Saturday, June 15, 2024 Jun 15, 2024
83° F Dallas, TX
Advertisement
Baseball

MLB Released a Bunch of New Hitting Data. What Does It Tell Us About the Rangers?

We're learning a whole lot more about how the Rangers' bats go about their business.
|
Image
We've got more insight than ever about how differently Marcus Semien and Adolis Garcia go about their hitting. Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this month, Major League Baseball unveiled the most significant expansion of Statcast’s capabilities in years. In addition to metrics that track the ball (spin rate, pitch velocity, exit velocity) and the players (sprint speed) or some combination thereof (defensive metrics), the league-sponsored system is now sharing bat-tracking data. 

Even those who don’t go seeking out advanced statistics will feel the ripple effects. Statcast is an MLB-operated system of high-speed cameras that captures data on every moving piece of every play in every park. The league began making metrics public in 2015, and in the years since, it’s become the go-to source for measuring everything from traditional pitch velocity readings and home run distances to more complex matters such as how far a fielder ran to make a catch or the axis of a slider’s spin.

Previous Statcast reveals have altered the lingo of the game, hardening mushy adages with concrete proof or churning entirely new conversational building blocks out of the action on the field. This one will, too. When you hear broadcasters reference exit velocity or break down the details of how a pitcher changed his arsenal, that’s Statcast at work.

So this bat-tracking, which will both place a quantitative standard on existing ideas and blaze trails for new ones, merits our attention. Mike Petriello went over all the details at MLB.com, but we’re going to zero in on the two primary measurements, bat speed and swing length, to see what they tell us about the Rangers and what the Rangers, in turn, can show us about how to apply this new information.

And, to be clear, this is information that needs to be applied. The bat-tracking numbers are descriptive, but not judgmental. These are metrics, measurements for which there is no definition of “good.” Sorting a leaderboard won’t glean the same generalized, hierarchical snapshot of ability that you might find with slugging percentage or OPS+ or WAR.

At the unveiling, it was fun to find out that New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton leads the world in bat speed, but as Ben Clemens succinctly put it at FanGraphs, “I didn’t need a leaderboard to tell me that Giancarlo Stanton swings harder than any other player in baseball, because I have seen Giancarlo Stanton swing before.” Obviously, the more bat speed the better if and when you square up the pitch, but chasing bat speed single-mindedly will probably turn you into a baseball-activated windmill.

So bat-tracking numbers are going to be most useful when thought of as variables in the larger equation of hitting, as more concrete footholds in the effort to crack baseball’s eternally unsolvable problem.


You’ll notice that these two primary readings are scouting staples that now have statistical correspondents (though not necessarily equivalents, as we’ll discuss later).

Bat speed is exactly what you think it is. The cameras that power Statcast track how fast the bat is moving during a swing. This measurement is taken at the sweet spot of the bat, and averages are calculated using the top 90 percent of each hitter’s cuts, eliminating bunts, check swings, and swings that just aren’t all that swing-like.

The average MLB bat speed is 72 mph, and the range runs from 62.5 mph (Padres contact master Luis Arraez) to 80.6 mph (Stanton). Among Rangers regulars, Wyatt Langford tops the list at 74.0 mph, while Marcus Semien brings up the rear at 68.0 mph. The Statcast numbers, available at Baseball Savant, also provide rates of “fast swings” (those over 75 mph) and more complex indicators of “squared-up swings” and “blasts” that represent early attempts at using the data to identify the most effective swings.

But insights on bat speed are more plentiful at a much higher zoom level.

Take Semien, for example. The steady veteran is batting .276 with a 121 wRC+, meaning he has been 21 percent better than the average MLB hitter by the park-adjusted offensive stat. His average bat speed is low, in the ninth percentile of major-league batters, but the distribution of his harder swings shows something exceptional, and telling.

Semien’s cuts at fastballs have been 2.7 mph harder, on average, than his cuts at breaking balls. That’s the second-most extreme gap in MLB among hitters who have seen at least 100 fastballs and 50 breakers, behind only Mark Canha of the Detroit Tigers. Semien is tied for second in the big leagues with seven homers off fastballs in 2024. He’s batting .330 against heaters and whiffing on only 10.2 percent of swings against them. Against breaking balls, he’s batting .219, with a 28.3 percent whiff rate.

Following the broad context clue that bat speed ticks up when hitters are the most comfortable—such as when they’re ahead in the count—we can make a more targeted observation: Semien is comfortable sitting fastball, and perhaps not seeing breaking pitches as well as he would like. Adolis Garcia, meanwhile, has almost the exact opposite profile. His bat speed is strikingly higher against breaking balls, and his results have followed the trend.

