I’ve previously written about the fact that a batter’s results are a combination of both talent and randomness; therefore, using results alone offers a very incomplete view of a player’s performance. This season, we’ve finally been given access to a couple new data sources that should lift the veil on player performances by describing batted balls in more detail than the general public has ever seen before. The first is called StatCast, and it’s a tracking system that captures all of the movements of the players and the ball on the field. MLB installed the system in all 30 Major League ballparks and has started to release some of the information, starting with the speed and direction of batted balls. In addition to this, FanGraphs just released data from Baseball Info Solutions on quality of contact that tells us where and how hard a player’s batted balls were hit, broken down by pull, center, and opposite field rates and soft, medium, and hard contact rates.
With all of this new information being made available to us, I wanted to walk through some methods of utilizing it to better understand how a player has performed. First I’ll use data straight from Freddie Freeman’s player page on Fangraphs to explain his drop in performance from 2013 to 2014. Later on, I’ll download StatCast data from BaseballSavant to try to quantify just how much better Cameron Maybin has hit than his year-to-date results imply.
2013 was Freddie Freeman’s breakout year. He hit for a .319 batting average with 23 home runs and a 10 percent walk rate across 629 plate appearances. His offense was worth around 36 runs, which ranked 7th in the National League. The Braves wasted no time in signing him to an 8 year, $135 million contract, making him a face-of-the-franchise player for years to come. His 2014 follow up would be yet another solid performance, ranking 9th in the NL in offensive value. Though still an elite year for a hitter, it was a step back for Freddie, as his .374 weighted On Base Average (wOBA) represented a drop from his .387 mark in 2013. The following table summarizes his hitting performances in each season.
While his plate discipline improved thanks to a more patient approach, he started to do less damage when he put a bat on a ball. His Isolated Power (ISO) dropped, and he experienced a 20 point drop in Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). At first glance, the drops in power and BABIP seem counter-intuitive. In 2014, Freeman’s line drive rate and hard hit rate increased, and his infield fly rate stayed exactly the same, so it appears he was still making great contact. What gives?
Let’s start by looking at his results on fly balls for each season from Fangraphs:
Just as with his overall numbers, we see an increase in hard hit rate coupled with a decrease in power. While this may seem backwards, note that Freeman pulled considerably more fly balls in 2013. More balls down the line means more balls over the fence, and this can be seen in his spray charts for each season. Note the cluster of home runs hit (black dots) to right field in 2013 that isn’t present in 2014.
In 2014, the balls Freeman was pulling down the line were being hit in the power alley in right center, where they became long fly outs instead of home runs.
We’ll now move to his line drives for each season, where we see one of the main culprits to his BABIP drop.
According to our quality of contact data, his spray pattern on line drives stayed the same from 2013 to 2014, but he was hitting them much harder in 2014. I know what you’re probably now thinking: he was hitting line drives to the same spots but hitting them harder, and yet his BABIP on them went down. What gives? Well, the thing about line drives is harder isn’t always better when you’re trying to hit for average. Softly hit line drives often end up in the gloves of infielders, and hard hit ones end up in the gloves of outfielders. It’s the medium hit line drives that fall for hits the most, and in 2014 Freeman’s medium contact rate on line drives dropped 12 percentage points from 54.3% to 41.7%. Though this led to less overall hits on line drives, it also meant that the ones that did fall more often resulted in extra bases, as seen by his increased slugging percentage in 2014. There’s trade-offs to everything in life, and line drives are no exception.
Last but not least, here are his numbers for ground balls in each season, containing the last nugget to explain his overall BABIP drop in 2014.
While Freddie did a decent job spreading the ball around the infield in 2013, 2014 saw him become a perfect shift candidate as he started rolling over ground balls. His pull percentage went from 44.6% to 68.2% and his hard hit rate took a dive from 21% to 16%. The spray chart from earlier provides a visual for just how drastic this change was, making it surprising his AVG didn’t drop more than it did. The good news is that his 36.6% ground ball rate was one of the lowest in baseball, and so far in 2015 it’s dropped as low as 30%.
Previously, using the best tools available to the public, trying to explain Freddie Freeman’s decrease in batted ball performance from 2013 to 2014 would have resulted in nothing more than a shoulder shrug. Spray charts would have provided a little clarity, but there’s only so much clarity a qualitative look can provide. However, thanks to better data being made available, we’re able to paint a more vivid picture of a player’s performance than ever before. We’re able to see how changes in how hard, and in what direction, Freeman hit the ball led to changes in his ability to hit for power and for average.
In our next post we’ll see how breaking things down one step further with StatCast data can clarify this analysis and make it that much more informative. In the meantime, pick a player and start playing with the data yourself. If you’d like a little inspiration, I can think of a certain former Braves right fielder who would make a perfect case study.