I know we’re approaching the trade deadline but I didn’t feel like writing a trade deadline piece. They’re everywhere and I don’t need to add another one to the pile. I’ve never been one for that baseball trade values site that’s been going around Cardinals Twitter for what seems like forever and I’ve never been one to offer up exact trade proposals. There are way too many unknowns for me to try my hand at that.
At most, I prefer identifying trade targets and then taking a wait-and-see approach to the market value. J.P. actually took the reverse approach on Saturday and identified potential trade bait the St. Louis Cardinals could offer to other teams and I thoroughly enjoyed that piece. You should go read it if you haven’t already.
Really, I just don’t enjoy all the (mostly uneducated) speculation that takes place around the trade deadline. So, I hope you all enjoy a break from that. If you need more trade deadline content, then J.P. and Sky filled us all in on the Edmundo Sosa trade. You should read that too if you haven’t already.
And with that, I’m done discussing the trade deadline. Let’s start with our topic for this piece.
Sometimes I look at a player’s stats and wonder how he’s successful. That’s the case for me with Brendan Donovan and Dylan Carlson. I mean, seriously, Donovan literally has a 7th percentile exit velocity and 3rd percentile barrel rate. That doesn’t usually portend a successful season, but yet Donovan has casually racked up a 129 wRC+. No big deal.
Carlson is in the same boat. He also has a 7th percentile exit velocity and a bottom quartile barrel rate to go with his 115 wRC+.
These two are scoffing at the idea that you need to hit the ball hard to have success at the plate. Okay, maybe not. But still, it’s weird and cool in the way that weird baseball things are cool. That’s why I wanted to take a dive into the subject of how hitters can succeed without hitting the ball hard.
Also, I think it’s unofficially Dylan Carlson week because Gabe and Devin and J.P. have already written about everyone’s favorite prospective trade bait, which makes me the 4th writer to do so this week. But, hey, what I can say. I want to talk about him before he goes to Washington and I can’t write about him anymore. (That was absolutely a joke ... I think.)
Anyways, that’s enough banter for now. Let’s get into the meat of the analysis. I’ll highlight what I think has made the pair successful despite the well below average exit velocities.
Balls in Play
I watch most of the Cardinals games, usually in part but sometimes in full and oftentimes when I watch Carlson hit and I’m confused. Just utterly mystified. It looks like he rarely gives a max effort swing. Or even an 85% effort swing. If you watch a lot of games then you know what I’m talking about.
It often seems like he’s trying to place the ball or direct it to a certain spot. That’s really the only way I can describe it. If you don’t understand what I mean, then here’s some video showing what I’m saying.
This ball was hit at 83.5 mph. He didn’t crush it but that’s just a good piece of hitting and a deserved hit. It feels like every game I watch him take at least one swing where it looks like he’s trying to aim his hit instead of taking a full hack.
That certainly seems like a contact oriented idea to me, so it’s no surprise that Carlson’s strikeout rate has dropped by over 5%.
Carlson strikes out at a rate of 19.1%. Brendan Donovan strikes out at a slightly lower rate of 18.7%. Both of them strike out at a well below league average rate (league average is 22.3%).
That’s important for both players.
One way to make up for not hitting the ball as hard is to hit it more often. Tyler O’Neill can get away with a high strikeout rate because he crushes the ball when he hits it. Dylan Carlson can’t get away with the same thing, so he needs to make more contact. That’s why his reduced striekout rate is important.
Think about O’Neill’s approach as quantity over quality. He doesn’t put as many balls in play but when he does, they’re high quality. Carlson’s batted balls don’t have the same quality so he needs to have a larger quantity of balls in play.
If the quality of contact is going down, then the type of contact matters a lot more. For someone not consistently cranking the ball 95 mph or more, fly balls aren’t going to be as successful. Line drives will matter a lot more.
And that brings us to our first complication. What is a line drive? That seems easy enough doesn’t it? You know it when you see it. That’s not enough for this article, though. We need to have an official, quantifiable definition in order to do further analysis. Most places say its a batted ball hit with a launch angle between 10 and 25 degrees so we’ll go with that.
This definition is important because Baseball Savant and Fangraphs don’t agree when it comes to batted ball data. Take a look at this.
Line Drive Rates
|Player||Site||Line Drive Rate (%)||MLB Average LD%|
|Player||Site||Line Drive Rate (%)||MLB Average LD%|
|Dylan Carlson||Baseball Savant||26.2||25.1|
|Brendan Donovan||Baseball Savant||24.3||25.1|
No matter which site you prefer, Carlson hits more line drives than the average hitter. That’s not the case for Donovan, though. Fangraphs and Baseball Savant track batted ball data differently which can make it hard to evaluate a player. Is Brendan Donovan an elite line drive hitter or a below average one? Lets’ find out.
