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Did Alejandro De Aza hit the ball hard, or nah?

Attempting to solve an existential crisis of the Statcast era

New York Mets v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Hey, hey, question. You’ll probably think it’s easy, but indulge me. Did this guy — Alejandro De Aza — hit the ball hard here?

What do you think? How about this one?

Or this one?

I’ll go with no, yes, yes. Whatever your fancy, though, you’d say this guy is swinging the bat well. No doubt. If you let that last clip run long enough, you’ll hear the color commentator muse, “That’s four hard-hit balls for De Aza tonight.” He’ll then remark that another of those “hard-hit balls” had also, nonetheless, resulted in an out.

If you wanted to ask FanGraphs’ quality of contact stats — which are generated from Baseball Info Solutions data — the season-long question, “Did Alejandro De Aza hit the ball hard?” they would answer with a resounding, “YES!”

Hard-hit rate leaders, 2016

Rank Name Team Hard%
Rank Name Team Hard%
1 Franklin Gutierrez Mariners 47.00%
2 Ryan Howard Phillies 45.90%
3 David Ortiz Red Sox 45.90%
4 Trevor Story Rockies 44.90%
5 Tyler Flowers Braves 43.80%
6 Alejandro De Aza Mets 43.80%
7 Freddie Freeman Braves 43.50%
8 Keon Broxton Brewers 43.30%
9 Shin-Soo Choo Rangers 43.20%
10 Sean Rodriguez Pirates 43.10%
11 Giancarlo Stanton Marlins 42.90%
12 Matt Carpenter Cardinals 41.90%
13 Gary Sanchez Yankees 41.80%
14 Mike Trout Angels 41.70%
15 Miguel Cabrera Tigers 41.10%
via FanGraphs

Anyone watching De Aza’s whole season — instead of one game on a Tuesday night in August — would have probably remembered the disproportionate number of outs they witnessed and responded in the negative.

Perhaps, at this point, interested observers who came into the knowledge of De Aza’s elite hard-hit percentage might remember FanGraphs’ general advice about the number.

Because we know that baseball is influenced by a lot of randomness, a player who appears to be struggling might actually be struggling or they might be hitting the ball hard without much to show for it. You can look to a batter (or pitcher’s) batted ball quality of contact numbers to see what’s going on.

Three or five years ago, De Aza might have been a hot buy-low candidate. That guy actually hit the ball hard more often than Mike Trout, people in the know would whisper to those souls they deigned to bless with this nugget of knowledge.

Last year, those in the know probably just pulled up the Statcast exit velocity leaderboard, scrolled for a while, got confused, Ctrl+F’d “De Aza” and saw that his 88.2-mph average exit velocity earned a triple-digit ranking that started with a 2.

There are some other less-than-expected names on that hard-hit leaderboard. Maybe it just doesn’t correlate with average exit velocity?

2016 Hard-hit% vs. average exit velocity
via Baseball Savant

De Aza is the dot on the right, all alone, way below the pack of players who supposedly hit the ball hard as often as he did.

Asked that question again — Did Alejandro De Aza hit the ball hard? — what are you to say?

You could say no. That’s fine. His grisly .205/.297/.321 slash line — good for just a 72 wRC+ — will always vindicate you on some level. His .259 BABIP, miles below his career .324 mark, may also say something in your favor. But, it could also go toward the argument that De Aza was profoundly unlucky. So before you condemn him to the scrap heap, let’s peruse some other numbers, shall we?

De Aza’s 2016 batted-ball profile shows a couple of things. His line-drive rate spiked, largely reapportioned from his ground-ball rate ... which sounds like a thing that might lead to an elevated hard-hit percentage. Is is possible De Aza’s softly hit balls were hit so softly that they dragged down his average exit velocity? Maybe? We could check for that by looking at the proportion of batted balls a player hit at a decidedly high exit velocity.

