Analyzing Spring Training’s Exit Velocity Leaders

Jake Cave
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s always dangerous to put too much stock in spring training performances. Take last year for example. If you just went by spring training stats, you would have predicted Paul Goldschmidt for MVP (hey, pretty good!) and Patrick Corbin for Cy Young (I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul). All the same, with Opening Day on Thursday, it’s time to learn what we can from spring training performances. Luckily we have more Statcast data than ever, some of which stabilizes much faster than traditional performance stats. As of Sunday night, 1,650 batters have seen at last one pitch during spring training this year. 11 of the ballparks that have hosted spring training games are set up for Statcast, and we have exit velocity data on at least 15 balls in play for 199 players. That might not sound like much to go on, but there’s definitely some signal among the noise.

Here are the numbers: 188 players have had at least 200 PAs in one season, then the next season had at least 15 spring training BIP measured by Statcast and then took 200 regular-season PAs. On the left are the regular-season average exit velocities from season one to season two; on the right are the average exit velocities from season two’s spring training and regular season.

If you’re trying to predict regular-season exit velocity, you’d obviously rather have 200-plus PAs worth of information from last year (r=.71) than 15-plus BIP from this year’s spring training (r=.50). However, the correlation between spring training and regular-season exit velocity is still plain to see, and if you regress it with the previous season’s exit velocity, the correlation gets stronger still (r=.76). Spring training performance contains enough signal to identify some real standouts for further analysis.

In this article we’re focusing on three players who are surprising or otherwise notable, so apologies to established players like Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor, Bo Bichette, Bryan Reynolds, and Ryan McMahon. Your baseball bashing has become humdrum and unexciting. Congratulations on your continued excellence, but please move along, because we need to talk about Jake Cave.

Jake Cave
In December, the Phillies claimed Cave off waivers from the Orioles, who had claimed him off waivers from the Twins in October. Over parts of five seasons in Minnesota, he posted a 92 wRC+ in 1,015 PAs. Since arriving in Clearwater, he’s posted a 61.5% hard-hit rate and 92.3 mph average exit velocity.

Cave doesn’t walk enough to be the platonic ideal of a three true outcomes player; he needs to slug enough to overcome a walk-to-strikeout ratio that is best viewed with an electron microscope. He managed that feat in 2018 and ’19, but the Cave of recent vintage has been a shadow of himself. We’ll let him explain, but before you read the quote below, go ahead and take a big sip of water, because the reveal is really something.

“I know when I’m healthy, I can bring some things to the table. I’m just trying to show that. I’m 30 but I feel just as strong, just as fast as I’ve ever felt in my life. I’m in a pretty good spot. It was an injury thing. I broke my back in 2021. I think that was a big deal because I’d been feeling that for a while. I don’t know how it happened but it happened. In 2021, I was hurting to start the year but played through it. Then I eventually got an MRI and broke an L5.”

Just to recap: Jake Cave feels great. Jake Cave was playing through a broken back but didn’t realize it. Jake Cave thinks the broken back might have been a big deal.

News reports at the time referred to Cave’s injury as a stress reaction, but either way, he deserves a little bit of grace here. In the short 2020 season, plenty of players — Nolan Arenado, for example — had what could just have been a bad start in any other season, but instead became a down year. Cave dealt with a pretty serious injury in 2021. We can’t just ignore the fact that it’s been three years since he had success at the big league level, but in 2022 he posted a career-lowest strikeout rate, and his hard-hit rate and average exit velocity were above league-average for the first time since 2019. His groundball rate plummeted, but unfortunately so did his line drive rate and his pull rate. Essentially, Cave hit a lot more fly balls to the big part of the ballpark, and he didn’t have the strength to send them over the fence.

Cave hit a ball 110.5 mph a few weeks ago, a height he hadn’t reached since 2019, and he’s also another year removed from the broken back business, which, again, might have been a big deal. He could be working with some strength that he didn’t have last year. If he can go back to pulling the ball a bit more or even just maintain last year’s batted ball profile and with a little bit more power (and in a smaller ballpark), he would go back to being a solid hitter.

Spencer Torkelson
Spencer Torkelson had solid exit velocity numbers last year, but that didn’t translate into solid performance. As Jay Jaffe said in the first base positional power rankings, “Torkelson has nowhere to go but up.” ZiPS agrees, pegging him for a 115 wRC+, a whopping 39-point jump from his rookie season. He is running a 66.7% hard-hit rate and a 96.2 mph exit velocity during spring training, and maybe just as importantly, he has one of the biggest sample sizes on the list, with 33 balls in play measured by Statcast. He’s hit 12 of them at least 105 mph.

Last year, Torkelson posted a 41.4% hard-hit rate and a 90.5 mph average exit velocity. He had three different stretches of at least 30 balls in play with a hard-hit rate over 50% (one of them peaked at 63%). During those three stretches, his average exit velocity peaked at 92.2, 93.6, and 96.3 mph, respectively. That is to say, he isn’t doing something completely new, but he’s showing that even when he was going right last year, he still had more in the tank.