I looked at all of Donovan’s balls in play and filtered by balls hit with a launch angle between 10 and 25 degrees. That came up with 46, which is exactly how many line drives Fangraphs tracked. Since those numbers agree, I don’t know how there is a discrepancy between the two sites.
When combined with the eye test, that makes me comfortable with saying that Brendan Donovan likely hits an above average amount of line drives.
That’s important because line drives are almost guaranteed to be hits. Carlson is batting .780 on liners with an .807 wOBA, which translates to a 440 wRC+. That’s much better than his 98 wRC+ on fly balls.
The same is true of Donovan. His 436 wRC+ on liners is literally a million times better than his 25 wRC+ on fly balls. Well, actually, it’s only about 17 times better, but you get my point.
My guess is that the weaker exit velocities have translated to much less fly ball production. That seems logical.
I’ll focus in on Carlson since he has a few more years of data we can look at.
It’s not surprising that Carlson’s production on line drives is better than his production on fly balls. That’s literally the case for every hitter. But what is surprising is that his production of fly balls is so bad.
A 98 wRC+ doesn’t seem that bad. I mean it’s only ever so slightly below league average production, so what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that ground balls drag a hitters numbers down. Hitters are supposed to make up for that on balls hit in the air. Consider this. Carlson had a 123 wRC+ on fly balls in 2020 and a 166 wRC+ on fly balls in 2021. In those seasons, he average exit velocities of 87.4 mph (2020) and 88.2 mph (2021).
I’m not surprised that his downturn in fly ball production has matched his downturn in exit velocity. He’s still crushing it when he pulls his fly balls, but his numbers are even down in that regard. He had a 472 wRC+ when he pulled fly balls last year and he’s ‘only’ at 309 this year.
Pulled fly balls make up a ton of any given hitter’s production, so of course Carlson is still raking there, The point is that he’s simply not as productive on fly balls, and that’s likely because of his diminished exit velocity.
The exit velocities don’t matter too much when it comes to line drives. Sure they make a difference, but Carlson has a .645 wOBA on line drives between 80 mph and 90 mph. Take it back to 70-80 mph, and Carlson is still batting above .500. The same is true for Donovan.
These two players are going to be more reliant on maintaining high line drive rates than other hitters. The question is - Are those above average line drive rates sustainable? My answer is a firm “I don’t know”.
Watching Carlson’s bat control makes me think his line drive rate is, but line drives rates historically fluctuate a decent amount, though some hitters are able to hit more line drives consistently. According to Fangraphs he’s been above average every year. His line drive rate is on the way up this season too.
Carlson really only had one bad month, the first month of the season. He’s seen his line drive rate increase every month, beginning at 15.6% in the first month and rising to 26.1% in June and 30.4% in July. He’s beating the shift by putting the ball in the air. More generally, he’s having more success because his contact type has been much better.
I think Donovan may be a similar hitter but that’s just a hunch. We’ll have to see.
Another thing to keep in mind is that we’ve been talking about percentages, not raw numbers. These players a higher percentage of balls in play than the average hitter and an above average percentage of those balls in play are line drives. That means that these players are hitting more than a few extra line drives when compared with the average hitter. They may have not be as productive on fly balls, but a lot of extra line drives can make up for that.
Beat the Shift
Something that has also stood out to me is Carlson’s ability to beat the shift. I’m not really going to consider Donovan here because he’s only been shifted against in 19.5% of his plate appearances. He’s been worse against the shift but I’m not ready to hold that against him based on 54 instances, especially since he’s great at using the whole field.
Carlson has always had better results versus the shift, though,. As a left-handed hitter this year, he has a .249 wOBA when the defense doesn’t shift and a .325 wOBA when it does. He’s also crushed the shift as a right-hander in a very small sample.
For a hitter who sprays line drives and fly balls all over the field that makes sense. As I mentioned earlier, Carlson has only had one bad month this year. In that month, he had a 51.6% ground ball rate. In the following months, his ground ball rate hasn’t risen above 44.3% and it’s been below 40% twice. The league average is 42.9%.
He’s beating the shift by putting the ball in the air more, with plenty more line drives. That’s been huge for him.
