I can’t recall when I first heard that a speedy hitter should beat the ball into the ground and run like hell, but it’s one of those things that we just commonly accept as fact. The speedy guy on the roster should create havoc and cause the defense to make a mistake, because hitting the ball in the air is a sure out that doesn’t allow the hitter to take advantage of his speed.
Unfortunately, this is not always the best course of action. The Twins attempted to do this with Carlos Gomez, which was disastrous. Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner—currently the 13th-fastest player in the major leagues—was quoted last year that he would tell anyone to “shut up” if they told him to slap the ball on the ground. With the increase in power in MLB, hitting the ball on the ground should really only be reserved for those that can’t hit for power even with a juiced baseball, like Billy Hamilton (the fastest major leaguer) or Mallex Smith (tied for 10th-fastest).
Based off his minor league numbers and what we saw briefly last year, Buxton can clearly hit for power. However, he’s running just an .094 isolated power this season as he’s been working to overcome a disastrous start (.105/.177/.140 through April 24th, .261/.332/.369 since).
Launch angles are the rage right now, so let’s take a look at Buxton’s.
To the untrained eye, this doesn’t look that bad. After all, it looks like there’s a bunch of line drives, and the numbers agree (23.9% of batted balls for Buxton, while the major league average is 20.3%). However, we also see plenty of fly balls, two narrow slivers of grounders, and a sliver representing the absolute worst type of batted ball you could generate: the popup. Regarding the other spray types, Buxton has a 40.4% groundball rate (major league average: 44.1%) and a 20.9% infield fly rate (major league average: 9.6%). The groundball rate being lower than the major league rate isn’t all that concerning to me because the true problem lies with those popups. They’re only behind strikeouts as the highest conversion rate into an out, and the fact that a speedster like Buxton is hitting so many of them is troubling, especially when he’s not hitting for power, either.
So, it’s clear that ridding his profile of those infield flies would be beneficial to his game. This is where we come back to having him hit more balls on the ground. We’ve all been taught at some point that if you’re fast, you should hit grounders or bunt the ball and either get a bunch of infield hits or put pressure on the defense in order to cause a misplay.
However, the belief that forcing the defense to make a play is vastly overstated. Thanks to my work at Inside Edge, one part of my job is to rate the difficulty of every defensive play on a scale, which is displayed below.
|Impossible||0%||Literally no fielder would ever catch it|
|Remote||1-10%||Caught by 1-3 starting-caliber fielders|
|Unlikely||10-40%||Caught by 3-12 starting-caliber fielders|
|Even||40-60%||Caught by 12-18 starting-caliber fielders|
|Likely||60-90%||Caught by 18-27 starting-caliber fielders|
|Certain||90-100%||Caught by 27-30 starting-caliber fielders|
For example, let’s take a look at this great diving catch that Buxton made in Detroit.
At Inside Edge, we would watch this play, then consider how many other starting center fielders (as to eliminate defensive specialists that would have been more likely to make the play) could have also caught that ball. We’d have to consider that Buxton didn’t take a good route to the ball, but his blazing speed and all-out play allowed him to make the catch anyway. The other top defensive center fielders (Billy Hamilton, Kevin Kiermaier, Ender Inciarte, Kevin Pillar) very likely catch that liner, while the average and especially the poor defenders (Adam Jones, Andrew McCutchen) most likely are watching it bounce and picking it up at the fence. Just off the top of my head, I’d say that Buxton catch was probably placed into the “Unlikely” bucket.
Anecdotally, I found that the vast majority of batted balls either fell into the “Certain” or “Impossible” categories. Fortunately, it’s possible to find data that backs up this claim as the Inside Edge defensive probabilities are publicly available on FanGraphs.
I should note that the number of plays in the “Impossible” category is far lower than the actual count. Since these are batted balls that no fielder could ever catch, it’s common for us to decline assigning responsibility to the batted ball, e.g. a line drive single that bounces 40 ft. in front of the outfielder. Also, since someone will inevitably point it out, the same is true for first basemen, second basemen, third basemen, and shortstops.
Alright, now how does this relate to Buxton? Well, if we’re wanting him to hit the ball on the ground more often, we’re thinking that as a result, the defense is going to struggle to throw him out at 1st base. However, that isn’t what actually happens. Even with his blazing speed, most of Buxton’s grounders either find a hole and end up rolling to an outfielder, or they’re right at an infielder and he gets thrown out at first anyway. Sure, sometimes the fielder has had to hurry his throw, but it’s been rare that Buxton has forced an error. Additionally, while I’m sure he’s gotten some infield hits on balls that are probably outs for other players, again I feel this is a fact that is exaggerated as his speed is probably changing “Even” plays for the average baserunner into “Unlikely” ones, for example.
Therefore, I don’t want us believing that increasing his groundball rate is going to be the elixir that rids Buxton of his struggles. Even as he’s been hitting .371/.420/.500 since the 4th of July, he’s generated grounders just 42.2% of the time. What’s actually been helpful was that he raised his line drive rate to 31.1%, which makes sense as line drives fall for hits nearly two-thirds of the time. In spite of his recent success, his sky-high popup rate (16.7% over the same time frame) is still a problem, though. Of course, hitting more grounders in lieu of those nasty popups would be helpful, but it would be beneficial for Buxton to reduce them, period. That’s the real solution for him, not necessarily to increase his number of grounders, but rather to reduce his frequency of popups (and strikeouts).