With access to advanced metrics, hitters are digging in to go deep

Steve Gardner , USA TODAY Sports Published 1:24 p.m. ET March 23, 2017 | Updated 2:55 p.m. ET April 2, 2017

 

(Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)

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The statistical revolution in Major League Baseball has yielded some significant breakthroughs in run prevention, most recently in the areas of defensive shifting and pitch framing.

But no matter how the numbers are crunched, there’s no defense against a ball that leaves the field of play.

As recently as 2014, scoring dropped to its lowest level in 33 years. But as pitchers have continued to throw harder and become more dominant, hitters have figured out the home run might be the one weapon they have that can help even the playing field.

The last two seasons have seen scoring turn upward, and in 2016, the rate of 1.16 home runs per game was the second highest in baseball history (incrementally behind the 1.17 per game in 2000).

Former manager Earl Weaver’s mantra of “pitching, defense and three-run homers” has never been a more effective strategy for winning games.

Alongside the advancement of defensive statistics, hitters are using advanced statistics to maximize their ability to go deep. And if need be, they’re changing their approaches at the plate to do so.

“The whole goal is to hit the ball hard,” says Baltimore Orioles DH Mark Trumbo, who led the majors last season with 47 home runs.

“The defenses have changed … You want to hit it hard, but you also want to hit it high, too. I’m not saying sky-high pop-ups, but hitting the ball on the ground with the way teams are scouting players, it’s not terribly desirable.”

With Trumbo leading the way, the Orioles led the majors in home runs. Their total of 253 was 28 more than the second-place Seattle Mariners.

The surge in home runs has been a direct result of hitters no longer worrying as much about how many times they strike out. Even with two strikes, they’re taking their hacks. The Orioles’ Chris Davis tied for 11th place with 38 homers while at the same time leading the majors with 219 strikeouts.

But when they do make contact, as Trumbo says, elevation is essential.

Trumbo, Davis and Manny Machado combined for 122 home runs, more than any trio on any other team. And all three players had fly-ball rates of more than 42%, which put them among the top 25 in the majors.

FLY BALL PERCENTAGE: 2016 MLB leaders (via Fangraphs)

“There’s just a lot of good things that can happen when you hit it hard and you hit it in the air,” Trumbo says. “I think that’s something if you watch Manny, you watch (Josh) Donaldson, (Edwin) Encarnacion, all these guys that are doing a lot of damage, I doubt too many of them are hitting too many ground balls.”

Sure enough, Encarnacion (42 homers, .528 slugging percentage) and Donaldson (37, .549) both had fly-ball rates of 41%, safely putting them inside the top 40 of 146 qualified hitters.

“They have a nice ability to square balls up, find gaps and hit it over guys’ heads. At the end of the day, guys are doing a lot of damage, and that’s how they’re doing it,” Trumbo says.

It’s all about physics

All it takes is one listen to New York Yankees broadcaster John Sterling’s signature call to know what it takes to hit a home run. It is high … It is far … It is ... gone!

Using high-definition cameras in every ballpark that record the movement of not only the ball but every player, MLB’s Statcast technology can now tell us how high and how hard a ball needs to be hit before it’s gone.

Home runs are a product of two factors Statcast measures that are publicly available: Exit velocity and launch angle.

Simply put, a ball has the best chance to become a homer if it’s hit at a certain minimum speed and at the optimal angle in the air. From there, it’s all physics.

“I want to get the ball elevated, off the ground and try to hit gaps,” says Washington Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy.

In 2015, the first season Statcast results were collected from every major league game, the numbers confirmed some things most observers already knew: Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton hit the ball harder than anyone else in the game.

The single hardest-hit ball in each of Statcast's two seasons of existence have come off the bat of Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton: 120.3 mph in 2015 and 123.9 in 2016. (Photo: Jesse Johnson, USA TODAY Sports)

His average exit velocity (the speed of the ball off the bat) was 98.6 mph, nearly 4 mph greater than No. 2 Miguel Sano. Not surprisingly, Stanton’s average home run distance of 425 feet also ranked first.

But now that Statcast is able to measure the second component, launch angle, we get a better idea of what it takes to maximize — as Trumbo says — the “damage.”

Players are taking notice.

“I won’t look at it for every ball I hit. But let’s say I’m going through a little bit of a slow time where my batting average or my numbers aren’t equaling what I’m doing, I’ll take a peek at that and just see if those are consistent,” Detroit Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez says. “If I see my launch angles are off, then it’s like, OK, there is something wrong.”

