In baseball, the best players rise to the top through consistency of talent. As a result, it is only natural for players, managers, and fans alike to assume a player will produce at roughly career averages year after year. Obviously this cannot last forever, and father time will eventually have his final say. Today, I’m looking at three players on the back end of their careers; Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Adrian Beltre. I’m going to look at their combinations of exit velocity and launch angles and see if there are any clear warning signs for these players going into spring training.
Bautista is going into his age 36 season with a ADP that is currently hovering around 100. Last year he suffered multiple leg injuries, two of which required DL stints. The first a turf toe incident, the second a sprained knee. Between the two, he spent 53 days on the disabled list. However, when active, Bautista had an uptick in batted ball quality from 2015, perhaps linked to his 2015 shoulder injury. On his recorded balls in play, and keep in mind statcast misses out on some of the weakest contact, he upgraded 5% of his BIP from ground balls to line drives/fly balls between 5 and 36 degrees of vertical launch angle. Even better, a lot of the balls hit on these angles were over 100 mph.
|Launch Angle||Exit Velocity||2016||2015||Δ||lgwOBA|
|> 36°||70 to 90||7.1%||7.8%||-0.6%||.035|
|> 36°||90 to 100||5.2%||5.9%||-0.7%||.092|
|< -10°||70 to 90||7.1%||8.3%||-1.2%||.098|
|< -10°||90 to 100||11.2%||10.9%||0.4%||.174|
|21 to 36°||70 to 90||6.0%||5.4%||0.6%||.212|
|-10 to 5°||70 to 90||4.5%||5.2%||-0.7%||.219|
|< -10°||100 to 120||3.0%||5.2%||-2.2%||.239|
|-10 to 5°||90 to 100||5.6%||4.4%||1.2%||.361|
|-10 to 5°||100 to 120||5.2%||10.1%||-4.8%||.434|
|21 to 36°||90 to 100||3.4%||4.9%||-1.5%||.498|
|5 to 21°||70 to 90||3.0%||3.6%||-0.6%||.551|
|5 to 21°||90 to 100||4.5%||2.6%||1.9%||.595|
|> 36°||100 to 120||5.2%||1.6%||3.7%||.636|
|5 to 21°||100 to 120||13.5%||11.9%||1.6%||.809|
|21 to 36°||100 to 120||15.4%||12.4%||3.0%||1.521|
I’ve marked the largest swings in performance between his two seasons, but you should note that he had drops in the three least valuable categories, and gains in the four most valuable. That said, these numbers represent a more general overview of the contact he produced. There are other stats, such as Value Hits (they have a .879/.874/2.606 slashline), which suggest Bautista faced some regression on the upper tier of his batted balls. He dropped from 8.7% to 7.1% Value Hits per plate appearance. So, while his the average value of his contact increased quite a bit, he hit fewer of those upper tier batted balls. This manifested as a pretty significant drop in home runs over the course of the season. While Steamer suggests his power will likely rebound, and it probably will, his power may in fact be declining faster than some expect. I think you’ll be more likely to see 23-24 home runs out of him than 30.
Encarnacion is entering his age 34 season, the first of a three year pact with Cleveland. Last year he matched his career high 42 home runs and set career highs in Runs Scored and RBIs, all on the back of a career high 702 plate appearances. You could call it a career year for him, although you could make arguments for his 2012 and 2015 seasons. All of this success has pushed his ADP up to around 25, and many projecting him to hit 35 home runs and 100+ RBI for the third year in a row, 6th year in a row if you throw him a bone and round up the 34 HR and 98 RBI in 2014.
In 2016, Encarnacion lifted the ball much more than he did in 2015. I know his listed FB% dropped, but discarding the popups and exceptionally weakly hit balls, which statcast has trouble measuring, his flyball rate increased a bit. I’ve separated batted balls into five categories, which you can see in the table below. First, the very poor ground balls (angle below -10°), slightly better ground balls (-10 and 5°), line drives (5-21°), ideal flyballs (21-36°) and weak flyballs (higher than 36°). In essence, there are two types of ground balls (high angle and low angle), and two types of flyballs (again, high and low). In both cases, Encarnacion hit more of the higher launch angles, and fewer of the lower launch angles. With ground balls, this is a good thing. With fly balls.. well, not so much.
|-10 to 5°||19.5||15.8||3.7|
|5 to 21°||13.0||16.9||-3.9|
|21 to 36°||22.6||25.6||-3.0|
Granted, launch angle doesn’t tell the whole story-although it appears to hold year to year better than most other stats- exit velocity matters, too. So, like with his buddy Bautista I’ve broken this down even further with some exit velocity included. First, you may notice that balls hit above 36° occupy the two lowest value categories in this chart. Second, you’ll notice his increase in these batted balls didn’t fall into either of those, but instead the high end, high velocity group, which happens to be the third most valuable group listed. Although, this group is of significantly less value than the two lower ideal launch angles, both of which, as noted before, have dropped in frequency.
