ATLANTA — Take a look at the leaderboard of how often all 30 MLB teams record balls in play at 110 mph or harder. Now scroll, and scroll, and scroll. Past the Mets and the Padres and the Dodgers. Keep going, beyond the Royals, the Rockies and the A’s.
In 29th place: the San Francisco Giants.
Heliot Ramos’ home run last Saturday was their 21st such event of the year, fewer than any team but the Washington Nationals.
Simply put, the Giants don’t hit the ball very hard.
As for how much that matters, and its correlation to MLB’s worst offense for going on two months, it depends who you ask.
“Always,” manager Gabe Kapler said.
But, hitting coach Justin Viele said, “we’re not chasing it.”
Six games in the next 10 days against the Atlanta Braves will provide somewhat of a test case.
Eleven players around the league have hit more balls at 110-plus mph than the Giants have as a team, and two of them — Ronald Acuña Jr. and Matt Olson — populate Atlanta’s lineup. As a team, nobody hits the ball harder — or scores more runs — than the Braves, who have twice as many balls in play at 110 or hotter (166) than the next-closest club and eight times more than the Giants.
Kapler’s answer came in response to a question about the Giants’ sinking batting average on balls in play and how their inability to punish the baseball has played a factor. Since the start of July — a 40-game sample size — no team in the league has had less success when they make contact than the Giants’ .260 rate.
“It’s almost never exclusively just, ‘Hey, we’ve had some bad luck,’” Kapler said. “We hit the ball harder, we’re going to have more luck on balls in play.
“Balls on play that are moving faster will move through the infield faster and they’ll be caught less. You hit a ball 100 mph in the gap that an outfielder tracks down, if you hit it 107, he might not catch it. So, the harder you hit the ball, the better. The trajectory with hard-hit balls, the more likely you’re going to hit homers and doubles. It’s usually a combination of those two things when you have low BABIP.”
But there’s no getting around this point, raised by Viele.
“There’s a lot of good hitters that don’t have top-end max exit velocities,” he said.
The Marlins’ Luis Arraez, who was flirting with .400 for a while, ranks in the bottom 10% league-wide in max exit velocity. In his final season, Buster Posey’s average exit velocity was in the 35th percentile.
Look no further than Wilmer Flores, who has been far and away the Giants’ most productive hitter this season. The hardest ball he hit this season was 108.7 mph, the lowest maximum exit velocity of any qualified Giants hitter, and 94% of the league is hitting the ball harder, on average.
“If you hit it hard, great. But for me it’s how often you hit it hard,” Flores said. “I’m good with hitting it 95 every time on the sweet spot. For me it’s how consistent you can hit the ball hard. Not as hard but on average, it’ll be better results. If you can hit it hard and often, you’ll get good results. Kind of like Acuña.”
The official definition for a hard-hit ball, according to Statcast, is one that leaves the bat at 95 mph or harder.
The Giants fare slightly better there, occurring on 39.7% of their balls in play, but that still ranks 19th in the majors.
Their more favorable measures incorporate launch angle, which Viele believes is more teachable.
They rank 16th in sweet spot rate, or the amount of times they connect with a ball at a trajectory between 8 and 32 degrees. And they are tied for 11th in how often they “barrel” a pitch up, in other words, balls struck at least 98 mph and with a launch angle between 0 and 50 degrees.
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“There’s some guys that hit 113 (mph) and everyone’s like, wow, 113! But it’s a one-hopper to the shortstop or a one-hopper to third base,” Viele said. “It’s like, that doesn’t do anything. That means your swing path is probably a little bit off or you were off timing or whatever. I’d rather have guys control their launch than chase exit velos. Because I think when you chase exit velos, if I hit off the tee right now and we had a radar, my highest exit velos would be ground balls to third.”
If you ask Viele, when it comes to top-end exit velocity, some guys have it, and some don’t.
That would explain why two players — Ramos (three) and Joc Pederson (eight) — account for the majority of the Giants’ balls at 110-plus mph, while the aforementioned group of 11 mashers make up nearly a quarter of those ultra-hard-hit balls around the league this season.
“I think there’s guys who hit it hard and there’s guys who don’t hit it as hard and you just try to take good swings because when you’re on time and you take a good swing out in front of the plate, generally you’re going to hit the ball hard,” he said. “You know that with Joc and Ramos, they hit the ball hard. They have big engines and they have the speed in their swing when they do impact the ball, it’s not gonna be 105, it’s gonna be 110-115. And then there’s some guys that just have an end range, and that’s based on who they are. A lot of it is based on bat speed, too. If you naturally have a ton of bat speed, you’re gonna hit the ball hard when you connect.”