Going Deep 7/28: Using Statcast Data to Scrutinize Hot Hitters

Batting Average on Balls in Play, Walk Rate, Swinging Strike rate. In the days of yore these were gold standard stats to look at when evaluating a hitters performance. Oh...

Batting Average on Balls in Play, Walk Rate, Swinging Strike rate. In the days of yore these were gold standard stats to look at when evaluating a hitters performance. Oh for the simpler times of 2014. At this point if you’re unaware of the analytical impact of Statcast you’re falling behind the curve. Exit Velocity has become the latest buzzword in baseball and we’re at the nascent moment for its relevance to fantasy analysis. Eno Sarris and Andrew Perpetua have been incorporating Statcast into their work over at Fangraphs in exciting ways which you can read about here and here. It’s only a matter of time before the major projection systems like Steamer roll out improved models incorporating the latest batted ball data in their yearly forecasts. 

So how do we look at this stuff as fantasy players? How can we use this data to our advantage. If you’re a subscriber at BaseballHQ maybe you saw Patrick Davitt’s piece on this very same dilemma (can’t link. paywall.). Despite the seemingly “new-fangledness” of all this data there are some touchstones for us. Base hits dramatically increase on balls with an EV (Exit Velocity) greater than or equal to 95 MPH. But, as Davitt and Sarris have pointed out, that’s not the entire piece of the pie here. 

Baseballs come towards the plate on a downward plane. It’d be physically impossible for them not too given the elevation of the mound and the location of the strike zone. Unless hitters suddenly start rocking stilts, which would be pretty hilarious, this is a fixed physical reality of the sport. You’ve maybe heard talk of pitchers having “rise” on their Fastball, but in reality those guys just have less drop than average. So the pitch appears to be elevating in relation to other offerings. 

Because of the downward trajectory of the baseball a swing needs to meet the ball on an opposing, upward, plane in order to alter it’s trajectory for an outcome such as a homer. Blah, Blah, Blah, enter launch angle. The general consensus is that anything from 20º to 35º is optimal for power, and there’s a true sweet spot for homers between 25º and 30º. In those angles a ball launched at 95MPH usually goes over a fence. Consider that a well-barreled ball. Conversely, anything under 20º may not have enough arch to clear a wall, or anything over 35º may have too much.

It stands to reason that the speed and angle at which a bat is swung is completely within the hitters control. The pitcher is largely trying to work in opposition to those skills. So let’s take a look at some unheralded dudes who are running up the Home Run leader board over the last 30 days (June 26th – July 26th) with an eye towards how many of these taters came in the optimal band for power, as well as the aforementioned sweet spot. Maybe we’ll find some guys with underappreciated skills, maybe we won’t. 

Ryan Schimpf (2B, San Diego Padres) – It’s a fact as old as time…schimpfin’ ain’t easy. And yet Ryan Schimpf is making schimpfin’ look easy right now. Damn that fool. The Lefty’s 9 taters lead the league over the last month. Yet, of the 9 only 6 have appeared in our optimal band. Not bad. But when you consider only 2 have appeared in that sweet spot his ability to barrel up for optimal power consistently comes into question. So, what exactly does this doubt mean? All of these balls in play were homers after all. Well, here’s what it looks like. 

One of the coolest features of Statcast is the easy video access provided for most Batted Ball Events. Take a look at these Schimpf Bombs here and here. The first one fits our criteria when it comes to EV. It was 105 MPH off the bat. But it was launched at a skyscraping 41.92 angle. Definitely falling into the “too much” angle bucket. You can actually see the ball graze the far top of the wall, just out of the reach of Piscotty’s glove. That’s not exactly a no doubter, the angle allowed Piscotty to have a legit play on that ball, and in another ballpark…The tater in the second video had a 99mph/33.8 split, well within our optimal band, but at 361 feet of distance travelled this ball is a double in most parks. Schimpf bombs? Shrimp Bombs.

