Brendan Rodgers Clobbered a Grounder

Spring training games get silly quickly. By the time the veterans have hit the showers, it’s time for raw prospects and reclamation projects to duke it out. So unless you’re a Carlos Estévez fan or a Padres loyalist, you probably didn’t see this live:

That home run, hit by Joshua Mears, is the hardest-hit ball of spring training so far — or, it was before a Giancarlo Stanton line drive yesterday that I’m totally ignoring for the purposes of this article. At 117.3 mph, it would have been one of the hardest-hit balls in the entire 2020 season. Laser beam home runs are fun to watch, though it’s a good thing a kid made a backhanded catch, or a reclining couple might have caught a baseball with their bodies.

Even if you didn’t see it live, you might have seen MLB Pipeline tweet about it. Failing that, maybe you read about it on Homers, especially smashed ones that show off Statcast, tend to make the rounds. Home runs are big business, and they get reported as such.

What you almost assuredly don’t know is that the previous inning, someone hit the third-hardest-hit ball of the spring (well, fourth now — thanks, Stanton). Feast your eyes on 115.6 mph of pure… well, pure groundball single to shortstop:

Surprisingly enough, didn’t write an article about that one. This won’t be on any highlight reels for the year. And yet, that’s the hardest-hit tracked batted ball of Brendan Rodgers’ career. Given that he’ll be playing in the majors this year and Mears will be on a bus in some city you’ve never heard of, the grounder was more meaningful to this major league season.

That sounds wrong on its face. It was a grounder, for crying out loud. If Tucupita Marcano’s reflexes had cooperated, it might have been an out, albeit on a difficult defensive play. When we talk about how hard a player can hit a ball, though, we’re ignoring the results and focusing on the contact. Angle and production can come later.

For example, here’s Rodgers’s hardest-hit ball of 2020:

And here’s 2019:

Yeah, maximum exit velocity doesn’t always mean a crushed line drive off the wall or a crowd-pleasing home run. Hitting the ball hard is a skill, and hitting the ball in the air is a skill, and just because you only do one of the two at a time doesn’t mean you can’t put them together.

It sounds weird. It is weird, honestly. Grounders, even spectacularly hard-hit grounders, simply aren’t that valuable. Even if we look only at grounders hit 105 mph or harder, the results aren’t pretty:

105+ mph Grounders, 2015-2020
2015 .511 .556 .467 .469
2016 .484 .523 .439 .444
2017 .495 .536 .448 .462
2018 .482 .531 .442 .449
2019 .476 .523 .430 .446
2020 .447 .498 .412 .426

Now, those are completely acceptable overall numbers, but they’re awful for balls hit that hard. Over the same time period, balls hit 105 mph or harder in the air have gone for an .837 batting average and 2.167 slugging percentage. Hard-hit grounders are a waste.

Be that as it may, hitting a grounder hard is a great predictor of hitting the ball hard in general. Don’t believe me? Here’s a list of the 10 hardest-hit grounders in the major leagues in 2020:

Hardest-Hit Grounders, 2020
Player EV (mph)
Giancarlo Stanton 117.3
Giancarlo Stanton 117
Javier Báez 116
Ketel Marte 115.9
Ketel Marte 115.8
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 115.5
Giancarlo Stanton 115.2
Manny Machado 115
Kyle Schwarber 114.9
Ronald Acuña Jr. 114.8

Even in tiny samples, there was a strong correlation between maximum EV on grounders and maximum EV on air balls. Last year was a bunch of nonsense, though. How about 2019? Yeah, those guys are pretty strong too:

Hardest-Hit Grounders, 2019
Player EV (mph)
Giancarlo Stanton 120.6
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 118.3
Yordan Alvarez 117.9
Mike Trout 116.6
Aaron Judge 116.4
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 115.5
Aaron Judge 115.3
Nelson Cruz 115.2
Daniel Palka 115.2
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 115.1

The point is, hard-hit grounders track overall power reasonably well. Rodgers showed plenty of power in the minor leagues, and scouts thought he’d continue to get to it in games; in his last report before Rodgers graduated, Eric Longenhagen graded him at 60 future game power and 55 future raw power.

So far, that hasn’t shown up in the majors. In an extremely stilted 102 plate appearances, Rodgers has three doubles and no homers. If you saw that kind of power from someone with no other information, you’d be skeptical that they had any power at all. Add in the fact that this mysterious player calls Coors Field home, and you’d be downright worried. As an idle example, Carlos González played 1,247 games as a Rockie, and he never had a stretch as futile as the beginning of Rodgers’ career.

Luckily, though, we do have more information, specifically that pulverized grounder from last week. A plethora of good researchers and writers, from Rob Arthur to Eno Sarris, have documented its usefulness. Most importantly for our purposes, however, is how quickly it becomes useful, and our Alex Chamberlain explained that best last October.

The key point in all of this is that there’s more to that innocuous grounder than simply a spring training single. It doesn’t mean Rodgers is a power hitter now. It doesn’t mean that he’ll figure out how to turn that ground power into air power. Heck, Vlad Jr. shows up on those hardest-hit grounder lists up above, and we’re still waiting for his power-hitting ship to come in.

If you were looking for a Rodgers breakout though — if you’re a Rockies fan, fantasy player, maybe one of Rodgers’ parents — this nothing grounder in a nothing game is a better sign that there’s still something there than his entire spring line of .348/.400./.652.

That batting line sounds great, and it is. But it’s over 25 plate appearances, against an uneven set of pitching. Statistics lie in small samples. You can’t fake hitting the ball hard, though. And hey, great news! Three days later, he kept the power but elevated the ball slightly more:

Again, it was only a single, but 111 mph bullet line drives up the middle are an intermediate step between smoked grounders and majestic home runs. You can’t always learn anything from spring games, but I’d like to believe that you can from this one, even if the highlight wasn’t much to look at.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

newest oldest most voted
Mike NMN
Mike NMN

Neat article. Made me remember Frank Howard in the 60’s, when no one really wanted to play third when he was up.