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.
xwOBA on Barrels by Launch Angle (2017-2019)
23-35° is the sweet spot for HR. Barrels at each degree of LA within this range have >66% chance of becoming a HR
— Max Freeze (@FreezeStats) April 22, 2020
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)||Barrels||Home Runs||HR/BRL%|
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.
Additional BZB Unfortunate Outliers: Avisail Garcia, Nomar Mazara, Mitch Moreland, Robinson Cano
BZB Fortunate Outliers
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)
— Max Freeze (@FreezeStats) May 17, 2020
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.