy. I’ll be fading him next year.
Like many Red Sox hitters, Xander Bogaerts has struggled to match his success from 2019. However, his numbers are still very good. Other than a slight dip in HH% and a small increase to his K%, he’s essentially the same hitter as he was in 2019. Much like Devers, I’m not concerned at all.
After back to back 20 homer seasons, Starling Marte‘s power metrics look more like 2017 than the previous two seasons. I was really impressed with how he improved his exit velocity on fly balls last season but it’s just not there this year. With an average exit velocity of 90.6 mph, he’s in the bottom 25% of all qualified hitters. His number one asset is his speed but he’ll be 32 years old next month his value could slip significantly if he’s unable to provide a rebound in the power department next season.
In the introduction to Blast Zone Barrels (BZB), I determined the parameters for the metric based on barreled balls that result in home runs at the highest frequency. I ran correlations and concluded that while it certainly (and quite obviously) has a strong correlation to power, it also has a moderate correlation year over year. I also took a look at outliers over the last three seasons. While Part one covered the genesis of the metric, part two will expand the metric by looking at all batted balls hit within the Blast Zone launch angle band (23-35 degrees). It’s a similar concept to what my colleague, Dan Richards wrote over at Pitcher List last season. Give the article a read, it’s very intriguing.
Part Two of this series will hopefully provide a little more value for the upcoming fantasy baseball season. First, a quick reminder of the parameters of a BZB. It’s a barreled ball hit between 23 degrees and 35 degrees of launch angle. But, what it ignores is the balls hit at those launch angles that do not qualify as a barrel. In other words, balls that are hit at ideal launch angles for home runs without the extremely high exit velocity. The table below displays the league-wide average exit velocity of all batted balls between 23 degrees and 35 degrees.
AVERAGE EXIT VELOCITY ON BALLS HIT WITHIN BLAST ZONE BARREL LAUNCH ANGLE (23 -25 DEGREES)
2017 (AVG EV)
2018 (AVG EV)
2019 (AVG EV)
As a whole, balls are being hit harder at ideal launch angles over the last three seasons. Part of that can be attributed to the juiced ball. It’s also likely that players are “swinging for the fences” more often which has increased power production but has attributed to the league-wide elevated strikeout rate. Knowing this, let’s look at some three-year trends. I set the parameters for at least 40 batted balls hit within the launch angle band of 23 and 35 degrees for each of the last three seasons. To be fair, I relaxed the qualifying threshold to 25 BBEs for a single season if a player qualified with 40+ BBE in the other two seasons.
What trends would we expect in regards to average exit velocity on balls hit in this range based on age? Well, naturally, we would expect the trend for aging veterans to be declining, right? You also might expect younger hitters to improve their exit velocity. If that’s what you assumed, then you’d be correct. Shocker! Of the sample I conducted, the list featuring the largest fallers had an average age of 34.7. The List featuring the largest climbers were a hair younger than 30 at 29.7 years to be exact. Below is the list of climbers with over the last three seasons and their current age.
Average Exit Velocity of Balls Hit at Launch Angles Between 23 - 35 Degrees - Climbers
Shin Soo Choo
A couple of quick points. Mike Trout continues to be the best player and baseball AND is still getting better! There isn’t much he can’t do. Nick Castellanos is my boy! I covered him extensively in Part 1 and love his new landing spot. He’s going to ball out in Cincy and is essentially a J.D. Martinez clone. I included Yoan Moncada because of his huge boost in exit velocity from 2018 to 2019. Was he hiding an injury in 2018? He smoked the ball in his debut back in 2017 but fell way back in 2018. Either way, he absolutely crushed the ball at all launch angles last year and is still just 25 years old. He’s my dark horse to win the AL MVP.
Can we talk about Nelson Cruz and Shin-Soo Choo for a second who appear to be defying the aging curve? Without these two old heads, the average age of the climbers falls to 28.7 which sounds more reasonable. Now, we all know Cruz is a monster and lights up the Statcast page but how has he gotten even better from age 37 to age 39? Averaging a tick under 100 mph within the blast zone launch angle puts him third behind only Joey Gallo and Miguel Sano (both averaged over 100 mph). If you’re expecting a decline from him this year, don’t. Only an injury or God forbid COVID could stop him from crushing in the shortened season. I bet you didn’t expect to see Choo here. On average, he actually hits the ball harder at ideal launch angles than Mike Trout! Think about that for a second. Given the short season, maybe move him up a few spots. He’s certainly is not finished just yet.
Let’s touch on a couple of other veterans who could be sleepers in 2020. Kyle Seager and Kole Calhoun have both steadily increased their exit velocity on ideal launch angles. Calhoun’s playing time could be spotty and news recently came out that he tested positive for COVID. At this point, he’s slight fade until we have more information. However, Seager should hit third or fourth in Seattle, albeit in an awful lineup. Even still, he should provide pop with decent run production. Did you notice Jason Heyward in the mix here? I almost fell asleep writing his name. His metrics aren’t great but he’s shown steady improvement over the last three years. He improved his walk rate and ISO last year and his defense should keep him in the lineup most days. Maybe he can put it together for two months in 2020?
Christian Yelich is just ridiculous. At age-28, he should continue to be an MVP candidate for the next three to five years. He’s my top pick going into the abbreviated 2020 season. Would you look at Alex Bregman? His barrel rate may be brutal and he scored poorly on my Blast Zone Barrels metric, but here we are. The reason he’s been so good in addition to his unbelievable plate discipline is this. He has improved on consistently hitting batted balls at ideal launch angles with authority. He doesn’t need to hit the ball 105 mph to hit a home run. I’m fading him less as a result of this research.
