Prime Ball-in-Play Traits of the 10 Playoff Teams, Part 1

Over time, teams take on the characteristics of some of their key players in the minds of analysts and fans. The Rays are eternally linked with Evan Longoria, known for power taking precedence at the plate, with a focus on defense. Similarly, Ryan Braun is the poster child for the Brewers, a bat-oriented player without a material defensive presence.

This week and next, let’s allow the players themselves to fade into the background, and draw some conclusions from a simple set of numbers — namely, each of the 10 playoff clubs’ team ball-in-play (BIP) statistics, broken down by exit speed and launch angles. We’ll examine what made these teams tick during the regular season and allowed them to play meaningful October baseball.

First, some ground rules. For each club, I split all offensive and defensive batted balls down (first) by type and (second) by exit speed. Not all batted balls generated exit speed and/or launch angle data; just over 14% were unread, most of them weakly hit balls at very high or low launch angles. How do we know this? Well, hitters batted .161 AVG-.213 SLG on them, a pretty strong clue.

BIP types do not strictly match up with FanGraphs classifications. For purposes of this exercise, any batted ball with a launch angle of over 50 degrees is considered a pop up, between 20 and 50 degrees is a fly ball, between 5 and 20 degrees is a line drive, and below 5 degrees is a ground ball. For background purposes, here are the outcomes by major-league hitters for each of those BIP types: .019 AVG-.027 SLG on pop ups (5.7% of measured BIP), .326 AVG-.887 SLG on fly balls (30.9%), .658 AVG-.870 SLG on liners (24.4%) and .238 AVG-.260 SLG on grounders (39.1%).

As you might expect, there are massive differences in production within BIP types based on relative exit speed. If you hit a fly ball over 100 mph, you’re golden, batting .766 AVG-2.739 SLG. If you drag that category’s lower boundary down just 5 mph, however, you get to the top of the donut hole, where fly balls go to die. Hitters batted just .114 AVG-.209 SLG on fly balls between 75-95 mph. All other fly balls — yes, even including those hit under 75 mph — fared much better, generating .387 AVG-.786 production.

Line drives tend to be base hits at almost all exit speeds. All the way down to 75 mph, hitters bat over .600 on batted balls in the line-drive launch-angle ranges; down to 65 mph, hitters still bat around .400 range in each velocity bucket. At 65 mph and higher, a liner generates an average .673 AVG-.889 SLG line. Under 65 mph, liners tend to land in infielders’ gloves; hitters batted just .170 AVG-.194 SLG on those. On the ground, hitters batted a lusty .423 AVG-.456 SLG on grounders hit at 100 mph or higher. Under 85 MPH, however, the hits dry up almost totally, with hitters producing a .107 AVG and .117 SLG. Between 85-100 mph, hitters bat closer to the overall grounder norm, at .267 AVG-.294 SLG.

With that as a backdrop, let’s look at each club’s offensive and defensive BIP profiles — each club’s DNA, if you will. Today, we’ll look at the first five playoff teams, in alphabetical order.

Baltimore Orioles
The strength of the O’s profile is fairly obvious. It’s all about thump. They hit 70 more homers than their opponents — not in the least reason because they also recorded 60 more fly balls at 105-plus mph and 101 more fly balls at 100-plus mph than their opposition. This high-exit-speed advantage extends to the other BIP types: they hit 63 more 105-plus mph liners and 67 more 105-plus mph grounders than their opponents. This enabled them to hit nine more line drive homers (20 to 11) and 41 more ground-ball singles (310 to 269) than their opponents. Unlike the other four clubs discussed today, the O’s actually allowed more batted balls than they hit.

It’s a bit tougher to unearth other clear Oriole BIP strengths. A little digging enables us to ferret out the strength of their infield defense. While part of the O’s ground-ball-single advantage is due to pure BIP authority, another part is due to team defense. In the 90-95 mph grounder bucket, the club hit almost exactly as many batted balls as it allowed. Despite that fact, the club hit 46 singles in that bucket, but allowed only 30. Manny Machado and friends deserve some credit for that.

Club weaknesses are fairly easy to identify. The O’s hit 23 more in-play fly balls than they allowed, but yielded 20 more fly-ball singles, 27 more fly-ball doubles, and five more fly-ball triples than their opposition. That is poor outfield defense, plain and simple. This in large part is why Mark Trumbo’s WAR total is so low despite his prodigious power output. This dynamic is also at work in the line-drive category, where the O’s allowed 18 more doubles (161 to 143) and four more triples (6 to 2) than their opponents. O’s outfielders caught fewer balls and yielded more bases on the ones they didn’t catch compared to their opponents.

Boston Red Sox
A very interesting team-BIP profile here. First, and most importantly, the Red Sox put 402 more balls into play than their opponents. Only three teams in baseball struck out less than the Sox, while only eight pitching staffs recorded more whiffs. No team in baseball matched this differential in 2016, and it served as a solid foundation, affording considerable margin for error.

