As analysis of the Blue Jays’ acquisition of Randal Grichuk trickled out over the last week, Grichuk’s ability to hit the ball extremely hard has been mentioned again and again. The same was true last offseason when the club signed Kendrys Morales, and again when Teoscar Hernandez had his cup of coffee with the big league club last September. Grichuk, Morales and Hernandez all grade highly in the publicly available metrics measuring exit velocity and the ability to barrel the ball when making contact. But it’s not just the newer Blue Jays hitting the ball hard. Longer-tenured Jays Justin Smoak and Josh Donaldson, as well as former Jays Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, all rank towards the top of the hard contact leaderboards.
|Average Exit Velocity Since 2015||MLB Rank||Hard Contact% Since 2015||MLB Rank|
|Josh Donaldson||91.8 mph||9||38.2%||31|
|Randal Grichuk||90.8 mph||24||39.2%||21|
|Justin Smoak||90.4 mph||34||38.6%||26|
|Kendrys Morales||91.9 mph||7||35%||38|
|MLB Average||87.28 mph||31.8%|
Part of being a good hitter involves hitting the ball with authority—the harder you hit the baseball, the higher the probability that batted ball won’t be turned into an out. Exit velocity and hard contact leaderboards are generally populated with some of baseball’s best hitters, so it’s not a surprise to see someone like Josh Donaldson on this list. But Grichuk, Smoak and Morales, while certainly not top-tier hitters, have all posted average exit velocities higher than many more accomplished hitters. Superstars Bryce Harper (51), Joey Votto (113), Kris Bryant (120) and Jose Altuve (224) all rank lower than those four Blue Jay sluggers in average exit velocity since 2015, and all four Jays are decidedly above MLB hard-contact averages.
Barrels per plate appearance, a stat that tracks how frequently a hitter strikes the baseball squarely by comparing batted balls with similar exit velocities and launch angles, shows similarly positive results:
|2017 Barrels/PA||MLB Rank|
Do such strong hard contact rates suggest that there is potential for growth for hitters like Grichuk and Hernandez, then, despite the flaws in their profiles? In an interview with Sportsnet, Ross Atkins mentioned that the Blue Jays internal metrics view Grichuk more favorably than some industry-wide metrics, specifically his ability to hit more home runs. The same was said about Kendrys Morales’ move to Toronto before last season.
As we saw with Morales, adjustments may need to happen before the Jays can make the most of their hardest hitters. For as hard as Morales hits the ball, he hits groundballs almost 50 percent of the time, more than almost any power hitter. Grichuk and Hernandez can do damage when they connect, but they both posted strikeout rates north of 30 percent in 2017. We have seen the high-strikeout, power-hitting approach work before, but players with this profile typically need to walk far more than Grichuk and Hernandez do to compensate for their strikeout-prone ways. Aaron Judge, Joey Gallo and Miguel Sano, all players with similarly high strikeout rates, walked over 11 percent of the time last season; Grichuk and Hernandez posted walk rates of 5.9 and 6.3 percent, respectively.
Justin Smoak’s stellar 2017 could provide clues to how hard contact can lead to a breakout. Almost no one anticipated Smoak’s All-Star 2017 season. The biggest change for Smoak was a reduced strikeout rate (20.1 percent, down from 32.8 percent in 2016), but his consistent ability to hit the ball hard enabled him to do more damage with the extra baseballs he put in play. Do the Jays envision being able to make similar changes working with Grichuk and Hernandez? Does Morales have another level to his game?
Atkins and company likely won’t publicly reveal whether their internal metrics do indeed make hard contact a priority, but looking at the offensive profile of players the Blue Jays have brought into the organization, hard contact does appear to be the most significant redeeming quality of several key acquisition targets—and their biggest breakout player of 2017.
There are many elements involved in every player transaction. Some players that Ross Atkins has acquired don’t fit the hard contact profile at all—Yangervis Solarte’s exit velocity and barrel numbers are far more in middle of the pack. It could be as simple as the Jays missing out on other players they had been targeting, as was the case with CC Sabathia and Christian Yelich. They could like the speed and athleticism of players like Grichuk, or they could have been looking for cost certainty that comes with signing a player like Morales.
If the Blue Jays do internally view quality of contact as a means to find value on the trade and free agent market, the team could be an early adapter, able to take advantage of a new inefficiency. That’s what appears to have happened with Justin Smoak. If they are wrong, they could be illuminating some of the flaws in statistics like barrels and exit velocity as measures of a player’s offensive abilities.
Lead Photo © Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports