Hitting the ball in the air has proven to provide more value for most hitters. It’s never been more prevalent than it was in 2019. Per Baseball Savant, the expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) on fly balls and line drives was 0.558 last season. The value of hitting the ball on the ground unsurprisingly was significantly less with an xwOBA of just 0.227. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff here. Players have been trying to elevate the ball for years. Even Ted Williams knew that a slight uppercut swing would align with the path of the pitch; this was the best way to maximize the quality of contact. Of course, Williams was well ahead of his time. It’s not just hitting the ball at an ideal launch angle—you need to hit the ball hard.
In April 2019, Eno Sarris of The Athletic wrote, “Most stats mean nothing in April, but one that does is maximum exit velocity. For every mph over 108 a player hits the ball, it is reasonable to adjust their OPS projection by 6 points per. This means that players like Pete Alonso, Christian Walker, Luke Voit, and Lewis Brinson are in fairly good company.”
In 2019, only 63 players hit at least one ball with an exit velocity at or above 114 mph. The list is riddled with players you would expect to see such as Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Giancarlo Stanton (it’s not just the Yankees, I promise), Pete Alonso, Mike Trout, Nelson Cruz, etc. We aren’t surprised to see these mashers atop the list, but there are many others. I’ll touch on them in a minute. Besides hitting the ball hard, what else do these players do well? They elevate the ball with consistency. Every player I listed above hits the ball on the ground less than 45% of the time. In many cases, they hit grounders less than 40% of the time. It’s difficult for a player to add to one’s maximum exit velocity, but modifying a player’s swing plane to elevate the ball is something that is being done in many if not all organizations.
For this piece, I want to focus on players who already possess the skill of crushing baseballs based on their maximum exit velocity but hit the ball on the ground more than 45% of the time. Many of these players could see huge power gains in 2020 with a slight adjustment to their launch angle. For reference, the league average ground-ball rate is 45.4%.
|>250 PA; >45%GB%; >114 MPH Max Exit Velo|
|Season||Name||PA||GB%||#BBE 114+ MPH|
|2019||Vladimir Guerrero Jr."}”>Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||514||50.4%||10|
|2019||Shohei Ohtani"}”>Shohei Ohtani||425||49.6%||3|
|2019||Jorge Alfaro"}”>Jorge Alfaro||465||52.0%||2|
|2019||Eric Hosmer"}”>Eric Hosmer||667||56.8%||1|
|2019||Pablo Sandoval"}”>Pablo Sandoval||296||47.1%||1|
|2019||Jonathan Villar"}”>Jonathan Villar||714||50.8%||1|
|2019||Dwight Smith Jr.quot;}”>Dwight Smith Jr./td>||392||48.9%||1|
|2019||Nomar Mazara"}”>Nomar Mazara||469||47.1%||1|
|2019||J.D. Davis"}”>J.D. Davis||453||48.1%||1|
|2019||Matt Beaty"}”>Matt Beaty||268||49.5%||1|
|2019||Brian Anderson"}”>Brian Anderson||520||45.7%||1|
|2019||Josh Naylor"}”>Josh Naylor||279||54.2%||1|
|2019||Fernando Tatis Jr."}”>Fernando Tatis Jr.||372||47.6%||1|
I added a minimum of 250 plate appearances not because of the stabilization point for maximum exit velocity but for batted-ball data. A hitter’s ground-ball rate stabilizes after 80 batted balls, but the more data we have, the more stable it becomes.
Even among a pretty impressive group of hitters, Vladamir Guerrero Jr. sticks out like a sore thumb. Only Judge hit more balls over 114 mph than Vlad Jr., and Guerrero hit the hardest ball of 2019 at 118.9 mph. What’s interesting is that his average exit velocity and barrel rate are relatively pedestrian at 89.4 mph and 7.7%, respectively. So what gives? He must have a high weak-contact rate (or soft-hit rate) to even out the discrepancy. Nope, his weak-contact rate is just 3.2% compared to league-average 4.6%. Surprisingly, he doesn’t hit the ball very hard to the pull side (34.8% hard contact per FanGraphs versus league-average 42.6%). It’s odd that a player who can hit the ball harder than 99% of major league hitters has trouble doing damage to the pull side. It seems like Vlad needs to work on two aspects of his game: elevating the ball with more frequency and increasing his hard contact to the pull side. He’ll only be 20 years old, so I’m betting on Vlad Jr. taking a sizable step forward in 2020.
Avisail Garcia is kind of an athletic stud. Since Statcast’s inception in 2015, Garcia’s profile is riddled with red and pink. While his fly-ball rate saw a small drop in 2019, he actually decreased his ground-ball rate for the fourth straight season thanks to posting his highest line-drive rate since 2015. While line-drive rates are fickle year-to-year, he’s clearly shown the willingness to elevate the ball with more frequency. I also believe he was unlucky based on my earned home run (eHR) metric I ran last month. The metric is much more descriptive than predictive, but I think Garcia could surprise some people if he continues to lower his ground-ball rate and has neutral luck on his home runs. Moving to Miller Park in Milwaukee certainly won’t hurt.