No doubt I’m nit picking. If I were solely relying on the outcome of two batted balls to make my analysis Bill James would come beat the crap out of me. But in the context of Schimpf’s other work I think this is without question Schimpf’s peak. Consider the following heatmaps (remember he’s a LHB):

It doesn’t take Greg Maddux to figure out where to pitch this dude.

The league will adjust to Schimpf-y, and I’m willing to bet it’ll be quick. Yeah, he blasted AAA (.355/.432/.729 in 190 PAs), but he did so in the PCL, and at the ripe age of 28. If you’re in an OBP league more than 15 teams deep than Schimpf is worth a look. He’s posted strong walk rates in his minor league career, but outside of those contexts I’m avoiding this dude anywhere but NL only leagues despite the hot month. 

Yasmani Grandal (C, Los Angeles Dodgers) – It’s easy to look at a 44.4% HR/FB mark, Grandal’s rate for the month, and scream “REGRES-SION!!!” Duh. No mortal coil possesses the combination of strength and skill to maintain such an inflated number over the course of 162 games. When you’re hitting a homer on nearly half of the balls you put in the air there’s undoubtedly some luck involved like this one, which just barely clears the wall and Charlie Blackmon’s mitt.

Yet, all 8 of his homers in the month are in the optimal band, and 3 were crushed in the sweet spot (with some tiny rounding adjustments). Impressively Grandal’s homers have averaged a healthy 411ft of distance (Schimpf averaged 396), and they’ve come in a variety of different counts. 1-2 Slider, 3-1 Sinker, 3-1 Four Seam, 1-1 Slider, 0-2 Four Seam, 2-2 Four Seam, 2-2 Slider, and 1-2 Four Seam. 5 homers in two strike counts. You’ll notice there’s a predominant fastball presence in this sample, which you might count against Grandal. But consider that Grandal posted a mediocre .177 ISO versus fastballs through the first three months of the year. Since July 1st he’s posted a .600 mark against the cheddar. Pretty sweet.

Of course Grandal’s HR/FB% will regress, but keep in mind Grandal had offseason shoulder surgery, a potential culprit for the lack of power early on. Given what Grandal’s managed over the past month I feel confident that he’s, at the very least, fully healthy again. Given the horrifying valley of abject sadness that is the fantasy relevant catcher this season he’s an add in all formats for me going forward, especially in OBP leagues where his always robust walk rates play up. Remember this dude hit .284 with 14 bombs when fully healthy during last year’s first half.

Justin Turner (3B, Los Angeles Dodgers) – Justin. Turner. Overdrive. Le Grande Orange 2.0 has done nothing short of slay over the past two months. .922 OPS in June. 1.073 OPS in July. This after posting sub .700 marks in April and May respectively. Over the last 30 days Turner has struck 12 balls in the optimal power band tying him for 4th in baseball with Freddie Freeman, and Nolan Arenado.

He’s tated 8 fold over the last 30 days. All of them in the optimal band and a whopping 6 of them have come in the sweet spot. Including this lil’ tate, and this lil’ tate. Both absolute bombs. The last one is without question my favorite. With that beard and those flowing orange locks why wouldn’t Justin Turner hate cameras?

Like Grandal, Turner came into the year recovering from surgery. While it was Turner’s knee that ailed him it’s safe to say he needed some time to get his base under him before regaining his power stroke. Consider it regained. If there’s an owner out there willing to sell I’m buying high. Also, I personally think Justin Turner is beautiful.

Max Eddy contributes for Pitcher List and spent his childhood watching and re-watching Ken Burns’s Baseball. When he magically happened to attend Game 4 of the ‘99 NLDS, witnessing Todd Pratt’s walk off homer to clinch the series, his fate as a Mets fan was sealed. Coping mechanisms include Pacifco, BBQ, and playing as much fantasy baseball as possible. You can harass him on Twitter @maxwelleddy. 

Nick Pollack

Founder of Pitcher List. Creator of CSW, The List, and SP Roundup. Worked with MSG, FanGraphs, CBS Sports, and Washington Post. Former college pitcher, travel coach, pitching coach, and Brandeis alum. Wants every pitcher to be dope.

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