Stepping back and looking at the full leaderboard is, if anything, a reminder of how little it can tell us on its own. Scrolling and scrolling, you might be looking for Corey Seager, but the Rangers’ star hitter is hard to spot because he’s exactly in the middle, in the 50th percentile when it comes to average bat speed. What makes him exceptional doesn’t show up here. It only emerges in concert with more data.


Swing length is a little less intuitive. The new Statcast metric tracks the distance the bat travels from the start of the swing until impact (or until the bat crosses closest to the ball’s path, on whiffs). The average swing length is 7.3 feet, with swings ranging from 4 to 10 feet. 

Among the Rangers, Garcia takes the longest cuts, 8.0 feet on average. But here’s where Seager shows up. He’s on the other end of the spectrum, taking the shortest swing, 6.7 feet, with Langford not far away on the chart.

A hitter’s swing has always been sized up for length, but the Statcast measurement diverges a bit from the traditional scouting parlance around long or short swings. The qualitative version of prospect reports is focused on how long, and how complicated, a path the bat takes from first motion until it is in position to make contact. FanGraphs’ Tess Taruskin recently provided an excellent visual breakdown of that concept.

The Statcast version captures that, too, but because the endpoint varies, it doesn’t capture only that. Measuring a swing up until contact leaves room to include another variable: timing. A huge swath of hitters work to impact the ball out in front of the plate, where contact is far more likely to lead to pulled fly balls, the highest-percentage bet for power.

So while the metric is useful, it requires context and consideration to separate the long, looping uppercut strokes you might be envisioning from more efficient swings utilized by the likes of Semien, Jose Altuve, and Jose Ramirez to optimize pull power.

Trends also emerge based on the pitch. High and inside fastballs, for instance, typically force shorter swings as hitters pull in their hands to turn on the ball. Watch how directly Seager’s bat head moves from its starting point to catch up with a 94 mph heater that is in on his hands.

Then watch how Garcia’s longer swing tendency works against him on a similar pitch. His bat goes back, dips, then slashes up to try to meet 92 mph.

That movement is the traditional essence of swing length, but there’s not some simple lesson, no quick diagnostic to say Garcia’s swing should be more like Seager’s. After all, glancing only at bat speed would lead to the opposite conclusion. Both players can weaponize their bats on high fastballs, as they showed with big blasts in the postseason: Garcia’s blast against the Orioles and Seager’s legendary swing that tied Game 1 of the World Series.


To understand what works best for Seager and Garcia is to take these new kernels of data and paint a fuller picture of how they hit, then watch it evolve. Seager famously attacks strikes from the moment he steps to the plate, allowing him to take his best swings more often, against more vulnerable pitches. Assessing Garcia’s swing length means acknowledging he has picked up some of that Seager logic, leaping from a middle-of-the-pack first-pitch swing rate in 2023 to second in the majors this season. That perhaps buys him more leeway to sell out for home run pop.

These metrics, eventually, will further illuminate that game within the game: the strategy inside hitters’ heads. In combination, bat speed and swing length can help flag hitters using the classic “two-strike approach” with a bit more precision than waiting for someone to change his stance or choke up.

On the Rangers, Langford and Jonah Heim stand out by shaving more than two ticks off their average bat speed and four or more inches off their swings in two-strike counts, while the two-strike cuts of Seager and Evan Carter show negligible differences from swings earlier in the count. From there, we can dig deeper: are Langford and Heim reaping benefits from the changes? Or are they stuck in between in those difficult spots?

We’re too early in the process to make any grand pronouncements or airtight observations based on the bat-tracking numbers. But it won’t be long until the contours of seasons begin to show up. Soon enough, bat-tracking numbers will be able to intersect with batted ball stats, plate discipline metrics, and overall results.

With the benefit of time and experimentation, these data points—and a host of other measurements most likely on the way, including data on how a ball misses a bat—will help spot (or prompt) meaningful adjustments on a granular level. If they have even half the impact that pitch-tracking metrics such as spin rate and movement numbers have done for hurlers, it will represent a monumental step forward for hitters, and for those of us trying to understand how they do what they do.

Author

Zach Crizer

Zach Crizer

View Profile
Zach Crizer covers the Rangers for StrongSide. He's a New York-based contributor to Baseball Prospectus and The Analyst, and a…
Advertisement