Using Sabermetrics for Fantasy Baseball Part 12 - Barrels for Batters

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If you've watched a baseball broadcast in the so-called Statcast Era, you have undoubtedly noticed the broadcasters commenting on a batted ball's exit velocity, or EV. Many have taken to using stats like Hard% and Soft% to forecast how a player should be performing, expecting larger Hard% rates to produce larger BABIP figures. There is a relationship there, but it is not as clear-cut as you might think.

The hardest batted ball of the 2016 season was struck by Avisail Garcia against somebody named Tyler Wilson. It was clocked at 125.2 mph and resulted in a ground out. The silver medal goes to Luis Valbuena, who grounded out against Mike Pelfrey. Third place was a double play off the bat of David Freese. You won't find a hit until the the fifth place EV, and it was only a single. The first extra base hit ranked ninth, and you have to go all the way to 18th to get to a home run. Along the way you find a ton of ground balls that MLB infielders can handle no matter how hard they are struck.

Clearly, exit velocity is not enough on its own. It works better if you filter out ground balls, but most analysts I've seen do not do so. Baseball broadcasts will cite Launch Angle (LA) to complement their EV figures, but it is given in terms of degrees. Am I evaluating a baseball player or trying to find the hypotenuse of an isosceles triangle? Let's simplify things a bit to see how these numbers can actually benefit our own analysis.

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How to Interpret Batted Ball Statistics

They do not do a good job of publicizing it, but LA is actually fairly simple to understand. Here is the batted ball type produced by the various degree measurements:

Batted Ball Type                 Launch Angle

Ground ball                          Less than 10 degrees

Line Drive                             10-25 degrees

Fly ball                                    25-50 degrees

Pop-up                                    More than 50 degrees

Most batters want to live in the 10-50 degree range, as grounders rarely produce power while pop-ups rarely produce anything other than easy outs. Well-struck balls in this range of launch angles are the batted balls that fantasy owners are most interested in. A new stat called "Barrels" filters out everything else, allowing us to evaluate who is hitting the most of these high-value batted balls.

A Barrel is defined as "a ball with a combination of exit velocity and launch angle that averages at least a .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage." It should be noted that the numbers above are only a minimum threshold, as Barrels produced an .822 batting average and 2.386 slugging in 2016. In this respect, the stat is like a Quality Start. It is possible to register a QS with an ERA of 4.50, but the actual avearge ERA of all MLB Quality Starts falls well below 4.50.

The range of EVs and LAs that combine to form Barrels are called the Barrel Zone. This means that higher EVs can compensate for less ideal LAs to produce the .500/1.500 minimum. Don't worry too much about this relationship. At a minimum, it must have an EV of at least 98 mph and fall within the 10-50 degree LA range. We care about fantasy production, not the intricacies of a mathematical relationship.

With this in mind, Miguel Cabrera led baseball in Barrels last year with 72. He was followed by Nelson Cruz (68), Mark Trumbo (67), Khris Davis (65), and David Ortiz (62). This group passes the sniff test, as it seems like a collection of guys who consistently make high quality contact. Likewise, Billy Hamilton managed only one Barrel all year, living up to his reputation of weak contact. Still, we already knew this. What do Barrels add to the equation?

They become more instructive when you stop looking at them as a counting stat and start examining them as a rate stat. By taking the number of Barrels and dividing by the total number of Batted Ball Events, we get a percentage that tells us how frequently a player's batted balls are Barrels. Gary Sanchez topped this list in 2016 with an 18.8 percent Brls/BBE figure, followed by Byung Ho Park (18.7 percent), Khris Davis (18.2 percent), Nelson Cruz, and Chris Carter (17.8 percent each). Cabrera's 16.5 percent rate ranked ninth, suggesting that his PAs were partially responsible for leading the league in Barrels last year.  More importantly, Sanchez, Park, and Davis all seem more attractive in light of this data.

This data was not available back in 2015, but data for that year is available now. If we had it at this time last year, Chris Carter could have been an attractive sleeper in fantasy due to his 18.7 percent Brls/BBE in limited 2015 playing time. He led the NL in homers last year with 41, so he was a sleeper worth owning. Likewise, Giancarlo Stanton's amazing 2015 (he hit 27 bombs in 318 PAs) was fueled by a 32.5 percent Brls/BBE, over 10 points higher than the league's second best performance (Miguel Sano's 22.4 percent rate in limited time). We don't know the baselines for this stat yet, but Stanton's performance was almost certainly an outlier. Sure enough, he regressed to a still strong 17.3 percent Brls/BBE last season.

Like BABIP, Brls/BBE also seems prone to random fluctuation. Miguel Cabrera posted a Brls/BBE rate of 11.3 percent in 2015. That does not suggest he was a year away from leading MLB in Barrels at all. Considering Cabrera's reputation as one of the best hitters in the game and a career BABIP of .347 despite never possessing speed or a ton of liners (22.1 percent career LD%), I'd wager that his career rate is well above his 2015 mark. The stat could have been used to forecast positive regression last year.

 

Conclusion

Barrels are an interesting tool, but the lack of a clearly established baseline makes using them more uncertain than the previous metrics we looked at. LA is historically not the stickiest of stats, but certain players such as Christian Yelich seem to have a swing that reliably produces more ground balls than anything else. Many players are planning to change their swings to produce better launch angles this year, but it remains to be seen if they can actually do so. For now, consider Barrels and Brls/BBE only as a component of a larger analysis. They should not be solely relied upon--yet.

Next time, we'll look at pitchers who give up Barrels. As you may have guessed, you really do not want to be a pitcher who gives up a lot of Barrels.

 

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