Shohei Ohtani is an absolute freak, in a good way. He’ll be back in the rotation next year, and the Angels have announced that he won’t pitch more than once per week. I’d expect him to be out of the lineup from time to time despite Joe Maddon mentioning Ohtani as a potential designated hitter while he pitches. That being said, reaching 425 plate appearances again is unlikely. In 2019, he proved once again that he can mash evidenced by his 47.1% hard-hit rate. If I’m a betting man, I’d project him to DH somewhere between 85-90 games. With that in mind, Ohtani still has the ability to do damage thanks to a HR/FB rate over 25% in both 2018 and 2019. If he makes a slight launch angle adjustment, he could once again reach 20 homers in the part-time role.
Jorge Alfaro has a strikeout problem. In 2019, he struck out 33.1% of the time. That’s OK if you’re Judge or Joey Gallo, but Alfaro is a step below in terms of quality of contact. He’s also beating the ball into the ground far too frequently. Alfaro was fortunate to hit .264 thanks to a likely unsustainable .364 BABIP. I understand his career BABIP is well above league average but slow runners and ground balls don’t mix. There’s upside here but several adjustments are needed before I feel comfortable buying-in.
Eric Hosmer is who he is at this point. No surprise here, he has the highest ground-ball rate of this group. Despite ground-ball rates of at least 55% in each of the last four seasons, Hosmer’s managed to hit at least 20 home runs in three out of the last four years. With an average exit velocity of over 90 mph and a hard hit% of 46.1% in 2019, Hosmer continues to tease fantasy owners. Unfortunately, his strikeout rate is headed in the wrong direction jumping nine percent from 15.5% in 2017 up to 24.4% in 2019. Hosmer will be 30 years old for the 2020 season and no longer appears to be a batting average asset. I can’t recommend him for 2020, but it would be a pleasant surprise if he increases his launch angle and reaches 30 home runs for the first time.
Pablo Sandoval is an odd addition to this list, not only for surpassing 114 mph with a single batted ball but also for the fact that he had more than 250 plate appearances in 2019. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything to see here with Pablo. He’s 33 years old, a poor defender, and regularly struggles to stay in shape. After minor elbow surgery, he should be good to go next year, but are you really interested? He won’t be more than a bench player in 2020.
Jonathan Villar doesn’t hit the ball all that hard with consistency, but knowing he has the ability to crush the ball every once in a while is a good sign. Hitting atop an American League lineup for 162 games and playing half of your games in one of the most favorable parks for home runs is a great way to pad your stats. But wait! Villar’s new home in Miami is not friendly to the home run ball. Additionally, Villar had the lowest ground-ball rate of his career in 2019 and his barrel rate surpassed his 2016 breakout. There are some solid baseline skills with Villar, but speed is the only one that I trust. I’m docking his power 25% with the move to Miami, but if he continues to adjust his launch angle, he could tack on a few more dingers. Pay for 15 homers and 35 steals and hope for more.
Javier Baez is a bit of a curious player on this list. Baez missed most of September with a hairline fracture in his thumb, but something odd happened around the middle of the season. His hard-contact rate completely fell off around mid-June and his ground-ball rate spiked in mid-August. It’s possible he was dealing with some kind of ailment throughout the second half of the season, but we don’t know for sure. He was still extremely productive in the first half, and I’m not all that concerned considering his 50% ground-ball rate is only four percentage points above his career rate. He’s still a virtual lock for 30 home runs, and if we ever see his ground-ball rate at 40%, we could be in store for a 35- to 40-homer season.
Dwight Smith Jr. is another surprise, so I dug in a bit. After a hot start to the season, he quickly cooled off and lost his starting job in July. As it turns out, he was fortunate to end the season with 13 home runs despite a barrel rate of 3.9%. It’s interesting that he was able to hit a ball above 114 mph (114.3 mph to be exact) yet struggled to make any consistent hard contact. He does have the benefit of hitting in Camden Yards, which is one of the best hitter’s parks for home runs in Major League Baseball. Unfortunately, he takes a hit if the properties of the ball change. I’m not interested at all in 2020.
Nomar Mazara continues to be an enigma. He’s 6’5” and hit the two farthest home runs of 2019 (one traveling 505 feet). However, his average exit velocity ranked 127th in 2019, and his barrel rate remains pedestrian. Fortunately, he actually reduced his ground-ball rate from 55.1% to 47.1% which is great, but he failed to improve on his home run per fly-ball rate (HR/FB%). Mazara may be pressing. His plate discipline was not great as he chased more pitches outside the zone last season compared to years past. I can’t believe he’s still just 24, but with over 2,000 plate appearances to his name, this may be who he is. A fresh start in Chicago could help for Mazara, but it’s a lateral venue move in terms of power. I fear that Vlad Jr. takes this same path, but given his elite plate skills and hit tool, it’s probably the absolute floor for Vladdy.