The steady growth from Eugenio Suarez over the last four seasons has been fun to watch. He’s been successful in a similar manner to Bregman but without elite plate skills. Still, given his home park and this metric, I’d expect another great season from him. Josh Bell has arrived! He didn’t quite put it all together in 2019 but had an MVP-like first half. I’m a believer that he’s closer to the first half Bell than the 2018/second half Bell we saw. I’m buying and might jump him over an aging first baseman I’ll cover below.
Finally, can we talk about the elephant in the room? Starling Marte, WTF!?! His average exit velocity on balls hit between 23 and 35 degrees jumped nearly 10 mph from 2017! That was the year he was busted for PEDs. Hmmm? Unfortunately, his ground ball rate continues to hover around 50%. But, his career-best 18.5% HR/FB rate in 2019 was certainly justified. Even with some negative regression, Marte could still provide plenty of pop. Will Marte transform into a power hitter late into his career? It would require a launch angle adjustment but could certainly prolong his career as his speed declines. Xander Bogaerts’ presence on this list is largely due to a wrist injury in 2017 that sapped his power. He’s essentially been the same guy the last two seasons and at age-27, it doesn’t appear anything is going to change. Oh, hello there D.J. LeMahieu! The research I’ve done on D.J. points his results from 2019 being mostly sustainable. Bet against him if you will but he hits the ball as hard as Trout at ideal launch angles and has the short porch in right field.
Below is a graphical representation of the largest risers covered above.
Average Exit Velocity of Balls Hit at Launch Angles Between 23 - 35 Degrees - Fallers
This is a shorter list. I won’t spend too much time on these guys because many of them aren’t fantasy relevant outside of deeper formats. Kurt Suzuki had a nice run in his mid-30s, but he may just be cooked. Yadier Molina isn’t far behind. He may be able to contribute with moderate power this year but after 2020, I think his career is just about over. Same for Albert Pujols and potentially Joey Votto. Everyone knows about Pujols but the metrics on Votto are just as ugly. Even in the favorable home park, I will not be betting on bounceback. FREE KYLE TUCKER! It’s getting embarrassing with Josh Reddick and the Astros. He’s hardly a plus defender anymore and can’t hit with a 94 wRC+ and a .134 ISO last season. Come on Astros.
Daniel Murphy’s 2019 can be attributed to a finger injury, but even the metrics from 2018 are pretty scary. Coors Field could help but I’m not betting on a power resurgence. Then again, if health is on his side for the short season, I could envision Murphy putting together a fortunate .350 BA – 7 HR type season. Yuli Gurriel’s Statcast metrics have never been great and at age-36, his exit velocity is declining. He was unbelievably fortunate in 2019 and I’d be surprised if he hit more than seven homers in 2020. Justin Smoak is interesting. He’s 33 years old and has shown natural regression in terms of BZ launch angle exit velo. However, 93.0 mph is still well-above the league average. He’ll get a boost with the DH and with his new home park, so I wouldn’t give up on him just yet, just don’t expect much in 2021.
Now to the fantasy-relevant players. J.D. Martinez went from being elite to very good. Should we be concerned? He’s 32 years old and there’s some evidence of player’s declining at that age. The Red Sox are still stacked even without Mookie Betts, but that means fewer RBI opportunities. Remember how I mentioned earlier that Nick Castellanos was J.D. part two? Well, if the trend continues, Nicky C could outperform JDM in 2020. Bold or not? Paul Goldschmidt falls into a similar category as JDM. They are the same age and have shown signs of declining. Not only has Goldy’s BZ EV fallen quite significantly since 2017, but he’s also a full mile per hour lower on average than JDM. I absolutely hate Busch Stadium for home runs and will very likely dock him given this information. I mentioned Josh Bell earlier and could see Bell outpacing Goldy in 2020. To Bell’s dismay, his surrounding lineup is awful, so I think Goldy bests him in run production. That being said, I’ll take Bell in batting average and home runs.
Finally, there’s Whit Merrifield. The late bloomer who helped players win championships in 2017 and 2018. He came out of nowhere in his late twenties to hit 19 homers and steal 34 bags back in 2017. Then as an encore, hit 12 bombs and stole 45 bags with a .304 BA in 2018. In 2019, the average stayed and the power returned (somewhat to 16 HR) but his steals were cut in half. The trend in the table above is extremely worrisome. He was saved by the juiced ball last year but now at age-31, I don’t think his power will play. His sprint speed is still in the top 15 percentile but is clearly falling. Over a full 162, I’d be hard-pressed to project more than 10 homers and 20 steals. What does that mean over 60 games? How about 4 homers and 8 steals. Yikes. He’s teetering very close to contributing an empty batting average. I’ll go out on a limb and say he’s nearly undraftable in 2021.
I’ve certainly taken a step back from writing over the last few months but this one is a doozy. I think it’s up to 2,800 words, so strap in! We should be three months into the 2020 season yet zero games have been played. While it sucks that there are no MLB games, there are infinitely larger issues in the world right now. I’m certainly not trying to minimize the global pandemic or social injustice but I want to create a diversion. Nevertheless, no baseball equals no bueno. But, baseball’s back! Well, in less than three weeks it will be. I’ll be honest, it was difficult to stay motivated and keep writing. I’m working on several pieces currently but have had a difficult time finalizing them. But, this one really got me thinking. It stems from my comment “Not all barrels are created equal.” You may have read that in my underutilized pitches piece for Pitcher List or heard it when I was a guest on the Common Sense Fantasy Baseball podcast. I wanted to dive a little deeper into this statement.
