With everything from spin rate and arm angle to vertical movement and release point, there’s copious data available to help break down nearly every aspect of a pitcher’s process. That level information isn’t quite there on the hitting side yet — at least not publicly. Sure, we can evaluate a hitter’s results through batted-ball data (exit velocity, launch angle) and measure their overall offensive contribution via metrics like wRC+ and wOBA. There’s still merit to the traditional statistics, too.
But the current data available doesn’t quite allow us to get into the minutiae of a swing in the same way we can with a pitcher’s mechanics or repertoire. For example, if you’ve ever read a scouting report on a hitter, you’ve probably seen a reference to bat speed. It’s a trait that teams have long coveted, and they can now measure it with high-tech equipment such as bat sensors. For years, this data was only obtainable in practice situations, however, as bat sensors and similar devices aren’t legal to use during games. Now, teams have this data at their fingertips.
During the 2022 season, new high-speed cameras were installed in two parks (Dodger Stadium and Minute Maid Park) that captured video at 300 frames per second, three times faster than the previous system. This has allowed Statcast to track numerous aspects of hitters’ swings — including bat speed, bat path, swing angle, and contact point. By the end of last season, 17 teams had installed these updated Hawk-Eye cameras. Starting in 2023, all 30 ballparks have this new technology and teams have had access to in-game bat-tracking data for the first time this season.
Presumably, this information will be publicly available at some point. Thanks to an enlightening piece published by J.J. Cooper at Baseball America, we got our first glimpse into it.
While you should read the full piece, here are some key takeaways:
- Some of the top bat speeds in the game belong to some unsurprising names. Giancarlo Stanton has the fastest average bat speed. Mike Trout, Ronald Acuña Jr., Aaron Judge, and Yordan Alvarez are also in the top 10. So is a certain Reds hitter (more on that later).
- Average bat speed is highly correlated with power and quality-of-contact metrics (e.g., home run rate, exit velocity, slugging percentage, isolated power, etc.) as well as strikeouts (players with higher bat speed tend to strike out more often).
- Bat speed doesn’t automatically equate to success. Hitters still need bat control and pitch recognition skills.
- Low bat speed is usually not a good thing and rarely results in big power numbers, but these hitters can still be successful with good bat control (e.g., Luis Arraez).
The end of the piece lists the average and maximum bat speed for every hitter with 70 plate appearances through September 10. That means we can see how Reds hitters fare in this metric. To give you reference points, the median average bat speed is 68.1 mph and the median maximum bat speed is 80.8 mph.
Now, without further ado:
The Reds have just five players with better-than-average bat speed, headlined by Elly De La Cruz, who ranks in the 99th percentile of MLB hitters. Christian Encarnacion-Strand (79th percentile) and Jake Fraley (74th) are also well above average, while Jonathan India (55th) and Spencer Steer (51st) barely squeak into that category.
Several other hitters are capable of getting more oomph behind their swings. De La Cruz (97th percentile) has the highest bat speed on an individual swing as well, but right behind him are a couple of hitters who may be surprising given their smaller stature: Matt McLain (95th) and TJ Friedl (91st). Friedl has one of the largest gaps between average and maximum bat speed in baseball. The Reds have a fourth hitter who ranks in the 90th percentile in maximum bat speed, Will Benson. These could be hitters who sacrifice a bit of their speed for better bat control most of the time. Another hitter, India, can also get to the upper echelon in bat speed (87th). Fraley and Encarnacion-Strand have also had above-average individual swings.
For the most part, the Reds’ most dangerous power hitters rank toward the top of the list and the less-powerful hitters sit at the bottom. Among the Reds with above-average bat speed, Fraley is the only one with a subpar average exit velocity (something we discussed before the season regarding his power output). Among the five Reds hitters with above-average bat speed, only India has below-average isolated power (ISO), but just barely (.162 vs. a league average of .166). All three of the max bat speed outliers — Benson, McLain, and Friedl — also have an above-average ISO.
The top two hitters in average exit velocity are the same two who lead the Reds in average bat speed, De La Cruz (75th percentile) and Encarnacion-Strand (72nd). Benson, who is clearly capable of swinging the bat quite hard, is also above average in exit velocity (74th). India (51st) is tied for fifth on the team with Tyler Stephenson. However, a surprising name ranks fourth, at least compared to his bat speed metrics: Joey Votto. It makes sense that he ranks toward the bottom in average bat speed (13th percentile) given that he’s 40 years old. Bat speed naturally diminishes as players age. But the future Hall of Famer can still barrel up a baseball when he makes contact. He’d rank in the 65th percentile in average exit velocity if he had enough playing time to qualify.
Aligning with the league-wide trends in bat speed, De La Cruz and Encarnacion-Strand also whiff a lot, carrying strikeout rates of 34.0% and 28.4%, respectively. Fraley, India, and Steer each strike out less than the average MLB hitter, however.
At the bottom of the list, Votto is the only hitter who could be classified as a home run threat. Kevin Newman, Stephenson, Luke Maile, Stuart Fairchild, and Nick Senzel all have below-average ISO. Stephenson is the only one of that group with above-average exit velocity.
Like any metric, bat speed isn’t the end-all, be-all. There are general trends to be gleaned from this data, although there will always be outliers. The bottom line is that bat speed a vital skill, and one that can take a hitter to massive heights when paired with good bat control and quality swing decisions. Bat speed isn’t necessarily something that can be taught, although it can be increased through training with weighted bats. Driveline has championed this approach with hitters such as Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar. Teams will continue to embrace it as they’re now getting in-game data.
But hitters aren’t going to go from the bottom of the barrel to the top just from weight training. In this sense, De La Cruz and Encarnacion-Strand have an extremely valuable skill if they can learn to make contact more often and swing at better pitches. On the flip side, it’s important for players and teams to know their strengths. For example, McLain and Benson both have the ability to reach top-end bat speeds. However, they both strike out a lot as it is and their production could take a hit if they’re swinging as hard as possible on every pitch.
This is just the start of the fascinating insights that bat-tracking data can provide. As Statcast continues to collect data and eventually releases it to the public, it will only provide a new layer to fans’ understanding of hitting.
Featured image: Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire