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An early look at the Cardinals’ power production

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Let’s see what we can glean from the early returns of the 2017 season.

St. Louis Cardinals v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Last year, the Cardinals were a team that relied on the long ball. They were second in the league in homers, behind only the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles play in the fifth most homer-friendly environment, and commonly build their team around that fact. The Cards play in the 7th least friendly park for homers, and deliberately went in a different direction this off-season, letting long-ball threats Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss go.

Those decisions have created concerns here and elsewhere that the Cardinals wouldn’t produce enough power in 2017. While I think home runs will be down, I don’t think that’s a big problem. I believe value is value and a team doesn’t need a certain amount of any one type in order to be successful. What matters is the overall amount of value. In replacing Holliday and Moss with Dexter Fowler, the team got better on defense and on the base-paths. Between his high BABIP skills and strong walk rates, Fowler also brings elite on-base percentage to the lineup. There isn’t something special about home runs that makes it better than other types of value.

It’s a category like any other. It’s also the one we’ll look at today, through the lens of MLB’s Statcast data, hosted at BaseballSavant.com. Of course, it’s still April. There’s sample size issues here, so we don’t want to make any firm conclusions. We’re just identifying what’s going on, so that we can follow up later, when the sample sizes are larger.

Recently, Baseball Savant released their 2017 Statcast leaderboard. There, you can find a variety of stats measured by Statcast technology. That’s where we’ll begin our journey. What we’ll focus on today is Exit Velocity (EV), or the recorded velocity that the ball leaves a hitters’ bat. Using the data provided at Baseball Savant, we’ll look at each Cardinal with over 30 statcast-recorded batted ball events in 2017. For those 8 players, here’s there Average EV and Average FB/LD velocity for 2016 and 2017, and the difference for each:

EV difference, 2016 to 2017.txt

Player 2016 Avg EV 2016 Avg FB/LD EV 2017 Avg EV 2017 Avg FB/LD EV Avg EV Diff Avg FB/LD EV Diff
Player 2016 Avg EV 2016 Avg FB/LD EV 2017 Avg EV 2017 Avg FB/LD EV Avg EV Diff Avg FB/LD EV Diff
Jedd Gyorko 88.1 93.3 90.2 97.7 2.1 4.4
Kolten Wong 87.4 88.3 84 91.2 -3.4 2.9
Stephen Piscotty 88.8 93.1 85.6 94.7 -3.2 1.6
Dexter Fowler 88.4 90.5 87.7 92.1 -0.7 1.6
Randal Grichuk 92.3 95.1 86.3 96.6 -6 1.5
Yadier Molina 88.3 90.6 85.8 90.5 -2.5 -0.1
Matt Carpenter 90.9 93.8 92 93 1.1 -0.8
Aledmys Diaz 90.2 92.7 87.6 90 -2.6 -2.7

Kolten Wong, Stephen Piscotty, Yadier Molina, and Aledmys Diaz are all down 2-3 MPH compared to last year. This is still the early going. This isn’t something you’re going to sound alarm bells over. But those are four players to watch and see if they show improvement going forward.

However, Diaz is the only player down when concerning only fly balls and line drives. That’s important because that’s where hitters do most their damage. Here’s an image I’ve shared a few times before, but is relevant again here:

If you’re not familiar with Launch Angles (the angle that the ball leaves the bat), here’s how they correspond to batted ball types:

Ground balls: below ten degrees

Line Drives: 10-25 degrees

Fly balls: 26 to 49 degrees

Pop ups: 50 degrees or more

Hard hit grounders are better than softly hit grounders, and hard fit fly balls are better than softly hit fly balls. However, the margins are a lot higher in the air. It’s also of course more relevant when talking about hitting homers. Statcast began collecting data in 2015. In the off-season, I found that 2015 FB/LD avg EV correlated with 2016 HR/FB rate better than 2015 HR/FB rate.

In other words, when trying to project HR/FB% going forward, the average Exit Velocity of a player’s fly balls and line drives said more than a player’s actual HR/FB%. In 2016, Jedd Gyorko’s 93.3 MPH FB/LD EV indicated a 14% HR/FB rate, above-average but well short of the 24.4% he posted.

That led me to expect regression for Gyorko going forward. He’s been hot to start the season though, at 97.7 MPH per Fly ball and line drive, giving him an expected HR/FB rate that almost matches his actual rate. Does that mean we can expect him to repeat his 2016 season now? No, but maybe it means we can expect less regression than we were previously. It’s also just another reason for me to believe strongly that he should be he starter at third base.

