Roll Out the Barrels: Several Cubs Among League Leaders in New Metric

When a hitter makes really good contact with a pitch, it’s often said that he “barreled it up,” meaning he hit the ball right on the sweet spot of the bat. For the longest time, the only way to judge that was by sight or sound. Then came the measurement of exit velocity, a way to measure exactly how hard a ball was hit. While it’s clear that smashing a ball on the ground or straight into the air isn’t good, I’d say a .626 batting average lends a little credence to the significance of batted-ball velo.

That in and of itself doesn’t tell the whole story, though, which is why the fine folks over at Statcast came up with a new metric called “barrels” that seeks to define exactly what kind of hit results in “oohs” and “ahhs.” Below is a video below of Mike Petriello explaining the concept, followed by an excerpt from his article on it.

A “barrel” is defined as a well-struck ball where the combination of exit velocity and launch angle generally leads to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage, though it will require a bit more explanation than that. Perhaps the best way to show what kind of batted ball qualifies as a barrel is with this image — the “Barrel Zone” is where barrels live:

The right combination of exit velocity and launch angle leads to “barrels,” the most high-value batted balls.

As you can see, the “Barrel Zone” is an area that begins at 98 mph between 26 degrees and 30 degrees, and expands outward from there. The higher the speed of the ball, the wider the range of launch angle exists for a ball to be considered a barrel. At 99 mph and up, for example, between 25 degrees and 31 degrees is “barrelled.” At 100 mph and above, batted balls between 24 and 33 degrees will always be considered a barrel, and so on, expanding as balls get hit harder. Those aren’t arbitrary definitions; that’s based on a review of all of those batted-ball types and outlining the area where you get your minimum of “.500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage.”

As you might imagine, Kris Bryant stacks up pretty favorably in this new metric. His 53 barrels this season have him tied with Chris Davis for 8th in MLB. Interestingly enough, Chris Carter is just behind them with 52 barrels and Khris Davis is a few spots above with 62. The moral of the story here is that having some form of that homonymous first name probably means you can make solid contact, with bonus points for having the last name Davis.

Bryant doesn’t look quite as good when those barrels are divided out over batted-ball events, barreling pitches at a 13.4 percent rate that has him tied for 28th in MLB. His 7.9 percent on barrels per plate appearance ranks 20th. Not surprisingly, the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez sits stop both leaderboards at 20.8 and 11.5 percent, respectively.

If hitting barrels is good for a batter, it follows that you’d want to load up on pitchers who avoid giving them up. Among those pitchers with at least 200 batted-ball events this season, Kyle Hendricks (2.3%) ranks 8th in barrels per PA. Jake Arrieta (2.4%) is tied for 9th, Jon Lester (4.7%) is tied for 15th, and Mike Montgomery (4.9%) is just behind at 16th.

Cool, cool, but what does it all mean?

Yeah, I don’t really care about all that. I just thought it was cool. I’m not nearly the stat geek that many of you are (who am I kidding, very few stat geeks would deign to read me) and I may not be looking at this the right way, but it seems like something that could vary wildly and would require a great deal of time to stabilize in terms of being useful in any predictive sense. Or perhaps it can never be used in that manner.

For my money, it’s cool to look at as an ancillary measure of which hitters are really finding that sweet spot. Using barrels as a stand-alone measure of value would obviously be silly, as you’d never put Chris Carter and Kris Bryant on the same line. Well, I guess you could if you wanted to make a really awful comparison or something. I just like being able to validate that sense of “whoa” you have when a guy really smokes a ball.

It’s done in a manner that’s easy to digest, too, which is where I think a lot of advanced/ancillary metrics fall short. I mean, just look at that sweet infographic above and tell me that isn’t something the average fan can grasp. We all know that hitting a ball well generally yields good results, but what I like here is that Petriello and Co. have simplified it and even used a bit of existing nomenclature to name it.

And lest I not give credit where it’s due, the mad scientists in the Statcast lab may not be the first or only ones to put this data together. Maybe someone can come up with a way to measure barreled-up blog posts. On second though, I’m afraid of where I’d fall on that list.

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