Early Batted Ball Distance Gainers and Losers

Those of us who write for Rotographs know that inspiration is all around us. I have all sorts of places I often look for something to write about, including ongoing ottoneu auctions, recent call-ups, and more.

But nothing “inspires” me more than players whose struggles are sinking my fantasy teams. And this morning, I am writing an article looking at fly ball distance, inspired by Jay Bruce.

Entering the season, I had high hopes for my team in the original ottoneu league. I had my concerns, but at the very least I was confident in my offense, led by a stellar OF – Jason Heyward, Jay Bruce, Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo, and Nick Swisher.

But Heyward has struggled mightily and Bruce is currently on pace to hit 0 HR (note, I wrote this Monday and, naturally, Bruce made a fool of me by going yard – he is now on pace or 8 HR). If I were a betting man (and I am, so if you know someone who wants to take a bet on this, let me know), I’d still put good money on Heyward being a fantasy stud the rest of the way and Bruce putting up 25+ HR.

But with Bruce, before I got too confident, I took a look at his batted ball distance, to see if there were any issues. According to BaseballHeatMaps.com, Bruce had an average distance on fly balls and HR last year of 292.4, compared to 285.6 this year. That is a drop, to be sure, but nothing that concerns me this early in the year. And his 2013 distance outpaces, among others, Bryce Harper and Chris Davis. So it’s not like he isn’t hitting the ball hard.

That got me thinking, though – there must be players who are absolutely crushing the ball (or not) this year compared to last, and 0 with all necessary small sample size caveats included in the fine print, maybe there are some signs we should be keeping an eye on here.

With that in mind, here are the top five distance gainers and losers:

Distance Gainers

Name 2013 Dist 2012 Dist Delta
Dexter Fowler 342.1 278.8 63.2
Todd Frazier 330.7 280.0 50.7
Todd Helton 333.6 283.5 50.1
Colby Rasmus 319.0 273.5 45.5
Salvador Perez 330.6 284.5 44.1

Distance Losers

Name 2013 Dist 2012 Dist Delta
Matt Kemp 239.7 313.3 -73.6
Raul Ibanez 223.6 291.9 -68.3
Joey Votto 245.6 300.8 -55.2
Neil Walker 239.6 292.4 -52.8
Kendrys Morales 246.6 286.3 -39.7

Among the guys showing improved distance, Fowler and Frazier are probably the most interesting. Frazier put up a very good second half last year and seems to be picking up right where he left off. Fowler is one of the hottest commodities in the fantasy world this April. And in both cases, there is at least some reason to believe that real distance has been added. In neither case is the distance gained going to remain quite so extreme, but it could be worth tracking the distance for these two moving forward. Both were around 280 ft last year – if they can both stay near or above 290 ft this year, that could signal a real change in power that could stick around for the future.

Salvador Perez is interesting cause this boost in distance has come without a single HR. Power seemed likely to be the weak part of Perez’s offensive game, but if this distance gain proves to be legit, that may not be the case.

Helton is probably a sample size mirage, at this point (in fact, they are all likely to be sample size mirages), and I would not expect the Rockies 1B to suddenly discover a power stroke as he enters his 40’s.

Jeff Sullivan gave us a pretty nice look at Rasmus’s early season conundrum yesterday, and it is possible that the low contact rate is actually playing to Rasmus’s favor in the batted ball distance. As a true boom-or-bust player, Rasmus seems to be crushing fastballs (leading to a lot of long fly balls) and completely whiffing on everything else (leading ot very few non-long-fly-balls). Something’s gotta give, and if I were a pitcher reading Jeff Sullivan’s work, I’d being throwing Rasmus a steady diet of breaking balls the rest of the year.

As for the guys losing distance, the name on this list that jumps out at me is Jack Zduriencik. Maybe that is only because I live in Seattle, but whe the Mariner GM went out and got Morales and Ibanez (among others) to help bolster a struggling offense, a sudden lack of fly ball distance was probably not what he had in mind. They moved the fences in at Safeco, but not THAT far. Morales’s up and down track record (mostly due to his long-lasting injury) makes him hard to judge this early, but if you needed another sign that Ibanez is done with a capitol D, now you have it.

The other three all look very different to me. Walker has had a steady career as a fantasy 2B, putting up low-double-digit HR every year, coupled with high-single-digit-steals. If the distance loss is legit, his power numbers could fall off, and you might be able to find someone interested in buying a steady, solid 2B who may be on his way to being slightly less steady and solid.

Kemp’s shoulder is likely to blame for the lack of pop in the early going, and the big question is when will he get healthy again? Without much evidence to stand on, I am assuming we will see a return to Kemp’s previously prodigious distance when he starts to produce again, and I’ll be tracking his distance as the year goes on. When I start to see an upward climb, I will likely start inquiring to see if any owners, sick of his slow start, are willing to sell. If that distance doesn’t come back this year, I’ll be betting on a nice, restful off-season to help him return to form for 2014.

And as for Joey Votto – I am calling him the Helton of this group: This is a sample size mirage, and I am confident Votto will be Votto before long.

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Chad Young is a product manager at Amazon by day and a baseball writer (RotoGraphs, Let's Go Tribe), sports fan and digital enthusiast at all times. Follow him on Twitter @chadyoung.

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How did you determine which ones to call small sample size mirages and which ones to call legitimately interesting? It’s good information for sure, but it seems the analysis cherry picks among it a bit.