If you regularly visit MLB’s Baseball Savant page or frequent the great Pitcher List site, you likely have a general idea of what a barrel is. For a ball to be classified as a barrel, the batted ball requires an exit velocity of at least 98 mph. At that speed, balls struck with a launch angle between 26-30 degrees always garner the barreled classification. For every mph over 98, the launch angle range expands by approximately one degree in each direction. (Source: MLB.com). Since its creation, a barreled ball has resulted in a hit 80% of the time. Additionally, barreled balls have an expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) of 1.397. To give you an idea of how valuable these batted balls are, on average an xwOBA of 1.397 falls between a double and a triple. So yeah, these are the elite batted balls hitters seek and pitchers look to avoid.
But, when looking at the pure expected value of a barrel, there’s some variance. For instance, barrels can be hit at low launch angles. Take barrels hit between eight and 16 degrees for instance. These balls are hit at over 105 mph and of course, are hits most of the time. But, how often will they result in home runs? Almost never, unless you’re Giancarlo Stanton. In fact, since the Statcast era began in 2015, there have been only seven home runs hit at a launch angle of 15 degrees or less.
From a recent Tweet, I displayed the expected weighted on-base averages (xwOBA) for barreled balls within certain launch angle limits.
From the Tweet, it’s clear that the batted balls within the middle range (21 degrees to 35 degrees) are the most valuable. What’s not shown is the percentage of those batted balls that were home runs. For those percentages, see the table below.
Home Run per Barrels Rate Based on Launch Angle (2017- 2019)
Launch Angle (deg)
You can see now why I split the batted balls at launch angles between 21 and 23 degrees from the larger middle section. While these balls are home runs over 50% of the time, they don’t fly over the fence quite as often as balls hit between 23 degrees and 35 degrees. The lowest home run percentage in this grouping are balls hit between 25 and 26 degrees (65.6%) while the highest home run probability falls between 30 and 31 degrees (71.7%). Regardless, barreled balls hit between 23 degrees and 35 degrees are absolutely crushed. I call this zone, the Blast Zone.
Excuse my extremely poor PDF edit. The chart above clearly shows that not all barrels are created equal. Yes, all barrels are valuable, but as a hitter, the Blast Zone is where it’s at. Over the last three seasons, 11,528 home runs have been hit on 16,853 Blast Zone Barrels (BZB).Over that same span, there have been 18,466 home runs hit. While barrels account for 80.9% or 14,943 of all home runs since the start of 2017, BZB account for 62.4% of all home runs (11,528). That leaves 8,803 barrels that fall outside the BZB range. Of those 8.803 barrels, 3,415 of them resulted in home runs or 38.8%. This shouldn’t be all that surprising. Hitting the ball too low regardless of how hard it’s hit will not result in a home run and likewise for balls hit at higher launch angles. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff. It does lead me to look into the correlation BZB has both in season and year over year.
First, let’s take a look at how Blast Zone Barrels correlate to home runs within the same year. I won’t spend much time on this because we’ve essentially proved that BZB correlates with home runs with the data provided above.
Yearly Correlation BZB to HR (2017-2019)
All of the above metrics correlate fairly strongly with each other. The average correlation of BZB per batted ball event (BZB/BBE) to home runs per batted ball event (HR/BBE) from 2017 to 2019 for players with at least 200 plate appearances is about 0.80. Additionally, the correlation between BZB/PA and BZB/BBE is 0.953 which nearly matches the correlation between HR/PA and HR/BBE which is 0.960.
Now for the year over year correlation. This type of data analysis can help determine predictability. Without getting too much into the weeds on this, the metric with the highest year-to-year correlation for Blast Zone Barrels is BZB/FB with a correlation of 0.51.Close behind is BZB/BBE at 0.49. In other words, BZB has a moderate correlation year over year. It’s certainly something that we should include in our analysis but does not explain the whole picture when looking at a player’s power profile. OK, with the data stuff out of the way, let’s take a look at the raw leaders in “Blast Zone” Barrels (BZB) from 2017 to 2019.
Blast Zone Barrel Leaders: 2017-2019
The list has Mike Trout on it and includes seven of the top 10 home runs leaders over the last three seasons, so it checks out. The three players listed above who fall outside the top 10 in home runs over the last three seasons are Freddie Freeman (24th), Mookie Betts (30th), and Nicholas Castellanos (45th). Freeman hits a lot of opposite-field fly balls. Opposite field fly balls and even opposite-field barreled balls have a lower home run percentage than pulled fly balls. So, that makes some sense as to why he falls short. More on this in part two of this article series. Yes, they’ll be a part two. Mookie Betts was hurt by the Green Monster in Fenway on the barreled balls hit at lower launch angles. Additionally, centerfield/right-center are massive in Fenway hurting his power output to those parts of the field. So, I can see how he fell short but the move to LA this season will be a boost for him, especially to center. More on him in a minute.
Then there’s Nick Castellanos. He has the largest discrepancy between Blast Zone barrels (3rd) and home runs (45th). I’ve discussed Castellanos ad nauseam this past offseason. The move from Comerica Park to the Great American Ballpark is the largest boost offensively for any single hitter this offseason. The image below includes all of his BZBs overlayed onto his new home, GABP since 2017. Given the large discrepancy, Castellanos required a little deeper dive.
