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The Value of Analytics in Baseball Today

As Major League Baseball begins its 2020 postseason, you won’t find any of the 16 playoff teams without an analytics success story.

It’s how in July 2018, the New York Yankees took a chance and traded two middle relief pitchers to the St. Louis Cardinals for the regular season home run leader Luke Voit. Despite hitting .246 with a .305 on-base percentage in 62 games in 2017, disastrous numbers in the MoneyBall era, Luke Voit impressed a Yankees organization that saw things differently.

They saw Voit’s average exit velocity on his batted balls in 2017 was 91.4 miles per hour, which would have qualified for the 7th best rate in baseball over a full season. Last season, Voit put 288 balls in play and 13.5% of them were what MLB.com calls barreled,[1] putting him in the top 9% of all hitters. This year, his barrel percentage is in the 86th percentile and he’s a mainstay in the New York batting order.

Since its implementation, Statcast has completely changed the way we look at the game, with exit velocity and launch angles available instantly after a ball is put in play thanks to cameras placed throughout all 30 MLB parks. Just over the last five years, it’s made analytic team building dramatically different, changing how general managers not only build their teams but also how they measure the success of players around the league.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the teams who hit the ball hardest have a better chance of winning. Eight of the top 10 teams in exit velocity in 2020 reached the playoffs, led by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres. Padres superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. leads baseball in barrel percentage per plate appearance, followed closely by L.A.’s Corey Seager.

On the other side, if you’re a pitcher, you want to avoid opposing players barreling up your pitches. For the Cincinnati Reds, starting pitchers Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo ranked 3rd and 12th respectively in percentage of barreled balls hit. It’s no coincidence that having those two in the rotation helped Cincy reach the postseason for the first time since 2013.

MLB defines hard hit rate by the percentage of BBE with an exit velocity of 95 miles per hour or higher. True to form, 11 of the 12 teams with the lowest opposing hard hit rate made the postseason, led by the Dodgers, Braves and Milwaukee Brewers.

Without these crucial analytics, not only would teams be at a disadvantage but fans at home wouldn’t have the opportunity to see the game in a way we never have before. It makes sense that the harder teams hit balls, the more likely they’ll succeed. Success stories like Luke Voit show us how far front offices have come, now willing to embrace  innovative stats to build winning teams.

[1] When factoring in exit velocity and launch angle, MLB.com classifies barreled balls as those whose similar hit types have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage.