In the midst of the so-called “Statcast Era”, hitters and pitchers alike are taught to have one metric be the primary goal for their success: velocity. For pitchers, this makes intuitive sense. Throwing the ball harder leads to more strikeouts and in general better results. Pretty much every metric for evaluating pitching performance and skill level backs this up. According to Baseball Savant, the top 10 starting pitchers in 4 seam fastball velocity for 2019 (minimum 2000 pitches) were as follows: Noah Syndergaard, Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler, Walker Buehler, Luis Castillo, Jon Gray, German Marquez, Sandy Alcantara, and Mike Clevinger. That’s a pretty good list, right? If you include the top 20 pitchers in the category, we would add names such as Max Scherzer, Charlie Morton, Justin Verlander, and Jack Flaherty. It probably wouldn’t surprise you at all to know that 10 of these pitchers were also in the top 20 for opponents xwOBA last year. Along with this, 11 of the top 20 pitchers in DRA as well as 10 of the top 20 in xERA are all among the 20 hardest throwers in the sport. Of course other factors such as command and spin rate are essential, but there is clearly a significant correlation between how hard a starting pitcher throws and how effective he is.
As far as hitting goes, one would think that all of these same principles apply on a general level. A premium is placed on exit velocity, as once again, hitting the ball hard is obviously desirable. But is exit velocity for hitters equally as conducive to success as velocity is for pitchers? To answer this, let’s dive into some data.
The top ten in exit velocity for 2019 (minimum 200 PA) looked like this: Aaron Judge, Miguel Sano, Nelson Cruz, Franmil Reyes, Christian Yelich, Joey Gallo, Josh Donaldson, Shohei Ohtani, Yoan Moncada, and Kyle Schwarber. Let’s extend it out to 20 like we did with the pitchers and we can throw in names such as Matt Chapman, Astros phenom Yordan Alvarez, and Matt Olson. This is an impressive list, but there are only four here that I feel have legitimate arguments to be top 10 hitters in Judge, Yelich, Cruz, and probably Gallo.
Now, I want to compare this with the top ten hitters in the league last year according to DRC+; Prospectus’ measure for assessing skill at the plate accounts for many factors such as the quality of opposing pitching, run environment, and in my estimation most accurately adjusts for parks. Additionally, I want to use it here since it is not as results-based as the more popular wRC+. Top 10 in DRC+ for 2019 looks like this: Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, Alex Bregman, Nelson Cruz, Anthony Rendon, George Springer, Jorge Soler, Pete Alonso, and Ketel Marte. This list includes both league MVPs, both runners up, and the National League Rookie of the Year among other excellent offensive players. However, only two of the hitters in the top ten here were also in the top 10 for exit velocity, Yelich and Cruz. Looking at a sample of just last season does not definitively prove anything, but it does suggest that you don’t have to have a ridiculous average exit velocity to be among the top hitters in the league, whether that be for a single season or otherwise. In order to really test the validity of this argument, however, let’s analyze some players.
The first player who I think is worth taking a look at is the best hitter of our generation, Mike Trout. In the last three seasons, Trout has posted a DRC+ of 177, 183, and 176. These absurd numbers are just one of the reasons why there is a sizable margin between him and the second-best hitter in the league. However, Trout’s historic offensive skill set is not solely a result of him hitting the ball hard.
Does Trout hit the ball hard? Without question, yes he does.
Last season, Trout was in the 80th and 81st percentiles for Exit Velocity and Hard Hit%, respectively. In 2018, he was in the 89th and 90th percentile for the same metrics, and in 2017, he was in the 71st and 73rd percentile. Based on this three-year sample, we can estimate that Trout’s true talent level is hitting the ball harder than roughly 80-85 percent of the league. That’s mighty impressive, but that alone is not something that would scream “best hitter in the league”.The sheer wonder of Trout’s offensive abilities extends far beyond his ability to simply hit the ball hard. Exit velocity does not account for the fact that Trout has the most plate discipline of any player in the league, as well as phenomenal control over the strike zone. He has led the league in BB% by a comfortable margin the last two seasons and was in the top 3 in 2017. Trout’s uncanny eye at the plate gives him such a high floor in any given season. Combine this with the fact that Trout has steadily improved his launch angle and limited his strikeouts throughout the last few years, and it is no secret why he has so much success at the plate.
The other player whose numbers provide a complex and interesting look at the consequences of hitting the ball hard is the 2019 AL MVP runner up, Alex Bregman. The last two years have been nothing short of extraordinary for Bregman in terms of offensive production. His 150 DRC+ in 2018 ranked 4th in the league, and his 157 last year also ranked 4th. No one outside of Mookie Betts and Trout has accumulated more fWAR in the past two seasons. However, if you look at many of his Statcast metrics, Bregman’s success is a bit puzzling.
