Exit Velocity: on the Road to Greatness

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There’s a long-held adage in baseball that spring training statistics hold little meaning. The reasons are myriad. Players are just getting loose, and for many years, truly did use spring tor training. They use the spring to experiment, try new things, make adjustments. They go at ¾ speed (many do, at least). And last, but certainly not least, they’re often facing players who may be lucky to make an A-ball roster by the end of March, let alone be big leaguers.

My own opinion – and I have nothing but a few years observing players in Florida and Arizona to back this up, so it is very much opinion – is that there’s a strong variance by player. Hitters who constantly tinker and tweak their routines, even all-time greats (Carl Yastrzemski and Cal Ripken are prime examples) can abstract themselves throughout March only to return to the median by April. Change is the constant of spring, as a necessity and an evil. Players slumping constantly waggle between the dueling pulls of adjustment and consistency.

This spring is a multiplicity of outcomes due to two key variables being reset: pitching coach and hitting coach. So what measure to watch? What truth to find?

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If you look at the best Rangers offensive seasons of all time, they don’t have a great deal in common statistically. Some are masterpieces of discipline and controlled power – the names Rafael Palmeiro and Alex Rodriguez come to mind. Others are flying fists of fury, constantly landing line shots to the gut of pitching staffs all over the park – here, we’ll find the likes of Pudge Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez. Some lack the flash of power but had the spark of a soaring batting average, with singles and doubles all over the park – here we find Julio Franco and Michael Young, along with the underappreciated Al Oliver.

So what do these best Rangers seasons have in common? A feature measured today but not historically, so we have to go off of contemporary scouting reports and remembrance. That measure – exit velocity off the bat. Almost without fail, as exit velocity goes up, it’s a sign of all the good things we look for.

  • Patience – a hitter hitting the ball hard is getting his pitch, even when that pitch is to a free swinger like Pudge Rodriguez. The hitter has looked for a certain pitch, and whether it’s the first or fifth pitch of the at bat, when the ball jumps into the zone, he jumps all over it. Think Juan Gonzalez in 1996. Think Josh Hamilton in 2010. And honestly, think Jeff Burroughs in 1974. To the latter, ask anyone who knew Arlington Stadium in the early days, and you’ll learn it took absolute rockets to left to end up with 25 homers and a .500 slugging percentage in those days of pitching and prairie winds. That season? One with nearly a 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio for Burroughs, even with 100+ strikeouts.

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  • Bat Speed – “Wait and be quick.” That’s an old but good adage. Great exit velocity comes from waiting, waiting, and then exploding through the ball. Julio Franco’s swing may have looked long, but when he was going his best, he was uncoiling seemingly late, but lashing line drives all over the outfield. In looking at his scouting report from the 1992 season (going off his batting-title season tendencies of 1991), we find he was at his best hitting both inside and outside pitches to right. He was waiting and being quick.

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The ultimate Ranger practitioner of this dual skill is Palmeiro. His last six inches, from launch position to contact, were as fast and smooth as any hitter I’ve ever seen – the product of iron-strong and reflexively smart hands long before any illegal substance ever pierced his skin or hit his stomach.

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Early on, he would wait…and wait, and line the ball again to the opposite field. Later in his career, while keeping that same ability to wait and flip balls to left, he came alive driving low and in fastballs and attempts to get on his fists that missed alike, well into the right field gap or just over the outfield wall. The balls were hit not only hard but PURELY, with a backspin that gave them amazing carry. All that was a result of his tremendous hand speed and mechanics. His best season in Texas – 1999 – was a great example. He ended with 99 walks against 67 strikeouts in a 47-homer season and also managed 30 doubles and a .630 slugging percentage. Until the emergence of Alex Rodriguez and his magical run from 2001 to 2004, no Ranger’s season could match those numbers. It’s a sign of the era alone that he finished only fifth in the MVP voting.

What then, does exit velocity tell us coming into this spring? Here are a few things I’d look for:

Elvis Gets His Kicks

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They key to whether we’ll get a pre- or post-All Star Break Elvis Andrus will be in the jump of the ball off his bat – mechanics and statistics aside. Now, it’s hard to find a site with these stats readily available – MLB Statcast tracks leaders well, but we’re looking for trends of a guy who’s not going to be among the leader board.  Thus, you might have to trust your eyes and the reaction of the fielders. To that latter point, be cognizant of who is out there; a career minor leaguer or rookie will likely get a slower jump because the game still has him a bit under speed. Look for hard shots to center and right, over the infielders, balls with backspin that seem to climb over the infield. Look for low rockets and grounders that get through with infielders barely taking a step. That’s a sign he’s waiting, seeing the ball, letting it get deep, and exploding.

