Power Can Seemingly Come From Anywhere. So How Do MLB Teams Scout It?
Last September, Cavan Biggio connected 0 with a John Means’ breaking ball. Biggio’s uppercut swing launched the pitch into the Buffalo night sky. The ball landed beyond the right-center field fence at the Blue Jays’ temporary home of Sahlen Field. The home run was the 24th of Biggio’s short career, which totals 159 games heading into 2021.
Earlier in Biggio’s professional career, few saw him becoming a 20-homer threat. He was the son of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, but he was not a top prospect. He hit just 15 home runs in three seasons at Notre Dame, and 11 in his first two minor league seasons. Even last season, Biggio ranked in the 26th percentile for exit velocity in the major leagues.
Though not undersized, Biggio is wiry and certainly doesn’t have the form of a hulking slugger. He made himself into a solid power source thanks to a swing change, and, perhaps, a lively baseball. In the modern game, there are many stories like his.
Place yourself in the position of a scout or analyst in today’s game attempting to evaluate and project a hitter’s future power. From year to year, the ball may play differently in the major leagues, and the minor league ball has typically been less lively than the major league ball, complicating projections.
Granted, Triple-A began using the major league ball in 2019 to help prepare pitchers for real-life major league game conditions. Home run production surged by 58% at Triple-A in 2019 compared with the season before.
Scores of players have changed their swing and approach, transitioning from attempting to spray the ball around the field to over the fence. It’s hard to know who is successfully remaking their swing during an offseason. These conditions have allowed for some undersized and unlikely players to become sluggers. So how do you project power in this day and age? Which hitting skills have lost value? Which have gained?
When ballparks were larger, when players were more contact-focused, when the ball was less lively, the 30-homer hitter was rare. Now it seems like anyone, even Jose Ramirez, Alex Bregman or Biggio can become power threats. They’ve done it by optimizing their swings and maximizing their relatively modest power potential.
“These poor scouts now have this moving target,” said one American League front office executive of the home run surge. “When you evaluate (their past reports), how are you to know home runs would be up 25% or whatever it is?”
Major League Baseball announced earlier this year that the ball is going to be slightly less lively for the 2021 season. But the ball alone is unlikely to return home run rates to 2014, back before MLB Statcast allowed for launch angles and exit velocities to be easily measured.
Consider that more balls are being hit beyond 400 feet, a number increasing in each of the last five full seasons from 2,788 in 2015 to 3,934 to 2019, the last full season. Even if a few feet are shaved off of long fly balls, many of those batted balls would result in home runs. Batters are simply squaring up and forcefully driving more pitches.
But it’s the number of pulled fly balls hit between 350 and 400 feet that is so interesting. That figure has jumped from 2,907 in 2015 to 3,540 in 2019, a 22% increase. The percentage of those to go for home runs has also increased from 54% in 2015 to 60% in 2019 and 2020.
But even if the new ball returned the percentage to 54%, that’s still nearly 350 home runs added in the range between 350 to 400 feet over 2015 levels just by batters better optimizing contact. Unless the ball becomes far less lively, it’s unlikely batters reverse this trend. They know their OPS, run production and efficiency is in the air. They know ballparks keep shrinking. They know their lineup position and future compensation is at stake.
For instance, no one had any doubts about Aaron Judge’s power potential. For the 5-foot-9 Ramirez, it was a different story. He played shortstop in the minors and topped out with five home runs in a single season.
Ramirez told ESPN in 2018 of hitting 39 home runs: “No one thought I could do this.” It’s of interest how he did it. He optimized his contact. Ramirez and Bregman rank first and third, respectively, in pulling balls in the air since 2018, and they’ve evolved into that type of hitter in the major leagues.
Said the AL executive: “To go look at a guy’s batted-ball data and go, ‘Aha, he’s got it in him to morph into this other batted-ball, exit velo-, launch angle-, distribution-type,’ in today’s game, that would be super useful.”
But that’s no simple task.
'It's Their Team': Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette Have Blue Jays On The Upswing
Long hailed as the Blue Jays’ infield of the future, they are now the Blue Jays’ infield of the present.
Teams have all sorts of new, valuable data on minor league players, thanks to information generated by TrackMan and other tracking technologies.
Teams can see how players rank in comparison to their level of competition and age group and get a sense of how elements like exit velocity might grow and play in the future. But data and projection systems cannot know which players are open to, and can successfully remake their swings and approaches to add power.
The 20-80 scouting scale is based upon distribution. The executive noted game power is based upon a batter’s distribution of batted balls. But he notes that distribution can now change dramatically from year to year and from the minor leagues to major leagues based upon incentives.
A minor league player with warning-track power is incentivized to be a line-drive and gap-to-gap hitter, the executive notes. But in the major leagues, the incentives could change.
“If (they) get to the majors and the ball is flying out like crazy, it may be ideal for (them) to adapt,” one AL executive said. “I think we are seeing them adapting to the appreciation that offense isn’t won by batting average, but by OPS, run generation and the importance of a home run. There’s no longer a stigma to striking out 30% of the time. And that the ultimate hitter is not one who goes to all fields and puts the ball in play but instead creates runs.”
One NL scout who has longed to see the same ball used at all levels says the home run surge has not changed how he evaluates hitters. For him, what the added home runs and unexpected power sources mean is that the hit tool has become even more important.
“If you see the tenets of a sound swing—balance, bat speed, hand-eye (coordination)—it’s not a stretch to project a bump in power down the line,” he said. “Power always comes last.”
Power does tend to develop later.
Since 2010, the average isolated slugging percentage of major leaguers aged 20 to 25 has been .154, while those batters aged 26 to 31—which generally covers a player’s prime years—has
been .160, according to an analysis by Baseball America.
And some of the hitters who have most benefited from swing and ball changes in the launch angle era were low-strikeout hitters who had exceptional hand-eye coordination and that could manipulate their swings, hitters like Justin Turner, J.D. Martinez, Daniel Murphy, Christian Yelich and Francisco Lindor.
Perhaps the key is identifying which players can best take advantage of adjusting swing planes, optimizing their batted-ball profile and raising their power production.
“I could imagine a team that is more sophisticated,” the executive said. “Maybe they have projections given this guy’s exit velocity and age. At the major league level, if the ball is X, this guy loses three home runs, and if the ball flies like Y, a few home runs better—like Cavan Biggio or something.
“I could see teams being sophisticated enough to relate the changes in the ball to idiosyncratic launch angle and exit velocity of a particular hitter and being able to project something better out that way.”
“We’re not there, but there are a lot of other teams and analysts.”
Perhaps someone has stumbled upon a better way to project power, and who is likely to capture it. But for many observers looking on, we’ll likely continue to be surprised by who is able to add power in this era of lively balls, launch angles and a move away from traditional hitting approaches.
Power, it seems, can come from anywhere.