Technology is amazing, isn’t it?
Sure, we’re missing the flying cars, moon colonies and hover boards but the fact that we all basically carry around personal computers/television sets that can make phone calls in our pocket is pretty mind-blowing.
Baseball, while it may seem archaic with the bats made from trees and game play which doesn’t involve a time clock, is actually progressive and embraces new technologies off the field. Not long ago, the Pitch F/X cameras installed at all stadiums opened up a whole new world of data to the general public. This new insight has provided teems of information on pitchers, hitters, umpires and, most recently, catchers. Suddenly, we know whose curveball gets the most swing-and-misses (AJ Burnett at 44.1%), whose fastball generates the most groundballs (Scott Diamond at 58%), and whose catcher can coax the most strikes on pitches just out of the zone (Jose Molina, 13%).
For front offices, this seems like really important stuff, particularly when evaluating free agent talent. But baseball does not want to stop there. MLB has been working on going beyond just the batter-pitcher matchups by exploring the world of contact (Hit F/X) and defense (Field F/X). Once available, the latter will be able tell us who gets the best jumps, who positions themselves the best and who covers the most ground. The former, Hit F/X, will be able to provide details on what kind of contact is necessary for a towering home run, a line drive, an opposite field double, and so on.
At the SABR Analytics Convention in Phoenix a week ago, Baseball America dispatched Matt Eddy to cover the event which discusses these forthcoming technologies. While there, Eddy was treated to a presentation from Graham Goldbeck, a data analyst from Sportsvision – the creator of the F/X systems. Goldbeck released some new information farmed out from the nearly 600,000 ball-in-play situations captured by their Hit F/X system. What Hit F/X does is tracks the batter’s contact point, batted ball speed, the horizontal spray angle (like a spray chart) and the vertical launch angle. From this, Goldbeck found that hitters who tend to make contact out in front of the plate have a greater tendency to hit from home run power than those who make contact deeper in the zone:
Goldbeck, a data analyst for Sportvision, the company behind Pitch f/x, determined that batters who make contact with the ball well in front of home plate tend to hit for more over-the-fence power, while those who let the ball travel deep do not. Therefore, pitchers who force batters to make late contact—or no contact—have an advantage. Batters tend to make contact with fastballs deeper in the zone than they make contact with curveballs, sliders or changeups, a fact that makes intuitive sense based on reaction times.
Goldbeck found that batters maximize their power, as measured by isolated slugging percentage, about a foot in front of the home plate—a contact point of about 29 inches. The sweet spot for home runs occurs between 12 and 29 inches, with the caveat that batted-ball velocity decrease rapidly after 22 inches. His research confirmed that batters who meet the ball out front tend to pull for power, while those who wait often hit to the opposite field.
This is analytical evidence of something that probably already knew from observation of two members of the Minnesota Twins who are on opposite ends of the spectrum: Josh Willingham and Joe Mauer.
When it comes to Willingham, we knew one thing: He pulls the living fire out of the ball. Last year, his .487 isolated slugging percentage when pulling wash tied for sixth-highest in baseball. (Think if he had a more hitter-friendly home ballpark.) Why is he so good at pulling the ball? That is because he makes outstanding contact out in front of the plate, much like Goldbeck’s research suggests. Take a look at his connection point in this home run:
Now, compare Willingham’s contact point to Mauer’s, who just sliced his patented left-field double.
Mauer has been one of the game’s foremost connoisseur of going the other way. Part of the reason behind that is that he can let the ball travel much deeper into the zone than Willingham has ever allowed. As such, the natural conclusion is that he would have a much harder time of reaching the same home run totals as Willingham because his swing is not conducive to generating the kind of power.
Dingers aside, Mauer’s approach affords him superior contact rate over Willingham’s approach. Another thing that Goldbeck’s research said about Willingham is that he has one of the most consistent contact points. This means that he is susceptible to other pitch types or various locations away from his standard impact zone. As such, we see that he had a well-below contact rate average (75.9% versus 79% league average) in 2012 compared to Mauer who was well above that mark (87.8%).
Additionally, although it is possible that Mauer may suddenly start hitting the ball out in front and launching dingers into the newly minted party deck in right field, the study suggests that the likelihood of this happening is low. It is rare for hitters to change their stripes:
While most batters conform to career norms, Goldbeck noted one player whose contact point has progressed forward through the seasons. The Royals' Alex Gordon went from about 50 extra-base hits per season in 2007-08 to about 70 in 2011-12, all while steadily meeting the ball farther out in front of the plate.
We’ve reached an age where we have a greater understanding of the game than ever before. We confirm why Josh Willingham can decimate Target Field while many other hitters cannot. We know that while everyone may wish for Mauer to take that step forward and hit home runs by the bushel, we are learning from the technology that it just simply may not be possible – that is, unless the left field fence is moved in 50 feet or so.
Technology is amazing.