MLB.com defines “barrel” as a ball hit above a certain exit velocity, at a certain angle, that since 2015, has produced the average result of a .500 average and 1.500 slugging percentage. In layman’s terms, a “barrel” is a good piece of hitting.
Pitchers don’t want to give up barrelled baseballs. Batters are aiming for them. So, it stands to reason, that to be among the league-leaders in barrels is a positive thing, but doesn’t it tell us anything predictive about a player? Let’s break down a few of the most interesting names near the top of the barrelled ball leaderboard.
3 Odd Early Season Barrels Leaders
Matt Chapman, Athletics – Eight Barrels
I think its important when assessing Chapman’s start to 2018, you understand that this isn’t completely coming out of nowhere. Not only has Chapman been considered a relatively hyped prospect for some time, but he also had two pretty solid months to close out 2017.
From August 1 on, over the span of 219 plate appearances, Chapman hit to a .223 ISO and .346 wOBA – both above league average. Does that compare to the blistering .302 and .435 marks he’s put up through 17 games this season? No, yet, again, it does ground those numbers a little.
The key to Chapman’s early success, as is often the case with emerging talents, is approach. Throughout the minors and also his shortened 2017 major league season, the 24-year-old has been prone to swing and miss. To wit, he struck out 92 times in 326 plate appearances with Oakland last year. This season, over 71 PA, that figure is down to just 18.3% as Chapman’s chase rate of 18.6% is the 12th-lowest of any qualified player in baseball. Whether that will carry across six months of baseball is anyone’s guess, however, the indicators of improvement are there.
Plus, most importantly, if Chapman can keep the strikeouts to a minimum and generally make contact with pitches in the zone, that’s more balls in play and more opportunities for barrels. The raw power and launch angle are there, contact is, or hopefully was, the last hurdle for Chapman.
Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers – Eight Barrels
Barrels are not exclusively used as evidence to back up a good start for a particular hitter, they can also be deployed as a measure of reassurance. There’s not a whole lot going right in Texas this season and while, sure, Choo’s BABIP probably falls lower on the list than injuries to Rougned Odor and Elvis Andrus – let the record show that the veteran outfielder has not had the benefit of much luck to begin 2018.
Despite being inside the Top-15 of barrels, Choo left Tuesday night, after a game where he recorded his eighth barrel, batting a lowly .219 with a .222 BABIP – 114 points below a career average he’s complied over 5,700-plus plate appearances. So, while the eight barrels he’s hit account for only a small portion of his batted ball events this year, they do reflect the larger story of his early season “struggles.”
Of the eight barrels, four have left the park. In fact, all four of Choo’s home runs this season have been barrelled balls. That’s good. Yet, as we know, home runs don’t factor into BABIP. Where the misfortune really starts to show is in Choo’s barrels that have not left the yard. Though one was a ringing double, Choo has also had fly outs of 370 feet, 381 feet, and 394 feet; with the hit probability on those measured at 75%, 74%, and 60% respectively. That’s over 1,100 feet of forlorn walks back to the dugout.
The fact of the matter is, Shin-Soo Choo has been hitting the cover off the baseball to start 2018 and he’s been batting leadoff, a premium Fantasy order slot, since the beginning of April. He’s just 45% owned on Yahoo! as of Tuesday night. Don’t let the surface stats fool you. He’s worth an add, if available.
DJ LeMahieu, Rockies – Seven Barrels
LeMahieu might be the most shocking member of this impromptu barrels club – not that the Rockies’ 2B has ever been classified as anything close to a bad hitter. It’s just that LeMahieu tends to not align himself with the launch angle aspect of the barrelled ball equation.
Case and point, the only four men with a lower fly ball rate than LeMahieu from 2013 to 2017, among the 334 qualified players, are Ben Revere, Howie Kendrick, Christian Yelich, and Dee Gordon. Yelich aside, and his FB% has climbed slightly the past few years, these are not guys you generally associate with extra-base power.
This season, however, entering Tuesday night’s action, LeMahieu has seen his fly ball rate rise to 31.7% – and the barrels have come with it. Now, its hard to say if this has been a purposeful effort by LeMahieu, who has already hit five home runs in 2018, or if this is simply the result of a schedule quirk.
LeMahieu crushes left-handed pitching. He’s done so since the moment he came into the league. He did so last season on the way to a .362 average off southpaws. To LeMahieu’s benefit and good fortune, Colorado has run into a crazy number of left-handed starters this season – leaving the 29-year-old with the second most plate appearances off LHP (34) to begin 2018.
Now, while his career fly ball rates and GB/FB ratios have seen only marginal bumps when facing lefties – the power uptick is undeniable. LeMahieu has hit a home run once for every 53.0 at-bats off left-handers. That number falls to once every 91.2 when squaring-off with a righty.
Again, in a month’s time it, might become apparent that DJ LeMahieu has changed his batted ball profile in accordance with the wide-sweeping launch angle revolution currently taking over baseball. But, these barrels could also just be the makings of a favorable schedule. Either way, LeMahieu has been on fire so far.
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