During the offseason, I talked about the value of 90th-percentile exit velocity in our analysis of hitters. To summarize, the 90th percentile is the most important part of a hitter’s exit velocity distribution and is a much more valuable piece of information than average exit velocity. 90th-percentile exit velocity performs similar to or better than many of our favorite Statcast metrics, such as hard-hit rate, barrel rate, and xwOBAcon, when it comes to predicting future success on contact.
Unfortunately, this data is not currently available on Baseball Savant. Hence, I decided to create my own google sheet to keep track of each season’s 90th percentile exit velocity leaderboards, which have been updated for the 2021 season as of Friday, April 30th. Although we have only played a month’s worth of baseball and results may be a bit whacky, this metric generally stabilizes quickly, so early-season data holds value. Here’s a look at the players who stand out the most to me so far.
It’s no surprise to see Stanton’s name at the top of the leaderboards once again. He possesses the five highest 90th-percentile exit velocity seasons (min 50 BBE) in the Statcast era. In fact, Stanton’s current 90th percentile of 115.7 MPH would be the best of his career, though I’m assuming this has something to do with the increase in exit velocities across the league in 2021. He continues to hit lasers, logging two batted balls over 120 MPH in 2021. Amazingly, Stanton now has ten such hits in his career; no other player has more than one in the Statcast era. Stanton does have some flaws in his game this season, such as hitting way too many balls into the ground and his scaredly low whiff rate, but it is nice to see him continuing to add to his résumé as a Statcast legend.
Between Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Byron Buxton, 2021 seems to be the year of the breakout for former top prospects. Since his arrival in the big leagues, Buxton had always been known for his speed and defense. However, in 2021, his offense has exploded out of the gate. Among players with at least 50 PA, Buxton ranks eighth in 90th-percentile exit velocity. He has had a strong Statcast profile throughout the last couple of years, but we are not used to seeing his name right there with Juan Soto, Mike Trout, and Nelson Cruz. Buxton currently sits in the 99th percentile in barrel rate across the league. He is also striking out less often than we are used to, though he still struggles with whiffs and chasing pitches out of the zone. However, considering he is possibly the speediest player in baseball, Buxton does not need to perform like an elite hitter to give you great value for where you drafted him.
It’s been an interesting ride for Mike Zunino over this past offseason. Zunino was designated for assignment, despite being the starting catcher for the American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays. However, after testing the waters in free agency, Zunino landed back with Tampa for 2021 and has been splitting time with Francisco Mejía behind the plate. So far, Zunino has been putting together a nice offensive season, although it is early. Zunino has always been a solid performer in 90th-percentile exit velocity, but this is the first time he is pairing it with strong production. Zunino has an insanely high 24.2% barrel rate, which is bound to regress, but exciting nonetheless. In a position where it is so difficult to find consistently good offense, Zunino may be worth a flier in deep leagues. He sneakily has a good power tool. Hopefully, he can earn some more playing time as well.
Santander joins Zunino as the other of the two players in the top 15 of 90th-percentile exit velocity that are not names you would expect to see. He is also the first player mentioned here that isn’t exactly producing to go along with hitting the ball hard. Unfortunately, with the increase in exit velocity, Santander has actually worsened his launch angle. He currently has a ground ball rate of over 50%, which is not ideal. We love to see him hit the ball hard, but, like Stanton, he needs to keep the ball in the air to maximize that ability. Either way, I still think there are some parts of Santander’s profile to be optimistic about; I would argue he’s much closer to an average hitter than he’s shown so far this season.
Naquin has gotten off to a hot start in 2021, leading to him gaining more playing time in the outfield for the Cincinnati Reds. The 90th-percentile exit velocity agrees with that production, as he currently ranks 25th in Major League Baseball. Unlike many of the other players mentioned here, Naquin is a player we are not used to seeing anywhere near the top of this leaderboard. Naquin is barreling balls at double the rate of his career average. He has also posted a BB% of 9.5%, which is a significant increase over his last few seasons. Obviously, Naquin will come back down to earth at some point, but it will be interesting to watch how much of this recent development is sustainable.
I think Rowdy Tellez is going to be one of those players I continue to believe in until his career is over, with the breakout never coming. Tellez ranked 11th in 90th percentile exit velocity in 2020, and is 20th this year. He finally converted some of his offensive upside into production last season, but 2021 could not have started worse. However, when he does make contact, he hits it harder than a vast majority of MLB players. Tellez definitely needs to improve his plate discipline if he wants to avoid getting buried on the Blue Jays’ depth chart. If he does, I will be the first person to say “I told you so” when he breaks out.
Santana is one player whose average exit velocity doesn’t necessarily align with his 90th percentile. His average exit velocity is a bit above average while his 90th percentile ranks in the top 30. This is interesting because Santana has always been known for his great plate discipline. Not only is he continuing to walk at an elite clip and avoiding strikeouts, but he is also hitting the ball well. He currently has a 143 wRC+, which would be the highest of his eleven-year career. Only time will tell whether this is a hot streak or a new development, but it is nice to see the underrated veteran off to a good start.
Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)