Building on my expected batting average by type of pitch analysis from last year, I’ve decided to take a look at an advanced statistic that stabilizes faster and is more predictable than batting average, and tells us much more about a player. Enter the fastball barrel board. Looking at barrel rate trends over the last few years can tell us a lot about skills growth and decline, and which hitters to take notice of. To do this analysis, I’ve compiled a list of players who had at least one barrel in both 2018 and 2019/2020 combined – 477 hitters in total – into an interactive scatter plot:
The x-axis shows the percent increase/(decrease) of barrel rates on fastballs from 2018 to 2019/20 combined. For example, you’ll see that Miguel Sano increased his barrel rate an absurd 13% in that timeframe. The y-axis shows the 2019/20 combined barrel rate on fastballs. Sano’s was 24%, nearly tops in the league. If you haven’t already looked, I bet you can’t guess who had a better barrel rate than him! If a player has a dark green circle, this means that the player has an elite barrel rate – we don’t care so much about the trend analysis. If the shade is light green, this player has an average or plus barrel rate, along with an increase in barrel rate from 2018 to 2019/20. If the shade is yellow, that player has an average barrel rate with a declining barrel rate. Finally, if you have a red circle, you should just go home, because this means the player’s barrel rate on fastballs is awful and/or they had a significantly declining barrel rate.
A few things that you should know. I’ve combined 2019 and 2020 into one data set, since 2020 was too small of a sample to analyze separately. When applicable, we can dive into massive differences between 2019 and 2020. Mystery man from above, could that be you?
I’ve decided to look at fastballs first, since fastballs have the highest barrel rate and are thrown the most (at least for now). For your reference, the average barrel rate in 2019/20 on fastballs was 8.55%, 7.18% on breaking balls, and 6.84% on offspeed pitches. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Fastballs are the fastest pitch, so if you hit one of those, the ball should leave the bat at a higher speed and create a barrel more often than typical secondary pitches.
My advice to you, the reader? Play around with it. Use the filters and have some fun. Go search for the Minnesota Twins with the “Team” filter on the right, and see how many players increased their barrel rate from 2018 to 2019/2020. Hint: it’s quite a bit. What was in the water in the Twin Cities? You can also use it to filter by position, to see where your favorite third base sleeper stacks up against the competition.
When you come back from messing around with the data, you’ll find three guys below who have high barrel rates on fastballs, and we tie them into the #DataMonster to see what helped drive that barrel rate, and then finally, look at their pitch mix to determine if, based on their results, they may see a change in pitch mix going forward.
Gary Sanchez (C – NYY)
2019/20 FB barrel rate: 25%
2018 vs. 2019/20 increase: 5%
The mystery man himself! Sanchez has a history of having trouble making contact, but absolutely mashing when the bat does meet the ball. The jump from 2018 to 2019/20 seems to be from a two MPH increase in average exit velocity. In fact, he averaged nearly 95 MPH off the bat on fastballs in 2020, which ranked tenth in all of baseball. He also dropped his launch angle from 24 degrees to 18 degrees, which is the recipe for a great barrel rate.
What doesn’t make sense is his .000 average on 30 fastballs down the middle in 2020, the chart on the left below.
I believe that Sanchez’s true colors are more in line with 2019 (on the right), which has over double the sample size of pitches. The #DataMonster shows us that Sanchez swings and misses a whole bunch, which we already knew. In fact, he ranks as one of the league laggards in that department, which we can see below. These are percentile rankings, not actual whiff rates.
On top of that, based on pitch location/type/count, he doesn’t swing at enough pitches in the zone, and swings at too many pitches out of the zone. His lack of controlling the zone resulted in a swinging wOBAcon of 9% better than all the pitches he saw, consistent with both 2018 and 2019. Unfortunately, this ranks in the bottom third of the league. Putting the finishing touches on, we can see that Sanchez’s xlwOBA (expected woBACon based on pitch location/type/count) was better than 2018 and 2019, but still ranked in the bottom quartile of the league. This solidifies his terribly low average, high slugging floor.
