Blast Zone Launch Angle – Climbers and Fallers

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.


2017 (AVG EV) 2018 (AVG EV)

2019 (AVG EV)

90.6 MPH 90.9 MPH

91.3 MPH

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

PlayerAge2017 (MPH)2018 (MPH)2019 (MPH)Diff (19-17)
Yoan Moncada2594.890.995.91.1
Starling Marte3187.092.796.89.8
Shin Soo Choo3791.394.995.84.5
Nick Castellanos2892.693.194.01.4
Nelson Cruz4096.397.399.93.6
Mike Trout2893.894.095.31.5
Kyle Seager3290.691.495.14.5
Kole Calhoun3290.891.993.42.6
Josh Bell2791.
Eugenio Suarez2889.992.093.63.7
Anthony Rendon3091.992.094.72.8
Alex Bregman2690.692.694.13.5
Christian Yelich2890.793.996.45.7
Didi Gregorius3087.288.892.45.2
D.J. LeMahieu3187.59295.58.0
Jason Jeyward3086.987.690.33.4
Kris Bryant2890.991.293.82.9
Matt Chapman2794.493.998.84.4
Xander Bogaerts2785.193.7948.9

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

PlayerAge2017 (MPH)2018 (MPH)2019 (MPH)Diff (19-17)
Daniel Murphy3591.088.485.9-5.1
Yuli Gurriel3689.689.788.4-1.2
Yadier Molina3793.391.290.3-3.0
Whit Merrifield3191.790.687.8-3.9
Paul Goldschmidt3297.393.493.3-4.0
Justin Smoak3394.894.093.0-1.8
Josh Reddick3388.589.286.9-1.6
Joey Votto3691.393.490.1-1.2
J.D. Martinez3296.396.094.3-2.0
Albert Pujols4092.493.690.3-2.1
Kurt Suzuki3693.891.186.7-7.1

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.

2018 Breakouts Part 2 – Last Year’s Breakouts

In part one I highlighted three breakout players for 2018 including Ozzie Albies, Brandon Nimmo, and Steven Duggar. In part two, I want to analyze a few players who broke out in 2017 and see if it’s sustainable or not. I see a lot of pushback on Chris Taylor and Tim Beckham has been drafted criminally late in drafts (most after pick 250). There is some love for Josh Bell and his approach at the plate may have something to do with the optimism heading into 2018.

Chris Taylor seemingly came out of nowhere is 2017 to become the leadoff hitter for the National League Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Taylor played his share of second base, centerfield and shortstop (Corey Seager missed some time). Prior to 2017, he owned a .598 OPS, 27% K rate, and 7% BB rate as a major leaguer, but that came in 318 plate appearances across three partial seasons. He also wasn’t on the big club on Opening Day but still managed to play in 140 games and make a huge impact. The 21 home runs and 17 steals were great but his triple slash was just as impressive at .288/.354/.496! A .361 BABIP is likely the cause for a high average but the breakout occurred nonetheless.

Before we analyze his approach change, I want to highlight his well above average speed measured at 6.4 Speed score on FanGraphs where 4.0 is about average. He’s also had a rare consistency for hitting line drives so an elevated BABIP seems to fit his profile. Prior to 2017, Taylor had a bit of ground ball heavy approach. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for a guy with speed, but with a GO/AO ratio of 1.3 without a ton of hard contact prior to 2017, he didn’t profile for more than a 10 to 12 homer guy. In 2017, that ratio fell to 0.97, nearly 1:1, that, combined with solid hard contact on fly balls fueled the power spike. I like that he sprays the ball to all fields, that’s great for his BABIP and batting average, but may not be ideal for home runs. He did manage to hit 13 of his 21 home runs in 2017 to either center or right field. That’s impressive, but unless he starts pulling his fly balls more, I don’t fully believe in a repeat of 20+ homers in 2018. I’ve got him down for 18, so not far off, but I don’t see power growth, unless…

He continues to increase his fly ball percentage. This spring, he went crazy fly ball heavy and posted a 0.55 GO/AO ratio with only two home runs but a solid nine XBH plus a 10 BB to 8 strikeout ratio. Based on Jeff Zimmerman’s chart, Taylor should see around 40% fly ball rate +/- this year if he maintains his current approach. That could be the difference between 18 home runs and 22 home runs for the upcoming season. The increased patience is a great sign as well and could help his OBP and stolen base opportunities. It’s possible the average dips to around .260 but if he goes 22/20 will you care?

Josh Bell had a reputation in the minors of a high contact, great patience, high average hitter with moderate power. He’s a big guy at 6’2”, 230 pounds but that reputation was based on his approach to hitting and his production in the minors. The power is there with Bell, he just needed to harness it. Bell ended up hitting 26 home runs in 2017 which was nine more than his previous career high. It wasn’t all roses though, he upped his strikeout rate to nearly 19% and lower his walk rate to 10.6% and his average dipped to a career-low .255. What’s interesting to me is that he didn’t change his approach, his fly ball and ground ball rates remained steady. He had a few more swing and misses and had a huge increase in HR/FB up to 19%.

I’ve broken his GO/AO ratios between minors and majors which are 1.44 and 1.58 respectively. That’s simply too ground ball heavy for a potential power hitter. This spring, however that ratio dipped to 0.94 in 48 at-bats which included four homers and eight XBH with six walks to five strikeouts. I really like that approach, he’s not going to the extreme in terms of fly balls. That “extreme” fly ball approach would kill his average, but if he can maintain a near 1:1 GB/FB ratio, I think we may see his first 30 home run season.

Players with the approach to hitting that Bell has shown in his young career have the best chance to succeed in my opinion. The ability to have a high walk rate without an elevated strikeout rate gives the hitter the ability to be patient and wait for his pitch. The likelihood of success is high with Bell. His .255 average was unlucky as his BABIP sat at .278. Bell hasn’t shown the ability to hit the ball with authority consistently evidenced by his below average exit velocity but his average home runs distance was 402 feet. When he hits it hard, it goes a long way. I’d like to see his exit velocity improve early is 2018 and maybe he can reach the levels I believe he has the potential to reach.

Tim Beckham, the number one overall pick by the Devil Rays way back in 2008! Beckham’s career up until 2017 was a complete disappointment as he had accumulated all of 1.2 WAR through 2016. Last year alone he compiled 3.5 WAR, so yes Tim Beckham finally broke out. Is it sustainable though?

High strikeout rates and low walk rates are not usually my kind of player. However, he did have a well above average 39% hard contact rate along with limiting popups. That’s something I can get behind. But, he’s been a ground control (link) guy his whole career near 50.. His minor league GO/AO ratio is 1.54, in the majors, it’s 1.34. This spring, he decreased it to 0.87 in 55 at-bats with four home runs. Beckham is interesting because there is a lot of power in his bat. 2017 was the second time he had posted a 20+% HR/FB rate, the other being in 2015 in 83 games with the Rays. So, these aren’t small samples.

Given a full season of starts, it’s not out of the question that Beckham could hit 30 home runs. I think he needs to his strikeout rate below 30%, hopefully in the 26-28% range. The high BABIP makes him a dangerous option to continue his breakout. If the K rate jumps over 30% and his BABIP falls, we may be looking at .220 hitter without the walks to sustain prolonged slumps. Beckham is my biggest risk of this group to go belly up. If he struggles early and can’t right the ship, he could see the bench and be limited to a part-time roll.

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