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A brief study in Statcast and the Cleveland Indians

The MLBAM info bomb gave us immense information. Let’s us it to make a bit of sense out of the Tribe.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes you wonder if too much information is a bad thing. It could overwhelm, help to confuse and obfuscate, and just make everything less interesting.

Such is the problem baseball fans face with Statcast, the insane data trove that MLB Advanced Media has dumped on us as a way to make the game more accessible and, I don’t know, drive us mad through oversatuation? Even now, in year three, it’s a trove without context, though we’re starting to learn more about how to apply it — there was a great article on this over at Baseball Prospectus, if you’re curious. But the data is there, so it behooves us to look at it, and get an idea of what we’re seeing so we can start to contextualize it. So let’s take a peek.

On each player’s stat page, MLB.com includes a bit of Statcast info, including average exit velocity and launch angle for hitters and spin rate for pitchers. I decided to stick with the hitters because hitting is neat, and very hard to do. Even when you do it well, you can end up in a box score looking like trash.

So I made this table:

Indians Statcast Numbers

Player Plate Appearances Avg. Exit Velo (MPH) Max Exit Velo (mph) Avg. Launch Angle (Degrees) > 100 mph
Player Plate Appearances Avg. Exit Velo (MPH) Max Exit Velo (mph) Avg. Launch Angle (Degrees) > 100 mph
Encarnacion 110.0 91.0 110.0 12.7 17
Lindor 113 89.9 108.0 12.3 21
Ramirez 107 89.9 106.5 20.5 16
Brantley 89 89.4 108.9 10.8 18
Kipnis 33 85.4 100.5 24.5 1
Chisenhall 49 86.0 108.6 18.6 8
Almonte 69 89.6 106.2 2.8 11
Santana 118 88.5 111.5 11.3 24
Gomes 59 85.3 100.8 10.3 3

This whole table is filled with information that could simultaneously inform and confuse. If I told you just one small segment of it, like Santana had hit the ball 100 miles per hour more times than anyone, you’d think he led the team in home runs. Unfortunately, that’s where that launch angle comes in to play.

Statcast also keeps track of “barrels”, which in essence is a ball hit harder than 98 mph at an angle between 24 and 31 degrees, though that range expands the harder the ball is hit. For balls over 100, it’s a launch angle between 24 and 33 degrees. Unfortunately for Santana, he’s hitting the ball too flat too often to qualify for many of those. In fact, he’s only barreled up a ball five times in 90 batted balls, compared to Francisco Lindor’s 11 of 84 batted balls. There’s a reason Lindor leads the team in home runs.

My biggest takeaway, from this and other rooting around, is that maybe Edwin Encarnacion is going to be alright. He hits the ball harder than anyone consistently and has a higher launch angle than Lindor. The strikeouts are still a worry, but if he keep hitting the ball hard, maybe some of the internal pressure he seems to have put on himself to succeed instantly in a new home will fade away. These data points have given us a hint that he needs to just follow the process.

Also, Brantley is not showing any ill effects from a year off, and Jose Ramirez has in fact become a smaller version of Brantley. That’s a pretty well-designed robot template the Indians are doing. Maybe I’ve said too much.

One other recent reveal we’ve gotten from MLBAM is the idea of expected weighted on-base average, or xwOBA. Yes, it is an increasingly wild acronym, but it’s interesting all the same. It uses launch angle and exit velocity to give an approximation of what the hitter “should” be hitting in wOBA.

Here are those same hitters in a new table:

Indians xwOBA vs. wOBA

Player xwOBA wOBA
Player xwOBA wOBA
Encarnacion .369 .317
Lindor .410 .406
Ramirez .362 .399
Brantley .385 .391
Kipnis .176 .170
Chisenhall .325 .360
Almonte .343 .380
Santana .342 .309
Gomes .259 .253

This is a bit neat. The scale of wOBA is off on-base percentage, so a league average wOBA is about the same as a league average OBP — somewhere around .320.

This again tells a story that maybe Encarnacion is better than his numbers suggest, same with Santana. For his career, Encarnacion has a .369 wOBA, so he’s doing things right. The results just aren't’ there yet. On the other side is Lonnie Chisenhall, who I’m sure many people watching him know isn’t as good as his numbers suggest, even if he’s his own kind of excellent. Kipnis meanwhile is working back from an injury, and may need time to have numbers that truly pop on these tables and in the box score. And finally, Yan Gomes. Let’s move on.

It’s hard to find a place of common sense or context when you just hear that Aaron Judge hit a ball 119 mph that went 100 feet in the air and 460 or so feet into the seats. You watch the video, and yeah, it went far. And high. But those numbers don’t really mean anything to us right now, especially extremes like that. It’s obvious. Of course he hit the ball hard, did you hear that? Like that Baseball Prospectus article suggests, it’s going to take some time to place this info in the right baskets. We’ve only been gathering it for a couple years, which for most things in baseball is barely enough to understand anything. Some more traditional stats don’t start normalizing until a couple thousand plate appearances. But it’s important, a month or so in, to see how some of the Tribe hitters are doing, and how they’re “doing”.

Things in baseball take a while to shake out, so it’s good to see a glimpse of reality behind the inflated or deflated April numbers.