Welcome to the start of the 2019 season. We’ve got some interesting stuff going on already! The Yankees are missing an entire starting roster due to injuries. Christian Yelich is so hot at the plate that he might actually spontaneously combust. Tim Beckham is your fourth-best player in the entire league. Things have been wild! By and large, they also don’t — and can’t — mean much because the sample size is so small. Almost.
Thanks to work by Rob Arthur, we know a single batted ball in the air can be predictive. Basically, the idea is that a single exit velocity reading can purely measure how strong a hitter is without having to attempt to account for noise like bad fielding or a kindly gust of wind like other stats might. That strength correlates pretty well with OPS, giving us a reasonable measure of what we might be able to expect from certain hitters moving forward, almost regardless when they rip one like this.
So far this season, 15 hitters have hit two line drives or fly balls at 109 mph or more. Data points can often seem awkwardly arbitrary, but this one isn’t. As Arthur explains, it’s the point at which players gain a bump of six points of OPS per each additional mph they hit a ball. We’re looking at line drives and fly balls because they’re the hardest to defend. About half of those 15 guys are ones who are more established as stars or at least serious threats in the league: Bryce Harper, Nomar Mazara, Gary Sanchez, Joey Gallo, Nelson Cruz, Jose Abreu, Mike Trout, Hanley Ramirez. The other half are not. Here they are, with the rate at which they knocked a ball in the air at 109+ mph last year:
The highest fWAR production of any of these players in 2018 was Harrison Bader’s 3.5, which probably has to do more with his excellent defense at a premium position than his 106 wRC+. Nobody else broke two wins above replacement, though Voit almost did in just 47 games because he played like a madman in September. Mancini and Buxton actually managed negative fWAR of -.2 and -.4, and Buxton managed that in just 27 games. Voit and Alonso offer some later and very late development sheen, but outside of that it’s a rather motley crew.
Here’s how they’re airing it out so far this season, barely more than a week into the season.
The Mets chose the middle ground between holding Alonso in the minors last year and further manipulating his service time by breaking camp with him in the Major Leagues. Bully for them. He’s been exactly as advertised, with a K-rate over 30% but seven RBI and an isolated slugging about a hundred points better than league average. The average of projection systems ZiPS, Steamer, and THE BAT see him having a .748 OPS the rest of the way, but the way he’s hitting early suggests he might not have much trouble exceeding that.
Voit has one more big knock despite seeing 80% fewer pitches so far, and it really seems like the Cardinals are having a hard time knowing the offensive talent they have between their nonchalant send-offs of him and Tommy Pham. He’s been similar to Alonso, but with less Ks and more than two times the amount of walks in the early going. The Big Three project him for a .795 OPS from here on out, with heavy regression in his slugging since his torrid September last season. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see him beat that, though.
Buxton has been the Dr. Jekyll to his Mr. Hyde so far, but also left the Twins game on April 3 with a back contusion, so he’s really staying on brand here in the early going. Mancini is a quarter of the way to his 2018 total for smoked line drives or fly balls, despite seeing only a tiny fraction of the pitches. His three percent walk rate is also about half of what he usually produces. That’s not a reliable rate yet but it’s worth considering that Mancini has just run into a hot streak to start the year.
Franco, Bader, and Tellez off the most intrigue, especially measured against what ZiPS, Steamer, and THE BAT project for them moving forward. Franco is projected for a .781 OPS the rest of the way, providing about another 25 homers, 63 runs, and 84 RBI. He’s walking a hilarious 26% more than he’s whiffing right now thanks to a league-leading six intentional walks. Part of that is because he’s batting eighth and is an easy route to the pitcher, but part of it is because he’s shown himself to be a legitimate threat to make pitchers look really, really bad so far. The plate discipline can’t stick at the current rate but if it’s an indicator of a true adjustment — and it might be, as he’s swinging a little less at junk low and away so far — it might be tagteaming with this new drive to smoke the ball to help Franco shoot past that projected .781 OPS.
Tellez is expected to produce a .750 OPS moving forward and is maybe the biggest wild card of these three. He had some hype as a prospect with lots of pop but had a terrible year in his personal life last year as his mother passed and he fell off a lot of radars. He squeezed into 23 games in the Majors at the end of the season and showed that pop, and now he’s doing more of the same but with way better plate discipline. He’s a Blue Jay down to the tee: grips and rips and gets results through bombs. He’s projected to break 20 dingers and a shade under 70 runs and RBI each, but, like Franco, if the plate discipline sticks a little with this ability to drive the ball, he could push past those with relative ease.
Bader looks like he’ll push another 20 home runs but only another 60 runs and RBI each or so. His projected OPS is a shoddy .701. That was folding in the Bader we knew before he matched the two pitches he smashed at 109 mph or better last year in just four percent of the pitches so far this season. He’s also batting in the lower third of the order and might be hard to keep tamped down there if he keeps swinging like he has early on. If there’s a Vegas line on his OPS, take the over.
The plate discipline referenced above may not be fully stable for another month or so at least. The counting stats may be largely subject to game situations. But when we’re breaking down what produces them by just how hard a guy is mashing the baseball through peeking at exit velocity, they’re all showing upside we can buy into now. Get ready for the headlines.
Exit velocity and pitches seen data from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature photo Rick Scuteri/AP