Hard-hit% vs. percentage of batted balls with 95+ mph exit velos
Data via FanGraphs & Baseball Savant

Guess which dot represents De Aza.

If we are all to agree that a 95-mph exit velo is usually “hard,” then De Aza didn’t hit nearly as many of those as you’d expect. So what in the world is the hard-hit percentage data seeing in De Aza?

We already noted that one major shift in his batted-ball data (other than the mysterious hard-hit percentage) was a decline in grounders. So is hitting more liners and fly balls a way to increase your hard-hit percentage (not that anyone tries to change that, per se, but you get the point)?

Hard-hit% vs. Percentage of batted balls that were flies or liners hit at 90+ mph exit velo.
Data via FanGraphs & Baseball Savant

The De Aza outlier is gone! So the Y-axis of this chart focuses on what proportion of a player’s batted balls were reasonably well-hit fly balls or line drives. Put another way, this shows you how often hitters avoided pop-ups, grounders, and cans of corn. And this is the context in which De Aza’s hard-hit percentage appears to fall in line.

None of that explains why he was bad, though. We’ve heard a lot about the ways hitters such as Daniel Murphy have renovated their swings to do exactly what De Aza appears to have done.

In fact, in 2016, Murphy had an almost identical proportion of his batted balls manifest as flies and liners at 90+ mph exit velocities. He also had an average launch angle of 16.6 degrees while De Aza’s was ... 16 degrees.

But here we run into nuance that average launch angles — or average anythings — gloss over.

2016 launch angles
via Baseball Savant

They arrived there in vastly different ways! Murphy stroked line drives and low flies between 18 and 22 degrees in bunches. De Aza hit a whole bunch of head-level liners (like the ones snagged by Segura and Story in the visual portion of this exercise) and a smaller bunch of high flies that inherently have a low BABIP, but can sometimes turn into homers.

We also know that De Aza hit fewer balls that could be called really hard contact. He lived in the 90- to 95-mph exit velocity band much more than the 100-mph band. Put it together and, yeah, obviously Murphy is getting a lot of MVP votes and De Aza’s agent is placing a lot of calls.

How about a more sane comparison: Sean Rodriguez also appeared on that hard-hit leaderboard, and also transformed his batted-ball profile. In his case, he added liners and fly balls at the expense of grounders. So when those two hitters hit the ball hard, why did one see a power spike while the other just saw his BABIP waste away?

Launch angle comparison on balls hit with 90+ mph exit velocity
via Baseball Savant

Oh. That’ll do it. Rodriguez was trafficking in extra-base hits. De Aza was specializing in line drives that could become either singles or hangers that outfielders run in to grab.

What are we to take from De Aza’s difficult-to-explain 2016?

Here’s one thing: Hard-hit percentage is probably not going to be a process-stat-of-thumb for very much longer. Statcast’s hit probability is a potential one-off replacement, but even while that is growing into its own, the general understanding we are gaining about ideal hitting trajectories is probably enough to look at De Aza’s 2016 season and understand the issues.

When he hit it in the air, it died in the “doughnut hole.” When he hit it on a line, it found an infielder’s glove more often than you’d think; barring that, turned into a single — fine, but not what you’re going for in this day and age.

Like so many other investigations into baseball performance, it also ends in a conclusion that would be different for each player. More data means more understanding of the “ideals,” but it also means more understanding of individual abilities and limitations.

We don’t know what happened with De Aza. But doesn’t it seem possible that this was an effort to “swing up” gone awry?

De Aza’s 2015 launch angle breakdown
via Baseball Savant

His 2016 swing resulted in more focused, batted balls that are “better” by the broad definitions, but didn’t pack the punch required to take advantage of such a change. Of course, maybe if he pulls more of them, things are different. Maybe if he spends more time in the weight room, things are different.

We don’t know.

What we do know is this: Alejandro De Aza hit the ball pretty hard, very often. He did not hit the ball well nearly as often. And soon, it probably won’t be such a struggle to figure out the difference.

. . .

Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.