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How Statcast metrics are valuable for MLB handicapping

By Adam Burke  (VSiN.com) 

April 18, 2022 09:39 PM
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It seems like everything in sports can be measured these days. Technological advances have allowed teams and players to make significant improvements, but they have also enhanced the viewing experience, the ways and means of evaluating players and the accessibility of advanced data with which to handicap games.

Statcast is owned by MLB Advanced Media, but its home on the internet is at the website BaseballSavant.com. Daren Willman, the creator of Baseball Savant, is now the senior director of research and development for the Texas Rangers. A lot of people hired by front offices around the league have either created a website that analyzes and populates data or have been analysts at places like FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and other blogs.

If that kind of information and those sorts of people are what organizations are using to make their decisions, why shouldn’t we take advantage of that data when betting on baseball?

It was around 2017 or so that I really started to use and apply the Statcast information to my handicapping and my study of baseball. Before that, knowing sabermetrics was enough, as stats like FIP, xFIP, wOBA and wRC+ were part of a simpler formula to get ahead of line moves and evaluate pitchers and batters on a higher level. 

Now, more and more data is available. New stats are created every season that widen the spectrum of what we know and add data points that compare players to their peers and to the league average. An understanding of the metrics and analytics doesn’t mean you are absolutely going to crush it with MLB betting or that you are guaranteed to turn a profit. But information and knowledge are always important to acquire.

Some Statcast metrics at Baseball Savant are easier to comprehend yet still very valuable with your day-to-day analysis. Let’s talk about some of them.

Exit velocity

Exit velocity is the speed of the ball as it leaves the bat. When you think about the reaction time it takes to make a play as a fielder, the harder a ball is hit, the more difficult that becomes. Also, a ball hit at a high rate of speed is likely to travel farther than one hit at a slower speed. Batters who consistently make hard contact are generally going to have more success. 

League average for 2021 was 88.8 mph. From 2015 to 2021, the range was from 87.3 mph (2017) to 88.8 mph. The crackdown on foreign substances, different philosophies on hitting, increased pitching velocity and the sheer talent level of the players were all contributing factors to 2021 being the highest. 

MLB manager of baseball research and development Jason Bernard ran some numbers that appeared in a Mike Petriello tweet on July 29, 2020, regarding the correlation between making hard contact and winning the game. The data is almost two years old, but it’s safe to assume it hasn’t changed much. The team that had the higher exit velocity won 60.4% of the time from 2015 through the date of the tweet.

Hard Hit%

A “hard-hit” ball is defined as a batted ball hit with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph. That may seem like an arbitrary cutoff, but it isn’t. Statcast began in 2015, so we have seven seasons of data and are working on the eighth. Hard Hit% means the percentage of batted balls hit at least 95 mph.

The 95-mph threshold is about where a batted ball becomes a hit at least 50% of the time. By season, here are the results for batting average (BA) and slugging percentage (SLG = total bases / at-bats): 

2015: .532 / 1.014

2016: .538 / 1.057

2017: .554 / 1.125

2018: .522 / 1.037

2019: .539 / 1.120

2020: .510 / 1.065

2021: .500 / 1.015 

The 2019 season was the one with the juiced baseball, so it isn’t a big surprise to see those numbers as an outlier relative to the 2018-21 seasons. The increase in defensive shifting is why the batting average has dropped, but you can still see that these batted-ball types equate to a .500 or BA and a very strong SLG. 

Starting pitchers have their Hard Hit% listed at places like FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. One of the main hallmarks of my handicapping is to compare the Hard Hit% marks of starting pitchers. The more hard contact a pitcher allows, the more damaging it can be. Think about it. If you allow 10 batted balls of 95+ mph, at least half of those are expected to be hits, so that would be five hits, on top of what you might allow on batted balls of other speeds. 

If you allow six batted balls of 95+ mph, that would be more like three expected hits. When you consider that a lot of hard-hit balls become doubles, triples and home runs, those couple of extra hits could be very detrimental, especially if they come with men on base. 

Hitting the ball hard matters a lot. Not allowing hard contact matters a lot. It sounds obvious because it should, but this is the value of stats, analytics and metrics. They apply context and a numerical value to what we already know to be true. 

The league-average Hard Hit% in 2021 was 38.5%. Pitchers who allowed a lot more hard contact than that are tough guys to bet on. Pitchers who allowed a lot less hard contact are likely to be better. 

Per the Petriello tweet, the team that had more hard-hit, 95+ mph batted balls won 71.5% of the time. 

Barrel%

A “barreled” ball is a batted ball that has an exit velocity of at least 95 mph but is also hit between a launch angle of 8 and 32 degrees. The scale slides relative to the exit velocity, but it is a batted ball with an expected BA of at least .500 and an expected SLG of at least 1.500.

There were 5,944 home runs hit in 2021, and 5,046 of those were defined as “barrels” based on the exit velocity and launch angle. The league-average Barrel% last season was 7.9%, so you can look for pitchers who allow a lot of barrels or limit barrels and make your judgments accordingly. 

Barrels are really bad. While the data says that the expected BA is at least .500 and the expected SLG is at least 1.500, the actual numbers from 2021 were a .772 batting average and a 2.591 SLG. For reference, a double is 2.000 SLG on its own (a home run would be 4.000). So batters are averaging at least a double and sometimes more. Interestingly, those numbers were the lowest BA and SLG in the Statcast era on barreled contact, but we had the most barrels ever last season. 

Per the Petriello tweet, the team with more barrels won 77.4% of the time. 

You don’t have to know how the advanced stats are calculated. It just helps to know what they mean and how to interpret the data, and Statcast has given us a wealth of knowledge about how to analyze pitchers, hitters and contact metrics.

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