I remember writing an article a few years ago about Michael Bourn. The article was built around something I’d seen on the ESPN Home Run Tracker. I didn’t think of Bourn as being a strong hitter. You don’t think of Bourn as being a strong hitter. I imagine Bourn doesn’t even think of himself as being a strong hitter. But he hit this one home run, off Jeff Suppan in April 2009. According to the website, the homer went 457 feet, which is 31 feet longer than any other Bourn homer in his big-league career. The way I interpreted that, it hinted at Bourn’s absolute power ceiling. He doesn’t spend a lot of time around his ceiling, of course, but you can’t really fake such a big dinger. It was interesting to me, at least — interesting enough that I haven’t forgotten about it.
I was reminded of that research and article by something Peter O’Brien just did.
We’re not used to caring about spring training, but now we have spring training with occasional glimpses from Statcast. And Statcast says O’Brien drilled that home run at 119.5 miles per hour. If you don’t spend a lot of time playing around with Statcast data, that might not mean much to you, but it probably should. Mike Petriello was all over this, and I’ll clip from him:
[…]Yet that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday night in what would eventually become a 7-7 tie between the Giants and Diamondbacks in Scottsdale, as Arizona’s Peter O’Brien’s fourth spring homer wasn’t just a no-doubter, it was the hardest-hit home run of the Statcast™ era.
The Statcast era is very short! If the Statcast era were a human, it wouldn’t be old enough to string together a worthwhile sentence. On the other hand, the era covers the bulk of a full major-league season, and during a season, there’s a lot that happens. Baseball is all about daily repetition. Last year’s hardest-hit home run left Giancarlo Stanton‘s bat at 119.2 miles per hour, assuming the measurements are accurate. That’s what O’Brien just did. O’Brien didn’t just do it in a game that makes any difference, so it might not officially “count,” but it was still a demonstration of skill. The fact that it was an exhibition doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.
The sample of all home runs is far smaller than the sample of all batted balls. From the same linked leaderboard, last year’s hardest-hit batted ball was 120.3 miles per hour, also coming from Stanton. You could say that gives him an edge over O’Brien, and it wouldn’t be untrue, but if you were to round to the nearest integer, you’ve got both Stanton and O’Brien topping out at 120. It’s a tie, so we’re seeing proof of O’Brien’s raw-power ceiling. If you trust in the Statcast numbers, we know now that O’Brien is as strong as the guy who seems like the strongest hitter in the major leagues.
As I see it, there’s only one flaw with this: By using this information, we can talk only about observed ceilings. We don’t have an infinite sample of batted balls, so it’s possible that Stanton could hit the ball 130 miles per hour with perfect contact. It’s possible O’Brien could do the same. It stands to reason observed ceiling isn’t always the same as actual ceiling, but this is the best we can do for the moment. The full sample we have is pretty big. A whole year of baseball, and O’Brien just hit a ball harder than (almost) anyone.
I’m not worried about small sample sizes. I don’t care that O’Brien has done this only once. Because, as with Bourn, I don’t think of this as luck. It was all a function of bat speed, bat weight, and ball contact. Luck doesn’t play a role, here, any more than it plays a role when a pitcher throws 98. If a pitcher throws a 98 mile-per-hour fastball, we know, then, that the pitcher is capable of throwing a 98 mile-per-hour fastball. We know something about O’Brien, now, and it gives us objective data to pair with more subjective scouting reports.
O’Brien has always been thought of as a strong hitter. Throughout the minors, he was known for his raw strength, and the concerns were contact frequency and defensive position. On the 20 – 80 scale, O’Brien’s raw power has frequently come in around 65 or 70. I’d suggest, after yesterday, that maybe it warrants an 80-grade. You have to be careful with those 80-grade labels, but why shouldn’t O’Brien be deserving? This is raw power, not game power. Raw power is supposed to tell you about a power ceiling. Why should we believe O’Brien doesn’t have as high a power ceiling as anybody?
Statcast can supplement the scouting, and in certain cases, it seems like Statcast can directly give you a scouting evaluation. Right here, we can see Statcast’s utility in determining a raw-power grade. It could also conceivably give you an arm-strength grade, and a speed grade, and so on. It won’t tell you anything about a player’s maturity. It might be difficult to convert Statcast data into an evaluation of a hitter’s ability to come up with a plan and adapt. But, one data point. For some things, one data point might be all you really need.
For O’Brien’s future career, the issue is going to be the frequency with which he taps into his power. Even if you give him that raw-power 80, that doesn’t automatically make a guy millions. O’Brien’s now way up there on the exit-velocity leaderboard, but last year Avisail Garcia topped out at 116.1 miles per hour. Will Venable topped out at 115.2. Carlos Peguero topped out at 116.0. Peguero has forever been recognized for his strength, but because he has issues consistently applying that strength, he hasn’t established himself. Peguero’s problems could be O’Brien’s problems, and at this point, no one expects Peguero to figure it out. Stanton is in part amazing for his strength, but he’s more amazing for how often he can use it. His consistency was absurd.
If O’Brien can achieve a similar level of consistency, he can be as dangerous a power hitter as anyone. Stanton, Bryce Harper, Miguel Sano, Joey Gallo — anyone. O’Brien just proved that in a spring-training game. You might not be wowed by Peter O’Brien’s overall skillset, but if you’re not wowed by his power potential, you’re basically impossible to wow.
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