It’s already pretty difficult to forecast a player’s performance even with the large samples that we have. Consider Whit Merrifield, a player with a large recent body of work, as he’s the current active leader in consecutive games-played. Will he ever steal 20 bases again? How about Christian Yelich? He played most of 2019, but many remain skeptical that he can repeat that historic pace, at least to the same degree.
If there is a 2020 season, then it undoubtedly will be shorter than the standard 162 games. We’re going to have to draw conclusions from extremely small samples. A typical rookie call-up may receive 100 plate appearances instead of 200. And, with respect to power-hitting, it will be difficult to discern studs from duds. Projecting from a rookie’s home run total or HR/FB% may be futile, as either could be skewed by ballpark, fielding, quality of pitcher, weather conditions, or other factors in such small samples.
No, those outcome-based metrics take far too long to stabilize, and time is a luxury we simply might not have. Instead, a better proxy for power potential might be more useful this year for evaluating a player’s cup of coffee.
Maximum Exit Velocity
For that reason, a hitter’s maximum exit velocity (MEV) should become our best friend this year. Indeed, Rob Arthur has observed that “the hardest-hit batted ball a player strikes is enough on its own to predict whether a player will outperform their PECOTA projection.” As Eno Sarris explains, “it makes sense intuitively: if you’re talking about a player without a major league track record, you’re mostly interested in how good they can be, and one batted ball of 120 miles per hour says that player could be as good as Giancarlo Stanton.”
If this is an exercise we’ll need to familiarize ourselves with, then let’s practice on the 2019 season. Perhaps, along the way, we might identify a few sleepers for 2020 (or 2021, if there’s no season, though I remain optimistic).
Accordingly, I collected all hitters with at least one batted ball event (BBE) last season. I then filtered out those with more than 75 BBEs because, by that point, we could rely on their rate statistics (e.g., exit velocity, barrel rate, etc.), which would have safely stabilized. As I’m interested in evaluating young players with potential in future seasons, I further filtered out those over the age of 26. Although 33-year-old Carlos Gómez would have made this list, I’m not especially concerned with his future fantasy value. Finally, I sorted the eligible players by MEV.
2019 MEV Leaders
|Rank||Name||Age||BBEs||Max Exit Velocity||# over 109 mph|
First, allow me to clarify why there’s a column with the number of balls hit over 109 mph. The reason is that, according to Rob Arthur, “[f]or every mile per hour above 108, a hitter is projected to gain about 6 points of OPS relative to their predicted number.” Manifestly, it’s relevant whether a player is able to repeat extremely hard-hit balls, and it’s even more illuminating in such small samples. That 16% of Bobby Bradley‘s BBEs were hit over 109 mph is telling.
Notably, Sam Hilliard and Kevin Cron stood out on this list. In fact, they shared the four hardest-hit balls of the entire sample. Here’s Cron absolutely destroying a meatball off hapless Sam Gaviglio:
To that point, Cron hit a whopping 44 HRs in just 455 PAs between AAA and the Majors last year. He has prodigious raw power and, if given the opportunity over Christian Walker, might just be a fantasy star. Indeed, in AAA, Cron was not only hitting for power, but also exhibiting respectable plate discipline (16.2 BB%, 20.4 K%) with an excellent .331 AVG to boot.
The Rockies’ Hilliard is certainly worthy of discussion as well. He smoked two doubles–at 114.1 and 113.8 mph–both of which topped the MEV list for players under 26 with fewer than 75 BBEs. What makes Hilliard even more interesting is that he not only has elite raw power (42 HRs in 646 PAs between AAA and the Majors in 2019), but also can run, having stolen 24 bases last year. That kind of power and speed combination is rare in today’s game. His principal drawback is a lack of plate discipline, as he regularly ran strikeout rates north of 25%, but he also maintained elevated BABIPs in the Minors, and hitters have averaged a .334 BABIP in Coors Field dating back to 2017.
Bradley deserves a few words too. His MLB debut was horrid, hitting .178 with a 40.8 K% and one HR in 49 PAs. Under the hood, however, things look more auspicious. Bradley put four balls in play over 109 mph, including this monster home run:
That power is no fluke. While Bradley has struggled with his strikeout rate in the Minors, he has shown consistent power year-over-year: 27 HRs in 474 PAs in 2015, 29 HRs in 572 PAs in 2016, 23 HRs in 532 PAs in 2017, 27 HRs in 549 PAs in 2018, and a career-best 34 HRs in 502 PAs in 2019. He is worth a flier in deeper leagues in light of his potential and unusual degree of Minor League experience for a 23-year-old.
Another interesting standout is Sean Murphy, who exhibits atypical power for a catcher. Murphy’s getting a fair amount of hype as a sleeper for 2020 drafts, and with good reason. Check out how silly he made Joe Biagini look last year:
Watching mammoth HRs is fun, but Murphy’s Minor League track record further illustrates that he has the potential to be a fantasy-relevant catcher. With 60/60 grade raw power, Murphy hit 14 HRs in just 200 PAs last season. He has also exhibited exceptional plate discipline throughout the Minors, with the notable exception of his 2020 cup of coffee in the Majors.
Finally, a few words on Brendan Rodgers. If there ever were a buying opportunity for a rookie, this is it. Rodgers showed in an extremely limited sample that he can hit the ball hard, with two 109+ mph balls in play out of just 49 BBEs. His profile screams “post-hype sleeper,” as injuries and competition for playing time (Ryan McMahon, Garrett Hampson, Chris Owings) have soured what was only last year an exciting prospect. Still, Rodgers has hit plenty of HRs in the Minors, stolen a few bags and, like Hilliard, calls Coors home.