In the movement to heap more and more raw data on fans, the undeniably ubiquitous Statcast represents the omnipresent data shovel. Every piece of action on the field becomes translated into data which then spawns its own metadata which is really just data about data. Life in this new quantifiable hardball reality requires some adjustments – both in how we view the game and how we choose to utilize/ignore the fancy new tools we have at our collective disposal.
For those amateur physicists among you keeping score at home, the newfound trove of analytics combined with a whole new lexicon of geekery must be a taste of “never ever having interpersonal contact again” heaven. One could get lost in any single cloud database populated and subsequently expanded to house data derived from any game on any given day. Now consider the 162 games per regular season for each team, account for every single player, every pitch thrown (type, velocity, outcome), and cross-reference them all. That’s basically what Statcast does, and then it turns all that into something consumable by allowing you to focus on just one thing that piques your interest.
The problem with bringing this to the masses remains the same as it was with defensive metrics a few years ago. Baseball analysts and play-by-play people still struggle to summarize UZR, DRS, and BYOB in a way that appeases passing curiosity while not boring the people who do the calculations by hand. Striking the balance between educating/informing and beating the discussion into the mound cannot be trivial, and the latest set of acronyms and fun pseudo-science words must make it even more challenging.
After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good “exit velocity” discussion? In the interest of full disclosure, I once had this discussion, but it involved some sketchy Tex-Mex and a tequila named after someone’s donkey. Anyway, why wouldn’t you want to hear about launch angle? Silly rabbit, home run aesthetics are just for kids. Just give me the total linear distance between the launch point (A) and the landing point (B). The ball was projected to go 421′? Awesome. I don’t need to know how it got there, how fast it was spinning when it was 38′ high, or the exact arc in graphical form on my screen.
Too late. We’ve entered a new age, and we cannot return to that more innocent time. Stop admiring that majestic home run ball and start calculating flight path as a function of spin, humidity, temperature, launch angle, exit velocity, and the viscosity of the cheese dripping down the side of your nacho helmet. It’s a lot keep up with moving forward, but returning to the past isn’t a feasible option.
Truth be told, I’m unwilling to go back anyway. It’s not like I’m looking at the Matrix in code so much that I can distinguish blonde from brunette or cutter from slider without thinking. I’m just selectively interested in certain signals in a world full of signals that lack the noise usually associated with such things. It’s cherry-picking at its finest.
Exhibit 1: Randal Grichuk (and quite the exhibit he is, right?)
Forget the lavish praised heaped on Grichuk for being a potentially great 4 or 5-tool player. At this point, many of us would be thrilled to see him really put one tool on display. No, not THAT one – the other one. Sheesh. We know he can hit for power, but he has yet to display that power consistently or combine that power with hitting for average. Technically, he hits for average, but it’s not a very appealing average.
We (the people) can see this. Why can’t the Cardinals see this? Obviously, they do. So that begs the question – What are they looking at that is somehow different than what we look at? Why have they hitched their wagon to this particular horse? They have a massive proprietary database (as do the Astros….and all the other teams in MLB), so we can’t know the answer with certainty, but Statcast gives us a powerful tool for fueling conjecture.
Consider the barreled ball. The requirements that define a “barreled ball” vary as a function of exit velocity, but the starting point is an exit velocity of 98 mph with a 26-30 degree launch angle. For every increase over that 98 mph baseline, the launch angle tolerance increases. At an exit velocity of 100 mph, the launch angle component expands to a range of 24-33 degrees. That’s probably important for some reason, but you don’t have the time to care about such minutiae.
The harder you hit the ball, the better. Duh. That’s pretty much generally true in all forms of sportsball with the obvious exception of Wiffle Ball. In 2016, the collective batting average for barreled balls was .822 with a 2.386 slugging percentage. Huh.
So we return to the Randal Grichuk exhibit. Out of all MLB players who have faced a minimum of 150 pitches this season, Grichuk ranks 22nd in barreled ball percentage. He’s barreled 7 out of 261 pitches (2.68%). For perspective within this small sample size domain, consider the company he’s keeping. Yoenis Cespedes has barreled 9 balls out of 304 pitches seen for a rate of 2.96%. Eric Thames is 10 for 360 (2.78%). 21st on the list? Joey Votto at 2.76%.
Rewind to 2016, and change the pitches seen number to something like 1,250 which roughly equates to a full season compared to using 150 pitches for approximately 1/8 of a season. Grichuk ranks 66th with 30 barreled balls out of 1,843 pitches seen (1.63%). That’s just a tad bit behind Anthony Rizzo (64th at 1.65%) and slightly ahead of Matt Holliday (73rd at 1.60%).
Not bad when you consider that’s compared to practically all of the people who swing bats regularly in MLB, but then consider him within the context of the Cardinals. Since the beginning of the 2016 season (minimum 1,250 pitches), Grichuk has made solid contact or better on 3.14% of all the pitches he’s seen. The only Cardinal with a higher incidence rate is Brandon Moss (3.50%). If you focus just on barreled balls, he’s 4th (1.76%) behind Moss (2.03%), Adams (1.90%), and Gyorko (1.88%).
That would be promising news on Adams, if he wasn’t struggling along at a 1.49 barreled ball rate to start 2017. Of course, barreled ball percentage provides just a narrow view of hitting performance as a whole, but it most definitely fits somewhere in the complex puzzle that includes pitch selection, swing plane, timing, and a whole host of other factors that I don’t understand. I can’t even claim to understand barreled ball concepts, but I really liked the way the title came together.
DISCLAIMER: I don’t have a real disclaimer, but I reserve the right to change my mind.
Also, I obtained a lot of the information I used from MLB.com. Actually, I obtained most of the information that way. Basically everything came from there. Okay, you got me. I practically begged someone from MLB.com to write this for me.