In 2019, Bregman was in the 54th and 41st percentile for Exit Velocity and Hard Hit%, respectively. The year before that, he was in the 62nd and 64th percentile. Alex Bregman is perhaps the premier example in MLB today of a player who has become a legitimate superstar despite nearly half the league hitting the ball harder than he does. This can seemingly be attributed in part to the fact that, just like Trout, Bregman is a very intelligent hitter. In 2018, Bregman managed a very impressive 13.6% walk rate. However, in 2019 he improved that number to 17.2% which put him right behind Trout and Yasmani Grandal for the third-best mark in the league. He was also the only player in the league last year to have a BB/K ratio over 1, at a whopping 1.43. Just like Trout, Bregman increased his launch angle this past season to just under 20 degrees, which along with some flyball luck and a hitter-friendly park resulted in 41 home runs. Once again, we see that a player’s offensive abilities extend far beyond his ability to make hard contact. Even though Bregman’s exit velo is only slightly above that of the average big leaguer, his production has been as good as nearly anyone in the league for the past couple of seasons.
Thus far, we have looked at two hitters who seem to have excelled beyond their ability to hit the ball hard. The last player I want to analyze is someone who does hit the ball incredibly hard. Athletics first baseman Matt Olson is a towering presence who fields the position probably better than anyone else in the league and also rakes at the plate. Last year, Olson was in the 94th and 98th percentile for Exit Velo and HH%, respectively. In 2018, the numbers were even crazier as he was in the 98th and 99th percentile. Almost no one hits the ball harder than Olson does. However, this hasn’t translated to as much offensive success as you might think. In 2019, Olson had a 134 DRC+. This is undoubtedly a great mark, but despite his 93rd percentile xwOBA, he still ranked outside the top 20 in DRC+, and more than 20 points behind Bregman who does not hit the ball nearly as hard. In 2018, despite his 81st percentile xwOBA, Olson managed just a 114 DRC+, despite hitting the ball even harder than he did in 2019. These kinds of disparities do not seem to be entirely the result of underperformance due to poor batted ball luck, considering the sample for the last two seasons is over 1200 plate appearances. One factor could be that Olson does not walk nearly as much as someone like Bregman or Trout. His 9.3 BB% in 2019, while not terrible, led to a fairly pedestrian .351 OBP. Additionally, his average launch angle for the past two seasons has been around 18 degrees, slightly lower than that of Bregman and Trout.
Admittedly, Bregman and Olson both play in pretty extreme ballparks. The Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park make Houston a very hitter-friendly park, while the long alleyways and deep dimensions of the Coliseum in Oakland make it the exact opposite. There is also a possibility that predictive metrics like xwOBA overcompensate while adjusting for a very pitcher-friendly park such as the O.Co Coliseum. This could account for the fact that despite xwOBA and DRC+ both being expected stats, there does not seem to be nearly as strong of a positive correlation between exit velocity and DRC+ as there is for exit velo and xwOBA. However, if we are to trust the slightly more sophisticated DRC+ in adjusting for this stark discrepancy in parks, then we can not chalk up the difference between Olson and Bregman simply to where they play.
I mentioned that one of the key offensive attributes of players like Trout and Bregman is their ability to draw walks at a tremendous rate. We saw earlier how the top 10 in exit velocity correlated to the top 10 in DRC+. Now let’s do that with BB/K, which shows how often a player walks for every time they strike out. Last year the top 10 in BB/K ratio were Alex Bregman, Carlos Santana, Mookie Betts, Anthony Rendon, Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, David Fletcher, Marcus Semien, Anthony Rizzo, and Juan Soto. Extend the list out to the top 20, and we throw in Freddie Freeman, Christian Yelich, and Nolan Arenado, all of whom are also in the top 20 in DRC+. Altogether, 4 out of the top 10 and 12 out of the top 20 in DRC+ are also among the top players in BB/K ratio. That is a much stronger correlation than there was between exit velocity and DRC+. This seems to suggest that the ability to reach base by walking while cutting down on strikeouts can be a better indicator for success at the plate than exit velocity.
In analyzing these three very different players, as well as taking a look at the league leaders in various offensive metrics, there seems to be at least some credence to the fact that hard contact does not always result in the highest levels of success at the plate. This is not to say that aiming for a high exit velocity is foolish. Hitting the ball hard obviously has benefits, and there is a reason scouts look for young players who make the ball jump off the bat. However, in order to be a complete offensive player, a combination of factors such as plate discipline, controlling the strike zone, and launch angle are every bit as important, if not more so than simply hitting the ball hard. Players like Kris Bryant and Alex Bregman could not dream of hitting the ball as hard as someone like Miguel Sano or Kyle Schwarber, despite having much greater success at the plate over the last few years. So, is hitting the ball hard overrated? I think that to a certain extent, it surely is. However, as we discover new ways of analyzing players with new and improved advanced metrics, this question might become more complex, and definitely more interesting.
Featured Photo: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez