Using September Exit Velocity to Find 2020 Breakouts and Rebounds

Five unheralded hitters that could pay some serious dividends.

Remembering to keep it simple can be as hard as it is worthwhile. Exit velocity provides us a single data point that can help us see how players are developing and can become meaningful after just a few samples. In today’s game, the development process never stops. So while it becomes easy to tune out toward the end of the season, especially as fewer and fewer teams are in the playoff race, guys may still be tinkering or getting healthy. Subtle changes may start to manifest.

In each of the last three seasons, players have broken out who might’ve given us a sense of what was to come just by how hard they started hitting the ball through the air in the previous September. Consider the leaps or rebounds taken by

Now, go look at their exit velocity on fly balls and line drives in the previous September. Each one of those players hit the ball in the air at least two miles per hour harder that September compared to the rest of the same season. In the following season, they all had a wRC+ at least 10 points higher (and in some instances, much higher). Those guys aren’t the only ones on the list and the EV gains didn’t necessarily stick. That truth isn’t as satisfying as we’d like for the sake of this exercise but it can still guide us, like a compass, to see how we might use exit velocity to reflect on a player. It’s a touchstone for understanding: how hard a guy can hit the ball in the air will regularly offer an opportunity to see his ceiling.

The end of the 2019 season provided us some interesting names at which we can throw darts as we navigate the waves of draft season. See for yourself.

2019 September EV Gainers on Balls in the Air

All of these guys are currently going for a price in drafts that ranges from relatively cheap to basically free, and they could all find a way onto more rosters as the season gets going. Add in that they all also come with some sort of cachet or history of success and the list is even more intriguing.

Travis Shaw had not only the worst year of his career last season, but the second-worst season of any major leaguer who registered at least 250 plate appearances. His swing hanged amid offseason workouts and by the time he wanted to back to his old one, muscle memory had set in on the new (and terrible) one. He struck out in a whopping 33% of his ABs and his isolated slugging dropped by over a hundred points. All hope seemed to be lost after a delightful breakout just a couple years prior that helped him to 30+ homers in back-to-back years. However, his September exit velocity on balls in the air suggests he got back into his groove and wasn’t fighting his body as he was earlier in the season, even if the counting stats didn’t show it. He’ll have a change of scenery in moving from Milwaukee to Toronto for his home games, which isn’t great, but he’s got a path to playing time in the heart of the order on an up-and-coming offense. Even if deep leagues, he’s going after the 20th round and is worth the dart throw.

It might not be reasonable to call the poster boy for this piece, Kyle Schwarber, a potential breakout candidate. Rather, this is more another bump to embrace what he did very quietly in 2019. A couple of us here have been beating the Schwarber drum through the offseason. The first of which is that he simply seems to be a dude who digs hitting lower in the order, and that’s exactly where the Cubs placed him in the middle of last year. He was just a different hitter after July 27. Like Shaw, he could hit in the middle of a stocked lineup. His 120 wRC+ was better than the average outfielder’s by 18 percentage points and he’s still being taken as a 3rd outfielder. The possibility for profit is strong.

Jeimer Candelario might have been a fringe prospect who has now entered the sleepy side of post hype. At 26, he’s regularly posted walk rates in the double digits and offered a strong batting average. He’s never had a lot of power but if the rabbit ball sticks around he might push his way into being rosterable as a CI. He’s slated to open the season for Detroit as the team’s third baseman and could have eligibility at first base, too, depending on how the team cycles through CJ Cron and Niko Goodrum. It’s anyone’s guess as to who’s getting playing time for the Tigers in August, but odds are Candelario will continue to find it. He’s the lowest ranked player in this bunch and can be cut without a second thought if he starts the season poorly. If he picks up where he left off, you’re almost certain to turn a profit on having added him to your squad.

Garrett Hampson is getting buoyed by helium from his skills and hope for drafters right now. He’s currently slated as a bench option for the Rockies but will likely see time as part of a rotation that also features Ryan McMahon and possibly Ian Desmond. Look, the Rockies are weird. Their player development choices seem to almost universally oppose what appears to make sense. His EV gains at the end of last year still left him below league average. Even still, his wRC+ skyrocketed at the end of the year. A full season of hitting the ball similarly hard could mean he’s pushing into 15/25 territory, which only 6 other hitters managed last year (5 of which are elite, top round talents, plus Jonathan Villar).

Corey Dickerson will start the year as the Marlins starting left fielder, batting in the top of the lineup. His career arc looks more like a line of camels but he mashed when healthy for the Phillies last year. Playing his home games in Miami could stink even with the fences being moved in; however, the opportunity will remain. So far through draft season managers are viewing him as a fifth outfielder. The price and context make him a solid early season play who has a history of making adjustments and going on tears. You can move on as soon as he’s traded or runs cold and cedes playing time to a younger guy, of which the Marlins have plenty.

Paul DeJong is an intriguing option up the middle. He recently told Anne Rogers of MLB.com that he’s trying to simplify his approach at the plate by only looking for pitches in certain parts of the zone so he can drive the ball better. Swinging less to hit more is a legitimate plan of attack. The caveat here is he appeared to be doing that in the final month of last year but actually managed to create runs at a rate that was well below average. He still managed to knock 30 bombs and tally 97 runs, and the Cardinals seem to wring production out of players one way or another. If they can optimize DeJong’s approach so he hits the ball hard and in the air more often, whether it’s from targeting pitches up in the zone or not, he could be a worthy back-end shortstop.

Despite any data point or rate of production, one month does not make a player. These guys won’t be anyone you build your draft or auction strategy around but they could be the unheralded pieces that help nudge you toward contention. Monitoring them early on could pay dividends much later.

Photo by Jerome Lynch/Icon Sportswire | Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)

Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson is a writer and educator who loves pitching duels. Find him in the PL Discord, editing, managing, and podcasting with @BREAKINGPodPL here or writing at Baseball Prospectus.

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