Last week, we here at the Statcast™ lab introduced a metric called "barrels," which looks at a combination of exit velocity and launch angle to find the highest-value batted balls. You should read the entire introduction to it here, but the short version is that it's the type of batted
Last week, we here at the Statcast™ lab introduced a metric called "barrels," which looks at a combination of exit velocity and launch angle to find the highest-value batted balls. You should read the entire introduction to it here, but the short version is that it's the type of batted ball that has a minimum of a .500 batting average and a 1.500 slugging percentage. Put together, the average of all "barrels" are above .800 and nearly 3.000. It's the best thing a hitter can possibly do, and it's a skill to barrel a ball up; for example, Billy Hamilton, for all his other talents, has barreled just one ball all year.
We bring this up here because looking at these numbers have shown us two very interesting things. First, the Tigers are really, really good at doing this, which is spectacular. And two, they may be the unluckiest offensive team in the Major Leagues.
Let's explain. The Tigers are second only to the Orioles in terms of barrels hit, and remember, we're talking about the type of ball that falls for a hit more than 80 percent of the time, the kind of ball you want the offense to collect as often as possible. Individually, no one has done this more often than Miguel Cabrera, who's done it 67 times. That's a big part of why Detroit ranks so well here:
Most barrels hit in 2016
- Orioles -- 330
- Tigers -- 309
MLB average -- 237
- Braves -- 183
- Reds -- 182
As you can see, 30th-place Cincinnati has managed just 182 of them, barely more than half as often as first-place Baltimore. The numbers hold steady at the top if you prefer barrels per swing, too. We know that this is a new and unfamiliar stat, but it should be easy to understand that hitting the ball really hard at the right angle should lead to a lot of success, hence the gaudy average/slugging numbers, and that teams ought to want to do it as often as they can. It should be no surprise that the Orioles, who are leading the Majors in home runs by a lot, lead in this, too.
That out of the way, let's now look at team production on those barrels, and something extremely interesting stands out. Though the Tigers have done this very good thing more than 28 other teams in the Majors, no team has found less success on them:
Batting average on barrels in 2016
- Padres -- .888
- Brewers/Rockies -- .886
MLB average -- .823
- Angels -- .768
- Tigers -- .761
That's a huge difference -- these are the type of hits that ought to be the most productive, and the Tigers are finding less success on them than anyone else. If you look at slugging percentage on barrels, it's the second lowest. This doesn't appear to be an isolated blip, either -- last year, they had the third-lowest average on barrels.
So what gives? Yes, Detroit sluggers like Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Victor Martinez aren't exactly fleet of foot, but these are the kinds of crushed balls that shouldn't really need to be beaten out for infield singles. Is it just bad luck? Are opposing defenses positioning themselves perfectly, or are they playing at a higher level against the Tigers' hitters than they are against anyone else?
After two seasons of this, simply chalking it up to bad luck doesn't seem likely… and it's not. When the Tigers crush the ball -- and this is a good offense that does so a lot -- there's a reason they're not seeing the production that they ought to be. It's because their ballpark and its large outfield is swallowing up those hits.
Think about it this way. On the road, the Tigers are basically your average Major League team, when it comes to getting production on barrels -- their .830 average is 13th, and just about dead on to the Major League average of .826. At home, they're last, by an absurd amount, because while the 29th-best Cardinals have a .745 average on these barreled balls, the 30th-place Tigers are at just .698. It's a difference of 132 points of average between home and road for Detroit, the biggest cap in baseball. It's like Comerica is the reverse Coors Field.
Maybe it's something specific to the Tigers? Let's look at barreled balls in Detroit by all hitters, not just the Tigers' offense. It's happened 314 times, the most in the Majors ahead of only Arizona. And yet again, the level of success on barrels in Detroit is lower than anywhere else, by a whole lot. Barrels at Comerica Park have just a .710 average this year, well below the .761 you see in 29th-place Tampa Bay.
Or if you prefer looking at it in terms of just batted balls by distance, without accounting for exit speed, we can do that, too, and that helps get to the huge outfield there. Let's look at batted balls that go 400 feet or more, which almost without question means the hitter really squared it up. Major League Baseball hits .942 on those balls, and 82 percent of them go for home runs. There's actually two ballparks -- Citi Field and Safeco Park -- where every single ball hit 400 feet or more has been a hit this year. The two parks tied for lowest? Houston's Minute Maid Park, which is entirely due to the soon-to-be-removed "Tal's Hill," and Detroit, which has seen just an .847 average on balls hit 400 feet or more.
If it's easier to visualize it, then let's do exactly that. Let's look at all those 400-plus feet batted balls at Comeria Park t this year, by both teams, and it's easy to see where they die:
It's that massive center field. It's always that massive center field. Cabrera, for example, is 23-for-29 on 400-foot batted balls. All six outs have come at home. Justin Upton has 14 hits in 14 batted balls on the road when he goes 400 feet, and just nine in 13 tries at home.
Remember, it's not like Comerica is more difficult to actually square up the ball in; prior to the season, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs argued that "it does look like Comerica Park is as good an environment as there is just in terms of the hitter being able to see the baseball coming from the mound." It's also true that overall, FanGraphs' park factors do view Comerica as a roughly-neutral park.
It's just that the massive outfield there swallows up the best-hit balls. Perhaps Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer and the rest of the pitching staff is pleased with that. The offense, however, is certainly not. It's why when the Tigers' hitters do the best possible thing they can do at bat, they often get less out of it than anyone else.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.