Where does each 2017 Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

Poll: Tyler Austin or Rob Refsnyder on the bench
Cashman confirms the Yankees looked into signing Edwin Encarnacion
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Ever since Statcast burst on to the scene last year, exit velocity has become part of the baseball lexicon. It’s everywhere now. On Twitter, in blog posts, even on broadcasts. You name it and exit velocity is there. Ten years ago getting velocity readings of the ball off the bat felt impossible. Now that information is all over the internet and it’s free. Free!

Needless to say, hitting the ball hard is a good thing. Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at a defender, but what can you do? Last season exit velocity king Giancarlo Stanton registered the hardest hit ball of the Statcast era. It left his bat at 123.9 mph. And it went for a 4-6-3 double play because it was a grounder right at the second baseman.

That’s a pretty good reminder exit velocity by itself isn’t everything. Launch angle is important too, as is frequency. How often does a player hit the ball hard? One random 115 mph line drive doesn’t tell us much. But if the player hits those 115 mph line drives more than anyone else, well that’s useful.

The Yankees very clearly believe in exit velocity as an evaluation tool. We first learned that three years ago, when they traded for Chase Headley and Brian Cashman said his exit velocity was ticking up. Former assistant GM Billy Eppler once said Aaron Judge has top tier exit velocity, and when he reached he big leagues last year, it showed. Among players with at least 40 at-bats in 2016, Judge was second in exit velocity, so yeah.

With that in mind, I want to look at where each projected member of the 2017 Yankees hits the ball the hardest. Not necessarily on the field, but within the strike zone. Every swing is different. Some guys are good low ball hitters, others are more adept at handling the inside pitch, and others can crush the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Not many though. That’s a rare skill. Those are the Miguel Cabreras of the world.

Also, I want to limit this to balls hit in the air, because as we saw in the Stanton video above, a hard-hit grounder is kinda lame. Hitting the ball hard in the air is the best recipe for success in this game. The average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season was 92.2 mph, up ever so slightly from 91.9 mph in 2015. I’m going to use 100 mph as my threshold for a hard-hit ball because, well, 100 mph is a nice round number. And it’s comfortably above the league average too.

So, with that in mind, let’s see where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest last season (since that’s the most relevant data), courtesy of Baseball Savant. There are a lot of images in this post, so the fun starts after the jump. The players are listed alphabetically. You can click any image for a larger view.

Tyler Austin

tyler-austin-exit-velocity1

Average FB+LD exit velocity: 96.8 mph
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 8 (17.0% of all balls in play)

Austin is not a lock for the 2017 Opening Day roster, but he’ll have every opportunity to win a job in Spring Training. His big league time was limited last year, so we don’t have a ton of data — Austin put only 47 balls with the Yankees last year — and the graphic shows he does his most damage on balls pretty much right down the middle. Make a mistake and leave something over the plate, and Austin will punish it. Often to the opposite field too. His right field power sure is exciting, isn’t it?

Greg Bird

greg-bird-exit-velocity

Average FB+LD exit velocity: 96.4 mph
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 24 (22.9% of all balls in play)

No, Bird did not play in the big leagues last season, so this is 2015 data. It was either that or nothing. Hitting the ball hard in the air has always been Bird’s calling card, and as the plot tells us, he’s a low ball hitter. Most of his 100+ mph line drives and fly balls came on pitches down in the zone in 2015. That makes sense. Remember when pitchers constantly attacked him with fastballs up in the zone? That’s because he’ll murder pitches below the belt. Hopefully Bird shows those same hard-hit ball tendencies following shoulder surgery.

Starlin Castro

starlin-castro-exit-velocity1

Average FB+LD exit velocity: 92.2 mph
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 50 (10.8% of all balls in play)

Last season 12.0% of all balls in play around the league were fly balls or line drives hit at least 100 mph. Castro, despite hitting a career high 21 home runs, was a tick below that average. On the bright side, that 10.8% is up from 9.3% in 2015, so … yay?

Anyway, the strike zone plot shows Castro’s best contact came on pitches located everywhere but up in the zone. He did a nice job covering the entire plate and hitting the ball hard in the air regardless of where it was pitched. Inside, outside, middle, down, whatever. Basically everywhere but up. Now, if he could only learn to lay off those sliders off the plate…

Jacoby Ellsbury

jacoby-ellsbury-exit-velocity1

Average FB+LD exit velocity: 90.0 mph
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 34 (7.2% of all balls in play)

The good news: Ellsbury’s average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last year was up from 88.1 mph in 2015. Also, his number of air balls hit 100 mph or better increased from 5.1% to 7.2% as well. Ellsbury missed a bunch of time with a knee injury in 2015 and wasn’t quite right after returning. It’s good to see his contact quality improved with better healthy last season.