Last season, Tom Tango, Senior Data Architect at MLB Advanced Media, came up with a new way to combine both elements.

The stat — called “Barrels” to represent hitting the ball on the sweet spot, or barrel, of the bat — identifies balls hit with the optimal exit velocity (EV) and launch angle (LA) to produce a home run.

Those numbers are an EV of 98 mph or greater and an LA of 26-30 degrees.

One of the true measures of any stat is how well it explains what we see or think we see with our own eyes. In this case, the 2016 league leaders in Barrels reads like a who’s who of top sluggers.

Barrels leaders, 2016

1. Miguel Cabrera 72
2. Nelson Cruz 68
3. Mark Trumbo 67
4. Khris Davis 65
5. David Ortiz 62
T6. Mike Trout 57
T6. Evan Longoria 57
8. Chris Carter 56
9. Freddie Freeman 54
T10. Chris Davis 53
T10. Kris Bryant 53
12. Edwin Encarnacion 52
13. Josh Donaldson 51
14. Matt Kemp 50
T15. Mike Napoli
T15. Justin Upton 48

Source: BaseballSavant.com

Obviously, not all of those barreled balls went for home runs. The metric doesn’t take into account, for instance, the direction the ball is hit, the impact of the weather, great defensive plays and other factors.

However, according to MLB.com, “During the 2016 regular season, balls assigned the Barreled classification had a batting average of .822 and a 2.386 slugging percentage.”

That’s doing some serious damage.

Taking the next step

With a deeper understanding of the physics of hitting, some players are using the numbers to take their games to the next level.

“When I was in New York, they were really big on exit velocity,” Murphy recalls. By working with hitting coach Kevin Long, teammate Lucas Duda was able to go from a 15-homer homer hitter in 2013 to 30 homers the following year.

Murphy had been an excellent contact hitter throughout his major league career, but late in the 2015 season the work he was doing with Long began to yield dramatic results.

After hitting 14 home runs in the regular season, Murphy exploded in the playoffs, hitting .421 with seven homers and being named the Most Valuable Player in the National League Championship Series as the Mets advanced to the World Series.

He says it all comes down to one simple concept: “The harder you hit the ball, hopefully the more opportunity you have to create your own holes.”

Murphy’s another graduate of baseball’s school of flight. His fly-ball rate has gone from 29% to 36% to a career-high 42% over the past three seasons.

“For me, if I hit the ball really hard and the first thing it does is hit the ground, it’s going to eliminate some of that velocity, thus making it easier for the fielders to catch it,” Murphy says.

His slugging percentage the past three seasons shows he’s succeeding: .403, then .449 and finally .595 last season, second in the majors behind only David Ortiz.

“We’re trying to hit it as hard as we can and get it elevated over the infielders, and hopefully we can get it over the outfielders, too,” he says. “The numbers are bearing out what we’ve all been trying to do since we were kids, which is hit the ball as hard as we can.”

 

Finding a security blanket

Martinez had his own career transformation in 2014 after he was released by the Houston Astros. Needing to do something different to return to the majors, he completely overhauled his swing and caught the eye of the Detroit Tigers.

He earned a promotion, continued to rake and never relinquished his starting job in the outfield thanks to his newfound power.

Martinez hit 23 home runs in 123 games that season, then followed it up with a 38-homer, 102-RBI breakout in 2015.

Although the stat hadn’t been created yet, Martinez barreled the ball more than any other player that season. His 76 were four more than runner-up Mike Trout.

For him, the advanced stats can serve as a type of security blanket.

“There was a point last year when I was hitting like .250, but I looked at my launch angles and my exit velo and it was good. It was fine. It was right where it normally is,” he says. “So it’s almost a sense of not to panic. It’s more of a comfort, the hits will come. Everything is in the right spot right now.”

Injuries limited Martinez to 120 games and 22 home runs last year, but he posted the same .535 slugging percentage he had in his breakout 2015 season. Similarly, his total number of Barrels was down, but when averaged per plate appearance he was still among the top 15 in the majors.

There is a danger in getting too reliant on the numbers, however.

“It’s probably more useful in finding players that might help you than using it as a teaching tool,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus says. “You can’t go to a player and say, ‘Hey, your launch angle is a little bit high. Can you see if you get on top of the ball a little more?’ That’s not how hitting works.”

But it does help if the stats add to an overall understanding of the game. Some major league teams prefer that their scouts not look at Statcast information and other advanced metrics because it could affect their evaluation of a player.

The idea is to keep scouting separate from analytics until it’s time to weigh them all together. Other organizations want their scouts to have as much information as possible to make their evaluations.