Let’s check some metrics to verify that Nicky C was unlucky. I found that his expected batting average (xBA) was nearly .100 below is actual BA on Blast Zone Barrels and his xwOBA minus his wOBA (xwOBA-wOBA) had a nearly .200 point differential. Yup, he was unlucky alright. Although I should point out, his average fly ball distance on Blast Zone Barrels was only 387 feet, tied for the lowest among all hitters with at least 40 BZB over the last three seasons. It’s a concern, but not enough to deter my opinion that he’ll improve on his home run given the major change in home park. I’ll take the over on his career-best HR rate of 14.4% which occurred last season. I’ll even go bold and project him something closer to an 18% HR/FB rate in 2020.
Let’s look at another player with a new home who I touched on above. Fenway Park inflates BABIP turning some outs into hits and many doubles into triples. Maybe that hurts Mookie’s batting average, but Fenway is brutal for home runs. Take a look. Playing in LA should give Mookie a boost in power. We already saw that Betts is up in the top 10 for BZB (100) the last three years but how many have turned into dingers? Based on the league average, 68.4% of BZBs have resulted in home runs. So, maybe he hit 68 homers? Nope, lower. 60? Lower. 50! Nope. Just 47 of his Blast Zone Barrels resulted in home runs. Just imagine if he played in Cincinnati, he’d be a perennial 40 HR hitter. Most projection systems have him hitting 10 to 11 home runs in the shortened season. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mookie is hot right from the jump in the middle of the LA summer and is a dark horse to lead the league especially if he leads off.
Just by looking at the hitters with the largest discrepancy between xwOBA minus wOBA I notice some correlations. Players who have significantly overperformed either have extreme pull tendencies, play in a favorable home park, or both. It’s, of course, the opposite for hitters with low pulled fly balls rates who play in unfavorable home parks. The player with the largest difference between xwOBA and wOBA is Alex Gordon(-0.381). His batting average was just .591 on Blast Zone Barrels, which is insane because as a league, barrels in this range were recorded as a hit nearly 81% of the time (0.806 BA). Unfortunately for Gordon, he’s in the twilight of his career and still plays in pitcher-friendly Kauffman Stadium. I’m not looking to pursue him.
The next name that jumped out at me was Jose Martinez, now of the Tampa Bay Rays. J-Mart is a late-bloomer going into his age-31 season who should split time at DH, outfield, and first base. He might be an easy pass on draft day due to his uncertain playing time, but ATC projects for the fifth-highest wOBA on the Rays team with a solid .332. In limited playing time, he’s managed to hit 45 BZB but only 24 of them resulted in a home run. Additionally, he’s hit just .711 with a wOBA of 1.289 on said BZB. His xBA is over .100 above his actual BA and his xwOBA is a whopping .302 above his wOBA. His average launch speed of 104 mph on his BZB falls in the 73rd percentile. Martinez could be headed for a breakout although he hits far too many ground balls for my liking. Either way, the move out of Busch Stadium is a positive one and I’m a believer that a career-best HR/FB% is in order.
Eugenio Suarez has been the perfect combination of skilled, lucky, and fortunate to play half his games in the best ballpark for home runs. Whether you look at my HRPF+ or Dan Richards’ Park Factors, Great American Ballpark reigns supreme. The statistic that was most surprising when looking at Suarez’s Blast Zone results was not the 90 BBE he’s managed in three seasons, it’s his batting average on them. His 90 BZBs have resulted in… 90 hits! A 1.000 BA! Here’s why. 80 of them have gone for taters. That’s 88.9%. As I previously mentioned, 68.4% of BZB go for home runs. Someone should do an in-depth look at every single one of these BZBs to find out how many were lucky, how many were fortunate, and how many were just straight skill. Sorry, to get your hopes up, but that someone is not me at the moment. That’s an entire article in itself. Suarez is not a sell for me based on this information. He’s still in Cincy, he still hits the ball hard and pulls a lot of fly balls.
Didi Gregorius made a living pulling fly balls over the short right field wall at Yankee Stadium over the last five seasons. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a fantastic defensive shortstop but was never projected to hit 25+ homers. Many are aware that Didi’s high contact, pull-heavy approach in Yankee Stadium has done wonders for his offensive production, but just how much? Here’s a spray chart of all of his home runs since the start of 2017.
I know what you’re thinking and no, I did not set the search filter to remove all opposite-field home runs. He has never actually hit an opposite-field home run. That’s amazing in itself, but let’s get back to his Blast Zone Barrels. He’s had 31 home runs on 42 BZB the last three seasons. That’s 73.8% which is better than league-average. What’s odd about that is the fact that his average exit velocity on all of his 42 BZB is just 101 mph. That ranks last among all batters with at least 40 BZB since 2016 just behind Whit Merrifield and Nick Ahmed. His wOBA is nearly .350 higher than his xwOBA on those 42 batted balls. Fortunately, he’s landed in Philadelphia. Citizens Bank Park plays well for left-handed pull power. But, not nearly as favorable as Yankee Stadium. I’m fading Didi a little bit for 2020 but stay tuned for part 2…
Edwin Encarnacion (1B/DH, CHW) The aging veteran seems to produce solid power numbers every year. He’s in a new situation as the everyday designated hitter for a youthful White Sox club. He’s managed to hit at least 32 home runs every year since 2011 and consistently drives in a high volume of runs. His 86 RBI in 2019 was his lowest since 2011 but on a per plate appearances basis, it was right on par with his elite years in Toronto at 0.177 RBI/PA. Projection systems are still projecting E5 for 33-34 homers and 90+ RBI in about 550 plate appearances (162-game projection of course). At age-37, I think 2020 is the time for the parrot to jump off of that right arm of his. Picture this, E5 increased his HR/FB% by 1.6% in 2019. That’s not a big deal in itself but his BZB/FB% dropped a whopping 7.1%! He wasn’t hitting the ball as hard at ideal launch angles. His popup rate shot up by nearly 6%. So while he’s still hitting the ball hard, he may be selling out as he continues to age. You wouldn’t notice a drop off when looking at his Baseball Savant page but this data is telling. Given his decline in BZB from 2019 and his age, I’ll be steering clear of the aging veteran in 2020 save for OBP formats.
