Under the Statcast Hood - Elly De La Cruz
Kevin takes us through his favorite baseball analysis resource with the most tantalizing talent in the Big Leagues
Baseball Savant is my favorite resource amongst a bevy of tools that everyone has at their disposal to answer the question: “Is this player actually good?” Traditional baseball statistics fall into the pitfall of being binary, subjective, and result-based. The advent of Statcast allows us to take these imperfect statistics and provide oodles of context around them through robust player movement, pitch shape, and batted-ball data. I’m going to take you through an example of how I typically interpret batted ball data.
When looking at Baseball Savant batter’s data, I always gravitate towards Exit Velocity (“EV”); nothing rustles my jimmies more in baseball than a ball that’s scalded off the bat, and its why I love watching players like Pete Alonso and Giancarlo Stanton. Like all stats, EV is not perfect. We, as baseball fans know, the outcome of a 100 MPH line drive is far more desirable than a 100 MPH grounder at the shortstop. Adding the additional context of launch angle data is a simple way to put into focus the type of contact a hitter is making and whether that can result in sustainable results.
With this lens, I wanted to take a closer look under the Statcast hood with a particular player…
Elly De La Cruz was undoubtedly the most exciting player to emerge last year, and has become one of my favorites strictly because Will Hailey hates him so much. His tools have never been the problem; who could forget his epic 3 stolen bases in one AB, with one of them being home plate?! However, when it comes to hitting at the major league level, he NEEDS to work on better plate discipline as you’ll see below:
As far as hitting goes, De La Cruz’s Average EV sits at 91.2 MPH, in the 79th percentile amongst qualified batters, and are nice positive outliers in an otherwise less-than-mid summary. There is an unhealthy gap between where De La Cruz’s Average EV and Hard Hit % sit from his 51st percentile 8.5% Barrels per Batted Ball Event (“Barrel %”). Barrels are defined as batted balls at a minimum 98 MPH off of the bat with the optimal combination of launch angle. So when I see this sort of mismatch between EV and Barrel %, launch angle is generally the culprit. And that’s a bingo; De La Cruz’s average launch angle is a miniscule 6.6 degrees, compared to a league average of 12.2 degrees. That equates to a groundball rate in the 50%s. As I mentioned above, a hard-hit groundball is not as valuable as a hard-hit fly ball. A hard-hit groundball’s result upside is capped to a double, while a hard-hit fly ball routinely ends in at least a double. That’s particularly why De La Cruz’s resulting slugging percentage was only .410 despite tantalizing power, as evidenced by a 119.2 MPH Max Exit EV (99th percentile). It sounds as simple as consciously trying to lift the ball when swinging the bat, but Yandy Diaz will tell you that its easier said than done, taking 6 years into his age-31 season this year to finally put it all together. There are a fair share of players who fall into this category of high EV marks with low launch angles; these players are the ones to keep an eye on, as a mechanical tweak or a change in approach can start to unlock serious production.
Exacerbating this issue is De La Cruz’s unhinged and undisciplined swing decisions. With both Chase % and Whiff % in the lowest quartile of qualified batters, he seems to be an expert at swinging at all of the wrong pitches in and off the plate. De La Cruz improving his swing decisions will lead to tangible improvements in both his K % (a staggering 3rd percentile) and BB % (surprising right around league average). On the more intangible side, a better approach and better discipline will ultimately result in him swinging at the RIGHT pitches: pitches he can better handle, drive, and more consistently unleash his exceptional power. Mark my words, if you see significant improvements in De La Cruz’s Chase % and Whiff %, you will see the Barrel % shoot up as well.
Elly De La Cruz is fighting two common adages right now. On one hand, the baseball folks will say “you can teach someone plate discipline, but you can’t teach someone how to hit.” There’s no question that the ball explodes off his bat WHEN he makes contact. It’s that raw power and speed combo that scouts and fans drool over. On the other hand, the layman will say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” And while it’s unfair to compare De La Cruz to an old dog, his entire baseball career has been rampant with poor swing decisions, high K %, and ugly plate discipline. If he can break his habits, embrace the Will Hailey way, and improve just to league average on his swing decision metrics, its not hard to project Elly De La Cruz as among the most dynamic sparkplugs of the game.
So, whenever Billy Beane asks me, “If he’s a good hitter, why doesn’t he hit good?” this is the type of quick and dirty analysis I would turn to. Happy analyzing!
For more baseball content, here is our latest podcast:
Be sure to follow us on Twitter @JonDowdBurner.