But if you’ve been following the Tigers in spring training, you know that even though Torkelson is crushing the ball, he can’t buy a base hit, and that’s a familiar story. In 2022, his xwOBA outpaced his wOBA by 33 points, the 11th-highest difference among all qualified batters. Maybe some of that was bad luck, but the longer it goes on, the more likely it looks the issue is with his batted ball profile. Torkelson hits entirely too many balls on the ground, especially too many of his hard-hit balls, which renders all his loud contact less meaningful. Last year, his average exit velocity was in the 78th percentile, but his xISO, which he underperformed by 35 points, was in the 51st. Take a look at the 15-day rolling averages of Torkelson’s wRC+ and his groundball rate:

The two are pretty much mirror images. Torkelson was terrible when he put the ball on the ground and great when he didn’t. He ran a 40.3% groundball rate in 2022 and is currently at 35.9% in spring training.

This spring, Torkelson has also been getting better pitches to hit by being more aggressive earlier in the count. As a result, he’s walked at less than half his 2022 clip, and his strikeout rate has stayed the same. It’s great that he’s crushing the ball in spring training, and his .278/.328/.389 slash line is still much better than last year’s. All the same, it looks like hitting the ball harder will not, on its own, take him to the next level.

Mark Vientos
Speaking of leveling up, Jon Heyman reported on Friday that Mark Vientos had a better shot to make the Mets’ opening day roster than Brett Baty. Then on Saturday, both Vientos and Baty were reassigned to minor league camp. After both players torched the minors last year and spring training this year, GM Billy Eppler performed the Thank You Mario! But Our Princess Is in Another Castle routine, explaining that the pair still have “some development objectives to reach.” When asked what those objectives were, Eppler served reporters a delectable word salad: “Just continuing to get tested in different game situations. Learning the speed, when to give ground, when to take ground. Just being put in different types of circumstances, different types of situations.”

Of all players with at least 15 balls in play recorded by Statcast, Vientos ran the second-highest average exit velocity of the spring at 97.5 mph. He had a 60% hard-hit rate over 20 recorded BIP. On his non-recorded balls in play, he went 8-for-14 with three doubles, so it’s not as if he just happened to hit the ball hard when the cameras were on. Baty has been performing quite well himself, although his exit velocities are more in the Really Quite Good range rather than the Destroyer of Worlds range.

Spring Training Super Smash Bros.
Mark Vientos .278 .310 .481 98.1 63.2
Brett Baty .325 .460 .425 93.1 41.2
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Both players are 23, and it’s pretty clear that Baty has all the seasoning he needs to get a real shot. It would be surprising if he didn’t get called up to take over at third base after a few weeks of working on his defense continuing to get tested in different game situations.

Vientos is a different story for a couple reasons. First, he’s well and truly blocked, so much so that Eric Longenhagen, who ranked him as the organization’s sixth-ranked prospect last July, mentioned him as a trade candidate. Vientos is a third baseman in theory, but he doesn’t field well. He’s blocked by Eduardo Escobar and Baty at third and by Alonso at first. Our depth charts have Darin Ruf 러프 and Tommy Pham getting the lion’s share of PAs against lefties, with Daniel Vogelbach mashing righties as usual.

Next is Vientos’ profile. He has absolutely slugged his way up the Mets’ system, with a .210 ISO over five minor league seasons, running decent walk rates and extremely high strikeout rates. ZiPS projects him for a 107 wRC+ this year, but with a 32.6% strikeout rate. Last year only one qualified batter had a higher strikeout rate. Vientos will need every last bit of that power if he’s going to be an effective big league hitter.

If that profile sounds familiar, it’s because everything you just read about Vientos applies equally to Ruf. ZiPS sees him bouncing back from a rocky 2022 to post a 111 wRC+ with a .178 ISO and a 28.8% strikeout rate. It’s understandable that the team would give the 36-year-old Ruf a chance to prove that he can regain his old form before casting him aside for a rookie with essentially the exact same profile.

Still, it must be frustrating for Vientos, who has done everything to the baseball save light it on fire in trying to make the team this spring. He didn’t see great results during his brief big league debut last year, but he posted a 45.8% hard-hit rate and a 93.3 mph exit velocity across 24 batted balls and 41 PAs. He would seem to be as good an option as Ruf right now, and if the 23-year-old should ever close up any of the holes in his game — chasing less, elevating the ball more — all that loud contact should yield big results.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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David Klein
1 year ago

Vientos struck out nearly 40% of the time and his in zone contact rate this spring was bad as it’s been in the minors I don’t believe in him even a little. Oh and you meant to write Vogey mashes righties not lefties.

Last edited 1 year ago by David Klein
1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

I see that so often in today’s “analysis.” The statcast era people get so excited about that exit velo number. Exit velo is very important but a *major key* is actually hitting the ball first haha

1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

This is what happens when exit velo metrics and statcast sliders outweighs analyzing the rest of a hitter’s profile. “Guy who hits ball hard but can’t make contact” describes both Vientos and cave.

1 year ago
Reply to  DLHughey

It also describes Jarred Kelenic to a T.

1 year ago
Reply to  DLHughey

No, you guys are just being rude. Author mentions the high K rate more than once in reference to Vientos. And the need to improve his overall profile. Good lord.

Not sure what’s going on with the fangraphs commenting community lately, but it appears some of us are incapable of framing feedback in a constructive or positive manner. Which is odd, since we’re all talking about a game!

I appreciate the work, Davy!

1 year ago
Reply to  dezre

If you’re going to claim to be a baseball writer and write for a site that claims to provide analysis you’re going to have to be able to take the heat.