Examining the power of Blue Jays prospects with fly ball distance

 

Jays From the Couch gives you a rundown of the power that exists in the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system

 

 

 

 

Power is an increasingly sought after quality in prospects. However, stat-scouts are limited in the tools they have to quantify a prospect’s power—there’s ISO and not a lot else. In contrast, at the MLB level, there is public data on exit velocity, launch angle, barrels, etc.

 

A few months ago, I described the process through which anyone could calculate the distance of a MiLB home run, using data on MLB.com’s prospect site. Each batted ball is assigned coordinates that describe where it was caught, picked up by a fielder or landed (in the case of home runs). These coordinates (along with the coordinates of home plate) enable anyone to estimate the distance the ball travelled. I then used this data to calculate the number of 400-foot-plus homers hit by minor leaguers and highlighted players in the Blue Jays system who showed a strong ability to generate these long bombs in 2018.

 

In this post, I examine the power potential of Blue Jay prospects by using the batted ball data to calculate each minor leaguer’s average distance on fly balls. I will focus only on fly balls that were caught for an out or cleared the fence for a home run. For these fly balls, the coordinates accurately reflect where the ball landed. In the case of fly balls that landed in fair territory for a base hit, the coordinates reflect where the fielder touched the ball. As such, including these would inflate players’ average fly ball distance. This is the same methodology used by Eli Ben-Porat for his Hardball Times posts on the same topic.

 

Average distance on fly balls (that are caught or go for home runs) seems like a useful proxy for a minor leaguer’s power. Consistently hitting the ball far is a sign of game power and would result in a high average distance on fly balls. Statistically, it seems fairly well correlated with power metrics at both the MiLB and MLB levels.

 

 

Let’s start off at the Short Season-A level. [I’m skipping the Rookie level as the minor league batted ball data doesn’t differentiate between Advanced Rookie (the Appalachian and Pioneer Leagues) and complex ball (the Gulf Coast and Arizona Summer Leagues).]

 

Unsurprisingly, Griffin Conine is the Blue Jay standout. In 2018, his fly balls averaged a distance of 297 feet, which put him in the 87th percentile among batters at the level (min. 10 fly balls and 100 PA). That he was relatively young for the level only underlines his potential as a big league home run hitter.

 

Jake Brodt (291 feet, 77th percentile) is another Vancouver Canadian who hit the ball far in 2018. He similarly stood out for his ability to hit 400-foot-plus homers (1.1% of his PA, 89th percentile). What’s interesting is that he only hit two home runs of any kind for Vancouver and produced a relatively light .124 ISO last season. It seems worthwhile to keep an eye on Brodt in 2019 for signs of a power surge. In his first 16 PA for Class A Lansing, he’s already hit two triples (.250 ISO).

 

Mc Gregory Contreras is a sneaky power prospect for the Blue Jays, thanks to his relatively slender body type. Last season, in his age-19 season, he produced an impressive .200 ISO and hit eight homers, two of which went at least 400 feet. He produced plenty of distance on his fly balls, resulting in an average of 284 feet (62nd percentile), in spite of being one of the youngest players at the level.

 

Christopher Bec (283 feet, 59th percentile) and Vinny Capra (282 feet, 57th percentile) round out the list of 2018 Vancouver Canadians who hit fly balls longer than most at their level, on average.

 

At the Class A level, a familiar list of ball-mashers emerges. Ryan Noda (298 feet, 90th percentile among batters with 25+ fly balls and 200+ PA), Chad Spanberger (297 feet, 88th percentile) and Demi Orimoloye (297 feet, 88th percentile) each ranked among the level leaders in average fly ball distance. For Noda and Spanberger, this jibes with their respective .200-plus ISO marks. For Orimioloye, this suggests that it’s very plausible for him to improve on the .158 ISO he posted at the level.

 

Brock Lundquist (288 feet, 67th percentile) was another strong performer at the level, where he produced a solid .212 ISO. Lundquist is a prospect to watch in 2019, not just because of his quality but because of changes he appeared to make after his promotion to High-A. Seeking to improve upon his poor 23.3% strikeout rate and .286 BABIP, Lundquist sacrificed power for contact, something evidenced in his High-A average fly ball distance (256 feet, 3rd percentile). The result was a lower ISO (.146), as well as a much improved strikeout rate (17.3%) and BABIP (.390). Overall, the changes were net positive, as he increased his wRC+ from 131 at A to 153 at High-A. 2019 will help us better determine whether that .390 BABIP was purely luck-driven or the result of more consistent contact quality.