This raw BIP advantage is reflected most in liners (+73) and grounders (+188). Obviously, a healthy line-drive advantage vis-a-vis your opposition accrues straight to the bottom line. The surplus grounders aren’t necessarily a boon, however. You’d much rather out-fly ball your opposition by 188, for sure. The Sox managed to turn this grounder advantage into 100 more singles (378 to 278) and 14 more doubles (34 to 20) than their opposition.

How’d they do this? Well, with the exception of David Ortiz, Sox hitters hit hard grounders to all fields, and tend to run very well down the line. While Ortiz rarely gets hits on the ground due to overshifts, the likes of Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts all hit way above league norms on grounders. There’s a defensive element at work here, as well. On 90-95 mph grounders, the Sox notched 62 singles to their opponents 32, a huge advantage.

What about the Green Monster effect? Well, suffice it to say that the Sox are built to their park. They out-doubled their opponents by a whopping 92, including a 126-96 fly-ball-doubles margin, despite hitting 29 fewer in-play fly balls than their opponents. On 85-95 mph flies, the Sox held a 35-21 doubles margin, and on 90-100 mph liners, they out-doubled their opponents 54-34. Their hitters are geared to attack the Monster, and their pitchers are primed to avoid it. Their quick first-round exit notwithstanding, this is the biggest home-field advantage in baseball.

Chicago Cubs
Like the Red Sox, the Cubs held a huge overall BIP advantage over their opponents, to the tune of +310. The Cubs struck out quite a bit at the plate, but their pitching staff ranked third in the majors in whiffs. The Cubs allowed the second-fewest total of batted balls in the majors; only the Dodgers allowed fewer.

The Cubs out-singled their opponents by 145, out-doubled them by 88, out-tripled them by 15 (a two to one margin), and out-homered them by 36. Unlike the Red Sox, the Cubs possessed a huge +197 (1209 to 1012) fly-ball advantage over their opponents. They were +76 in the 100-plus mph fly-ball nitro zone, fully accounting for their home-run surplus. They also hit 63 more liners than their opponents, a very significant advantage.

Their defensive superiority arguably outshines their offensive prowess. While they did hit 159 more in-play flies than their opponents, they yielded 33 fewer fly-ball singles (108 to 75) and 33 fewer fly-ball doubles (96 to 63) than their opponents. Their outfield defense excellence extends to liners as well: they yielded 70 fewer singles and 30 fewer doubles on liners, with a +25 single advantage in the 75-85 mph buckets alone. They allowed more grounders than they hit, but still allowed eight fewer ground-ball doubles (33 to 25), a credit to their corner infield defense.

The Cubs offense is really good, but their team run prevention is great. Their pitchers limit authority and their fielders are individually and collectively exceptional. Their postseason rolls on.

Cleveland Indians
In a recurring theme, we find that the Indians are another club with a huge BIP advantage, +189 in their case. Their staff led the AL in strikeouts, finishing fourth in MLB, while their hitters finished in the bottom third of MLB clubs in that category. Like the Cubs, the Indians posted their largest surpluses in the fly-ball (+98) and line-drive (+76) categories. That liner advantage in particular goes straight to the bottom line, as they notched 67 more line-drive singles than their opponents.

The Indians’ other standout strength is their infield defense. The club allowed 98 more grounders than they hit, with much of the deficit in the higher velocity buckets, but still allowed nine fewer ground-ball hits than they generated themselves. Francisco Lindor is a stud, and in Jose Ramirez, they’re basically deploying a second shortstop in the infield.

Outfield defense stands out as a clear weakness, however. Despite hitting 95 more in-play fly balls than they allowed, the club allowed only 14 fewer singles, doubles and triples combined than they hit.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Yes, this is yet another club with a huge net BIP advantage (+274). The pitching staff set an all-time major-league record for strikeouts, while the hitters whiffed just a bit more than the MLB average. Along with the Cubs, the Dodgers were one only two clubs who allowed fewer than 4000 BIP.

The Dodgers didn’t get maximum mileage out of this BIP advantage, actually hitting fewer fly balls than their opponents. They did out-liner them by 59 (908 to 849), but logged their single greatest surplus in the grounder department, at +240. While the club’s offensive fly-ball authority wasn’t noteworthy, the club did rake its liners and grounders. They hit 61 more 105-plus mph liners (145 to 84) than their opponents, keying a +25 line-drive double advantage. They also hit 69 more 105-plus mph grounders than their opponents, keying a 7-0 advantage in ground ball doubles in those buckets.

Part of the credit for those edges accrues to the offense, but save some for the starting rotation, who did a great job at limiting authority in general, but specifically ground-ball authority. Scott Kazmir, Clayton Kershaw, and Kenta Maeda all did a nice job in that area in 2016. A nod also must be given to the club’s corner-infield defense; Dodger hitters hit eight ground-ball doubles at under 85 mph, but the club allowed only one.

Next time, we’ll get to the other five playoff clubs.

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Jetsy Extrano
7 years ago

If you could just not use the word “lusty” again, that would be really appreciated.