On Monday night, the Chicago Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals in their first matchup since the 2015 NLDS. John Lackey took the mound for the Cubs (in dominating fashion) and squared up against Cardinals starter Mike Leake.
Heading into the game, we knew that the Cubs’ bats should and would have to do their damage against Leake by putting the ball in play, because he rarely gives up free passes.
Although the Cubs’ hitters may have many strengths (patience, getting on base, hitting for power), we know that they aren’t necessarily breaking out at racking up the hits right now, so this was something of a frustrating matchup early on. Indeed, through the first five innings, Leake had allowed no runs and just two hits, as things were apparently shaping up into into a real pitchers’ duel.
But as we now know, the Cubs are quite strong at hitting the ball with authority, and, as it turns out, they were doing so at an insanely impressive rate Monday night.
Check out some of their exit velocity data – vis á vis the Cardinals – from Monday night’s matchup in St. Louis (figures calculated via MLB Gameday/Statcast data):
The Cubs put an impressive 28 balls-in-play (to the Cardinals 18) and hit them at an average rate of 93.43 MPH. As we know from our dive into exit velocity last year, the league average rate last year was right around 88 MPH, which is probably a fair bet to be roughly league average again this year.
So, under that assumption, that means that Cubs’ batters were hitting the ball roughly 5 MPH harder than league average last night. The Cardinals, on the other hand, put just 18 balls in play all night and they carried an average exit velocity of 83.61 MPH (or about 5 MPH less than league average). So despite the appearance of a pitchers duel, the Cubs bats were actually doing a fair amount more damage than the Cardinals were, even though the results didn’t necessary reflect that early on.
But make no mistake, exit velocity is highly correlated with offensive production; and last night was a perfect example of how that plays out given enough opportunity. Even in a small sample of just one game, we saw that (eventually) if you put enough balls in play and hit them with enough authority, the hits, extra bases, and runs will begin to arrive. Ultimately, the Cubs ended up with five more runs, four more hits, and one more extra base hit than the Cardinals did. But, to be honest, it probably could have been even more.
Check out the exit velocity from three Cubs, in particular:
Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler and Jorge Soler were absolutely smoking the ball last night, but each to varying degrees of success. Despite putting three balls in play over 102 MPH, for example, Jason Heyward failed to reach base last night in his four trips to the plate (though he did show off his glove). Dexter Fowler, on the other hand, put four balls in play nearly all over 100 MPH and finished the night with two hits and six total bases (a home run and a double).
Now, some may point to the difference between Heyward’s and Fowler’s night as evidence that there isn’t as strong of a correlation between exit velocity and offensive production as I am leading you to believe. However, that would be incorrect, because 1. this is an extremely small sample that is almost completely at the mercy of BABIP, 2. over a large enough sample the correlation has been shown, and 3. good things happen when you put the ball in play with authority, even if it’s not a “hit” in the scorebook.
For example, last night, Jorge Soler came to the plate in the top of 7th inning with men on first and second and no outs. He preceded to absolutely crush a 115 MPH one-hopper to Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz, but because the ball was hit so hard (17th highest exit velocity this season), Diaz couldn’t immediately handle it. After taking some time to knock it down and pick it back up, Diaz was left with very little time to get Soler at first. So, he ultimately wound up making a throwing error that resulted in a run for the Cubs. Had that ball been hit more softly, but in the same direction, Diaz would have most likely handled it cleanly and even gotten a double play. Point being, when you put the ball in play as hard as Soler did (and Heyward has done consistently) good things can happen, even without the benefit of a hit.
Moreover, when a hitter is putting the ball in play with authority, that likely means he is seeing the ball well and squaring it up with consistency. If you were the type of fan who was getting sick of analysts using BABIP to explain away a poor stretch, exit velocity should be godsend. Now, we can combine a player’s BABIP with their exit velocity to better determine if they are actually deserving of a longer leash during a slump. For example, Jason Heyward had a .000 BABIP last night and left with no hits, but had an average exit velocity of 107.33 MPH on the balls he put in play. He had a bad night, but was really unlucky. Kris Bryant, on the other hand, went 2-4 with a .500 BABIP last night, but an average exit velocity of just 80.75 MPH. He may have had a good night, but he was probably a bit lucky on the balls he put in play.
Now, don’t get me wrong, exit velocity isn’t everything. Anthony Rizzo, for example, is a fantastic hitter, despite having a relatively mediocre average exit velocity (primarily because he hits so many deep fly balls, which also do some good things). In other words, there are plenty of ways to be a good hitter without hitting the ball like Jorge Soler or Giancarlo Stanton. But all things being equal, hitting the ball with authority is a great indicator for future success. And that is the primary use for advanced analytics and statistical discussions.
This year in general, and last night as our specific example, the Chicago Cubs have hit the ball with authority. And I expect them to continue doing so. As long as they square up opposing pitchers and put the ball in play, the hits, the doubles, the homers, and the runs will keep on coming.