 

Kevin Vicuna (280 feet, 50th percentile) was only a median performer in this metric. However, it’s still worth pointing out given his size (he’s listed as 140 lbs), consistently sub-.100 ISO marks throughout his MiLB career and relative youth (20 in 2018, 86th percentile). Considered by FanGraphs to be the best fielder in the Blue Jays system, even modest improvements in his production at the plate could open up opportunities for him at higher levels.

 

At the High-A level, Orimoloye (297 feet. 90th percentile) is once again among the leaders. Coincidentally, he produced the exact same average fly ball distance at both levels he played at in 2018. Joshua Palacios (288 feet, 60th percentile) and Kevin Smith (287 feet, 56th perecentile) round out the short list of Blue Jays prospects who hit fly balls longer than most batters at High-A.

 

No one gets any points for guessing that Vlad Guerrero Jr. (322 feet, 99th percentile) led the 2018 Fisher Cats in average fly ball distance. He ranked fifth across Double-A, behind the level leader Eloy Jimenez (330 feet). Following Vlad, just as he did in terms of 400-foot-plus homer rate, is Jon Berti (303 feet, 86th percentile), the talisman of the 2018 Eastern League Champions.

 

While Cavan Biggio (299 feet, 80th percentile) is expected to rate well on this list, Forrest Wall (298 feet, 76th percentile) probably isn’t, as his modest .134 ISO at the level last season certainly doesn’t scream power. If his ISO catches up to his average fly ball distance in 2019, he might finally start meeting evaluator expectations and have a shot at making the big leagues.

 

It might be a surprise to see Bo Bichette (282 feet, 29th percentile) with a below-average average fly ball distance, but it does jibe with the fact that he’s really more of a line drives and doubles kind of hitter. One imagines that he has the ability to change that and hit long flies if he wanted to.

 

While the 2019 Bisons are loaded with power hitters from the 2018 Fisher Cats, the Blue Jays did not see much power at the Triple-A level last season. In fact, Billy McKinney (295 feet, 63rd percentile) represents the level leader in average fly ball distance among players in the Blue Jays system and 76% of his Triple-A plate appearances occurred before his trade from the Yankees.

 

After him is Jonathan Davis (290 feet, 52nd percentile), a prospect more associated with speed and fielding, but who nevertheless has displayed some power—like his average fly ball distance, Davis’ .144 ISO was just above the level average.

 

Rowdy Tellez (286 feet, 40th percentile), Anthony Alford (281 feet, 29th percentile) and Danny Jansen (273 feet, 12th percentile) each produced below-average fly ball distances last season. While Jansen isn’t known as a fly ball hitter, power remains a big part of Tellez and Alford’s hitting. Tellez has assuaged concerns by hitting fly balls an average of 353 feet as a major leaguer so far, while  Alford will hopefully see some gains this season in Triple-A (or the majors).

 

A batter’s average fly ball distance gives us some information about power that result-based metrics like ISO do not. Sample sizes aren’t always large enough in the minors, particularly at a single level in a single season, so a low ISO might be the result of bad luck as much as limited underlying power. On the other hand, a batter who consistently hits 300-foot flies would rate well in this metric, yet might be expected to run a low ISO given that those are generally easy for outfielders to catch and not far enough to clear the fence.

 

As such, like any metric, average fly ball distance is best used in conjunction with other power metrics. ISO is useful, as is the rate at which a batter hits 400-foot homers. Through the process of putting together this data and writing this post, other potentially fruitful ideas have come to mind. The obvious one is the rate at which a batter hits 400-foot flies that either clear the fence or are caught by outfielders. Lowering that threshold to, say, 350 feet is another option.

 

The MiLB hit coordinates also allow us to focus on balls that are pulled, hit to centre or pushed to the opposite side of the diamond. A recurring idea I’ve seen evaluators discuss is the predictiveness of oppo power. In that vein, any of the above metrics focused on opposite-field flies seem like useful additions to the stat-scouts toolbox.

 

 

 

 

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Jeff Quattrociocchi

I'm an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.