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Taking the Statcast path to early season understanding

Nobody knows anything when it comes to April stats. But we’re getting closer.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The beginning of the season is confusing and tricky. Middling players start off really hot, stars begin the year in prolonged hitless streaks, and numbers are so subject to the whims of a day or two that leader boards change with the tides.

When you’re trying to write about it every day, it’s hard to find truth in anything until legitimate sample sizes settle things down. To paraphrase’s Mike Petriello on Twitter the other day, we should all just take a vacation until the middle of May. At least thanks to StatCast, we finally have at least a better idea of how players are performing, and whether or not we should believe what we see.

Take a look at the top ten hitters by wRC+, as of Sunday night:

wRC+ Leaders Through Sunday

Name wRC+
Name wRC+
Didi Gregorius 284
Adam Eaton 251
Matt Chapman 247
Matt Davidson 240
Bryce Harper 237
Freddie Freeman 236
Rhys Hoskins 231
Xander Bogaerts 223
Robinson Cano 220

This is probably vastly out of date already, even with one additional day in the books, but it’s a list of some very good players. Some - Harper, Freeman, Cano - with a longer history of elite type offense than others. It’s interesting, but one look at it tells you that something is off. Didi Gregorious is not the second coming of Barry Bonds, despite what Cleveland Indians fans will tell you after the ALDS last year.

This is what a week of baseball where everything is muddled and nothing makes sense looks like. Sample size is the baseball writer and fan’s friend, and it’s absent this time of year. You can’t trust what you see. At least BABIP helps a bit with this, letting us know who is lucky and who isn’t. Here’s that same list, with their BABIP added:

wRC+ leaders through Sunday with BABIP

Didi Gregorius 284 0.333
Adam Eaton 251 0.421
Matt Chapman 247 0.462
Matt Davidson 240 0.231
Bryce Harper 237 0.125
Freddie Freeman 236 0.381
Rhys Hoskins 231 0.563
Xander Bogaerts 223 0.423
Robinson Cano 220 0.579

So that’s… something. The issue here is, a player with outsize stats early in the season often is in some kind of massive home run binge. Remember Trevor Story’s rookie year? He hit 10 home runs in April, and 17 the rest of the year. But homers aren’t counted in BABIP, neither are walks. hence Bryce Harper’s .125, among other anomalies.

My main viewing has been the Indians the last week or so, and it’s incredible how hard they’re hitting the ball, and yet not getting any dividends for it. I’m pretty sure Yonder Alonso hits the ball a million miles an hour at least once a game, and yet he’s posting a .184/.270/.394 line as of Monday. I’m sure he’s doing better than that. In the past, this was simply eye test, a fan or a scout convinced they’re seeing something more than what the box score suggests. Thankfully, Statcast gives numbers to what our eyes see and our ears hear.

In the era of the Fly Ball Revolution, we’ve come to the conclusion that hitting the ball in the air is better than not. Obviously not always - if you’re hitting it 50 miles per hour, that’s not an ideal pathway, but how did you get into the majors in the first place? But with solid

contact, we can start to make judgments.

Consistent fly balls and line drives are what hitters want because that’s the best path towards extra bases. Using Statcast’s search tool, I narrowed down a list of players who had hit the most fly balls and liners with an exit velocity exceeding 95 mph. That seems pretty fast to me, and according to the Hit Probability tool over there, that’s the first place you see a major jump. A ball hit 95 mph led to a .342 batting average last year (.379 wOBA) compared to just .312 on a 94 mph exit velo (.348 wOBA). Basically, the line between pretty darn good and elite. Twenty-one players have done this at least ten times this year, and it’s mostly people you recognize:

Flyball and line drives with 95 mph or greater exit velocity

Rk. Player Results Total Pitches % of Pitches
Rk. Player Results Total Pitches % of Pitches
1 Joey Gallo 14 168 8.33
2 Carlos Santana 13 164 7.93
3 Justin Upton 12 184 6.52
4 Elvis Andrus 11 182 6.04
5 Xander Bogaerts 11 150 7.33
6 Marcell Ozuna 11 133 8.27
7 Jason Kipnis 11 156 7.05
8 Jose Abreu 11 133 8.27
9 Mike Trout 11 188 5.85
10 Dixon Machado 11 135 8.15
11 Nolan Arenado 11 181 6.08
12 Yoan Moncada 10 154 6.49
13 Howie Kendrick 10 140 7.14
14 Jed Lowrie 10 192 5.21
15 DJ LeMahieu 10 180 5.56
16 Randal Grichuk 10 144 6.94
17 Gregory Polanco 10 164 6.1
18 Kris Bryant 10 172 5.81
19 Trevor Story 10 200 5
20 Matt Olson 10 192 5.21
21 Miguel Cabrera 10 128 7.81

There’s some surprises on that list. Elvis Andrus is a surprise, perhaps Dixon Machado, the possibly ageless Howie Kendrick. But the basis of being a hitter is hitting balls hard, preferably away from fielders. The majority of players on that list above have a decent history of doing that, and are expected to do it more. It’s not hard and fast - no Harper or Judge or Stanton to be found - but part of that too is that offense isn’t ONLY hitting the ball very hard. Just a central tenet of it.

There probably won’t be any way to assure oneself of who is going to have a good season just one week into a new year (at least, not until we start using biometric implants or robot baseball players or Minority Report technology). And pitching is a different animal altogether. Starting strong is never a good hint at being good in the longer term - Corey Kluber had an ERA north of 4 in April of both his Cy Young seasons. Luck is a fickle thing. But at least knowing who is hitting the ball the hardest, the most, that is a good hint, isn’t it? The leader on that board, Joey Gallo, has the strikeout/lack of walking problem, otherwise he’d be another Aaron Judge. But knowing who’s hitting the ball the hardest, most often, it gives a better picture than some kind of strange, absurd slash line. It’s amazing what we can already glean on the public side - the things that teams don’t show us must be earth-shattering.

Merritt Rohlfing writes about baseball here at Beyond the Box Score, and about the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. Find him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.