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An Update on Cardinal True Hard Hit Percentages

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Tyler O’Neill is every bit the monster you think he is

Kansas City Royals v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

In early April, I riffed on a Pitcher List article that took a different approach to Hard Hit rate. Here’s my article and here’s the link to the wonderful original piece from Pitcher List. When you see “Hard Hit %” on Statcast, FanGraphs, and other sites, they’re calculating the percentage of batted ball events that are hard hit. It’s useful for telling you whether or not a player hits the ball hard frequently when they make contact but it omits strikeouts and walks. Think of it this way. Here are two fictional players. Which would you rather have?

  • Billy Masher: 500 plate appearances, 55% Hard Hit%
  • Ronnie Raker: 500 plate appearances, 40% Hard Hit%

Obviously, you’d think Billy Masher is preferable. Now let’s look at some more info:

  • Billy Masher: 500 plate appearances, 55% Hard Hit%, 35% K rate, 12% BB rate
  • Ronnie Raker: 500 plate appearances, 40% Hard Hit%, 12% K rate, 12% BB rate

Billy makes hard contact 15% more frequently than Ronnie... but only when they make contact. Now we know that Billy doesn’t make contact in nearly half of his plate appearances. By contrast, Larry makes contact 76% of the time. Suddenly Ronnie has 152 hard hits in his 500 plate appearances compared to 146 for Billy. Practically speaking, you want more hard contact, and not more hard contact only when they hit the ball. You want Ronnie despite the gaudy advantage Billy has in traditional Hard Hit%.

This is an easy fix, as Pitcher List discovered. Simply calculate Hard Hit Percentage as Hard Hits/Plate Appearances rather than Hard Hits/Batted Ball Events. How does this affect the perception of various Cardinal hitters, and how do they rank overall in True Hard Hit % (or THH%)? Here’s how they rank in both categories among all players with 70+ plate appearances, through Monday.

Hard Hit and True Hard Hit Percentiles (min. 70 PA)

Name HH Pctile THH Pctile Diff
Name HH Pctile THH Pctile Diff
Paul Goldschmidt 96.16% 98.47% 2.30%
Tyler O'Neill 99.56% 92.33% -7.24%
Nolan Arenado 40.35% 74.56% 34.21%
Tommy Edman 33.33% 72.48% 39.15%
Justin Williams 94.85% 67.22% -27.63%
Yadier Molina 22.48% 52.41% 29.93%
Andrew Knizner 40.02% 41.67% 1.65%
Paul DeJong 38.38% 35.31% -3.07%
Matt Carpenter 78.07% 35.09% -42.98%
Harrison Bader 16.01% 25.55% 9.54%
Dylan Carlson 23.68% 23.47% -0.22%
Edmundo Sosa 12.61% 22.04% 9.43%

Players with extreme positive differentials (Diff.) are underrated- more like Ronnie from the example- while those with extreme negative differentials are overrated. The Cardinals have two of the 40 most overrated, and I’m sure you can guess that it’s Matt Carpenter and Justin Williams. They also have three of the twenty most underrated hitters if we use True Hard Hit%- Tommy Edman (4th biggest differential), Nolan Arenado (9th), and Yadier Molina (16th). In fact, Edman has the biggest differential for all players with 200 plate appearances or more, and Arenado is 5th. Their hard hit rates are hardly eye-popping, but their contact skills allows them to amass more hard hits than strikeout-prone hitters.

It’s encouraging to see Tyler O’Neill in the 92nd percentile for THH%. Yes, he’s a Three True Outcome King, but not so much that it totally robs him of all his loud contact. Paul Goldschmidt’s THH% is 8th in baseball. Nolan Arenado consistently outperforms HH% if you look at THH%, so much so that he was cited in the original Pitcher List article from the off-season. He’s actually upper quartile... or just barely out of upper quartile. Most of the rest speak for themselves. It’s hardly a surprise that Edmundo Sosa’s THH% (or HH%) are in the lower quartile, for instance. A few look odd, though. Specifically, Dylan Carlson and Harrison Bader have lower THH% percentiles despite perfectly solid 108 and 105 wRC+s, respectively. They’ve been above average in production despite below average THH%.

Perhaps the answer lies in their volume of barrels compared to hard hits. Which players have the highest percentage of their hard hits qualifying as barrels? After all, a barrel is way better than just a generic hard hit. Here are Cardinal percentiles in Barrels/Hard Hits:

Barrels Per Hard Hit, League-Wide Percentile

Name Brl/HH Pctile
Name Brl/HH Pctile
Tyler O'Neill 92.76%
Matt Carpenter 87.28%
Paul DeJong 80.92%
Paul Goldschmidt 62.06%
Dylan Carlson 61.40%
Justin Williams 56.36%
Nolan Arenado 55.26%
Harrison Bader 41.78%
Yadier Molina 34.21%
Edmundo Sosa 26.97%
Tommy Edman 20.61%
Andrew Knizner 13.82%

There’s O’Neill again. He has totally flipped the script this season and earned every bit of praise he’s gotten. Then there’s Carlson at 61st percentile- not bad! He’s better than average at maximizing his hard hit opportunities. At least, that’s true if we go by barrels. He also has a fairly high percentage of flares in his batted ball mix. Flares are high percentage batted balls in that they produce high batting averages (trailing only barrels), albeit with far less extra base power. In other words, when Carlson makes contact, he has a high percentage of a simple single, or- when he does make hard contact- it’s of the loudest variety. Blend it together and you have a slightly above average hitter.

Bader’s numbers leave us still perplexed and he doesn’t have a lot of flares to explain it. It’s apparent to everyone that he’s taking a better approach at the plate. Ben Clemens wrote about it in detail. For what it’s worth, his THH% is up from 2019-2020. Even though his enhanced numbers are a little odd given his THH%, he’s still clearly a better hitter.

How do the Cardinals look at the team level? If we look strictly at HH% (for non-pitchers), the Cardinals rank a pedestrian 18th. Focus instead on THH% and they leap to 10th. In general, raw hard hit percentage underrates them compared to true hard hit percentage. This is because they have one of the lower K% in baseball. Other teams collect a higher percent of hard hits, but whiff a lot more. That’s not to say the offense has been examplary with regard to THH%, but they’ve been above average, just behind the Dodgers and ahead of the Giants and Reds, three teams with wRC+s of 110 or more.

Last time, I showed a scatterplot of every team’s non-pitcher wRC+ from 2015 to 2019, plotted against their THH+BB% (how often they collect a hard hit or a walk). It came out to an r-squared of .456. That’s a pretty good relationship- if you hit the ball hard a lot and walk a lot, or some combination of the two, you’re probably going to be very productive as a team. Let’s update that scatterplot with how the Cardinals rank now:

It’s only five years of data and doesn’t include the other 2021 teams, but the Cardinals are the only team in the sample with a THH+BB% over 35% and a wRC+ below league average. That’s... weird. It might have something to do with blasts, which sounds like my next article topic.