|Launch Angle||Exit Velocity||2016||2015||Δ||lgwOBA||lgDist|
|> 36°||70 to 90||5.3%||6.3%||-1.0%||.035||236.0|
|> 36°||90 to 100||9.1%||8.4%||0.7%||.092||299.8|
|< -10°||70 to 90||8.4%||7.9%||0.5%||.098||88.3|
|< -10°||90 to 100||7.9%||8.7%||-0.8%||.174||109.0|
|21 to 36°||70 to 90||6.7%||5.8%||0.9%||.212||289.0|
|-10 to 5°||70 to 90||6.5%||4.5%||2.0%||.219||124.3|
|< -10°||100 to 120||5.8%||6.9%||-1.1%||.239||121.8|
|-10 to 5°||90 to 100||4.6%||4.5%||0.1%||.361||144.1|
|-10 to 5°||100 to 120||8.4%||6.9%||1.6%||.434||160.4|
|21 to 36°||90 to 100||5.0%||5.3%||-0.2%||.498||353.8|
|5 to 21°||70 to 90||1.2%||2.9%||-1.7%||.551||208.3|
|5 to 21°||90 to 100||7.0%||5.3%||1.7%||.595||261.3|
|> 36°||100 to 120||8.4%||3.4%||5.0%||.636||352.7|
|5 to 21°||100 to 120||4.8%||8.7%||-3.9%||.809||290.4|
|21 to 36°||100 to 120||10.8%||14.5%||-3.7%||1.521||398.9|
I’ve marked the categories with the biggest gains and losses. Worryingly his losses are not exactly where you want to see them. His high exit velocity line drives and ideally hit balls have dipped substantially, while his high exit velocity high launch angle flyballs have increased. For reference, I’ve included the average batted ball distances for each of these groups. You’ll notice the types of balls he’s hitting more of tend to have less distance than the one’s he’s giving up.
This increasing launch angle trend is worrying, especially as Encarnacion leaves the home run friendly AL East to enter the not quite so friendly AL Central. If he can maintain the high exit velocities, he should keep his power numbers, but any further increase in flyball angles could cut into his home run rate, and any dip in exit velocity without a corresponding dip in launch angle could drastically cut his offensive performance. This increase in angle might be statistical noise, I can’t rule that out. I have noticed that angle tends to hold steady year to year for most players, though. I’m worried that his bat may be slowing down a bit. Take a look at his contact heatmap between 2015 and 2016 (and note that 2014, 2013, etc are all pretty similar to 2015).
There are pronounced dips both high and inside, and you can see similar drops in slugging in these locations as well. Encarnacion may be due for some aging based regression, I’d be wary.
Boy, how does Beltre do this year after year? He’s entering his age 38 season, and he’s still one of the top position players. He’s currently sitting with an ADP in the low 70s, and probably the 7th best third basemen going into 2017. However, his batted ball profile has a few things in common with Encarnacion. For starters, he hit significantly more flyballs above 36° and much fewer balls below -10°. He also hit fewer line drives between 5 and 21°. These are all of the same traits I covered with Encarnacion. But, and this is a big but, Beltre managed to increase the number of high velocity balls on ideal launch angles, even with a dipping rate of ideal launch angles. Take a look at this table.
|Launch Angle||Exit Velocity||2016||2015||Δ||lgwOBA|
|> 36°||70 to 90||8.5%||10.2%||-1.7%||.035|
|> 36°||90 to 100||6.5%||8.8%||-2.4%||.092|
|< -10°||70 to 90||5.8%||4.3%||1.5%||.098|
|< -10°||90 to 100||9.6%||10.0%||-0.4%||.174|
|21 to 36°||70 to 90||9.2%||12.9%||-3.8%||.212|
|-10 to 5°||70 to 90||5.6%||5.9%||-0.3%||.219|
|< -10°||100 to 120||5.4%||6.3%||-1.0%||.239|
|-10 to 5°||90 to 100||5.4%||3.2%||2.2%||.361|
|-10 to 5°||100 to 120||6.9%||5.2%||1.7%||.434|
|21 to 36°||90 to 100||4.5%||6.3%||-1.9%||.498|
|5 to 21°||70 to 90||1.6%||0.5%||1.1%||.551|
|5 to 21°||90 to 100||8.0%||9.1%||-1.0%||.595|
|> 36°||100 to 120||6.9%||0.7%||6.2%||.636|
|5 to 21°||100 to 120||6.5%||7.7%||-1.2%||.809|
|21 to 36°||100 to 120||9.8%||8.8%||1.0%||1.521|
In other words, Beltre cut back in the number of weakly hit balls hit on those launch angles that are otherwise ideal for home runs. He increased the exit velocity on his ground balls (from 88 to 89 mph), and line drives (93 to 95 mph).
Where Encarnacion saw a general increase in launch angle, with exit velocity largely staying constant, Beltre instead saw a redistribution of his weak contact and an increase in frequency for the strongest contact. Encarnacion is flirting with danger, while Beltre seems to be improving. Somehow. I don’t know how. I guess that’s what makes him a Hall of Famer. Granted, age has a way of sneaking up on you, but with Beltre I don’t see obvious signs of weakening ability by looking at these batted ball stats.
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