It has only been a year since major league baseball started putting all those fancy Statcast cameras up in our ballparks. Ever since then we have been treated, now and then, to a taste of "the future" in the form of how fast such and such can run or how hard such and such can hit the ball. Now that guys in suits have a full season worth of data to sit on, they have begun finding more ways to actually use and disseminate all that information in the hopes that their investment pays off.
A recent hire by MLB Advanced Media is one Daren Willman, a man obsessed to an unnatural degree with things like how hard people hit baseballs. Yesterday, Mr. Willman released the following chart of Bryce Harper's hitting pattern last year:
Now, there is nothing revolutionary being revealed here. We all know that line drive angles are where Bryce Harper does the most damage. We've seen him hit. Up top are the fly balls and pop ups. Down below are the ground balls. In between is where the ball gets mashed.
There are several things that stand out to me, however. One is that Bryce rarely got a hit when he hit the ball flat, but that can almost certainly be attributed to small sample size. More interesting, though, is the difference in how hard he hit the ball when he was hitting home runs up in the 20 to 30 launch angles compared to when he was hitting singles and doubles at lower angles. The ball is hit noticeably harder when he isn't hitting it out of the park half the time he connects. Strange, no?
We have two other batters we can compare Bryce to. The first is Miguel Cabrera. Miggy had yet another fantastic season last year, though he simply doesn't have the home run power he had just a few years ago:
Now wait a minute. This shows that Cabrera hit the ball harder than Bryce almost all the way across the board. At the lower angles where Bryce is brushing up against 98 mph off the bat, Cabera is breaking 100 mph. Up where Bryce was hitting his home runs at a lazy 93 mph, Cabrera still hit his balls at 96 to 98 mph. What gives? Who really has more power here?
I honestly cannot give you all the answers here. Bryce hit 42 home runs, so he clearly was doing something right.
Apparently doing it right does not require knocking the cover off the ball every time he squares one up. The question does remain whether Bryce would be hitting more home runs if he hit the ball harder, on average, than he did in 2015. On the other hand, if hitting the ball hard really mattered that much, why didn't Cabrera hit more home runs since he was hitting the ball so hard? Your guess is as good as mine, and it may be a number of years before there is enough Statcast data that the analytical types can say for sure what's happening and explain to us what we already see with our eyes, which is that guys like Giancarlo Stanton who hit the ball really, really hard end up with lots of home runs.
In the meantime, here's the chart for an entirely different type of hitter:
Jose Altuve's launch angle breakdown is much different than Miguel Cabrera... pic.twitter.com/2NwlJyJ1lS— Daren Willman (@darenw) February 4, 2016
Altuve doesn't hit home runs. He drives the ball much closer to the ground, even into the ground, which is something that neither Harper nor Cabrera attempt on purpose. He does share the same power curve that Bryce has, though he doesn't hit the ball nearly as hard overall.
So, does Bryce have less power overall than Cabrera? Are his similarities to Altuve evidence that he is simply a more balanced or well-rounded batter than the aging Cabrera? Is this all smoke in the wind that will become clear once we have a few more years of data? I'd love to hear your guesses, because I am reserving my judgment and hoping the data speaks to me in my dreams so that I can become a home run hitter too.
Before I let you go, here is one last set of charts. We have seen the difference between Bryce Harper, a line drive hitter, and Jose Altuve, a ground ball hitter. Here are sample charts for a ground ball pitcher and a fly ball pitcher.
You can see how each one works to minimize the potential damage that might be done, though each can be countered by the right kind of batter.
Comparison of launch angles for two different types of pitchers. Brett Anderson ground balls, Hector Santiago FB pic.twitter.com/0ncJ6cTYUE— Daren Willman (@darenw) February 4, 2016
The ground ball pitcher gets batters to hit 40% of balls at negative 10 degrees or lower, which is death to someone like Cabrera, though I suspect Cabrera is better than most at avoiding the traps of the ground ball pitcher. The fly ball pitcher, on the other hand, would love to face Jose Altuve, who isn't going to do a lot of damage when the ball takes off at a high angle.
Bryce Harper had a great season. Like Cabrera, I'm guessing he has developed a knack of making his own luck. If he didn't, any decent ground ball pitcher would shut him down and I don't think that has happened. Maybe there is data out there that says otherwise, but so far I haven't heard of any pitcher that enjoys having to pitch to him.
I'm sure Mr. Willman is going to tell us more about Bryce Harper's hitting habits in the future. Maybe he will discover some insight into why Bryce is hitting as many home runs as he is even though he isn't hitting the ball as hard as Cabrera or Giancarlo Stanton. It could be that his swing is different or that his whole approach at the plate is different than that of a true "slugger". Bryce Harper is a great batter, and one one level I could care less how he does it.
On the other hand, it is really fascinating to think that future generations may one day look back at the data that is being collected today so that they can try to emulate how Bryce Harper did what Bryce Harper does.
Keep doing what you do, Bryce.