Batted Ball Distance Surgers

In the past, it used to be difficult to determine how legitimate a batter’s HR/FB rate spike was. We could consider factors like the hitter’s age, his career history including minor leagues and any changes in environment such as home park. Unfortunately, it felt more like a guessing game with the conclusion usually being that the hitter was going to regress the following year back to his career levels. But that doesn’t always happen of course and Jose Bautista wants to make sure you know this. Jeff Zimmerman’s average fly ball and home run distance leaderboard makes it easy for us to find exactly the stat we need when on the hunt to validate a power surge. Did the hitter’s distance rise in conjunction with his HR/FB rate like we would expect to see or not?

Of course, even if an increase in distance supports the power surge, Chad Young found that hitters who gained 15+ feet of distance in one year gave back half of the distance gained the following year. That’s just regression to the mean at work folks. While the distance gain may suggest that the hitter wasn’t lucky to have hit those homers, it doesn’t mean he should be expected to repeat that new distance level.

Below are the six hitters whose distance increased most from 2012 to 2013. I originally planned to go with just the top five, but the sixth hitter was too intriguing to leave out. Only players appearing on both leaderboards were considered, which requires a minimum number of fly balls and home runs.

Player 2013 HR/FB 2012 HR/FB 2013 Distance 2012 Distance Diff
Nate Schierholtz 14.2% 8.8% 285.5 261.8 23.6
Yunel Escobar 7.6% 7.4% 282.6 261.3 21.3
Adam Lind 19.2% 12.1% 299.3 278.6 20.6
Jayson Werth 18.0% 5.3% 288.4 267.9 20.5
Hanley Ramirez 21.1% 14.7% 309.9 289.9 20.0
Jason Castro 16.5% 10.0% 290.5 271.5 19.0

At age 29, Nate Schierholtz finally got a chance to play a full season and rewarded his new team with his best offensive performance and power we have never before seen from his bat. His batted ball distance jumped from Jarrod Dyson territory to a much more respectable level. Aside from 66 plate appearances in Philadelphia, this is the first time Schierholtz got to play half his games in a hitter’s park that augments left-handed home runs. While I wouldn’t project a repeat, I’m betting that he comes closer to his 2013 HR/FB rate mark this season than his previous high.

Well here’s an interesting one. Yunel Escobar is no one’s idea of a power hitting middle infielder, but his distance hung around with the likes of Domonic Brown and Alex Gordon. Oddly, his HR/FB rate barely budged and while his ISO did rise, it still came in right at his career average. A possible explanation is that his fly balls and home runs were pulled less often than in past seasons, which means that he was hitting them to the larger parts of the park. If he could get back to his ball-pulling ways of yesteryear and sustain most of the distance spike, maybe he gets back to double digits again like he posted back in 2009 and 2011.

Adam Lind mostly appears on this list because his 2012 distance mark was a career low. So this was simply a major bounceback. But, his 2013 mark represented a new career high and ranked him an impressive 18th among all qualified hitters. Lind’s HR/FB rate has fluctuated up and down throughout his career, so it’s hard to get a good read on his true talent level. As usual, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, and my projection calls for a 2014 HR/FB rate mark just above his career average.

Jayson Werth is another who endured a terrible 2012 that was well below his historical numbers and the distance increase looks abnormally large as a result. You have to assume that health played a role in the 34-year-old’s recent performance figures, so now he’s just back to normal again. His 2013 distance matches up perfectly with his marks from 2008 through 2011. While it’s advisable to consider his age, there’s little reason to think he cannot come close to this HR/FB rate mark again. At the very least, he should manage his career average of 15%, which should allow him to follow up strongly.

There he is! Hanley Ramirez enjoyed the mother of all rebound seasons as his wOBA rocketed from .328 to .442, while his ISO vaulted from .180 to .293, both of which easily set new career highs. And would you look at that, his average distance climbed above 300 for the second time in his career and ranked third in all of baseball. Just like in Werth’s case, you gotta assume health played a role here. Hanley just turned 30 and we certainly cannot ignore his recent injury history or mediocre performances. But we know that he was capable of this, so I’ve done almost a complete 180 in regards to his candidacy as a first round option.

And finally we get to the player whose name may intrigue the most. Jason Castro went from a top catching prospect who underwhelmed with the bat in the minors and Majors through 2012 to a doubles machine with increased home run power to boot. The power surge actually started back in September, Jose Bautista style, when he hit four homers in just 52 at-bats and posted a sizzling .269 ISO. That carried over into spring training and then lasted all season long. Assuming he’s fully recovered from his offseason knee surgery, he should see more plate appearances, which should offset any possible regression he may experience. He’ll probably bat third again and now gets to hit behind Dexter Fowler and his always solid on base percentage. I expect another strong season, which is why I drafted him in the LABR mixed draft league.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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8 years ago

I’ve found that looking at flyball dist fallers were a better bet to look at. Which guys fell by the most? They should regress back up for the next yr, meaning potential bargains (in fantasy)

8 years ago
Reply to  jim

Hmm, that is an interesting thought.

I guess I’d always assumed gains in distance showed a new skill improvement, typically guys being able to turn on the ball to get more pull power. But, yeah, one hard part of this data set is that now Schierholtz has broken out — he won’t be super cheap with this in his stat sheet for last season