Written by: Mac Squibb (@SquibberStats)
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In 2018, fourteen MLB players hit at least 35 home runs, including three who hit at least 40. The group collectively had an average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives of 95.9 mph, which is significantly higher than the league average of 92.3 mph. Below is a list of those players, along with their home run totals and exit velocities on fly balls and line drives from 2018.
One of those players isn’t like the others. Jose Ramirez managed to hit 39 home runs last season despite having a near league average exit velocity. For reference, it has been proven that exit velocity on fly balls and line drives has a very strong correlation with power metrics such as HR/FB, ISO, and Hard%. So what is allowing Jose Ramirez to defy the numbers?
Travis Sawchik, formerly of Fangraphs and now with FiveThirtyEight, wrote about Jose Ramirez, his teammate Francisco Lindor and how the pair are two of the most lethal power hitters in the MLB despite their small stature. What Ramirez and Lindor share is an ability to maximize their power production by pulling fly balls at an elite rate. In his article, Sawchik explains that pulled fly balls become home runs four times more often than those hit to center field and seven times more often than fly balls hit to the opposite field. Here is Jose Ramirez’ exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, pulled fly ball percentage, and home run total over the last three years.
Ramirez made a drastic change in 2017, which just so happens to coincide with the 26-year-old transitioning from a solid role player to a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate. The most incredible part of his change is that it wasn’t accompanied by a significant increase in exit velocity on fly balls and line drives. Ramirez is essentially the same player today as he was in 2016, but he’s found a way to take better advantage of his talent by pulling the ball in the air at a higher rate.
In his article about fly ball pull percentage, Mike Podhorzer at Fangraphs shows that pull percentage on fly balls has a correlation of .616 from year to year. From this discovery, Podhorzer concludes that “pulling fly balls is indeed a repeatable skill”. And because it’s a repeatable skill, the Podhorzer and Sawchik articles show us that pulling fly balls is a valid and viable way a player can maximize his power output.
Thanks to Minor Graphs, created by Smada, we’re able to look at the batted ball data of all minor league players. This includes average fly ball distance, an equivalent to exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, and pull percentage on fly balls. Using the data at Minor Graphs, along with Ray Butler’s top-200 prospect list (which you should check out), I have identified five MiLB hitters who had an above average pull percentage in 2018. I only considered players with at least 250 plate appearances above the rookie league level in this article. However, there is a link to the entire list of players at the end.
It is important to note that the pull percentages available on Minor Graphs are calculated in a slightly different manner than those at Fangraphs. With Minor Graphs, fly balls and infield fly balls are two separate categories while fly balls include infield fly balls at Fangraphs. This difference means that the pull percentages at Minor Graphs will be higher than those displayed at Fangraphs as infield fly balls are typically not pulled. While worth noting, the members of this list would still have an above average pull percentage if their data was available at Fangraphs.
1. Isaac Paredes, Pull% on FB: 48.46% | FB%: 44.7%
85. Isaac Paredes, INF, DET. Age: 20
In a way, Paredes positively regressed to the mean in 2018, benefitting from better batted-ball luck than he experienced in 2017. Between High-A and Double-A, Paredes slashed .278/.359/.456 with 15 home runs and a 15.1 K% in 502 plate appearances. I’ve got the infielder at 55-hit and 55-raw, though there’s more risk than you would think due to lack of projection physically. The 20-year-old has what scouts refer to as a ‘bad body’ and likely won’t grow anymore, so the continued development of his skills will be instrumental in any continued success. Service clock considerations will certainly come into play, but Paredes could hypothetically make his big league debut in 2019. Next season is more likely.