Jose Abreu is a consistent masher and run producer. He’s about as bankable as they come for .280-30-100. Hitting the ball on the ground more than 45% of the time isn’t anything new for the big slugger as his career rate is 45.8%. There doesn’t appear to be a change coming from Abreu; he’s successful and entering the decline phase of his career. He maintains a high BABIP with an elevated line-drive rate and an even batted-ball distribution. Despite an above-average ground-ball rate, Abreu popped up on my new earned home runs metric as an under-performer. Assuming a similar quality of contact and slight launch angle adjustment, Abreu could reach heights of 35-38 home runs in 2020.
J.D. Davis is an interesting case. He finally saw quasi-consistent playing time in New York and showed his power first-hand. Davis’ expected stats match his lofty surface numbers, and he earned every bit of his 23.2% HR/FB rate. He managed an 11.4% barrel rate and ranked 22nd in average exit velocity. Davis smoked a ton of line drives, which boosted his batting average, but he’s a very small tweak away from hitting 40 home runs across a full 600 plate appearances. Here’s to hoping the Mets run him out there every day.
Believe it or not, Yandy Diaz has lowered his ground-ball rate each of the last three seasons, yet he was still at 51.2% in 2019. That’s much better than the 58.2% ground-ball rate he had in 2017 but not ideal. I trust the Rays as an organization to maximize their return from Diaz and the power that lies within. Check out these opposite-field bombs he smoked in the Wild Card Game last October. Diaz gets on top of the ball too frequently, especially when you consider his average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives of 97 mph, which is tied for 13th among all hitters with at least 100 batted balls. Of all the players on this list with the exception of Vlad Jr, Diaz has the most to gain by increasing his launch angle. If his ground-ball rate in 2020 drops to 45%, I’m marking him down for 30 homers.
I don’t think people fully appreciate how good Eloy Jimenez was in his rookie season. He hit 31 home runs in just 504 plate appearances while hitting the ball on the ground 47.6% of the time. At age 22, that’s a fantastic season. In the second half, he increased his hard-hit rate while decreasing the balls hit on the ground. Combine that with the fact that he made more contact and struck out less often. I am extremely excited to watch Eloy next year and would not be shocked if he hits 40 home runs and boosts his batting average given his impressive hit tool.
Matt Beaty is probably the most unlikely hitter on this list. He obviously has the ability to hit the ball hard evidenced by a solid 40.5% hard-hit rate. That’s solid, but I love that he struck out just a scant 12.3% of the time. Now I’m intrigued. In 32 Triple-A games last year, he struck out just 8.9% of the time and regularly carried strikeout rates between 10 and 14% in the minors. This is nothing new. I love hitters with great hit tools, low strikeout rates, and above-average power. That’s Beaty. Or, it could be Beaty. The problem for him is the depth of the Dodgers major league roster. He played 36 games in the outfield, 35 games at first base, and nine at third base. If the Dodgers move on from Joc Pederson, there’s a chance Beaty could at a minimum man the strong side of the platoon in left field. If I’m choosing a deep, deep breakout from this group, it’s Beaty. If he elevates the ball a little more and receives 450+ plate appearances, he may just deliver.
Brian Anderson and Beaty are similar. Both are 26 years old, and Anderson saw a near-full season of at-bats on a poor Marlins club. The difference between the two is their hit tool (or contact rate) and hard contact. Anderson hit the ball at least 95 mph five percentage points more frequently than Beaty, but Anderson also struck out nearly eight percentage points more often. Just like this article is suggesting, he needs to elevate the ball more to hit for more power. I think Anderson could do that and reach 30 homers at his peak if he drops his ground-ball rate another five points. However, if both Beaty and Anderson were given the same number of at-bats in 2020, I would take Beaty every time over Anderson.
Make no mistake, Josh Naylor has power. His ground-ball rate north of 50% is going to limit his power ceiling. It’s been his approach in the past as well, so it would take a complete adjustment for Naylor to take full advantage of his pop. His hit tool is actually pretty good. He’s not a free-swinger. His strikeout rates were almost exclusively below 20% in the minors with swinging-strike rates around 7 percent. His main issue is against breaking balls. He hit just .145 with a 41.6% strikeout rate against the bendy pitches in 2019. That is going to be an issue for him because only 15.6% of the pitches he saw were sliders when the league throws them, on average, 18.3% of the time. Until he proves he can hit sliders and curves, I’ll be off Naylor.
How fitting to end with a 19-year-old phenom rookie in Fernando Tatis Jr./strong>. Getting a young hitter to buy into an adjustment is an easier task than for a 10-year veteran. That’s where my interest is piqued with Tatis Jr. Imagine combining 30-steal speed with a 30-plus home run ceiling! Based on his minor league track record, a launch angle adjustment may not be required. He regularly posted ground-ball rates near 40% at Single-A and Double-A. So, what are we looking at here? He posted a strong 13.2% barrel rate and has elite sprint speed. I need to acknowledge a near-30% strikeout rate and the .410 BABIP that will come down, but his skills are ubiquitous. The sky is the limit, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for grabbing in the first two rounds of 2020.
Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by J.R. Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter) (www.cainesdesign.com)