Last week, I discussed the three players on the Miami Marlins who pounded the ball into the ground most often. The differences between them came in the strength of their swings, their ability to beat out infield hits, and their lack of pop-ups, which made their fly balls more valuable. But with Baseball Savant's Pitch F/X database, we have access to even more information than that in terms of determining how good these players are. Once upon a time, Ichiro Suzuki was deemed someone who could "hit it where they ain't" and pick up a better batting average on balls in play on ground balls than the average player. That Ichiro no longer exists, but the Marlins still have three other guys in Christian Yelich, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Dee Gordon who hit the ball on the ground a lot. Are any of them aiming their grounders better than the rest?
We have available data on a rough estimate of batted ball locations, based on Pitch F/X assessing where these balls were fielded or approximately finished its trajectory. These batted balls give us an idea as to why these ground ball kings can do as well as they have and what it may bode for the future. Location, wise, how have each of these guys been successful? To start, let's look at the locations for each of their batted balls in 2015.
Both pictures have the same Yelich chart. One thing you immediately notice is a stark difference in the ground ball distributions for Gordon and Hechavarria versus Yelich. Gordon boasts a huge number of batted balls closer to the pitcher mound or around the plate, and Hechavarria has a similar problem on his pull side. Yelich, on the other hand, has a relatively small amount of his grounders travel that short distance back to the mound or around the dish. This leads to the same conclusion that we had from last time: Christian Yelich hits the ball harder than the other two players.
But one could say that this is confounded by the problem of bunting. Both Gordon and Hechavarria were more typical bunters than Yelich was in 2015. Last season, Gordon laid down 38 bunts in an attempt to get a hit, not to mention several sacrifice attempts. Hechavarria had a small number of bunts as well. In order to filter out bunts as much as possible, I looked at ground balls that resulted in non-bunt outs, guaranteeing that only bunt singles would included in the sample.
Eliminating most bunts leaves us with a good picture of where these guys hit their ground balls. Gordon's distribution is slightly decreased to his opposite-field side, where he would lay down a decent number of butns. Meanwhile, Hechavarria and Yelich still retain a lot of their ground balls.
One thing you notice is that Hechavarria still has a large number of grounders going short to intermediate depth to his pull side. Often times, a player hitting pull-side ground balls is "rolling over" the ball, leading to weaker contact. Yelich has slightly less of that problem, with his opposite field grounders slightly more numerous. The average depth on Yelich's grounders is also further out.
Now if we look at their fly balls and line drives, might we note something of interest?
The opposite result of ground balls is preferred when you hit balls to the outfield. The ideal would be to pull more balls to the outfield than to go the other way, as power and lift is more prevalent on the pull side. In that respect, Gordon did the best in 2015 in terms of pulling the ball. He also aimed his copious number of fly balls and line drives to the opposite field further out than dead center. The majority of these balls still landed in the depth traditionally manned by outfielders, but a larger spread in the location of flies and line drives in particular should yield better results, as the ball flies towards the gaps more often. Still, hitting the ball to center field still has its benefits, and Yelich did that to a decent degree, as dead center was one of two more heavily-populated locations for flies and liners.
Hechavarria perfomed the worst in terms of outfield fly balls. The overwhelming majority of his flies went to the opposite field, meaning that too many were softer-hit than expected. There is a huge population of them close to the foul line and not nearly as many towards center or left field. This makes him far more vulnerable to a right field-leaning shift that could eat into his outfield shots.
The most power into the outfield, unsurprisingly, went to Yelich, but it did not manifest in terms of pulled batted balls. Rather, Yelich got the most distance consistently out of balls to left-center field, as he has a range of more frequently-hit balls in that area last season. That range is not commonly populated and would frequently result in hits if fielders did not position further back. Of course, given that Yelich hits many outfield flies and liners short and even more grounders through the infield, outfielders could not prepare for that kind of distribution.
Unsurprisingly, it appears in this analysis that Yelich had the best grounder distribution among the three, at least in terms of repeatable success. He hit grounders deeper into the infield than the other two and had more in the opposite field direction. Gordon did the best in terms of distributing outfield shots, giving him the best chance to accumulate hits if hit hard enough. Yelich posed the best power of the three. Hechavarria fared worst in both infield and outfield hits, making his odds of improving his batting work from last year unlikely.