Here’s the same eight hitters, and all of their xHR/FB rates alongside their actual HR/FB rate:

HR rate vs. xHR rate

Players 2017 Avg FB/LD EV 2017 HR/FB 2017 xHR/FB 2017 Difference
Players 2017 Avg FB/LD EV 2017 HR/FB 2017 xHR/FB 2017 Difference
Randal Grichuk 96.6 13.3 18.8 5.5
Kolten Wong 91.2 7.1 11.0 3.9
Stephen Piscotty 94.7 13.3 16.0 2.7
Matt Carpenter 93 11.1 13.6 2.5
Dexter Fowler 92.1 10 12.3 2.3
Yadier Molina 90.5 8.3 10.0 1.7
Jedd Gyorko 97.7 21.4 20.3 -1.1
Aledmys Diaz 90 12.5 9.3 -3.2

Aledmys Diaz is the only player with a significant negative difference. He “should” have three homers rather than four, according to this. Several Cardinals have velocity averages slightly better than the results, but at this point of the season we’re just talking about a difference of small fractions of home runs.

Kolten Wong does have a rather large difference, but that only means he “should” have 1.5 homers instead of one. Still, it’s encouraging that the data from the ground verifies the increase in power Wong has shown so far in 2017. He had a 6.9 xHR/FB% in 2016, but I noticed that he seemed to consciously try to hit for more power in the second half of the season. We’ll have to wait for more info on this one though, as his GB% is up from last year, 46% to 52.5%.

One last thing I wanted to look at was how a player distributed his velocity. We’ve been talking about fly balls and line drives, let’s include grounders in the equation:

Fly balls vs. Ground balls

Players Avg EV Avg FB/LD EV Avg GB EV FB/LD EV - GB EV
Players Avg EV Avg FB/LD EV Avg GB EV FB/LD EV - GB EV
Randal Grichuk 86.3 96.6 75.6 21
Stephen Piscotty 85.6 94.7 76.8 17.9
Jedd Gyorko 90.2 97.7 83.2 14.5
Kolten Wong 84 91.2 80.2 11
Dexter Fowler 87.7 92.1 82.7 9.4
Yadier Molina 85.8 90.5 82.4 8.1
Aledmys Diaz 87.6 90 87.7 2.3
Matt Carpenter 92 93 92 1

So far in 2017, the league average FB/LD EV is 92.5 MPH, and league average GB EV is 83.8, giving us an average difference between the two of almost 9 MPH. In the off-season, I wrote about how Diaz could raise his production by focusing more on hitting flies. The difference is even smaller this year, going from 4.2 MPH difference last year to 2.3 so far this year. While the velocities are still too similar, his GB% has dropped from 45.5% to 41.5% in the early going, so maybe he is making an attempt to join the Fly Ball Revolution.

Matt Carpenter’s difference is odd, as he had a 9 MPH difference last year. His FB/LD EV is right where it was last year, just with harder hit grounders. Maybe he’s just hit a few more hard hit grounders than usual so far in this young season. Maybe he’s making solid contact a lot but just needs a little more uppercut. Gyorko had an 11.3 MPH difference last year, so while he might not keep the high difference he has now, his approach is geared towards maximizing fly balls.

On the other side of things, Randal Grichuk has the largest difference in baseball. That’s due to holding the tenth lowest average grounder velocity combined with a slight increase in his fly ball/line drive EV. Randal hit grounders at an average of 90.4 MPH in 2016, so maybe he’s just getting on top of the ball a little more often than usual right now.

Like Wong, compared to last year Stephen Piscotty has a large increase in the difference in velocity between flies/liners and grounders (he had less than a 8 MPH difference in 2016). Also like Wong though, his GB% has went up. It seems like at least one of those things has to be small sample size noise. Maybe he’s maximizing his swing and approach for flies, but still hasn’t worked out all the kinks, leading to him hitting more weak grounders, but hard hit balls when he gets it in the air? These are just guesses at this point.

Again, we don’t want to take these numbers too seriously this early. This is about seeing what’s going on right now, and seeing if these things continue as the sample size grows. So what is going on?

The Cardinals did lose two big long-ball threats this off-season. Of the players that returned though, overall there is an improvement in terms of power from the year before. Jedd Gyorko and Kolten Wong show the biggest improvement. Grichuk has the worst luck on flies so far. If he continues hitting fly balls and line drives as hard as he has, the extra base hits are going to come sooner or later. He’s also having some sort of issue with hitting weak grounders. Maybe the scouts out there see something, but I’m not a scout. It also might surprise you to know that Diaz’s Exit Velocity is down, both in the air and overall.

The 2017 season has still just begun. As fans, we’ll have to continue to watch it unfold. Maybe we’re seeing some hints as to how the season plays out, or maybe we’re just looking at small samples that we’ll look silly later for focusing on now. My guess is it’ll be a mix of those two.