Look for the leg kick, but if we use Cubs hitters as a sample, the kick should be a driver, like a pitcher, not a small, asethetic movement. Up, back, and then softly shifting forward – under control but driving from the strongest part of the body, the core and legs; Anthony Rizzo’s Game 4 NLDS homer versus the Cardinals in October is a great illustration.

I expect to see Elvis employ the kick, and I think he’ll be better for it, especially with a hitting coach familiar with perfecting the technique.

The Thunder Kids—Gallo, Mazara, and Brinson

Not every one of them will start the season with the big club. Likely, their odds are just as they’re listed here, with Lewis Brinson the least polished and longest shot. But watching the ball come off their bat is a treat. Let’s go in reverse order.

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First, Brinson. I still believe one of the most powerful shots I saw all last year was his bomb in his first game at Frisco. They say it landed in the construction area, but I never saw it come down, so it may honestly be in Bonham by now. This compilation of his work at Round Rock shows the fact that he makes up for some long hand setup with a good launch position and explosive leg use and hip rotation, with incredible natural lift reminiscent of a young Sammy Sosa.

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I don’t think Nomar Mazara hits the ball quite as hard, but he’s a more polished hitter, and the ball still jumps off his bat. His hand action is more like Robinson Cano, with a bit more hips and upper body as opposed to the almost Rod Carew-like hand action of a young Cano. Still, the bat path is similar, as are the hands staying under versus rolling over the ball, regardless of location. The result: a line drive swing built for backspin to both the opposite field and pull. He’s actually more likely to hit pull doubles than would be Brinson, as Lew’s strong uppercut blasts ground balls when his timing is just off. Mazara’s bat stays in the zone longer, meaning he keeps the ball elevated a bit more easily, just not as dramatically. The best example of his hitting style to me is this Round Rock at-bat sequence: taking a lot of pitches, occasionally looping balls softly to the opposite side of the infield when off-balance (the kind of swing that’s a likely swing and miss for Brinson, however), but amazing carry when squared up to center, as seen in his 9th inning homer.

Finally, there’s Joey Gallo. Oh-My-God Gallo. I don’t believe any of Gallo’s homers rated in the stat tracker speed readings, but I can’t imagine any Ranger who makes contact does so with any more force than Gallo because he simply swings SO hard. It’s a testament to his discipline that he stayed in the majors as long as he did, as pitchers found holes up and in easy to exploit come September, but if he could work ahead in the count, he was deadly. So what to look for this spring? Well, exit velocity shouldn’t be a problem. He waits a long time, for a guy with a long swing, because he creates such violent speed. I’d like to see 35% of Gallo’s contact to the opposite field, with at least 50% of that in the air with backspin (not popups, but carrying flies or liners over short into left). I look at Gallo a lot like Reggie Jackson, as an all-or-nothing hitter, and so I’ll apply a rule to Gallo that Cal Ripken Jr. applied to Reggie. When asked how he knew Reggie was getting hot, Ripken said: when he started hitting line drives at or past shortstop. He was staying on the ball, letting it get late on him, then using his natural strength to drive it to the opposite field.

Jun 2, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers third baseman Joey Gallo (13) hits a two run home run in the third inning against the Chicago White Sox at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-214904 ORIG FILE ID: 20150602_ajw_sh2_098.jpg

To me, that’s going to be Gallo. I believe the strikeouts will always be there, and if he’s to remain a major leaguer, the walks will have to, as well. But the opposite field needs to become familiar territory to him. Per his resume, I believe Anthony Iapoce will bring the same approach he did with Chicago: he’ll teach young hitters to work to their strength up to two strikes, then shorten up, foul off pitches, and hit to the opposite field with two strikes. No prospect would benefit as much from that approach as Joey Gallo. And with his natural strength, balls that would be humpback lineouts to shortstop for many will be singles to left for him, and fly outs to left can easily carry for extra bases. Doubles will be homers. You get the drift. All he has to do is let the ball get in on him and not explode as violently with hip rotation, instead blocking off that rotation with his front leg and driving off it to the opposite field. The natural whip of his hands on the bat barrel will take care of any of the rest.

So the moral: on the road to greatness, the most important measure is speed. To stay on the road, you have to have it. It’s simply table-stakes for hitting excellence, from Major League roster invites, to All Star selections, to Cooperstown. Each stop on the road to greatness hinges on exit velocity.

Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington.
He pitched - typically backing up third after doing so - and eventually settled into catching in leagues throughout Richardson and Plano in his youth, graduating from and lettering in baseball at Richardson Berkner High School in 1998. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner and buys bits by the megabyte. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

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