Written by: Connor Kurcon (@ckurcon) and Ray Butler
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It’s no secret that MLB has gone through many alterations of the baseball throughout the past five seasons.
There have been incredible articles on the matter. In 2017, The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh, in collaboration with Mitchell Litchman, studied game used balls from as far back as 2015, finding that, among other things, the seams were lower and the ball circumferences were slightly smaller. Rob Arthur and Tim Dix of FiveThirtyEight x-rayed some baseballs early in 2018 and put together some fascinating findings.
Yet, after all these changes, the evolution of the sport’s ball was still not complete.
With the 2019 season came another new baseball. In late June, Dr. Meredith Wills took a look at the 2019 baseball.
Dr. Wills found a few things that—pardon the pun—seemed to be true about the ball used last season:
These points all contributed one big difference with the baseball and the way it was behaving; the baseball had a significantly lower drag coefficient than in years past.
What this means is that all batted balls faced less opposing forces as they flew, which in turn allowed them to fly further. The scientific work of these people can not be understated, so we encourage everyone to read all that has been linked here and beyond.
Last week, I was discussing Ketel Marte’s 2019 breakout season with Connor Kurcon, co-founder and writer at Six Man Rotation. That led me to asking the following question: “Has anyone done an article on the players who would likely be most affected if the ball is de-juiced in 2020?”
Over the offseason, the ball itself has been a hot topic of discussion amongst analysts and experts, both in the real-life baseball industry and throughout the fantasy baseball world. Despite the popularity of the topic, there hasn’t been much published in the way of research or contextual evidence of players who benefitted most from the altered ball last season.
We decided to tackle the question together, with Connor spearheading the research aspect while I brainstormed different facets of batted ball events, launch angles and exit velocities that were certainly worth exploring. Here’s what we found.
Which batted ball types were most affected?
We know the reason behind the ball flying a little extra distance last season was largely drag related, which for our purposes means some balls, such as ground balls, would have been essentially unaffected. Less intuitively, balls hit at extreme exit velocities are also likely to be unaffected too much because in both cases, a ball hit extremely hard is going to fly far enough to be a hit with both balls. Let’s start by looking at estimated hit distances for all balls hit in the air between 80 mph and 95 mph for both 2018 and 2019:
Good news! This side-by-side seems to support the idea that balls hit in the air at middle-of-the-road exit velocities flew further in 2019 than they did in 2018, especially from a (roughly) 15-35 degree launch angle. However, it’s not really all about the batted ball distance if we’re trying to analyze which players benefited most, is it? An 85 mph flare, for example, might drop in just behind the infield (for a hit) in 2018, but get to the outfielder (for an out) with the dragless ball in 2019 (the baseball is/was not “dragless” last season, but that’s what we’ll be calling it). We need to be looking at results of batted ball events (BBE) by exit velocity (EV) and launch angle (LA).
What we did was grabbed every batted ball from 2019 and rounded the EV and LA to the nearest whole values (mph and degrees, respectively) to put them all into 1 mph and 1 degree wide bins. We then did the same for 2018 and compared the average wOBA from both years for each of these bins. In theory, if the ball was unchanged, the results of balls hit at the same trajectory and speed should be quite similar year over year. We know this isn’t the case, so we should hopefully see some differences in certain types of BBE.
Results on BBE are notoriously noisy, especially when looking at a 1×1 bin of EV and LA, so we need to keep that in mind, but we should hopefully see a clear cluster of wOBA increases that can give us some insight as to which batted ball types were most affected by the dragless ball. Here are all the EV/LA combinations that occurred at least 10 times from 2018 to 2019, colored by the increase in wOBA:
As expected, the chart is a little noisy, especially near the edges, but there is an area in the upper right that clearly has a higher frequency of red data points (high increases in wOBA from 2018 to 2019). Let’s take a closer look there:
The chart shows that there was certainly a pretty clear range of exit velocities and launch angles where wOBA increased most from 2018 to 2019. The exit velocities look to be from 95-105 mph while the launch angles spread from about 20 degrees to 45 degrees. Let’s start there.
Here are the observed differences in outcomes at 95-105 EVs from 2018 to 2019:
These are pretty noticeable differences across all 5 subsections of launch angles, especially when you consider that the results of all batted balls not within 95-105 EV and 20-45 degree LA were largely unchanged from 2018:
Let’s see two examples. Here’s a 100.6 mph fly ball hit at 24.8 degrees from 2018. Statcast gives us an estimated distance of 376 feet. A solid batted ball by Castellanos and a solid play by Leary Garcia in CF.
Here’s a 100.6 mph fly ball hit at 24.5 degrees from 2019. This batted ball, which was nearly identical in terms of EV and LA, was estimated at 392 feet according to Statcast. Although we’re talking about different parks, center fielders and positioning, the difference in distance between two very similar BEE is still quite noticeable.
Which players benefitted more than others?