2. Luis Garcia, Pull% on FB: 48.22% | FB%: 29.9%
110. Luis Garcia, SS, PHI. Age: 18
By now, you guys and girls should know how much I respect Prospects Live’s Jason Woodell. Well, in November of last year, Jason ranked Garcia as the top prospect in the Phillies’ system. Above Sixto Sanchez (at the time). “A superstar in the making” in his own words. In all likelihood, we’ll have two Luis Garcia’s in the top-100 by the midseason point of the regular season. The shortstop will play the entirety of the 2019 season as an 18-year-old in full season ball, and it’s fully expected that Garcia will hold his water just fine while at Lakewood. If the power takes a step forward at some point, we’re probably talking about a prospect whose worst tool grades at 55.
3. Ronaldo Hernandez, Pull% on FB: 46.32% | FB%: 41.1%
122. Ronaldo Hernandez, C, TB. Age: 21
After being placed in Rookie Ball for three consecutive summers to develop defensively, Hernandez finally got a shot in full season ball in 2018. Offensively, he did not disappoint. Statistically, the .284/.339/.494 slash with 21 home runs was as good as any catcher prospect in baseball. The industry seems split on whether the 21-year-old can stick behind the plate defensively, and an eventual move to first base is certainly a possibility (and an unfortunate one). Hernandez walked in only 6.9% (nice) of his plate appearances last season, and I’m interested to see what the numbers look like in the Florida State League in 2019 if that number doesn’t increase.
4. Danny Jansen, Pull% on FB: 41.18% | FB%: 42.1%
68. Danny Jansen, C, TOR. Age: 24
I’m telling you: there’s something to be said for a high, reliable floor with catching prospects. That’s Danny Jansen. Unless the skills deteriorate, the backstop should be good for a .270-.280 AVG and 10-15 (perhaps more) home runs annually once he gains his footing in the big leagues. He’ll never be a superstar, but he’ll always be rostered and utilized in your fantasy league—even if you only play in redrafts. The Blue Jays recently shipped Russell Martin to the Dodgers, so it currently appears Jansen is in line to receive a lion’s share of the workload behind the plate in Toronto in 2019. If he plays to his talent, the Jays have their catcher for the next decade.
5. Daulton Varsho, Pull% on FB: 40.38% | FB%: 37.5%
89. Daulton Varsho, C, ARZ. Age: 22
‘Baby Realmuto’ likely would have been even higher on this list had a fractured hamate not derailed a chunk of his 2018 season. A 55-hit, 55-raw power, 55-speed catching prospect, Varsho brings value to every aspect of fantasy baseball while playing a positional that typically offers the least. The problem, as I’ve stated before, is his size. Listed at 5’10 190 lbs., it’s hard to envision Varsho being able to withstand entire seasons behind the dish at the big league level (Francisco Mejia is currently fighting this fight with a similar frame). Maybe I’m wrong and Varsho sticks at catcher for the next decade at the big league level. I think it’s more likely Varsho eventually either splits time between catcher and another position (that would be a fantasy gold mine), or he moves to another position completely. He’s a 22-year-old who will tackle Double-A for the first time this season, so we’re not too far away from finding out what the Diamondbacks have in store for him.
6. Jo Adell, Pull% on FB: 39.48% | FB%: 38.6%
7. Josh Naylor, Pull% on FB: 39.45% | FB%: 34.1%
8. Seuly Matias, Pull% on FB: 38.92% | FB%: 45.3%
9. Tirso Ornelas, Pull% on FB: 38.89% | FB%: 36.7%
10. Francisco Mejia, Pull% on FB: 38.01% | FB%: 36.6%
It isn’t unusual for MiLB players to develop power when first entering the MLB. Just last season, rookies Miguel Andujar (27), Ronald Acuna Jr. (26) and Gleyber Torres (24) set their career highs in home runs for a single season. The players in this article have the requisite skills to also have a power spike when they reach the big leagues.
The best of this group will be those who combine their above average fly ball pull percentages with high exit velocities and a lot of fly balls. However, much like we’ve seen with Jose Ramirez, a high fly ball pull percentage alone might be enough to allow these players to maximize their power potential.
Follow P365 staff writer Mac Squibb on Twitter! @SquibberStats
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Featured image courtesy of photographer Terrance Williams and MiLB.com