Now, the bad news: Ellsbury was still quite a bit below average in terms of average exit velocity in the air and percent of batted balls that were fly balls or line drives at 100+ mph. That’s no good. Not when you owe the guy nearly $100M over the next four seasons. Ellsbury was healthy last year as far as we now — he missed a few games with a hip issue in May and that’s pretty much it — and his contact quality still wasn’t league average.

Anyway, based on the plot, on the apparently rare occasions Ellsbury does get the ball airborne with authority, it comes on pitches down and away. That lower left quadrant. Ellsbury hits the ball the other way quite often, so I’m not surprised to see his best contact comes on pitches in that location. The inner half is where he can be beat.

Brett Gardner

brett-gardner-exit-velocity

Average FB+LD exit velocity: 89.8 mph
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 27 (6.1% of all balls in play)

In 2015, when Gardner hit a ball in the air, the average exit velocity was 91.7 mph. It dropped nearly two full miles an hour to 89.8 mph last season. Egads. Not surprisingly, Gardner’s home run total dropped from 16 to seven. His power disappeared last year for whatever reason. Maybe age, maybe he was playing hurt, maybe it was just one of those years. Either way, the Yankees missed Gardner being a double-digit dinger threat.

The plot is pretty interesting. Most of Gardner’s fly balls and line drives at 100 mph or better came on pitches middle-middle, or middle-away. He also tomahawked a few high pitches — high as in out of the zone completely, in some cases — for hard contact. Interesting! Gardner has a tendency to ambush fastballs early in the count. He’ll load up and take a big swing whenever he feels the time is right. I wonder how many of those high pitches in the plot were Gardner sitting on a pitch and getting it?

Didi Gregorius

didi-gregorius-exit-velocity

Average FB+LD exit velocity: 88.7 mph
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 32 (6.7% of all balls in play)

Gregorius made the jump from nine homers to 20 homers last year even with below-average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, and a below-average rate of 100+ mph air balls. It’s good to be a left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium, I guess. As for the plot, it’s nothing too interesting. Didi’s best contact comes on pitches right out over the plate. Middle-middle, basically. Mistake pitches or get-me-over pitches. (Not many pitchers throw it there intentionally.)

Chase Headley

chase-headley-exit-velocity1

Average FB+LD exit velocity: 88.7 mph as RHB, 91.0 mph as LHB
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 13 as RHB (10.2% of balls in play), 19 as LHB (9.5%)

Headley is a switch-hitter so we need to examine him from both sides of the plate. Click the image above for a larger view. That should make things easier. Headley’s various rates as both a left and right-handed hitter are below-average, and I’m not sure that will surprise anyone. He’s not someone who rips line drives around the park at this point of his career. Headley’s best contact, meaning those fly balls and line drives hit 100 mph or better, comes on pitches right down the middle, more or less. From both sides of the plate. He covered the outer half a little better as a lefty, though that may be a sample size issue more than anything. Headley will crush mistake pitches over the plate … and that’s about it.

Aaron Hicks

aaron-hicks-exit-velocity

Average FB+LD exit velocity: 94.1 mph as RHB, 91.7 mph as LHB
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 11 as RHB (12.6% of balls in play), 13 as LHB (9.1%)

Another switch-hitter, so again, click the image for a larger and easier to read view. Hicks hit the ball harder as a right-handed batter last season. His exit velocity on fly balls and line drives was higher, and he also put the ball in the air at 100+ mph much more frequently from that side of the plate. That’s interesting because a few years ago, Hicks stopped switch-hitting. He gave up hitting as a lefty and went righty full-time.

Hitting right-handed exclusively lasted about a month before Hicks went back to switch-hitting because Hall of Famer Rod Carew told him he was an idiot for giving it up in the first place. “Rod Carew called me and told me what the heck am I doing, giving up switch hitting? It’s a blessing and I should go back to work harder at it and be able to learn from my mistakes,” said Hicks to Ronald Blum last year.

Hicks was better against righties (86 wRC+) than lefties (25 wRC+) last season even though he hit more well-struck fly balls and line drives from the right side of the plate. That’s baseball for you. It is kinda interesting that as a righty, Hicks was at his best against pitches in the bottom half of the strike zone. As a lefty, it was pitches in the top half of the zone. Same player, but two very different swings.

Matt Holliday

matt-holliday-exit-velocity

Average FB+LD exit velocity: 96.9 mph
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 55 (17.6% of all balls in play)

Exit velocity is one of the reasons many folks pegged Holliday as a potential bargain free agent this offseason. His average fly ball and line drive exit velocity was tenth highest in baseball last season, and roughly 40% of all his balls in play were at 100 mph or better. That said, Holliday himself said he needs to do a better job hitting the ball in the air next season. His 50.0% ground ball rate last year was a career high.