Again, it’s the best of both worlds when the numbers and the eye test say the same things.

In addition to Martinez, the Tigers had two other hitters in the top 15 last season in Barrels per plate appearance. Being familiar with advanced metrics, one reporter asked Ausmus if that fact surprised him.

“We’ve got one of the best hitters in the history of the game,” Ausmus responded in reference to perennial All-Star Miguel Cabrera.

He thought for a brief moment.

“I’d guess J.D. is one of ’em.”

“(Justin) Upton is probably up there in exit velocity; launch angle I’m not so sure. Nick (Castellanos) maybe?”

Sure enough, Cabrera was second overall — hitting the ball on the barrel in 10.6% of his plate appearances. Castellanos was 12th at 8.3% and Martinez 14th at 8.1%.

“It’s great to throw out numbers and act like they’re important,” Ausmus says. “There’s gotta be a way to use them. Those numbers are more useful in putting a team together as opposed to coaching a player.”

Fantasy implications

Ah yes, putting a team together. Although their rosters change some from year to year, major league teams have a core group of players they have to build around.

Fantasy owners, on the other hand, have much more freedom to pick and choose which players they want on their rosters.

Could some of these Statcast numbers and advanced metrics help uncover hidden value? It’s possible.

Last season’s leader in Barrels per plate appearance was Oakland Athletics outfielder Khris Davis, who finished just ahead of Cabrera, at 10.7%.

Barrels/PA leaders, 2016

1. Khris Davis            10.7%
2. Miguel Cabrera        10.6%
3. Gary Sanchez        10.5%
4. Nelson Cruz        10.2%
5. Mark Trumbo        10.0%
6. David Ortiz            9.9%
7. Byung Ho Park        9.4%
8. Giancarlo Stanton        9.1%
9. Ryan Howard        9.1%
10. Chris Carter        8.7%
11. Mike Trout        8.4%
12. Nick Castellanos        8.3%
13. Evan Longoria        8.3%
14. J.D. Martinez        8.1%
15. Trevor Story        8.0%
16. Pedro Alvarez        8.0%
17. Chris Davis        8.0%
18. Rickie Weeks Jr.        7.8%
19. Tommy Joseph        7.8%
20. Freddie Freeman        7.8%

Source: BaseballSavant.com

Davis also ranked fourth in Exit Velocity on line drives and fly balls, an important element in finding gaps in the outfield. And according to Fangraphs, his 39.1% rate of hard-hit balls ranked 18th.

HARD HIT PERCENTAGE: 2016 MLB leaders (via Fangraphs)

Wondering if Gary Sanchez and Trevor Story were flukes in their abbreviated rookie seasons?

Statcast says they hit the ball squarely on a consistent basis. Sanchez was especially good at generating a high exit velocity with his 97.8-mph average on line drives and fly balls, just behind the A’s Davis and tied with the Blue Jays’ Donaldson for fifth place.

Story’s 95.1-mph EV wasn’t among the league leaders, but his 47.1% fly-ball rate was one of the highest in baseball. And his hard-hit percentage (44.9%) was right behind Ortiz’s MLB-best 45.9%.

 

Another interesting name on the list is the Philadelphia Phillies’ Tommy Joseph, who will take over the job at first base full-time this season following the departure of Ryan Howard. He also had an elevated 45.1% fly-ball rate.

And finally, Statcast mighty have uncovered a potential deep sleeper: Byung Ho Park of the Minnesota Twins. Although a hand injury limited him to 62 games and he hit only .191, Park did make remarkably solid contact when he did connect.

In addition to ranking seventh in Barrels per plate appearance, he placed in the top 10 in exit velocity (97.2 mph) on line drives and fly balls.

For all the excitement this spring over Eric Thames’ 47 and 40 home runs in Korea the past two seasons, it’s easy to forget Park hit 53 there in 2015 and 52 in 2014.

Plus, Park is healthy and raking this spring, while Thames has been merely ordinary.

While it’s possible to draw any number of conclusions from the information available today, it’s important to remember the numbers are much better at telling us what already has happened — and not always so helpful in telling us what’s going to happen.

Hitters, as well as pitchers, are always making adjustments.

“The cool part of the game is no one’s just accepting something anymore just because someone says it. There’s ways to make it valid, and there’s numbers out there to show it,” says Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder A.J. Pollock.

“You can do your own homework now. You can make your own decisions based on what the stats are giving you and the numbers they’ve crunched. That part I really do enjoy — you’re your own coach now because of what’s out there.”