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Exit Velocity Pitching Leaders - Statcast 2019 Review


Ah, winter, the true dead zone of baseball coverage. The new champs have been crowned, vacation plans are made, the awards are being handed out and the winter meetings getting underway. Sounds like the perfect time to review some Statcast data in preparation of 2020 fantasy drafts.

Exit velocity has become one of the more commonly-known advanced metrics among the common fan and while it's mostly used for hitters, there's much to be learned by analyzing what pitchers are giving up the least hard contact as well. The batter typically has more say in how hard a ball is hit, but the pitchers below have shown a strong ability to limit hard contact over a large sample size.

To keep things focused on starters, we'll mostly be looking at a sample size of 129 pitchers that experienced at least 300 batted ball events (BBE) in 2019. The median exit velocity among those pitchers is 88.0 miles per hour which is the exact same as it was in 2018, so we have a consistent baseline to work with. To read about the exit velocity and barrel leaders among hitters, click here.

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Ryan Yarbrough, Tampa Bay Rays

Atop the exit velocity leaderboard sits Ryan Yarbrough, who absolutely dominated the category in 2019. Yarbrough's 84.1 average exit velocity was a whopping 1.1 mile per hour better than the next closest pitcher, a big difference when you consider the range between the top and bottom pitcher is just 6.7 MPH. 2019 wasn't a fluke for Yarbrough either, he was 11th among pitchers in 2018 with an 85.5 average exit velocity so this is now two straight years and over 850 BBE where the 27-year-old lefty has been elite at allowing soft contact.

Yarbrough should be a popular breakout pick heading into 2020 as his 3.55 FIP was much better than his 4.13 ERA. He also improved in the second half of the season, upping his strikeout rate by four percent over the first half and pitched to a 3.79 ERA and sub-1 WHIP after the All-Star break. Yarbrough is a pitcher that can be drafted in the double-digit rounds but can make a big impact on your fantasy team.

 

Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs

Kyle Hendricks was Mr. Consistency in 2019 as his 85.2 MPH average exit velocity was the same as it was in 2018. In fact, Hendricks has been among the most reliable pitchers in the game in this department for some time; he has finished eighth or better in average exit velocity every season dating back to 2016. Hendricks is among the most extreme contact pitchers in the game as he doesn't generate a ton of strikeouts or walks. He generally keeps the ball on the ground and has proven his extreme soft contact numbers aren't a fluke as he's been elite in the category four straight years.

Hendricks won't blow anyone away with a gaudy strikeout total, but he can still be a consistent, know-what-you're-getting starting pitcher that any fantasy manager would be happy to have as a middle-of-the-rotation starter that can be drafted in the middle rounds.

 

Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers

Of all the pitchers atop the average exit velocity leaderboard, Brandon Woodruff is the one that seems to have the most actionable data. His 2.6 percent barrels per plate appearance was easily the best rate in the Majors, meaning he showed a strong ability to avoid the sweet-spot of the bat. Additionally, while his 85.6 MPH average exit velocity was sixth in the league, he was second in baseball in exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, something that is very important pitching in homer-friendly Miller Park.

Woodruff struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings last season and his 3.36 xFIP was better than his 3.62 ERA. Despite an average-looking 3.62 ERA, he is on the short-list for pitchers poised to have a breakout season in 2020.

 

Zack Wheeler, New York Mets

Wheeler has been in the news because of his $118 million deal with the Phillies. They must have already known that he was on the leaderboard in this category. His average exit velocity actually went up from 2018 to 2019 but he still finished 11th in the category after finishing fourth in 2018, so he's now put up back-to-back seasons being among the best at avoiding hard contact. Like Woodruff, Wheeler was also even better on balls in the air as his average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives ranked fifth in the league after being second in that department in 2018.

Wheeler was top-five in the Majors in hard contact rate and shows no reason he can't carry his success into the new year, especially since he stays in the same division. In addition to two years of positive Statcast data, Wheeler struck out a batter per inning last season and his 3.48 FIP was better than his 3.96 ERA. Wheeler should be in the SP3 mix come draft season with upside to finish much higher if he can put up close to the 195 1/3 innings he threw this past season.

 

Julio Urias, Los Angeles Dodgers

Julio Urias pitched mostly out of the bullpen last season and therefore doesn't quite make the 300 BBE threshold we've been using. However, it would be remiss not to mention the average exit velocity leader in this space. In 209 BBE, Urias allowed an average exit velocity of just 83.2 MPH, almost a full mile per hour better than Yarbrough who was already way ahead of the pack. Urias was the only pitcher with at least 200 BBE to allow fewer than 25 percent of them to be hit 95+ MPH.

Yes, pitching out of the bullpen is typically considered easier as pitchers can exert more force into each pitch, but Urias still had a great season by the Statcast metrics. Throw in a 26.1 percent strikeout rate and it's clear why Urias is considered a top pitching prospect. The pitching-rich Dodgers are always going to cycle through starting pitchers, but Urias should get his chance to start this season and when he does, he's a guy fantasy managers will want on their squad.

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