Take Free Passes
This is a huge point. A lot of the low exit velocity guys are traditional slap hitters. They do the first thing I talked about, which is make a lot of contact, but they usually don’t take a ton of walks. Donovan isn’t like this.
He has a fantastic 12.9% walk rate. This is the real reason he’s been successful. Line drives have been huge for him, but that’s not the whole story. He’s batting .281 with a .377 slugging percentage. The difference maker for him has been his .396 OBP.
Some players get on base by consistently crushing the ball. Think Tyler O’Neill and his .351 OBP last year. Donovan gets on base with an uncanny eye and an ability to hit for average due to a higher-than-average line drive rate.
He’s not a power player, but a hitter don’t need great power to be a valuable offensive player. He’s walking a much finer line than most players with his .095 ISO but singles and walks can be effective in a high enough quantity. Throw in the occasional extra base hit and home run for good measure and that’s an above average hitter.
Carlson’s walk rate isn’t as impressive (7.8%) and it’s actually been half a percentage point below the league average. The difference for Carlson is that he’s shown more power. He seems to have an innate ability to drop balls in the gap with his directional swing and he’s been close to average on fly balls. Donovan’s problem is that he hits too many grounders and hits most of his fly balls to the opposite field. That’s not a great power combo.
Donovan needs a higher walk rate because he has less power. Carlson is fine with a lower walk rate because he has more power.
I wanted to make a quick note about speed. It’s often been said that players like Tommy Edman and Harrison Bader are able to overcome limited exit velocities with their elite speed. I think there’s some truth to that. Squeezing out infield singles and takign extra bases improves batting average, OBP, and slugging. You do it enough, and that can be more than a marginal boost for a hitter.
Speed helps. I don’t think that’s much of a question.
The interesting thing is that Carlson and Donovan don’t have elite speed. Carlson is in the 73rd percentile in sprint speed and Donovan is only in the 54th percentile. That’s decent but that’s not really fast enough to be the main driver of their success. I’m sure it helps, or at least it doesn’t hurt, but I don’t see it playing a huge role.
After looking at these players, I think it really is the line drive rates, quantity of contact, free passes, and effectiveness against the shift that have really been the main drivers of success. Success against the shift isn’t as applicable against players who bat right-handed. Speed helps, but elite speed doesn’t seem to be necessary.
I’ll admit that I don’t have all the answers here. I’m simply exploring a subject that warrants further examination and offering my findings.
Exit velocity matters. Hitting the ball hard, and consistently hard, matters. It’s weird when players are successful without doing that. Maybe Carlson and Donovan fall off a cliff down the stretch because the low exit velocities have finally caught up with them. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it’s definitely possible, and it’s definitely something I’ll be paying attention to the rest of the year.
As we talk about line drive rates and limiting strikeouts, one phrase sticks out to me — bat control. There’s really not a hard and fast definition of bat control but these players do a good job of putting the bat on the ball and hitting it on a line. That to me seems like bat control so I’m going to use the term.
When I watch Carlson hit and he does his directional swing, there’s really no other way for me to describe it than with the phrase “bat control”. He seems to literally be controlling the bat into hitting the ball a certain way or into a certain spot. I don’t know if that’s what he’s actually trying to do but it sure does look like it.
Watch these videos to see what I mean.
To me, that’s good bat control. He covering the zone, and even pitches outside the zone and he does a great job of getting the barrel to the ball.
Same thing here.
Donovan doesn’t swing the same way but it feels like he often gets on top of the ball. That means very few fly balls and a ton of ground balls but it’s also led to a lot of line drives. That feels like a targeted approach. When I watch him hit, it feels like that’s what he’s trying to do. Maybe he’s not trying to hit 50% ground balls, but he certainly doesn’t seem like he’s focused on launch angle.
Here’s what I mean.
It seems like he does that a lot.
Those aren’t hit very hard but they’re also deserved hits. He manages to get his bat head up and just shoot the ball into center. Something else he’s really good at is taking outside pitches the opposite way.
He does this a lot too.
It feels like he’s good at handling any pitch and getting the bathead on it. Again, that’s not a lot of power, but it’s really good bat control. He makes a lot of contact and hits a lot of liners.
We can debate the approach of these players, and I too would like to see more fly balls and fewer ground balls, but that’s not what I’m worried about here. I’m interested in how they’re having success and it looks like bat control plays a key role.
This was an investigative piece for me. Like I said, I don’t have all the answers. Let me know what you all think in the comments. I would love for further discussion on this subject, so if you have any thoughts, don’t be shy. I know that’s never a problem for you VEBers.