Hunter Renfroe (OF-TBR) At age-27, Renfroe had a career-best 33 home runs in 2019. He also managed to post career-highs in HR/FB% and HR/BBE% at 23.6% and 11.3%, respectively. For reference, among players with at least 200 PA in 2019, his 11.3% HR/BBE% ranked 17th in all of baseball in 2019. His BZB/BBE% however, ranked 115th. The reason? He pulled a ton of fly balls. 41.1% in fact. The league average pulled fly ball% in 2019 was 24.1%. The remainder of his home runs went to centerfield. Petco Park ranked inside the top-10 in my Directional Home Runs Park Factors (HRPF+) over the last three years to both left-field and centerfield. While Tropicana Field was neutral to leftfield, it is in the bottom-10 for home runs to center field. Given the park change and the lackluster BZB results from Renfroe, I’d expect a decrease in Renfore’s power on a per batted ball basis (say that five times fast) and per fly ball in 2020.
George Springer (OF – HOU) I’ve covered Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel to death. If you’re curious about what I think about them, check it out here and here. It’s too bad because I used to be Alex Bregman’s hype man. There hasn’t been a lot of talk about Springer though and I’m not sure why. He had a 29.5% HR/FB% in 2019 and his career rate is 21.9%. In fact, since his rookie year, he’s only managed a home run rate over 20% once between 2015 and 2018 and his HR/FB% nearly doubled between 2018 and 2019.
Show table how his BZB/BBE was down from 2018 but his HR/BBE more than doubled!
The reason I separated Springer from Bregman and Gurriel is that the latter significantly increased their pulled fly ball rates which boosted their home run total. Springer’s pulled fly ball% actually decreased in 2019. Yes, he hit the ball harder and deserved better results than in 2018 but I’m betting against the sustainability of it.
Additional BZB Fortunate Outliers: Joc Pederson, Eric Thames, Jesus Aguilar
Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this analysis and while this data is valuable, there’s more work to do. With the suggestions from Max Goldstein (@MaxSportsStudio on Twitter), a great follow, I’ll be looking into directional Bast Zone Barrel. This suggestion inspired this tweet. Pulled fly balls are king.
Let’s put some numbers to visualize how valuable pulled fly balls are compared to straightaway & oppo fly balls. (Launch Angle range 23-37 degrees; min EV of 95 mph 2017-2019)
Part two will look at a few trending players to prepare you for your draft. Part Three will modify this metric directionally. A player’s home park is certainly a factor. I plan on including this information and plugging it into my earned home run (eHR) equation and eliminating some overlapping variables but probably not until the next offseason.
We hear a lot about defensive shifts in baseball today. Teams will find ways to get a competitive advantage any way they can (cough Astros cough) and defensive shifts are one of the most popular forms of gaining that edge in baseball today. There is a multitude of shifts, infield shifts, outfield shifts, and countless strategic defensive positioning. For today’s article, I want to focus on the most popular shift. The infield shift. In 2019, not only were there more shifts than ever before but the percentage of infield shifts doubled since 2017. Infield shifts occurred on 26.2% of all pitches in 2019. Consider back in 2015, infield shifts occurred on just 9.8% of all pitches thrown. But, do they really work? I’d hope so with the increasing popularity and any team’s urge to gain an advantage.
In order to see if the shift works, I first looked at wOBA for all players against an infield shift and against a standard infield defense. I gathered the data from any player who was shifted against between 10% and 90% of their plate appearances to eliminate some very small sample sizes. As it turns out, 190 players managed a better wOBA against the shift than against a standard infield defensive alignment while 184 hitters performed worse in terms of wOBA against the shift. So, the results clearly did not prove that the shift works and is essentially inconclusive. End of article. Just kidding!
I dug a little deeper. Over the last three seasons, I looked at all the hitters who were shifted on in at least 50% of their plate appearances. I also looked at each of these player’s batting average minus expected batting average (BA-xBA) overall. After all, the infield shift is not necessarily designed to limit extra-base hits (or home runs, obviously). Extra base hits influence wOBA much more than singles and outs. The shift is used to turn base hits (largely singles) into outs. Since xBA doesn’t account for the shift, let’s see the results, then uncover the outliers.
2019 Hitters shifted over 50% of the time - BA-xBA
Jackie Bradley Jr.
Despite seeing the shift on nearly 95% of his plate appearances, Gallo’s batting average of .253 in 2019 was .024 above his xBA. What did Joey Gallo do differently in 2019 that allowed him to outperform his expected batting average? He lowered his launch angle a bit but it was still over 20 degrees. He pulled over 50% of his batted balls, so it’s not as if he was altering his approach to beat the shift. I suppose we could point to his insane 26.4% barrels per batted ball event (BBE) which was about four percent better than his previous two seasons. That’s probably not enough to account for a major shift in BA-xBA though. In 2017 and 2018, his BA-xBA averaged -.020, yet in 2019 he outperformed his BA-xBA by .024. That’s a significant swing of .044.
