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A Deep Dive Into Alec Burleson’s Struggles

Has the outfielder simply been unlucky or is there another explanation?

Kansas City Royals v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Alec Burleson should be a good hitter. He has a 74th percentile exit velocity (90.7 mph average exit velocity) and he has a 94th percentile whiff rate (15.5%). To put it another way - he hits the ball hard and he makes a ton of contact. That’s a great combination.

But, to make things even better, Burleson also hits a lot of balls in the air as his 39% ground ball rate is more than 3% below the league average and he also has an above average fly ball pull rate (25.5%).

So, to sum it all up, we’re looking at a hitter who hits everything, hits the ball hard, hits the ball in the air, and pulls his fly balls. That’s pretty much ideal. Yet he has an 85 wRC+, meaning he’s been a 15% below league average hitter. That’s not great.

So what’s going on? How is it that someone with Burleson’s profile is struggling so much at the plate? And is it purely bad luck or are there other factors involved? These are some pressing questions as the St. Louis Cardinals outfield is pretty banged up so let’s take a closer look. I’ll examine that last question first.

Burleson has been unlucky. Simple as that. That’s not the only reason why he’s been a below average hitter but it’s certainly a factor. There’s simply no way that Burleson’s .231 BABIP is sustainable. That’s way too low for someone who hits the ball as hard as he does.

All of the x-stats are pretty bullish on Burleson too. For starters, he has a solid .328 xwOBA, which is 35 points higher than his actual wOBA. He also had an expected batting average and expected slugging percentage that 36 points and 48 points higher than his actual batting average and slugging percentage, respectively.

So it’s clear that poor batted ball luck has played a role in Burleson’s struggles this season. And that’s exactly why I think Oli Marmol has stuck with Burleson in the lineup as often as he has. He may be struggling but with the way that he consistently hits the ball hard, makes contact, and elevates, you would expect him to turn things around at some point.

But that’s not the whole story.

Burleson may have a high average exit velocity but he doesn’t barrel the ball too often and that matters a lot. In fact, the outfielder has the lowest barrel rate on the team at just 4.9%. I guess Tres Barrera and Oscar Mercado are lower since they’ve never had a barrel but I’m not really considering them. So that leaves us with an outfielder who has the third highest average exit velocity on the team and the lowest barrel rate on the team.

That means a lot of medium contact. Medium contact is fine but it’s hard contact that really makes a difference, and of the hard contact it’s the barrels that really do most of a hitter’s damage.

Before I go any further, I should define “barrel”. We’ll turn to the MLB glossary for that.

The Barrel classification is assigned to batted-ball events whose comparable hit types (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage since Statcast was implemented Major League wide in 2015.

After that definition, it should be clear why barreled balls are important. A .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage is great but that’s only the lowest end of the barreled ball spectrum. In practicality, barreled balls often end up with much greater production than that.

Now, let’s expand the definition to see how we get to barreled balls.

To be Barreled, a batted ball requires an exit velocity of at least 98 mph. At that speed, balls struck with a launch angle between 26-30 degrees always garner Barreled classification. For every mph over 98, the range of launch angles expands.

For example: A ball traveling 99 mph always earns ‘Barreled’ status when struck between 25-31 degrees. Add one more mph — to reach 100 — and the range grows another three degrees, to 24-33.

Every additional mph over 100 increases the range another two to three degrees until an exit velocity of 116 mph is reached. At that threshold, the Barreled designation is assigned to any ball with a launch angle between eight and 50 degrees.

And this right here explains how Burleson can struggle despite lofting the ball with a high average exit velocity. A 90-95 mph fly ball doesn’t tend to do a ton of damage. It certainly can, but when hit with too much loft, it’s just a pretty deep fly out.

To bring in another statistic, Burleson ranks in the 50th percentile, meaning he’s dead average, in hard hit rate.

Again, that may be unexpected for someone who is in the upper quartile of MLB hitters in average exit velocity. But all that means is that he makes a lot of medium contact. And medium contact is just that. Medium. Meh. Fine. Nothing exciting.

According to Fangraphs, Burleson’s medium contact rate is a whopping 56.6%. That more than 4% above the league average. That’s great because it means that he limits his weak contact, but that’s not actually that important. Is there much difference between a little nubber to the second baseman and an 85 mph groundout? Not really.

Burleson has a -75 wRC+ on weak contact, which shouldn’t be surprising given his lack of speed but his 23 wRC+ against medium contact is still nothing to write home about. It’s better but it’s still not productive.

And that’s the limitation of average exit velocity. Take away some of the low end inputs and replace them with middling inputs and the number goes up. But as we’ve already covered, there’s not a huge practical difference between a 50 mph exit velocity and an 80-85 mph exit velocity which means that the increase in average exit velocity caused by doesn’t actually lead to much of an increase in production.

Average exit velocity must be kept in context with other numbers like barrel rate, hard hit rate, and 90th or 95th percentile exit velocity. The last of which can actually be a more helpful number to look at in isolation (even though any one number can’t really sum up a baseball player with enough context to matter) but since it’s not publicly available to my knowledge, I can’t provide it, though I wouldn’t be shocked if it was actually below average.

Returning to Burleson, his average exit velocity looks impressive but it’s deceiving. He’s really good at not hitting the ball softly but he’s not great at truly barreling the ball and that’s what truly gives a hitter the bulk of his production.

So while poor batted ball luck has certainly played a role in Burleson’s struggles, his issues are much deeper than that. He needs to improve his barrel accuracy to truly be the best hitter that he can be.

As someone who was high on Burleson in the past and as someone who still believes in his bat, it’s clear that this is an issue he will need to work on. His lack of production isn’t going to suddenly change unless he starts running into a few more barrels, even if his BABIP does regress to the mean.

But I can’t stop there without mentioning that Burleson is a bit of a free swinger because it’s his free swinging tendencies that could be keeping him from more hard contact. It’s harder to barrel pitches outside the zone and the left-handed hitter sure likes to swing at pitches outside the zone as his 31.4% chase rate sits in just the 27th percentile.

Some plate discipline refinements could be huge for Burleson but he’s always had an aggressive approach at the plate, even in the minors, and that makes me skeptical that he’s all of a sudden going to start being more selective.

I don’t think it’s the free swinging tendencies that are really limiting Burleson’s power output, though, as he’s an aggressive swinger on pitches in the zone too. That gives him plenty of opportunities to barrel balls.

Improvement to his chase rate may help him become a better hitter overall but Burleson really needs to improve his barrel accuracy if he’s going to maximize his production at the plate.

Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Sunday!