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One of the cool things about living (and playing fantasy baseball) in the present day and age is that the amount of information available at our fingertips is simply awesome. And 2015 has been a banner season for data wonks, as it’s the first with full batted-ball data available for public consumption. With the data collection, sorting, and processing still in its infancy, and the relative sample sizes involved extremely small in the grand scheme of things, it is unwise to try to draw sweeping conclusions about what things like exit velocity and trajectory mean for batted-ball success rates. But there are certain basic assumptions that we can make about these things, and one of the more logical is that hitting the ball hard increases your chances of reaching base.

Now, before we dive into some numbers on specific and potentially interesting players for fantasy, it’s worth taking a minute to explore an interesting recent development. Major-league teams have dramatically increased the number of infield shifts they’ve employed against hitters over the past four seasons, but interestingly that change in strategy has had very little aggregate impact on batted-ball results for groundballs. Ground-ball results have remained extremely stable, and in fact offensive performance on worm-burners has ticked up slightly as shifting has increased:

Year

GB AVG

GB SLG

# Shifts

2015

.243

.263

n/a

2014

.247

.268

13,296

2013

.240

.259

8,180

2012

.238

.258

4,577

2011

.237

.256

2,357

2010

.234

.253

2,464

Batted ball data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com

Where offensive numbers have really taken a hit has been in those instances when batters put some air under the ball. Check out the numbers for line drives and fly balls over the same stretch:

Year

LD AVG

LD SLG

FB AVG

FB SLG

2015

.645

1.036

.144

.433

2014

.657

.992

.154

.442

2013

.674

.978

.182

.523

2012

.718

.980

.223

.613

2011

.723

.972

.218

.575

2010

.726

.974

.219

.580

The split decision for AVG and SLG on line drives creates an interesting opportunity for speculation, but we’ll save that for another day. The takeaway here for our purposes would seem to be that while better defensive positioning is significantly curtailing offensive performance, hitting the ball hard and on a line is still highly correlated with getting on base successfully.

Thanks to Daren Willman’s fantastic Baseball Savant index, we now have the ability for the first time to take a look at who’s hitting the ball in the air the hardest this season. And while I’ll caution against drawing any definitive conclusions about causation based on this data, at a minimum it would seem to follow logically that batters who hit the ball the hardest give the defense less time to react, and that’s probably a beneficial thing for the hitter. So here are the top 20 hitters for exit velocity on balls hit in the air (minimum 100 tracked at-bats) so far this season:

Rank

Name

Avg FB/LD mph

1

Giancarlo Stanton

101.94

2

Randal Grichuk

97.82

3

Joc Pederson

97.8

4

Pedro Alvarez

97.78

5

Paul Goldschmidt

97.58

6

Danny Valencia

96.98

7

Miguel Cabrera

96.9

8

Mike Trout

96.87

9

David Peralta

96.76

10

Josh Donaldson

96.73

11

Justin Smoak

96.55

12

Wilson Ramos

96.51

13

Chris Davis

96.51

14

Mitch Moreland

96.3

15

Steven Souza Jr.

96.14

16

Chris Carter

96.11

17

Nelson Cruz

96.07

18

Carlos Gonzalez

96.03

19

J.D. Martinez

95.95

20

Yoenis Cespedes

95.91

There’s certainly no shortage of guys you’d expect to see on this list: you’ve got your Giancarlo Stanton, and your Paul Goldschmidt, your Miguel Cabrera, and your Mike Trout. But there are also a few interesting names worth checking in on a little more closely. So let’s do that, shall we?