Let’s check Joey Gallo’s batted ball profile in 2017
compared to 2019
Aside from putting fewer balls in play (BIP) due to an injury in 2019, Gallo appeared to have an even more significant pull-heavy approach in 2019. In 2017, his balls hit to the outfield were more evenly dispersed. This doesn’t explain the improvements in his BA-xBA. However, if we isolate his weakly hit batted balls and bunts, we see a significant difference between BA and xBA. Take a look at the left side of the infield. Gallo bunted four times in 2019 and reached on three of them. He also hit three weakly hit ground balls (<75 mph) to the left side of the infield. He reached on two of them. That’s six hits on eight balls in play. But, xBA expected only one of those BIP to end up as a hit. That’s a difference of five hits. It doesn’t sound like much except when you consider Gallo had just 61 hits in all of 2019. If we drop him to 56, his batting average falls to .232 and much closer to his xBA of .229. The question is whether or not Gallo will continue to take advantage of aggressive shifts against him. It could make the difference between Gallo finishing as a .210 hitter or a .250 hitter. Below is a scenario where Gallo successfully bunted against an extreme shift.
Defenses have always heavily shifted Carpenter and for good reason. Since the 2016 season, Carp’s pulled over 75% of his ground balls topping out at a whopping 81.3% in 2019. In fact, his pulled ground ball percentage has risen every year since 2014. That’s a bad sign for an aging veteran. As a result, teams have increased the percentage of shifts against him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s shifted on over 90% of the time in 2020. In 2017 and 2018, his BA-xBA was consistent (-.015) but he nearly broke even in 2019. That’s in large part due to hitting .220 on grounders last season. This may be a good example of how pull-heavy left-handed batter without good speed earned such a high batting average on grounders. Can he count this type of luck going forward? I wouldn’t bet on it. His speed is diminishing along with his hard contact%. I’d expect his BA on ground balls to fall below .200 making him a major batting average risk.
Poor Jay Bruce. He’s been a victim of the shift for a good portion of his career. Over the last two seasons, only Kyle Seager and Curtis Granderson managed a larger discrepancy between BA-xBA on ground balls (minimum 140 GB). Yes, he’s slow, pulls a high percentage of his batted balls, and hits from the left side. A prime candidate for the shift, no doubt.
He’s interesting though because he’s attempting to beat the shift by going over it. His 54.1% fly-ball rate ranked number one in baseball among players with at least 300 plate appearances (per FanGraphs). The good news is Bruce managed an impressive 13.4% barrels per batted ball event in 2019. The bad news, his popup rate shot up to 13%, nearly double the league-average. Unfortunately for Bruce owners, he’s going to be in a reserve role with the Phillies limiting his opportunities. If an injury, God forbid, to Rhys Hoskins or someone in the outfield, Bruce is a dark horse candidate to hit 15-20 homers in an abbreviated season. NOTE: Add in the wrinkle with the potential universal DH and Bruce could fall into additional playing time making him a DEEP league power option.
I think it’s safe to say, opposing defenses have figured out how to deploy the shift against Kyle Seager. Over the past two seasons, he’s hit just .158 on ground balls (league-average is .236). What’s more, he managed just .070 on pulled ground balls last season. Similar to Jay Bruce, Seager is another slow-footed left-handed hitter who is heavily shifted against. He’s very likely going to continue to underperform his xBA going forward.
Rougned Odor seemed to beat the shift in 2018 outperforming his xBA by .006. It wasn’t much but compared to 2017 (-.028) and 2019 (-.024), that’s a win. In 2018, he may have been fortunate but in 2019 he was a different hitter. Did he deserve better despite the shift? A quick glance at his Baseball Savant page shows some impressive batted ball metrics. His average exit velocity (EV) of 89.4 mph was top 16% while his barrels per batted ball event (BRL%) was in the top eight percent. While his strikeout rate went through the roof, there’s a reason for optimism as both those batted ball metrics are by far the best of his career.
Back to the shift. Yeah, he was killed by it with just a .287 wOBA when shifted on compared to a .343 wOBA with standard defensive alignment. Odor is actually pulling a fewer percentage of his ground balls than in years past, so why is the shift hurting him more? Well, fewer than seven percent of his ground balls were hit to the left side of the infield and over one-third up the middle.
As you can see, defenses are still bringing three fielders to the right side of the infield and shading the defender on the left side up the middle. Then, there’s the blue dot right on the infield grass near third base. This positioning is likely to take away a bunt attempt from Odor but opens up the middle. Opposing defenses are going to have to decide between taking away the single up the middle or taking away a bunt attempt. Odor is still a highly volatile hitter but he crushed the ball in 2019 so there is value given his ADP after pick 200.
I have my concerns regarding Cavan Biggio‘s skill set for fantasy purposes. In OBP formats, I think he holds solid value but Biggio backers may want to pump the brakes a bit in standard formats. Baseball Savant shows Biggio as slightly unlucky based on this metric (BA-xBA) but let’s take a look under the hood to find out what’s going on here. He pulled 49.4% of all batted balls in his brief MLB debut but this approach matches what he’s done over the course of his minor-league career. Additionally, 90% of the ground balls he hit in 2019 were pulled (73%) or hit up the middle (17%). He took a major hit when defenses put the shift on with a .334 wOBA against the shift and a .375 wOBA without the shift. I expect Biggio will see an increase in shifts in 2020 based on this data.
