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Using Statcast to Predict Improvement

My former nerd-hero was Nate Silver, a statistical genius responsible for many advances in projecting baseball statistics and political outcomes based entirely on data. In the last year, a new contender has emerged. The creator of baseball savant, Daren Willman, has given fantasy owners an incredible toolbox with which to evaluate fantasy baseball players. Combined with the availability of detailed information from Statcast, more informed judgments regarding a player’s future prospects are being made. Consider the following chart showing outcomes with exit velocity.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 11.32.52 AM

You can see that balls hit at 95 miles per hour or greater have a significantly greater chance of becoming a hit than balls hit even a few miles per hour lower. Now consider the three-dimensional chart that combines exit velocity and angle of elevation, taken from baseball savant.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 11.32.20 AM

There is a definite sweet spot for ten to twenty degrees – line drives – at which points it doesn’t seem to really matter how hard you hit it. Exit velocity doesn’t seem to really matter until around 90 miles per hour. I used baseball savant to sort by exit velocity and came up with the following list filtered by launch angles under thirty degrees.

Name Number of balls in play Average Exit Velocity
1 Giancarlo Stanton 77 97.7 MPH
2 Mark Trumbo 117 96.2 MPH
3 Justin Bour 91 96.2 MPH
4 Ryan Zimmerman 128 96.0 MPH
5 Matt Holliday 119 95.9 MPH
6 Nelson Cruz 123 95.8 MPH
7 Chris Carter 96 95.7 MPH
8 David Ortiz 127 95.6 MPH
9 Domingo Santana 64 95.4 MPH
10 Josh Donaldson 120 95.3 MPH
11 Manny Machado 141 95.0 MPH
12 Joc Pederson 88 95.0 MPH
13 Christian Yelich 148 94.9 MPH
14 Anthony Rendon 139 94.9 MPH
15 Eric Hosmer 144 94.7 MPH
16 DJ LeMahieu 163 94.7 MPH
17 Justin Upton 91 94.6 MPH
18 Yoenis Cespedes 110 94.6 MPH
19 Brad Miller 96 94.5 MPH
20 Jorge Soler 51 94.4 MPH

This is a list of players that should theoretically be performing well, assuming that a lack of contact – Joc Pederson – isn’t holding them back. Giancarlo Stanton is perhaps the most disappointing player in fantasy baseball this year. His problem is completely related to a poor contact rate as his exit velocity is elite. Once he stops striking out 18 times per week – no exaggeration – he should be fine. His troubles stem from swings and misses in the upper third of the strike zone which are occurring at double his career rate. It’s unlikely that anyone in a dynasty league is looking to move Stanton but I can attest as an Stanton owner, the thought has – briefly – crossed my mind.

Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Holliday were surprising entries this high on the list. I know that Holliday has a reputation for crushing the ball, but his results have been underwhelming to date. Both Zimmerman and Holliday are largely seen as a past-his-prime former stars but this suggests that they’ve been a bit unlucky. Zimmerman’s BABIP on balls with greater than 93 miles per hour exit velocity and less than a 30 degree launch angle is only .413. If that seems like a successful outcome, consider the supremely disappointing Justin Upton and his BABIP of .600 on similar balls. I would imagine that you can get Zimmerman nearly for free. It might be worth a shot as he has fine contextual factors around him and he’s not nearly as old as you might guess at 31. Holliday has put up a fairly respectable slash line of .253/.327/.467 and I would expect that to improve going forward. About 42% of his batted balls fall into this highly successful range of outcomes and unlike others on this list, strikeouts are not holding him back.

The two most unlucky hitters in baseball are Joe Mauer and Mookie Betts. They have the lowest batting average on hard-hit line drives – 0 degrees to 30 degrees – at just over .400 each. It’s very reasonable to expect a .600 to .700 BABIP on these balls so I would be very optimistic about these players going forward. Both have had good seasons but Betts might be in line for an MVP caliber last two thirds of the season.

Finally, the luckiest hitter in baseball has been Nick Castellanos. He’s batting an absurd .700 on hard hit balls, nearly double that of some of the big names discussed above. Overall, he’s hitting the ball no harder than he ever has, he’s only very slightly improved his whiff-rate, and his launch angle has only improved against breaking balls. He’s basically the same hitter he’s always been with a slight improvement to a few underlying factors. So in short, he should be better than he’s been the past several seasons, which given his age shouldn’t be surprising, but he’s not the player he appears to be. He is a solid sell high.

I would suggest that anyone interested in more detailed studies regarding Statcast and statistical output google the topics that interest them. There are a lot of people beginning to do some really cool research.

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Jesse MacPherson

Jesse MacPherson

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