Randal Grichuk, OF, STL
Grichuk is exactly the type of player scouts tend to miss on: a fourth-outfielder profile with pop but an overly aggressive approach that limits projection for in-game utility at the highest level. Well, every so often one of those guys just kind of never stops hitting and turns into a pretty good MLB asset. At least in the early going, St. Louis may just have fleeced a pretty good one of those off of Anaheim, as Grichuk has managed to overcome his suspect approach by crushing the ball when he does get a piece of it. His .381 BABIP on the year is not likely to be a sustainable figure, especially given that he’s a dramatically fly-ball-oriented hitter relative to the league-average distribution. But he’s earned a decent chunk of his results so far. His ground-ball velocity is 33rd out of the 288 hitters in our sample, so the results here when he does make contact have some merit. His strikeout rate is a big red flag for long-term sustainability, and his extremely aggressive approach is one that major-league pitchers tend to get around to exploiting more consistently after a winter of study. His batted-ball distances also suggest that his 18.5% HR:FB rate may be a touch over his head. So there’s a significant amount of risk here that he endures a dreaded adjustment period in the coming year, and his recent trip to the MRI tube for a sore elbow throws another potential wrench into the gears. But he’s got no real platoon issues of note, and the demonstrated ability to hit balls hard thus far positions him as a nice dynasty asset for forward-thinking managers despite the lack of hype throughout his minor-league career.

David Peralta, OF, ARI
Peralta has one of the more interesting origin stories of any current major-leaguer, and he’s been a revelation for the Diamondbacks this season. He’s posted an above-average walk rate to go along with a .300 AVG, and the latter has been built on hitting the ball very, very hard. His ground-ball velocity checks in 43rd, and his above-average speed score has helped him maximize his batted-ball outcomes. His .358 BABIP is not unreasonable given the batted ball velocities and distribution, and there aren’t really any red flags to speak of in his profile to suggest imminent regression. He’s squarely in his prime, and he should be valued according to present production for at least the next couple of years.

Justin Smoak, 1B, TOR
Smoak’s been on fantasy radars seemingly forever as a former top prospect who stalled out in his early bi- league career. But he’s found himself a solid little niche in Toronto as a part-time player, and he’s made the most of it from a fantasy production perspective. He’s a fairly extreme pull hitter who pops the ball up a good deal, so the lower career BABIP’s shouldn’t surprise anyone. Still, the velocity data and a significant uptick in line drives suggest his .221 AVG hasn’t been entirely earned this year. He doesn’t play regularly enough to where he’s relevant in many mixed leagues, but those in daily formats and AL-only leagues should continue to keep him in the mix as a nice matchup play capable of producing at least a slightly better AVG than he’s shown so far along with continued pop.

Wilson Ramos, C, WAS
Ramos has managed to stay on the field for a full season thus far for the first time in his career, but the tantalizing flashes of fantasy value he’s shown in the past haven’t translated in majority-time play. His .236/.265/.354 line has produced just the 17th-ranked season even among lowly backstops, leaving him on the fringes of relevance in one-catcher leagues. He’s hitting line drives at the second-highest rate of his career, which is good, but he also hits an extreme amount of groundballs with the eighth highest percentage in the league (minimum 300 plate appearances). For a plodding catcher that’s not very good at all. His depressed BABIP is pretty consistent with his overall batted-ball profile despite the flashes of intrigue he’s shown in the rare instances in which he’s managed to put the ball in the air, and he’s not a guy I’d be targeting as a potential bounce-back candidate moving forward.

Mitch Moreland, 1B, TEX
After a disastrous 2014 season in which he was hurt in spring training, then bad once the season started, then lost for the rest of the year in June, Moreland entered the year as something of an afterthought in drafts. He went off the board 36th among first basemen in NFBC drafts this spring, 419th overall. He’s been healthy and pounding the ball at a robust clip this year, however, and his elevated HR:FB rate has been reasonably well supported by gains in batted ball distance. His whiff rates both in general and specifically on money-making fastballs have been about league-average, and he’s made significant improvements with his contact rate against off-speed pitches. His BABIP, which has fluctuated in the past, is at a career-best pace at present, and the exit velocity combined with his line drive rate suggest he’s earned a good bit of the bump. Given the fluctuations in prior year performance he’s the kind of hitter where I’d be really fascinated to compare this year’s velocities with previous data, but alas we’re only able to speculate on his present year performance, which has been largely legitimate. He’s a large-bodied slugger who’s about to turn thirty, so I wouldn’t race out and slap a three-year deal on him. But he’s emerged as a solid lower-end option in medium-depth mixed leagues this year, and should be valued as such heading into next season.