This is going to be a mini deep dive, not because I’m anti-Biggio but because he’s so intriguing. The uber-patient Biggio managed a near-elite 8.7% SwStr% which is about 2.5% better than league-average. But, his 26% whiff rate was nearly two percent worse than league-average. This is a good example of the difference between SwStr% and whiff%. SwStr% is swing-and-misses per pitch. Whiff% is swing-and-misses per swing. Because Biggio swings at so few pitches, his SwStr% is low. Will pitchers use his patience to exploit his weaknesses? After starting the count 0-1, Biggio managed just a .630 OPS. That’s not a death sentence by any means but it’s in the bottom 30% of the league after getting behind in the count. Once ahead in the count pitchers have their entire arsenal at their disposal.
I bring that up because Biggio struggled to produce damage against offspeed and breaking pitches with a 40.8% whiff% versus offspeed pitches and a 44% K-rate against breaking balls. Of course, adjustments will be made, but Biggio doesn’t possess the elite power required (104.6 mph maximum exit velocity) to consistently beat the shift. Combine that with his shortcomings against non-fastballs and I see issues for Biggio in 2020 unless adjustments are made. I love the speed component to his game but when at the plate, he may be too one dimensional to be extremely successful now that there’s a book out on him. I’m interested to see what if any changes are made from the young second baseman in year two.
I discussed Brandon Lowe in a recent first-half BABIP outliers peace. Well, after a bloated BABIP in the first half he plummeted back to reality in the second half. He only managed 123 plate appearances in the final three months so who is the real Brandon Lowe? Without any prior MLB experience, teams shifted on him nearly 70% of the time. That’s not a good sign because the more of a book the league has on him, the more the advantage tilts to the defense. How did he fare against the shift? Not good. A mere .311 wOBA against the shift compared to a Trout-ian .441 wOBA against standard defensive alignment.
Someone, please tell me how Lowe managed a .273 BABIP on ground balls with the above extreme profile? He does hit the ball hard and hard contact will result in hit more often than soft hit balls, we all know this. But, if Lowe’s BABIP on ground balls corrects itself to around .215, we could be looking at a .230 hitter.
Yordan Alvarez showcased his impressive power to all fields in 2019 His batted ball profile is very eclectic, to say the least. That being said, I would not be surprised to see his shift percentage jump significantly in 2020. Let’s take a look at his spray chart from 2019.
The batted ball distribution for balls hit beyond the infield is beautiful. But, let’s focus on those ground balls. You can see a high volume of balls hit between first base and second base on the infield/shallow outfield. Now, he hits the ball extremely hard but doesn’t run well. I think defenses will be able to net a few more outs on these ground balls in 2020. There’s still a pocket of balls he hits on the infield to the left of second base but they cluster near the traditional shortstop position. This is consistent with his batted ball profile in the minors.
This one makes me go hmm? 2019 was the first year that defenses shifted against Kris Bryant over 50% of the time. It did not appear to work. Outperforming his xBA is nothing new for KB. He’s done it every year since 2015 and typically by at least 20 points. With a .386 wOBA against the shift and a .374 wOBA against standard infield positioning, you could say the shift was useless. But, why? Bryant has a relatively low hard hit%, especially for a known slugger. Hitting the ball hard yields better results, this is obvious. But, take into account Tom Tango’s research on wOBA for balls hit weakly/strong at certain launch angles.Obviously, it’s better to hit the ball hard but between 12 and 20°, the difference in wOBA between strongly and weakly hit balls is much smaller.
When isolating Bryant’s batted balls into a 10-20° Launch Angle bucket, we find something interesting. His batting average on those balls is 0.691 and .041 higher than his xBA. These are essentially line drives. Line drives typically are hit harder than other batted ball types. The league average exit velocity on balls hit within this launch angle bucket is 93.1 mph. Bryant’s average EV on these batted balls in 2019 was just 90.0 mph. So, these balls are traveling beyond the infielders but dropping in front of the outfielders. Let’s compare Bryant to a couple of hitters who hit the ball at similar exit velocities within this launch angle band and then some of the players who absolutely smoke the ball in this range.
BA – xBA
The two columns I want you to focus on first are the BA-xBA and the exit velocity. Typically, the harder a player hits the ball, the better the result. However, in this launch angle band (10-20 degrees), that’s not exactly the case. Check out the average distance in the far right column. A line drive that travels 220 feet falls into the shallow outfield. Whereas a line drive that travels 290-320 feet falls somewhere in the back half of the outfield, in other words, near a spot where an outfielder might be positioned. A 220-foot line drive will likely fall for a hit more often than a 300-foot line drive because of the positioning of the outfielders. I could do an entire article on this but batted balls in this launch angle range is one of the main reasons Bryant outperforms his expected batting average every year.
In that piece, I covered both over and under-performers. I’ll cover the under-performers next week, but first, let’s recap the players with the largest discrepancy between xBABIP and BABIP through the first half of 2019.
2019 1st Half xBABIP Outliers - Over-performers
Most of us were likely able to identify many of these players as BABIP regression candidates for the second half. As a whole, these outliers had an average BABIP of .343 through June 26th, 2019, nearly 45 points above the league-average. In fact, xBABIP pegged the group as essentially league-average in terms of BABIP based on the batted ball data per Baseball Savant. The table below tracks how each player fared after June 26th. We can expect regression, but how much?
19 of the 25 outliers regressed in the second half of 2019. Some of them saw heavy regression. Trevor Story essentially broke even, so basically, 80% of the over-performers finished with a lower BABIP in the second half. The average drop in BABIP from the group was 36 points. When compared to the average xBABIP-BABIP differential in the original table, the group collectively regressed about 77%. If we exclude the players who actually improved their BABIP in the second half, the differential between 1H BABIP and 2H BABIP is a whopping .052! We’ve got a small sample of outliers but it’s very telling that the first half xBABIP was a much better predictor of second-half BABIP. At least for this group of outliers. Let’s dive into the analysis on each player with some tidbits for 2020.
