Statcast School: Hardest Hit Ball to 3B

Source: Pixabay

When a third baseman is playing close to the bag, he is not much more than 90 feet away from the batter. Only the pitcher, and sometimes the first baseman, is closer. A ball hit to third base can exceed 100 miles per hour. At 100 mph, that is 146.7 feet/second, so it will reach the third baseman in fewer than one second. Not much time to react.

Who has hit the hardest ball (ground ball or line drive) to third base this season? Here is how to find that out.

Statcast Search Selections
1. Batted Ball Type: both Line Drive and Ground Ball
2. Batted Ball Location: Third Base
3. Season Type: Regular Season
4. Season: 2019
5. Player Type: Batter
6. Metric Range: Exit Velocity
7. >=: 114
8. Min # of Total Pitches: None
9. Min # of Results: None
10. Group By: Player Name
11. Sort By: Pitches
12. Sort Order: Desc
13. Min PA: None
14. Change Total Pitch Parameters: None

Two batters qualified: Maikel Franco and C. J. Cron. On April 25, 2019 Franco hit a 114.1 mph per hour line drive at Marlins third baseman Martin Prado. The ball traveled 138 feet. On June 23, 2019, Cron hit a 114.7 mph grounder at Royals third baseman Hunter Dozier. Its distance: 122 feet. Thus so far this season (as of games thru June 23), C. J. Cron has hit the hardest ball to third base.

Two Research Questions (Use Statcast to find answers)
As of games through June 23, 2019, how many batters hit a ball at least 114 mph? Who hit the one with the greatest exit velocity? How fast was it?

Statistical Investigation: Jeurys Familia

A FanGraphs article in 2017 titled “The Death of the Sinker” ended with this quote: “I don’t think the sinker’s gone,” [Jared] Hughes said. “I think teams might be trying to find a way to focus on velocity, but in my opinion, the sinker is the best pitch in baseball.”

This season, for Mets reliever Jeurys Familia, that has not been the case. Though his most-used pitch has been the sinker, thrown 47.1% of the time, it has not been his most effective one.

Stat Fact: His ERA is 7.81. That is the 5th highest ERA in Major League Baseball out of 167 qualifying relievers. Plus his BB/9 of 6.83 is also 5th highest in the majors.

Opposing batters are hitting .333 against his sinker, much higher than in the previous four years. (It was .204 in 2015). That is almost 40 points higher than the 2019 League average against sinkers of .294.

Stat Fact: Familia ranked 39th in opposing batting average among relievers who had thrown sinkers to at least 25 batters.

And since 2017, when Familia has thrown his sinker opposing hitters SLG has increased every year from .265 to .377 to .521. That is 256 points. Further, when the first pitch in an at-bat is a sinker, they are hitting .556.

Stat Fact: Familia also ranked 39th in slugging percentage among relievers who had thrown sinkers to at least 25 batters.

Compounding Familia’s problems is that fact that opposing batters have gotten more extra-base hits off his sinker, six, than his other three pitches combined.

Historically, the sinker has been known as the ground ball pitch. As Kepner wrote in his book, K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, “Its allure was efficiency, not force. Throw it low for ground balls.”

Familia has even had trouble doing that. Since 2016, the percent of his sinkers that have resulted in ground balls has steadily declined.

% of Jeurys Familia’s sinkers that resulted in ground balls

Surprisingly this season, as the GB% for his sinker has dropped, for his four-seam fastball — a pitch he has thrown only 12.9% of the time, it has increased. However, opposing batters are hitting .333 when he throws a four-seamer, the same opposing BA as for his sinker.

Source: Baseball Savant

Team Options

  • Reduce the number of sinkers Familia throws so it is no longer his main pitch. This season, against his slider batters are hitting .212, but he has only thrown it 27.9% of the time. Increase its usage.
  • Have him throw his four-seam fastball in place of his slider.
  • Determine whether a physical issue might be either causing or contributing to his pitching problems.

Update: The Mets have placed Familia on the 10-day injured list with a Bennett lesion for the second time this season. According to the book Baseball Sports Medicine, it is an “overuse” injury that can affect both shoulders and elbows. “Nonoperative treatment” includes rest, activity modification, and rehabilitation.” For more information on this injury and Familia’s earlier placement in May on the injured list, see Anthony DiComo’s article.

The New Knuckleball

This season, not one knuckleball has been thrown.

In 2018, only one pitcher threw it — Steven Wright. His nickname is “Knucksie.” He threw 824 pitches. Of them, 719 or 87.3% were knuckleballs. This season, he has yet to play because of an 80-game suspension.

In 2017, three pitchers threw them: R. A. Dickey, Steven Wright, and Erick Aybar, with Dickey throwing the most — 2,333.

