baseball

Some Breakout Hitter Candidates, Courtesy of Exit Velocity Percentiles

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I think I might be on to something. While fiddling around with some 2022 batted ball data in an attempt to improve my programming skills, I created a list of players whose 95th-percentile exit velocity most outstripped their average exit velocity. If you want that in plain English, that’s players who hit the snot out of the ball when they connect, but whose average exit velocity is weighed down by a pile of mishits. Second on this list among players with at least 200 batted balls? Oneil Cruz, a poster child for cartoonish maximums and frequent contact issues.

With Cruz coming in near the top of this list, I thought I might have a bead on something cool. Jo Adell (only 162 batted balls, but still), Michael Harris II, and Pete Alonso are all high up there, and they’re the kind of players I would expect to see. They’re also interesting players from a breakout perspective; If something clicks and they start making more consistent contact, they could turn into monster hitters overnight.

That’s unfair to Alonso, who is already a monster hitter, but there’s even some instructive value there. Alonso and Mookie Betts had strikingly similar lines in 2022 by strikeout rate, walk rate, isolated power, BABIP, and wRC+:

Betts = Alonso??

Player BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+
Mookie Betts 8.6% 16.3% .264 .272 144
Pete Alonso 9.8% 18.7% .246 .279 143

One category where they weren’t similar? Alonso’s top end exit velocity is far superior to Betts’s. I mean, obviously. Have you seen Mookie Betts? Have you seen Pete Alonso? If Alonso was getting to his power as often as Betts gets to his, he’d be putting up Yordan Alvarez numbers. Indeed, Alvarez and Alonso have nearly identical 95th-percentile exit velocities, but Alvarez hits the ball 5.5 mph harder on average. He’s consistently hitting the ball on the screws, in other words. No wonder, then, that he posted an isolated power 60 points higher than Alonso.

If you’re thinking that I’m mostly just redefining scouting concepts like raw power and game power, you’re completely right. In fact, the leaderboard for 95th-percentile exit velocity is pretty close to a list of the 15 players with the best raw power (shout out to Mike Zunino, whose 70 batted balls probably don’t deserve to make the list but who I really wanted to include anyway):

95th Percentile EV Leaders

I’m getting sidetracked here, though. We’re talking about the gap between these 95th-percentile numbers and average exit velocity. I decided to comb through the data and look for hitters who could break out if they improve their consistency. I looked for players whose top end power is better than league average but who aren’t getting to it with any consistency, likely because they mishit the ball far too often. There’s no real scientific criteria here aside from that. I just picked some names who have big average/top-end gaps and have plus power. I also focused on young hitters and ones with particularly high 95th-percentile numbers:

That’s a neat list, but I think it probably overstates how much signal there is in this. Learning to make loud contact more consistently isn’t exactly easy. It’s also not necessary; Alonso, Willson Contreras, and Giancarlo Stanton would be right at home on this list if they weren’t already good, and I only put Harris on there to emphasize that he might have another gear. On the other side of the coin, Franchy Cordero has been on lists like this for his entire big league career without ever figuring it out. This isn’t a definitive list, but I think it’s an interesting one.

From there, I went down to the bottom of the list: the players who get to their power most frequently. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that freshly minted Marlin Luis Arraez is the player with the lowest gap between his average and 95th-percentile exit velocities. He’s just so dang consistent. Andrew Benintendi, Myles Straw, Josh Harrison, Whit Merrifield, and Jeff McNeil are in that general zone too. You roughly know this type of hitter; the guy who squares everything up thanks to a short, repeatable swing.

My general thought here was that I could use this type of filter to look for hitters who I think aren’t very likely to put up premium numbers. But, uh, that plan isn’t right. Also hanging out at the bottom of the list: Freddie Freeman, Betts, and Alex Bregman. Those three combined for 79 homers last year. They’re definitely not the slap hitters we’re looking for. There’s a sneaky cross-correlation going on here that’s messing up the results.

One way to have a small gap between your 95th-percentile EV and your average EV is to not hit the ball with authority. Everyone misses the ball somewhat similarly; if you don’t have a ton of power, your good hits will simply have less distance from those poorly struck balls.

Another way to have a tiny gap between your average exit velocity and 95th-percentile mark is to simply avoid mishits. If you’re almost always getting to your best contact, that gap will necessarily be narrow. Betts boasts above-average top-end power, sure, but that’s not his standout talent. He just hits the ball on the nose so often that he doesn’t have much soft contact to speak of.

Last year, 411 players put at least 100 balls into play; Betts ranked 404th out of that group in the rate of batted balls he hit 75 mph or less. In other words, almost everyone else in baseball mishits the ball more frequently than him. For what it’s worth, Arraez ranked 407th on that same list; he combines the two ways you can have a narrow gap between average and 95th-percentile EV, which is why he has the lowest gap in the majors.

With that in mind, I have another list to keep an eye on: hitters who boasted above-average 95th-percentile exit velocity but small gaps between that and their average exit velocity. As before, I’m highlighting players who feel like they’re being undervalued or might break out; I’m not topping the list with Betts or Freeman even though they’re the best-case outcomes for this class of hitter. Without further ado, some potential laser beam merchants:

Underappreciated Consistent Hard Hitters

Now, are either of my two lists of young and potentially breakout-worthy hitters predictive? I’m not yet sure. I’m doing a little back-checking on who would have been on these lists in the past now, probably in service of another article later this week (it is January, after all). They do mean that I’ll be watching these players with interest, though. If anyone on that high-power, low-consistency list starts putting up a solid hard-hit rate or otherwise showing off contact consistency, I’m going to start believing they’re the real deal immediately. Likewise, I’ll be more willing to accept that good seasons from any of those five names on the latter list aren’t a fluke; they’ve demonstrated the ability to strike the ball firmly and consistently.

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