Rhys Hoskins’ regression was obvious given his profile. Slow-footed hitters with 50% fly ball rates and high pull percentages rarely produce near league-average BABIP, let alone above-league average. Not only did he regress, but he also fell below his xBABIP from the first half. Despite a great eye at the plate, we can expect Hoskins to continue to carry a BABIP around .250 going forward.
Regression came but not as hard as xBABIP predicted for Omar Narvaez. He’s shown strong bat to ball skills and a tight launch angle variance which has helped him outperform his metrics over the last two seasons. It’s no surprise that he once again managed a league-average BABIP. He may continue to outperform his expected metrics going forward but I’m not betting on a .300+ BABIP. Coors Field is largely at play for Charlie Blackmon. Look no further than his home/road splits: .376 BABIP at home vs .296 BABIP on the road. Simply put, he’s a .325 hitter at home and a .275 hitter on the road.
This was an easy win with Brandon Lowe. A .397 BABIP is not sustainable (unless you ask Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson, and Fernando Tatis Jr.). My concern for Lowe is that his true talent is a .300-.320 BABIP hitter. We need a larger sample but if that’s the case, he’s going to hit .230. Once again, Coors Field is to blame for Nolan Arenado. No need to dig deeper. I’d expect him to hit .275 if he’s traded.
Almost nailed it! Miggy is a shell of himself but despite being 36 and one of the slowest players in the majors, he’s still posted better than average BABIP. Even xBABIP thinks so. But I digress, there’s no value here. He’s turning into empty batting average much like Joe Mauer circa 2015. Trevor Story put together a hell of a season. He outperformed his BABIP in the first half but managed to match his xBABIP in the second half. Despite posting back to back seasons with a batting average over .290, the projection systems and his xBABIP peg him as a 275 hitter. What do you think?
I’m not sure Christian Vazquez will maintain a .300+ BABIP again but it’s fun to look at 2019 as an outlier. Gleyber Torres only hit 5.7% of hit ground balls to the opposite field yet managed an above-average BABIP on balls hit on the ground. He was shifted on 33% of his plate appearances. I expect that to rise while his BABIP on ground balls plummets. Projections have his BABIP over .300 which I think is a mistake, especially if he continues to hit pop-ups at an above-average clip. What happens if Gleyber is a .250 hitter?
The second half metrics were strong for Corey Seager but xBABIP isn’t buying it. If he never fully develops into a 30-homer hitter, he could be another boring .280-20-HR type player that does very little for me. Elvis Andrus was dealing with an injury but even still, he was never going to maintain a BABIP near .350. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and his sprint speed is scary low for a player with 30 swipes in 2019. We may be looking at the beginning of the end for Andrus.
Christian Yelich: The un-regressionable candidate: Ideal launch angle for batting average, elite hard contact, great foot speed, the list goes on. He’s the s%$t. Hey, look! I nailed this one – Thanks for making me look good Brian Goodwin. Marcus Semien just keeps getting better. He bounced back spitting in the face of his first-half xBABIP crushing it in the second half. I think we saw the peak Semien season in 2019 but he should be a solid fantasy player going forward. Just not at his current price.
Austin Meadows xBABIP was a solid .332 in the first half and he came all the way down to .300 in the second half. Do we have enough data on Meadows to know what kind of hitter he is? I’m not so sure. For those expecting batting average as one of Meadows’ major assets could be disappointed in 2020. I see him hitting anywhere from .250 to .290. Hi Tim Anderson! Major shrug emoji here. He did hit the ball harder, at lower launch angles, plus he’s got great speed. Even still, Anderson is likely to hit .270 next year and that’s just fine given his power/speed combo.
Yeah, we didn’t believe you either Jorge Polanco. He is like a poor man’s Jeff McNeil. There’s value here but also no need to reach at all. What type of fantasy player is Jeff McNeil if he has a .289 BABIP? Well, he hit .276 in the second half. His power did jump up, but I don’t believe it’s fully sustainable. The good news is, I actually believe he can carry a .330 BABIP going forward based on the data from a majority of two seasons but expecting 23 homers again is a fool’s errand.
We have to accept that Adalberto Mondesi is always going to outperform his xBABIP. It’s likely due to his batting average on ground balls. His batting average minus expected batting average (BA-xBA) on ground balls was .035. I don’t think Statcast fully takes into account the elite speed aspect of his game. He will always outperform his xBA on grounders. However, he was fortunate on line drives by about 100 points, so expecting a BABIP of .350 again is not wise.
For Xander Bogaerts, here’s my explanation. His continued overperformance is a little bit of luck and a little bit due to his home park, Fenway. His BA-xBA on balls in play was .012. So, a little lucky, but nothing crazy. However, if we isolate his balls in play in Fenway Park, his BA-xBA is .059! We should anticipate another BABIP north of .310 from Bogaerts but with neutral luck, we are looking at something close to .320.
Overcorrection much? Juan Soto may have been lucky on his BABIP in the first half but it came all the way back and then some in the second half. I know Soto is a lefty but he sprays balls all over the field and rarely pops up. He’ll continue to carry a .300+ BABIP while smashing 30+ homers. He’s still just 21. I think before he’s 26, we will see a .325-40-120 season from Childish Bambino. One can dream. Joey Votto is kind of in the same camp for me as Miguel Cabrera. After an extended period of greatness, their time has passed. Stay tuned for the underperforming list next week.