Occasionally, there is discussion during TV broadcasts and radio programs about the Blue Jays batters’ difficulties handling high-velocity pitches. How crucial is the ability to hit high velocity to the overall performance of a hitter? Which Toronto batters are better at handling it?
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For many years, people have been intrigued by pitchers who can throw an exceptional fastball. Folks often use terms such as gas and heat as synonyms for high-velocity pitches. Anyone who watches a Blue Jays game on television will see the velocity of each pitch on their TV screen. It seems that more and more pitchers throw pitches that approach 100 mph.
Frequently, a conversation concerning the impact upon hitters of high-velocity offerings occurs. Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler have noted that opposing pitchers have targeted some Blue Jays as having difficulty hitting exceptional fastballs. Kevin Barker has expressed similar views on the Fan 590’s Baseball Central. Which Blue Jays struggle with high-velocity gas? Who handles heat well? Can a hitter succeed at the plate if they underperform on high-velocity pitches?
The Pitch Velocity Trend
Since Statcast measurements commenced with the 2015 season, there has been a fascinating development in fastball usage and velocity. Overall, according to Statcast, American League fastballs averaged 92.3 mph in 2015; it was 92.4 and 92.5 in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Table 1 is a summary of additional selected pitching data, and the highlights are as follows:
For purposes of this article, I have defined a high-velocity pitch as one with a velocity of at least 95 mph. Also, I will mostly ignore 2021 data because of its small sample size.
- Of all pitches thrown, the percentage of high-velocity pitches has declined since 2015: from 12.1% to 11.8% in 2020.
- For starters, the share of all pitches thrown that are high-velocity was 9.2% in 2015, which exceeds 2020’s 7.2%.
- One reason for the reduced percentage of high-velocity pitches from starters is diminished fastball usage; it was 55.7% in 2020 and 59.3% in 2015.
- Starting pitchers are also throwing high-velocity pitches, as a percentage of all fastballs, at a lower rate; it was 15.5% in 2015 and averaged 14.0% during the 2016-2020 period.
- On the bullpen scene, the percentage of high-velocity pitches tossed by relievers was 17.4% in 2015, which is similar to 2020’s 17.2%. However, the rate was 18.8% in 2016.
- Another noteworthy change is that the percentage of all pitches thrown by relievers was 46.2% in 2020 and 43.4% this season; the average percent during the 2015-2019 period was 39.1%.
- Concerning 2021, the percentage of all pitches that are of the high-velocity variety is 13.2%, the highest rate during the Statcast era.
Bullpen arms hurl high-velocity pitches at a higher rate than starters. Also, the trend in MLB is for relievers to contribute a more significant percentage of all pitches tossed. Therefore, American League batters should experience a higher rate of high-velocity pitches in the future than they do now. Hence, the ability of a batter to hit high-velocity pitches could receive more scrutiny in the future.
The objective of the analysis that follows is to determine a batter’s skill to hit a high-velocity pitch. Accordingly, appropriate metrics are needed to evaluate performance; those metrics are Expected Batting Average (“xBA”), Expected Slugging Percentage (“xSLG”) and wRC+.
MLB’s Statcast argues that xBA is “more indicative of a player’s skill than regular batting average, as xBA removes defence from the equation. Hitters, and likewise pitchers, are able to influence exit velocity and launch angle but have no control over what happens to a batted ball once it is put into play”. Statcast offers a similar argument in favour of using xSLG instead of regular slugging percentage.
FanGraphs wRC+ is the best measure of a hitter’s overall performance. According to the website, “If you want a rate statistic for hitters that weights each offensive action and controls for league and park effects, wRC+ is for you.” I will use wRC+ to determine the link between xBA, xSLG and overall batting performance.
Hitting High-Velocity Pitches
Table 2 presents a selection of Blue Jays hitters and their respective xBA and xSLG on high-velocity pitches, including percentile rankings, for the 2019-2021 period. Please note that the best batter is in the 100th percentile; the worst is zero. The highlights are as follows:
- George Springer’s percentile xBA and xSLG rankings are 95th and 98th, respectively.
- Marcus Semien produced 62nd and 75th percentiles in respect of xBA and xSLG.
- Vlad Guerrero Jr. was median-ish in these two metrics.
- Randal Grichuk and Teoscar Hernandez were below-median in xBA but were at least in the 70th percentile in xSLG.