The strike zone plot shows Holliday does his most damage when the ball is over the plate and in the lower half of the strike zone. He was still able to go up and get the high pitch last year, but generally speaking, when Holliday really drove a ball in the air, it came on the pitch in the lower half of the strike zone. I really like that he covered the inner half of the plate too. Try to bust him inside and he can still pull his hands in and punish a pitch.

Aaron Judge

aaron-judge-exit-velocity

Average FB+LD exit velocity: 100.2 mph (lol)
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 12 (27.9% of all balls in play)

The sample size is extremely small — Judge put 43 balls in play between strikeouts during his brief MLB stint last season — but good gravy did Judge demolish the baseball. The guy put the ball in play at over 100 mph on average when he got it airborne. Holy crap. Last year Judge murdered pitches both high and low, which is pretty impressive for a guy his size. I guess it helps to have long arms. I’m looking forward to seeing more Aaron Judge exit velocity going forward. This is a strong young man.

Rob Refsnyder

rob-refsnyder-exit-velocity

Average FB+LD exit velocity: 90.5 mph
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 9 (7.2% of all balls in play)

Refsnyder didn’t exactly stand out for his power last season. He didn’t hit a single home run in his 175 plate appearances with the Yankees, and he only had nine doubles too. That works out to a .059 ISO in a year the ball was flying out of the park all around the league. Also, his ground ball rate was 52.8%, so in those 175 plate appearances, Refsnyder only hit 59 balls in the air. No wonder he hit for zero power.

Interestingly enough, Refsnyder made great contact with pitches at the very top of the strike zone and at the very bottom of the strike zone. His zone coverage is good. Refsnyder does have a plan at the plate and put together quality at-bats, it’s a just a question of whether the results will come. I don’t think anyone expects him to be a 25 homer guy or something like that, but if doesn’t get the ball in the air more often, his bat may not play at the big league level, especially if he remains relegated to first base and right field. Refsnyder and Austin will essentially compete for the same roster spot in camp.

Austin Romine

austin-romine-exit-velocity

Average FB+LD exit velocity: 89.4 mph
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 18 (13.3% of all balls in play)

The overall average exit velocity isn’t impressive because Romine hit a lot of weak pop-ups last year, but hey, 13.3% of all balls in play being a fly ball or line drive at 100 mph or better is pretty good. The league average was 12.0%, remember. Romine did get to some pitches at the top and bottom of the zone according to plot. Generally speaking though, he did his most damage on center cut pitches. The middle-middle offerings. Being able to hammer those pitches feels like a prerequisite for a backup catcher. No one is expecting much offensively. Just be able to crush the pitches that are supposed to be crushed, please and thank you.

Gary Sanchez

gary-sanchez-exit-velocity

Average FB+LD exit velocity: 97.8 mph
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 30 (20.5% of all balls in play)

Gary’s exit velocity on fly balls and line drives isn’t quite on par with Judge’s, but it was still comfortably above the 92.2 mph league average. Also, more than one in five balls in play being hit in the air at at least 100 mph? Crazy. That’s how you hit 20 homers in 53 games. The strike zone plot shows that basically the entire strike zone was Sanchez’s wheelhouse last year. Heck, he even did damage on some pitches out of the zone. This happened in a small sample, remember, we need to see what happens next year, but man, not too many hitters can cover the strike zone this well. Put a pitch in the zone against Gary and he’ll crush it, especially if it’s about thigh high.

Ronald Torreyes

ronald-torreyes-exit-velocityAverage FB+LD exit velocity: 90.5 mph
Number of 100+ mph FB+LD: 6 (4.4% of all balls in play)

Torreyes isn’t someone who is going to rip line drives all over the field. He’s a hit ’em where they ain’t type who just gets the bat on the ball and hopes for good things. Four of his six air balls at 100 mph or better were on the inner half of the plate, which makes sense, because Torreyes is a little guy with short arms. Reaching out and driving an outside pitch the other way doesn’t happen too often. I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear that among players who batted at least 20 times for the Yankees in 2016, Torreyes had the highest ground ball rate (54.7%).

* * *

Austin, Bird, Judge, and Sanchez stand out from the rest of the pack for more than a few reasons. They’re young and they all have yet to play a full season in the big leagues, and they did some exciting things last year. Or, in Bird’s case, he did some exciting things in 2015. Their exit velocities on fly balls and line drives in their short MLB stints was truly impressive. Much higher than the league average. That’s something we all want to see more of going forward.

Poll: Tyler Austin or Rob Refsnyder on the bench
Cashman confirms the Yankees looked into signing Edwin Encarnacion