In an article on NPR’s website, physicist Alan Nathan describes how a knuckleball is thrown.

The ball has to be gripped with two (carefully manicured) fingernails and sort of pushed toward the plate. The object is to put just a little spin on it and let it be nudged around as air flows over the ball’s stitches and any little scrapes or abrasions on the leather.

The article also contains an image of “the knuckleball grip used by Boston Red Sox pitcher Steven Wright.”

Hoyt Wilhelm 1959 (Wikimedia)

Though the knuckleball has brought renown to Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm and others, it’s almost extinct today in the major leagues, replaced by the knuckle curve, an offshoot of the knuckleball. Wilhelm threw his first pitch in Major League Baseball on April 18, 1952 when he was 28 years old, his career lasting until July 21, 1972.

Dan Rozenson, in a Baseball Prospectus article, describes how a knuckle curve is gripped and includes this image.

In a Sports Illustrated article, Gerrit Cole’s knuckle curveball is described as “filthy.” Watch it in action:

This season, as of May 15, 51 pitchers have thrown at least one knuckle curve though eight have thrown just one. Among the pitchers who throw it are Zach Godley, Aaron Nola, and Drew Pomeranz. In 2019, all three have already thrown more than 200 with Godley throwing the most: 48.2% of all the pitches that he has thrown have been knuckle curves, which is the most in MLB: Statcast Search | Of his 341 knuckle curves — out of 708 pitches, batters got 18 hits (5.3%), the lowest percent of the top three, Statcast Search | With his other 367 pitches, batters got 26 hits (7.1%), so he has been somewhat more effective when throwing the knuckle curve.

Last season’s knuckle curve leader, Lance McCullers Jr. (982, 46.6%), has yet to play in 2019 because of Tommy John surgery.

Though to some it seems like a hard pitch to hit, in 2019 batters are hitting .234 (191 for 817) off knuckle curves — Statcast Search | — but only .213 (2474 for 11603) against the other breaking pitches (slider, curveball, knuckleball, Eephus) and .217 (1221 for 5616) against off-speed pitches. On the plus side, the league average against fastballs is .266 (6266 for 23533).

Godley’s focus on the knuckle curve has not seemed to benefit him. His 2019 ERA is 7.65 (highest in his career) in 37.2 innings though his fielders must assume some responsibility as his FIP is 5.66, almost two points fewer, and his Contact Percentage is 75.3%, the highest in his career, according to FanGraphs.

Three teams have thrown only one knuckle curve this season: Pirates, Rays, and Braves. Together, they have thrown 18,302 pitches. The Diamondbacks have thrown the most knuckle curves: 526.

Statcast School: Barrels

Pete Alonso has quickly become one of the top power hitters in Major League Baseball, but unlike in days of old, how many homers a batter hits and how far he hits them are no longer the only measures of a slugger. Today, “barrels” has become a popular indicator.

In an article for Baseball Prospectus, Russell A. Carleton wrote that

Until Statcast, we didn’t have systematic (public) data on how hard a batter hit the ball. Now, we know how fast the ball was going when it left the bat and at what angle the ball was “launched.”

MLB defines a barrel as those

batted-ball events whose comparable hit types (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage since Statcast was implemented Major League wide in 2015.

Further, “To be Barreled, a batted ball requires an exit velocity of at least 98 mph,” according to MLB.

Here is MLB’s definition of a batted-ball event:

A Batted Ball Event represents any batted ball that produces a result. This includes outs, hits and errors. Any fair ball is a Batted Ball Event. So, too, are foul balls that result in an out or an error.

To start, in Statcast I sought to answer this question: Which players have hit the most barrels this season. To do the search, I used the search settings below.

Player Type: Batter
Season: 2019
Season Type: Regular Season
Quality of Contact: Barrel
Min # of Total Pitches: 25 Pitches
Sort By: Pitches
Change Total Pitch Parameters: Click “Plate Appearances.”

Being a Mets fan, the third name in the results drew my attention: Pete Alonso. Up to May 13 he has 20 barrels in 165 plate appearances (12.1%). The radial chart below shows the exit velocity and launch angle of each barrel. The area in red contains the barrels. To see the “live” chart, click this link.

Position your cursor over the topmost circle in the Barrels area. When you do that, the information in the image below should appear.

The three black circles indicate outs, the 17 green circles hits, so not every barreled ball is a hit. “KC” is knuckle curve.

Some other facts:

  • The average distance of Alonso’s barreled balls is 386.5 feet.
  • The average launch angle is 23.69º.
  • The average exit velocity is 109.8 mph.
  • The hardest-hit ball traveled at 118.3 mph.
  • The lowest launch angle was 12º: the result, a line drive double to left field.