The Blue Jays signed Kendrys Morales to a 3-year, $33 million deal, as first reported by Ken Rosenthal November 11th and made official by the club November 18th. Despite seemingly rushing out for this signing, the Jays have been otherwise quiet in free agency this off-season. What gives? And specifically, why was Morales a priority?
Dave provided an in-depth analysis of how Kendrys might perform in his most recent post “On Kendrys Morales“.
I’d like to look at this from a different perspective: what does Kendrys have over other free agents that appeals to the Jays’ front office (hint: not speed or defensive ability), and how might they apply this to other possible acquisitions?
Many Jays fans are aware of Kendrys’ power. We can confirm this with specific Statcast data from the past two seasons (summarized from Baseball Savant):
|Exit Velocity||Launch Angle|
|Btw 20-40 Degrees||26.8%||26.8%||Down|
Based on these figures, 75% of Kendrys’ batted balls had an exit velocity above 87.55 mph in 2016. Furthermore, 50% of his batted balls were at a launch angle of 12.53 degrees or higher. Somehow, Kendrys’ average exit velocity and average launch angle have managed to increase from 2015 to 2016. The last row of the table, “Btw 20-40 Degrees” is significant because this is typically the launch angle range in which Kendrys hits his home runs. Truly, that should be one of the metrics that matters most for him when combined with exit velocity, because the main reason he was brought to Toronto is, presumably, to hit home runs.
What’s amazing is how consistent he was in both years: 26.8% of his batted balls were within his home run launch angle. Kendrys’ lowest-exit-velocity home run in the last two years (it occurred in 2015) was at a speed of 94.3 mph (with a launch angle of approximately 29 degrees). Basic probability tells us that since Kendrys hits 50% of batted balls above his minimum home run exit velocity, and 26.8% of batted balls within his home run launch angle, 13.4% of his batted balls should have home run potential. That’s huge.
If we plot Kendrys’ batted-balls for 2015 and 2016 in terms of exit velocity and launch angle, we can see that while both years looked relatively consistent, 2016’s plot looks slightly less clustered. This is probably a good depiction of the increases in standard deviations of both exit velocity and launch angle. It can also be explained by the smaller batted-ball count compared to 2015 (a smaller count means fewer data points, which means more blank space in the plot and the appearance of more scattered data). Maybe, if you were to sign Morales with the knowledge that he’d be playing 81 games at the Rogers Centre, you’d want him to be trending generally upward in exit velocity and launch angle: shift all data points slightly upwards and to the right, and some of those ground-outs and line-outs could become singles, some of those doubles could become home runs, and most importantly, some of those fly-outs could become home runs as well.
But I suspect that there’s more to it than that. Statcast’s new “barrel” metric takes the exit velocity and launch angle analysis to the next level in order to measure “well-struck balls where the combination of exit velocity and launch angle generally leads to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage”. It would then stand to reason that players with more barrels are better hitters, or vice-versa, that better hitters should produce more barrels.
Let’s have a look at the top-25 (ish) players for 2015 and 2016 in terms of barrels:
|J.D. Martinez||68||1||Miguel Cabrera||72||1|
|Mike Trout||68||1||Nelson Cruz||68||2|
|Josh Donaldson||62||3||Mark Trumbo||68||2|
|Chris Davis||61||4||Khris Davis||65||4|
|Jose Bautista||60||5||David Ortiz||63||5|
|Nelson Cruz||55||6||Kris Bryant||58||6|
|Yoenis Cespedes||55||6||Mike Trout||57||7|
|David Ortiz||53||8||Evan Longoria||57||7|
|Paul Goldschmidt||52||9||Chris Carter||56||9|
|Bryce Harper||48||10||Edwin Encarnacion||55||10|
|Edwin Encarnacion||46||11||Freddie Freeman||54||11|
|Giancarlo Stanton||45||12||Josh Donaldson||53||12|
|Kendrys Morales||44||13||Chris Davis||53||12|
|Kris Bryant||42||14||Mike Napoli||52||14|
|Carlos Gonzalez||41||15||Matt Kemp||50||15|
|Jose Abreu||41||15||Justin Upton||48||16|
|Nolan Arenado||41||15||Anthony Rizzo||48||16|
|Alex Rodriguez||40||18||Manny Machado||47||18|
|Manny Machado||40||18||George Springer||47||18|
|Todd Frazier||40||18||Kendrys Morales||46||20|
|Andrew McCutchen||39||21||Carlos Santana||46||20|
|Lucas Duda||39||21||Brandon Belt||45||22|
|Matt Carpenter||39||21||Albert Pujols||45||22|
|Adam Jones||38||24||Kyle Seager||44||24|
|Anthony Rizzo||38||24||Adam Duvall||44||24|
These two lists aren’t shocking; these are the best hitters in the game and you’d think that most of these guys belong up there. What’s kind of surprising is that Kendrys Morales in the top-20 in both years and has been consistent with the number of barrels produced. (Because Statcast data is not available prior to 2015 for exit velocity and launch angle at the time of this writing, I can’t comment on earlier seasons.) What makes this interesting is that the Kendrys is not far off Edwin in this metric, and the Jays just signed him for likely half of what Edwin would command in terms of average annual value (AAV) and one or two fewer years.
This brings another interesting thought to mind: who else would the Jays pursue based on this metric?
We can see above that Edwin is ranked 11th and 10th in 2015 and 2016, respectively, and that Jose Bautista was ranked 5th in 2015 (he dropped to 97th in 2016 after producing only 26 barrels). Aside from Edwin, the only free agent on the above 2016 list is Mike Napoli (ranked 14th with 52 barrels). Napoli, however, only produced 21 barrels in 2015 (ranked 100th) while playing for the Rangers. Although Napoli has been associated with the Blue Jays through various rumours, it’s unlikely that they would prioritize him solely based on his improvement in one category from 2015 to 2016. It certainly adds fuel to the fire though.
Other Shapiro-era (non-pitcher) personnel moves of note were:
- Extending Justin Smoak prior to the 2016 season (27 barrels in 2015, 22 barrels in 2016)
- Re-signing Darwin Barney prior to the 2016 season (3 barrels in 2016)
- Trading for Melvin Upton Jr. on July 26, 2016 (8 barrels in 2015, 20 barrels in 2016 – 16 of which occurred prior to his trade to Toronto)
- Trading for Dioner Navarro on August 26, 2016 (6 barrels in 2015, 2 barrels in 2016 – both with the White Sox)
Although these moves were primarily to shore-up positional backups, it’s possible that barrels played a small part in why these players were selected (okay, that might be a reach; three of them were already Jays and had a good fit with the team, and the Upton acquisition might have been due to a mere glance into the opposing dugout). But I’m not ready to fully discount this theory yet… Smoak did receive a two-year extension before 2016, after all.
How might the barrels metric, specifically, apply to the Jays’ current positional needs? Here’s a list of available free agents by the Jays’ position needs (as of this date), with their 2015 and 2016 barrels, sorted most-to-least in 2016:
|Rickie Weeks Jr.||2||16|
|Alejandro de Aza||6||8|
Bautista or Saunders, anyone?
While barrels are an interesting new stat, they may not factor into decision-making at all, especially at the catcher position. They’re most interesting at first base and in the outfield, since they might help weigh a decision between Napoli, Moss or Pearce at first base; or Fowler, Bautista or Saunders in the outfield; or worse, Matt Joyce, Rajai Davis or Chris Coghlan in the outfield. Still, it makes you wonder about Smoak…
UPDATE: Add Chris Carter to the list of above first-basemen that might be worth considering. He was non-tendered by the Brewers in order to make room for Eric Thames.