From here, it becomes pretty straightforward – the biggest beneficiaries of the dragless ball should be the players who found themselves hitting into these regions of 95-105 mph exit velocities most frequently last season. We’re going to call all of these batted ball types “Benefit Balls” for the sake of ease. Here are those leaders from 2019 (min. 50 BBE):
Alex Avila, who had an XBH every ~35 PA in his career prior to 2019, had roughly one every ~22 PA in 2019. Cavan Biggio hit the ground running with nearly 35 XBH in just 100 games—the first of his MLB career. Anthony Rendon had almost 80 XBH and a 0.280 ISO after previous career highs of 68 and 0.232. Will Smith saw his ISO and HR total jump significantly from the season before. The names here pass the smell test.
However, it’s not enough to just use the % of all 20-45 degree launch angles equally, since the observed difference of the 25-30 degree range, for example, was much larger than the 40-45 degree range, as we showed earlier. So, as a very rough estimate, we’re going to calculate the Benefit/BBE in each one of these 5 degree subsections and adjust 2019 wOBA on contact (wOBAcon) downwards. Here’s a rough look at who may have benefited from the 2019 dragless ball the most (min. 50 BBE):
The full leaderboard can be viewed here.
The same handful of guys remain on top of the list, with some more interesting names littered in, including a handful of players that had quite good years such as Nick Castellanos, Jason Castro, Mike Yastrzemski, Mitch Garver, and Eduardo Escobar. Perhaps caution should be employed when analyzing their performance/stat line from 2019?
Another way something like this could be utilized is to find out which “breakout” players from 2019 did so independent of a high rate of these Benefit Balls. Ketel Marte (who essentially single handedly inspired this research) exploded for 32 HR in 2019 after hitting just 22 total HR in 400+ career games before the season started. Only 7.3% of his batted balls were within the region that benefited most, however, which (in conjunction with his max EV of 116 mph) tells us that the power is mostly real, even if the HR count could still be prone to some organic regression in 2020 and beyond. Some other interesting names in the lower tiers:
Rafael Devers – 7.3%
Pete Alonso – 6.7%
Anthony Rizzo – 6.3%
Joey Gallo – 5.4%
What about the pitchers?
For the pitchers, we used the same methodology; the Benefit Balls were all grouped into their five degree subcategories and adjusted wOBAcon down accordingly. Take these with an even bigger grain of salt than you would the hitters. Those leaders, if you hadn’t seen on the Google Sheet previously, can be viewed here.
Unsurprisingly, we see a lot of fly ball pitchers near the top and a lot of ground ball pitchers down low. Some names near the top make a lot of sense, such as Edwin Diaz, Josh Hader, and Craig Kimbrel. A bit lower down, but still one of the highest pitchers to have 200 BBE, Kyle Freeland sticks out, as these Benefit Balls would fly even further in Coors Field with a dragless ball and could very well be a contributing factor in his tough 2019.
It’s important to note here that our methodology here is recognizably flawed and we understand the drawbacks. Applying the league-wide difference in wOBAcon to each player’s Benefit/BBE may give us inaccurate representations of what actually happened because we don’t know the outcome (and thus wOBA value) or each one of these individual BBE and could be unfairly adjusting.
That said, even if we were to take these adjustments at face value, it’s important to also recognize that we’re looking at an adjusted wOBAcon above (so wOBA values of just the BBE). This means that when these same adjustments are applied to a player’s total wOBA, which includes non-batted ball types which wouldn’t be affected (in theory), we see roughly a 10 point difference at absolute most, which is certainly noteworthy, but not season-altering. It’s hard to confidently say that any one player received some sizable, definitive benefit (or received no benefit of the new ball while his peers did), but these are certainly our closest estimation as to who those players might be.
In the end, the research feels mostly positive. We think we’ve identified fairly certainly which types of batted balls saw the biggest change with the new ball, and we feel we’ve put our finger on a few guys who really saw an uptick results because they hit those Benefit Balls frequently last season. Should the ball revert back to something more analogous to those we saw in 2016-2018, these players might feel it the most. Even if it doesn’t, these batted ball types likely fluctuate from year to year, and the players who hit a lot of these Benefit Balls last year are certainly no lock to repeat.
While we feel confident about the types of balls most affected and which players might have gained the most in 2019, the magnitude of the results (as we’ve estimated them) are not extraordinary. Taking it play by play and estimating wOBA gained/lost for each of those may yield different, stronger results, but that’s a project for a different day. For now, we have a few clear players that hit the most beneficial batted balls in 2019 that we know to keep an eye on in 2020, as the new—or old—or unchanged—ball rolls out.
I would like to leave you with the indisputable fact that Connor is an absolute superstar in the analytical side of the baseball industry, and this study would have been entirely impossible without his hard work and knack for finding the sweet spot of our research. It’s also a complete travesty he doesn’t have 10,000 followers on Twitter, and you can rectify that by following his account here.
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