The Value of Hitting the Ball Hard

There is value in the fly ball. That statement isn’t something that will surprise any fan. Even someone who knows very little about baseball could piece together the logic behind it. The most valuable individual outcome is a home run. How do you hit a home run? Hit a fly ball. As Travis Sawchik found for 2016, fly balls produced a wRC+ of 139, while ground balls put up a mark of 27 wRC+.

Of course, the sabermetrically inclined will quickly point out that it’s not that simple. Judging the value of a hit based on whether it is a fly ball or a ground ball is a futile exercise. You have to consider batted ball distance, launch angle, and exit velocity. Much has been made about the recent “fly ball revolution” occurring throughout the league. And while some believe hitting more fly balls really does increase the value of a player, data suggests that the fly ball revolution is hurting as many batters as it’s helped.

It’s possible that there are benefits to hitting more fly balls, but that doesn’t seem to correlate to an increased value.

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There really is no correlation between fly ball % and wRC+. So, it seems that value is added not by hitting the ball higher, but by hitting the ball harder.

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Now this is a pretty clear correlation. Hit the ball harder and a better outcome is more likely. A soft liner toward the second baseman will probably be an out. But, a laser to right-center field could be a triple.

This trend is not a new development or a new discovery. As far back as 2002, when batted-ball data became available, there has always been a positive correlation between Hard% and wRC+. In fact, the average correlation (R-squared value) between these two variables over the last 15 years is .475.

Hard% also has predictive value. Take a look at the data for 2017 thus far.

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Although the correlation from past years isn’t there, it doesn’t need to be. We should no more expect the data to already have an R-squared value above .4 than we would expect an MVP to have a WAR higher than 6 at this point of the season. Because there are quite a few outliers that will come back to the mean, Hard%, based on its historical data, has considerable predictive value.

Ignoring the one point above the 200 wRC+ line (Mike Trout, whose entire career is an outlier), let’s examine a couple outliers. First, the point on the far right toward the bottom. Nick Castellanos is hitting the ball harder than Aaron Judge, who just set a Statcast record for hardest home run ever hit, but only has a wRC+ of 82 — well below average. Towards the top of the chart at the 175 wRC+ mark, we see that Zack Cozart is making hard contact only 32% of the time.

It is reasonable to expect, based on this chart, that Castellanos’s numbers will start to improve and Cozart’s will regress. As it turns out, Andrew Perpetua found the same outliers┬áby looking at exit velocity and xOBA in a RotoGraphs article last week. These statistics all point toward the same thing — Castellanos has been very unlucky and Cozart has been just the opposite. The takeaway here is that Hard% can be used as a predictor for value even over a smaller sample size.

If Hard% is such a good indicator of success, what is the actual value of hitting the ball hard? Hitting the ball hard has been a hallmark of both HR leaders and batting champions. Over the last five years, the HR champion has an average Hard% of 40.12 and the batting champion has one of 35.16%. Although the almost five-point spread is a lot, a Hard% above 35% is nothing to laugh at — it’s still in the upper half of all players.

For the last full season (2016), increasing Hard% by even just 5% added 13 points to the wRC+ value. That is pretty significant. For context, 13 wRC+ is the difference between Aaron Judge and Yonder Alonso so far this year. But has it always been this way? Not exactly. In 2002, a 5% increase in Hard% increased a player’s wRC+ by 20 points. This points toward an interesting trend.

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For the last 15 years, the correlation between Hard% and wRC+ has decreased. In other words, hitting the ball hard is not as valuable as it once was. My initial thought was that players aren’t hitting as many HRs as they did in 2002. But that is simply not true. 14.2% of flies result in HRs — the highest rate ever recorded. Perhaps this trend is a result of defenses shifting. Are batters hitting the ball harder than ever, but fielders are now better positioned? The shift is certainly a powerful tool — it kept Ryan Howard out of the Hall of Fame. Still, I’m not convinced the shift is solely responsible for this eerie trend.

Hitting a ball hard is much more important than hitting it high, that is, if you can’t have it both ways. However, the value of hitting the ball hard has decreased for more than a decade. Looking at the data, is it possible that in 10 years we’ll see a sort of “v” shape, indicating a return to the value of hitting the ball hard? Maybe. But for now, this is an interesting trend with no clear indicator.



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Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe
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Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe

This is quality, main-page-worthy content.

Saul Forman
Member

Good article. FB% alone definitely isn’t correlated with wRC. However, I think there is some value to looking at hitting the ball “in the air” (not necessarily fly ball %) alongside hard hit rate versus w/RC instead of looking at both separately.

http://m.mlb.com/news/article/234596050/mlb-air-ball-revolution-requires-hard-hit-ball/

mikejunt
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mikejunt

I’d look at this the other way; the -relative- value of hitting the ball hard has dropped a bit, because there are now more positive outcomes for medium hit fly balls that can still be doubles or homers more often than they were previously.

We know that similarly-hit balls are going for home runs more often than they did in the past. That means the percentage of favorable outcomes for balls that fall into Medium has increased, decreasing the proportion of hard hit balls.

I bet if you ran that correlation for medium% you would find it is mildly increasing, but I don’t think that means that hitting the ball hard is less desirable than it was before, because it’s still the most reliable way to get a good outcome, even if the difference is smaller.

Dominikk85
Member

I think the value of launch angle comes more into play when you hit the ball hard. Generally the hard low hitters are not terrible. There was Zimmerman last year but generally the hard but low hitters are about league average or slightly better hitters (like eric hosmer or Alonso before that) unless they strike out a lot.

What kills them is that they have not much value outside of their bat so that they are still only sub 1 war players with an average bat because they can’t do anything else.thus those batters need to maximize their hard contact with proper angles especially if there are strikeouts on top of it.

But if you hit the ball soft the angle doesn’t matter much.billy hamilton has a pretty similar average launch angle as trout or judge have but he hits it very soft.

I think the old wisdom hit it hard not far is not that wrong. Hitting it hard is still most important but the right angle can optimize the results especially hitting it harder than a certain threshold doesn’t give you an additional benefit (there are no extra points for 450 foot homers).