Hanley Ramirez and Batted-Ball Data

It seemed like this post was practically going to be able to write itself. Hanley Ramirez has been hot at the plate, and he’s tied for the big-league lead in homers, with 10. There are hundreds of hot streaks by so many players every single season, but this year we have the treat of new data, and Ramirez’s has seemed particularly remarkable. I thought this would be simple and straightforward, but instead we have something more complicated and kind of boring to what I assume would be the majority of people. Keep reading, though! There’ll be some .gifs. You love .gifs.

If you’ve paid attention to Gameday, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve started to get some early-season batted-ball data. It hasn’t been complete, but it’s been fairly consistent, as one of the first signs of the rolling out of StatCast. It can be tricky to find and preserve that information, but thankfully for the masses, there’s Baseball Savant, which I feel like I must link in every post. There, for the first time, we can sort hitters by batted-ball velocities. The industry has had HITf/x for years, so this isn’t progress for them, but it’s progress for us, on the outside. And we all love a new toy.

So, play with the toy. I sorted all the hitters in baseball by average batted-ball velocity, setting a minimum of 30 balls hit fair. It’s early, for every statistic, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be curious. And the results already seem to be decently sorted. Around the bottom, in average speed: guys like Billy Hamilton, Ichiro Suzuki, and Alberto Callaspo. Around the top: guys like Alex Rodriguez, Josh Donaldson, and Giancarlo Stanton. That’s all intuitive and encouraging. That suggests there’s something real being measured.

At the very top is Hanley Ramirez, with an average exit velocity of 98.7 miles per hour. As a good hitter and the co-leader in dingers, one shouldn’t be surprised to see Ramirez ranked so high. But you also notice his lead — almost two full ticks over second place. More than four over fourth place. I’m interested in big leads on leaderboards, and Ramirez got my attention.

I then decided to measure something related: rate of balls hit at least 100 miles per hour. It’s an arbitrary cutoff, but an appealing one. I kept the minimum of 30 recorded hit baseballs. Again, toward the bottom you find Hamilton, Ichiro, and Callaspo. Callaspo’s actually the one guy in the sample without a single such hit ball. At the other end, Stanton, Paul Goldschmidt, and Jorge Soler. Again, it’s all looking good. But there’s Ramirez at the top, and by a considerable margin.

The top of the list:

  1. Hanley Ramirez, 59%
  2. Giancarlo Stanton, 50%
  3. Paul Goldschmidt, 47%
  4. Jorge Soler, 45%

I can buy Ramirez being in the group, but something didn’t sit well with me. I wanted to check for video confirmation, and while there’s no such thing as accurately eye-balling batted-ball velocity, you should at least be able to get some sense of any egregious data errors. So I went to MLB.tv to check balls in play against a spreadsheet. I looked only for balls said to have been hit at 100mph or higher. I started at the beginning.

I was immediately confronted with a groundball, although to be honest I could see this one being super fast off the bat:

hanley-1 (1)

So that didn’t disprove anything. Maybe that really was hit at 100+. It’s not like only line drives are well-struck. But, I’m pretty certain this one wasn’t 100+:

hanley-1 (2)

Ditto this one:

hanley-1 (3)

And this one:

hanley-1 (4)

And this one:

hanley-1 (5)

I stopped there because I didn’t need to see more. I didn’t want to look at every single ball Hanley hit between the lines — I just wanted to see if I could trust the data. And I think most of the data is fine. But it sure looks like there are also errors, and the samples at this point are small enough for those errors to make a difference. The raw data says Hanley has hit the ball harder than anyone. He’s certainly hit the ball hard — that’s how you get dingers — but it appears the numbers are influenced by some exaggerated readings.

Maybe this was all unnecessary. Maybe all I had to point out was this: according to the data, on April 10 Anthony Rizzo bunted a ball toward Nolan Arenado at 103 miles per hour. That’s insane and stupid. I did look at the video, just to be absolutely sure. Yeah, no. It’s insane and stupid. It’s a mistake.

There are mistakes. That’s the point. This is the second post I’ve published today focusing on data errors, and that wasn’t intentional. Nor is the material of broad interest. This isn’t the FanGraphs mission, and I don’t want to make a habit of this, but I do think it’s worth noting when something misleads. Especially something new, that everyone wants to play with because they’ve never had access to it before. Just, be careful. When the numbers first started showing up, Dave warned all of us to be careful, because it’s early and the system could have glitches. You’d think it’ll be smoothed out over time, but just don’t put complete faith in the numbers. If something extraordinary is brought to your attention, it’s not a bad idea to confirm whether it’s actually true.

As for Ramirez himself — I’m sure his true average exit velocity is high. The data we see blends both errors and legitimately well-struck drives. He’s always been strong, with a quick bat, and you don’t share a dinger lead with Nelson Cruz if you’re rolling over on the ball. But the numbers I wanted to use in this post: they seemed hard to believe, and, it seems they were too good to be true. So we can’t yet write about Ramirez in the way we’d like to in 2015. We have to write about him in the way we would’ve in 2014. At least until there’s more data, and more reliable data. There’s no reason for us not to be patient.

Oh, and, Hanley has 10 homers and zero doubles or triples. And he’s been worth just 0.3 WAR, because he’s been so bad in left field. It’s been a weird month. A weird and instructive month.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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So you write this whole thing about bad data and then you conclude with his low WAR based on 19 games of fielding data?