I’ve painted a relatively bleak picture for Sanchez. The one silver lining in his down 2020 is that perhaps as a result of having lower success on fastballs in a small sample, he saw a four percentage point increase in fastballs from 2019 (and a three percentage point increase from 2018). Based on his lack of success, this trend could definitely continue, and Sanchez could easily take advantage, since he crushes fastballs over a larger sample. Was his 2020 really bad? Yes, of course it was. However, it doesn’t seem like a true reflection of his talent, based on the underlying skills. If he continues to see an increase in fastballs, he could reemerge as a top-five fantasy catcher.
Brandon Lowe (2B/OF – TAM)
2019/20 FB barrel rate: 21%
2018 vs. 2019/20 increase: 7%
It’s important to note that Lowe had just 18 total barrels in 2018, but his monstrous fastball barrel rate is a talking point in itself. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Lowe on Fantasy Baseball Twitter, ranging from pointing out his playoff struggles to his platoon splits. However, a barrel rate in the top two percent of the league, fueled by the 21% barrel rate on fastballs, should get him ample playing time to hit 35 bombs. He posted a 94.7 MPH average exit velocity on fastballs in 2020, the same as Sanchez. That means that, according to FanGraphs hard-hit rate, he hits a fastball hard nearly half the time. And we’re worried about playing time?
According to the #DataMonster, Lowe also struggles with whiffs, as he whiffs more than Sanchez overall. In fact, he’s been in the bottom 10% of all hitters in terms of Whiff Influence (In_Whiff) for his career. This fits his swing and miss profile, given that he whiffs more than we might expect.
However, 2020 was his best season by Whiff Influence, as he was in the 9th percentile. However, he also saw the highest xWhiff of his career (11th percentile). So this suggests that since xWhiff can fluctuate a decent amount, it could trend back towards league average. If he maintains his small Whiff Influence gains, we could see his actual Whiff rate continue to improve. Maybe there’s upside here that we aren’t considering, which would raise his batting average and provide even more upside to his tantalizing power.
Finally, Lowe doesn’t see a lot of fastballs – just 47.4% in 2020, which was consistent with 2019. Based on my research last year, the average major league hitter sees fastballs about 55% of the time. So, Lowe is likely to see more fastballs in his future than less. His minor league track record suggests he can continue to lower his strikeout rate. If he saw even more fastballs, potentially by lowering that whiff rate, he could develop into a top-30 overall player.
Harrison Bader (OF – STL)
2019/20 FB barrel rate: 16%
2018 vs. 2019/20 increase: 9%
This is one of the last guys I expected to see on this list. But, here we are. Similar caveats apply with Bader as they did to Lowe, as Bader only had 18 barreled balls in total in 2018. There’s also concern that he struggles severely on non-fastballs, as evidenced by his four total barrels on secondary pitches in 2020. However, the fact that he mashes fastballs is a great sign.
So, how did Bader get here? He upped his average exit velocity on fastballs nearly three MPH, and cut down on the whiff rate drastically. His 2019 was much better than his 2020, but after seeing just 286 fastballs in 2020, I’m looking more at his 2019 success on fastballs.
Diving into the #DataMonster, Bader’s relative lack of success stems from being too passive at the dish, which has been a problem throughout his career. This is one tweak he needs to work on to stay in the lineup. Given how hard he hits fastballs, he should be able to sustain success by making this adjustment.
Finally, Bader saw about the league average in fastball usage over the past three years. Based on his success on fastballs relative to secondary pitches, we should expect a decrease in fastballs moving forward. At least, that’s what I would do if I was a team game planning for him. A decrease in fastballs could mean a lower hitting floor, which is concerning given the existing holes in his hitting profile. With that said, his superior defense, baserunning ability, and knack for hitting fastballs hard should keep him in centerfield. He’s going past pick 500 in NFBC drafts since the calendar turned, meaning there is zero risk here. If Bader simply continues to show this success on fastballs while being more aggressive in the zone, he will likely be a value by the end of 2021.
We hope you identified some players who are making you dig deeper and up your fantasy baseball knowledge. Let us know who you want us to do a deep dive on next, based on your barrel board observations!