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On Blasts, Barrels, and the Cardinals

Riffing on a new metric

St Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Over the off-season, Alex Chamberlain introduced a new concept at RotoGraphs. You’ve probably heard by now that not all barrels are created the same. Chamberlain took that concept to a new level and discovered a subset of barrels that he calls “blasts.” It’s not as neat and tidy as, say, the Hard Hit designation from Statcast, which is anything above 95 mph exit velocity. Chamberlain’s metric identifies barrels that specifically are hit at launch angles and exit velocities that procure the most damage. All other barrels are what he calls “weak barrels” while the optimal barrels are “blasts.” If you want to see his methodology, it’s in the article, which explains it better than I ever could.

To illustrate the difference between the two, Chamberlain provided the production on blasts vs. weak barrels from 2017 to 2020. It’s illuminating:

Weak Barrels: 1.140 wOBAcon, 38% HR/BBE, .707 AVG

That’s pretty good! Almost 71% of the time, it’s a hit. The wOBA on even a weak barrel is a whopping 1.140 and 38% of those batted balls are leaving the yard. That’s really good contact. Now, let’s look at his subset of optimal barrels, aka “blasts”:

Blasts: 1.744 wOBAcon, 82% HR/BBE, .919 AVG

That’s, uh... quite a gap. More than four out of five blasts leave the yard. They become hits 91.9% of the time. A whopping 44% more blasts leave the yard than weak barrels. If you want to put this in beer terms, if you’re having a Dogfish Head beer, you’re probably drinking a pretty damn good beer. But if you’re having their 120 Minute IPA, you’re drinking something transcendent. Your mileage may vary on that beer analogy but I stand by it. Or if you’d rather, a weak barrel is the Cardinal Sin from Ted Drewes. A blast is my wife’s mexican chocolate ice cream.

Chamberlain points out that since 2017, 46% of barrels were blasts, with the other 54% earning the weak barrel designation. There are obviously a lot of ramifications here, but the most obvious one to me is that a player with a high ratio of blasts to barrels is probably going to do more damage than the estimators like xwOBA think. The inverse is also true- a player with more weak contact seems likely to undershoot the estimators. I haven’t researched this- I’ve had a crazy past few weeks with little time to dig in to these things- so don’t take it as gospel.

What does this mean for the Cardinals in 2021? You may recall a few weeks ago when I talked about True Hard Hit%. The gist of it is that it’s better to calculate hard hit% by dividing by total plate appearances (or even at-bats) than it is batted ball events, as Statcast does. Let’s hold that same principle here with blasts and look at the Cardinals (min. 20 PA) through Wednesday’s doubleheader:

2021 Cardinals, Blasts/PA

Name Team PA Blast%
Name Team PA Blast%
Harrison Bader STL 22 9.09%
Tyler O’Neill STL 76 7.89%
Yadier Molina STL 71 7.04%
Paul DeJong STL 118 5.93%
Paul Goldschmidt STL 125 5.60%
Dylan Carlson STL 120 3.33%
Matt Carpenter STL 63 3.17%
Austin Dean STL 34 2.94%
Justin Williams STL 80 2.50%
Andrew Knizner STL 52 1.92%
Tommy Edman STL 138 0.00%
Nolan Arenado STL 130 0.00%

League average for our 20 PA minimum sample (which doesn’t include pitchers) is a Blast/PA of 3.09%. We can probably toss out Bader for now simply because it’s only 22 PAs. For some context, O’Neill’s Blast% is 16th best in the game. Molina’s is 27th and DeJong is 48th out of 399 total. Goldschmidt’s presence is curious, but the rest of this generally makes sense from what we’ve seen thus far.

That is to say that Justin Williams is making lots of loud contact, technically barrels, but at less than optimal angles. The same goes for Tommy Edman, who has yet to register a blast despite a couple of barrels. On the other hand, DeJong, Molina, and O’Neill have all shown off some surprising pop this season. Teamwide, the Cardinals rank 7th in baseball at a 3.6% true blast percentage.

Interestingly enough, Nolan Arenado is hitting perfectly well. His true hard hit% is upper quartile and his true barrel% is upper half. Why isn’t he doing even more damage than he is? Well, for all of his barrels, none have been blasts. I’ll reiterate here- Paul Goldschmidt is a massive anomaly and warrants deeper study, or really an update from Gabe’s piece a few weeks back.

The blast/barrel ratio helps tell us a little more. Dylan Carlson’s true hard hit% (not shown above) is below average, but he’s been very productive because so many of his barrels fall in the blast subset- 80%. O’Neill’s is even more impressive at 85% of his barrels qualifying as blasts. League-wide, 54.6% of barrels this year have been blasts, so Carlson’s and O’Neill’s numbers are impressive. Molina’s at 71.4%, DeJong at 58.3%. When that group has squared up on a pitch, they really square it up. On the other hand, Justin Williams is at 30% and Matt Carpenter 25%.

I’m sure there will be more about blasts as the year goes on, and we can keep an eye on it here to see how it develops.