- Bo Bichette, Rowdy Tellez, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. were below-median in terms of xBA and xSLG.
- Cavan Biggio posted a 5th percentile xBA and 17th xSLG.
Can a batter struggle with velocity and be an above-average hitter? The short answer is yes. Correlation provides the mathematical evidence; Table 2 supports the conclusion derived from the math.
Concerning xBA and xSLG on high-velocity pitches, there is a positive but weak correlation between xBA and wRC+ and xSLG and wRC+. I based this conclusion upon a sample size of 221 American League hitters with a minimum of 100 high-velocity pitches during the 2019-2021 period. Please note that wRC+ is the batter’s performance on all pitches, not solely in respect of high-velocity pitches.
Regarding the noted xBA-wRC+ correlation, the R Square was 0.12. In other words, 12% of the variance in wRC+ can be explained by xBA. Similarly, 16% of the variation in wRC+ can be explained by xSLG.
Expressed another way, players with good xBAs and xSLGs on high-velocity pitches have above-average wRC+ more often than they have below-average ones. However, it is impossible to say with any meaningful certainty that a player with an above-average wRC+ will also be above-average on high-velocity pitches.
It is not surprising that there is no strong link between hitting prowess on high-velocity pitches and wRC+. Some of those reasons include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Less than 15% of pitches are high-velocity pitches;
- wRC+ includes bases on balls, but xBA and xSLG do not; and
- In addition to hitting velocity, batting also involves pitch recognition, a good plate approach, and plate discipline.
Table 2 contains additional evidence concerning hitting high-velocity pitches and overall batting performance. For each player’s xBA and xSLG percentile ranking, I have provided a comparable player’s wRC+. For example, Gurriel Jr.’s 12th percentile xBA is similar to Ji-Man Choi’s xBA, who generated a 117 wRC+. Guerrero’s 48th percentile xSLG ranking is comparable to Alex Verdugo’s, a batter who produced a 133 wRC+. Hence, poor relative xBAs and xSLGs on high-velocity pitches does not necessarily mean that the batter’s overall hitting will be below-average.
Experience and Training
As noted above, batters with good xBA and xSLG results are more likely to have above-average wRC+ marks. Therefore, players should work on their skills to hit high-velocity pitches.
DJ LeMahieu is one example of a hitter who improved his ability to hit high-velocity pitches. For the 2015-2020 period, MLB’s average xBA on high-velocity pitches was 0.241. In 2015, DJ LeMahieu posted a 0.203 xBA, followed by a 0.323 mark in 2016. His 2017 campaign was a setback (0.217 xBA). However, LeMahieu steadily enhanced his xBA after that season: 0.266, 0.274 and 0.331 in 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively. LeMahieu’s xBA improvement is consistent with the view that experience and training can lead to better results.
Can Toronto’s Hitters Improve?
Table 3 illustrates the xBA and xSLG metrics of a selection of Blue Jay hitters on high-velocity pitches in various Attack Zones. I have identified one location for each batter where they are relatively weak when hitting these pitches. The highlights are as follows:
- Gurriel Jr. struggles on pitches thrown to the Heart zone;
- Biggio has been very poor in the Shadow area;
- The upper end of the Chase region has not been a friend to Guerrero Jr. and Hernandez;
- Tellez, despite a better than average 14-4-5-6-16 xSLG, has performed below-par in the middle (4-5-6) of the Heart zone; and
- Bichette has not fared well in the 14-4-5-6-16 region.
I am optimistic that all of the listed Blue Jays can improve their high-velocity batting skills. I reason that there are parts of the Attack Zone where each player excels when faced with the noted pitches. Therefore, under the guidance of Dante Bichette and Guillermo Martinez, hard work and the benefit of more plate appearances, the mentioned players can become more adept at handling velocity in other areas of the Attack Zone.
The last word
High-velocity pitches are not as prevalent as some people may believe. However, the evidence points to MLB batters facing such pitches at a higher rate in the future. Also, relatively poor batting results regarding these pitches does not necessarily mean that a hitter’s overall performance will be poor. However, better skills at handling high-velocity pitches should improve total batting performance. Many of the prominent Blue Jay hitters have produced below-median batting metrics on these offerings. The good news is that there is a history of players who have improved their high-velocity skills over time. Let’s hope that Toronto’s hitters can make progress in this aspect of the game.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.