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Analyzing Batted Ball Sabremetrics & Predicting Tonight’s 2015 Home Run Derby Results

With the 2015 MLB Home Run Derby taking place this evening, I spent some time thinking through what it would take to be a top performer in this event.

The truth is, there are a number of different statistical batted-ball variables we can look at. A bunch that interest me are: average fly ball distance, average home run distance, fly ball percentage, the percentage of batted balls hit to the pull side, exit velocity and so on.

However, there are some more “intangible” or “lesser-known to the public” aspects that are more difficult for us to measure statistically. Things like having the player participate in their first ever HR Derby, potentially waking up not feeling 100% physically that day, the amount of wind that is/isn’t blowing for each particular player as their turn in the box comes. Another thing that’s actually quite interesting to think about is how a player will react to having more cameras on the field, as are elements like not wearing a helmet when batting, not having a cage behind them (typical during BP prior to game play), their BP pitcher being one that they haven’t worked with a ton, and so on.

We can take some of the data points from fine baseball resources like Fangraphs and Baseball Savant to help us look at who, from a statistical perspective, has exemplified the skills thus far in the 2015 MLB regular season that would lead us to believe they have what it takes to win (or lose) this competition.

Forbes.com has quite an interesting piece on the derby through a series of 10,000 simulations they ran leveraging all sorts of data. It’s a great read (here) and provides a fairly representative sample of how I would expect the results to look like based on the data available for us to analyze.

The new bracket & timed format this year makes things really unique for the 2015 contest. The farther you hit your long-bombs, the more bonus time you get (420+ ft is the minimum to start triggering the bonus time additions… you can find much more detail in the Forbes article as well). No longer do we have to worry about hitting as many HR before 10 “outs” happen (i.e. swings that do not result in dingers)… it’s all about hitting as many as you can out of the park within the 5 minute limit.

Let’s get down to it and have a look at the bracket for tonight’s contest:


I’ve decided to have a little fun with numbers (thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball Savant, as I mentioned above) to dissect who the numbers say, in theory, should be considered the stronger and weaker competitors for this contest.

You’re going to see Joc Pederson very high on many lists, due in large part to his average FB distance, average HR distance, pull percentage and hard hit ball percentage. In fact, he ranks in the #1 spot for each of these metrics amongst the 8 competitors.

However, Todd Frazier, Albert Pujols and Josh Donaldson all have some serious intrigue when you look at the fact they have numbers that really do rival that of Pederson in many of the key categories. For example, Pederson’s average HR distance is 427 feet, while Pujols, Donaldson and Frazier check in at 413, 412 and 408 respectively.

Frazier and Pujols hit more fly balls during the regular season as a percentage of batted balls in play… so perhaps they are better able to get under the ball with their swing profile than the youngster?

I wish I could go through every single category and competitor to dissect the positives and negatives for each, along with the reasons to and not to believe in each of them for the derby… but here are a few points I’ll make to help preface how I got to where I did with my bracket predictions:

  • Prince Fielder has the lowest pull % in the field (31.7%) – there is almost a 15 point swing between him and Joc (45.1%)… and it tends to be a lot easier to hit homers to your pull side, especially when you have to potentially go at it 3 times for 5+ minutes apiece (round one through to the end of the finals).
  • I don’t see Kris Bryant winning this thing. He’s in the lower half of HR and FB distance and his pull percentage happens to be in the lower half as well.
  • Manny Machado and his bottom-of-the-pack HR distance (393 ft) isn’t going to be enough to get this done. He’s a great hitter – and an emerging star in the majors – but his game is not about hitting dingers… it’s more of a well-rounded approach that makes him not only a budding superstar but also someone who is more likely to spray the ball around the diamond rather than pull or hit it to left-center consistently enough to win a derby.
  • Anthony Rizzo is awesome at making a ton of hard contact, but he actually has the highest line drive rate of the group (25%) with the next highest up being 19.7% (Prince). He’s another great hitter, and will get plenty of HRs in the regular season as a 30-100 profile, but I say the years of tuning his swing to be a great major league hitter at the game level is going to overtake his ability to hit a ton of bombs, instead having plenty of long, hard-hit liners that go 330-380 feet and stay in the park.

So – with that – you have the four guys that I don’t think are going to make it to the podium… and they happen to all be facing different opponents, so I’m projecting them all to miss making it through the first round.

Round One Prediction:

  • Pujols over Bryant
  • Pederson over Machado
  • Donaldson over Rizzo
  • Frazier over Fielder

That puts us in this spot for the second round…

Pederson vs Pujols and Donaldson vs Frazier

I think the pressure will get to Joc in the second round, and he’s going to lose to the veteran slugger Pujols here in what may be considered one of the bigger upsets of the derby (considering how many simulations I’ve seen where Joc is expected to be the champion).

Donaldson could do well in the second round, but the hometown guy Frazier has a better batted ball profile for a derby (#1 in FB%, #3 in Pull%, #2 in Hard hit% and #2 in average FB distance amongst all 8 competitors) and he should easily win this one.


Round Two Prediction:

  • Pujols over Pederson
  • Frazier over Donaldson

That brings us to the finals, where I think the adrenaline of playing in his home stadium, along with his stronger HR skillset for derbies (FB swing, average distance, hard hit%) will help Frazier to a title this evening.

Finals Prediction:

Frazier over Pujols

I’l be the first to admit that I’ll be incredibly surprised if these projections end up holding true to the final results tonight… but I suppose anything is possible.

But, the fact of the matter is that the baseball gods have a funny way of impacting every aspect of the game one way or another that tends to render even the strongest of statistical analysis to be useless.

In 2016, I hope to be able to put together an even richer analysis to help predict how things will go based on the batted ball profiles to an even more extensive degree. We’ll learn from this article for 2015 and tweak to make next year’s even better.

Here’s to a great first half of the 2015 season and what should be a great night of long home runs tonight. Enjoy the derby and we look forward to picking up where we left off with great daily fantasy baseball coverage in just a few short days.

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About Jared Kwart

Jared is the Co-Founder of Moxyball and is an avid fantasy sports competitor & author. Specializing in DFS Baseball, Football & Basketball, with thousands of dollars in career DFS earnings. Active player on FanDuel, DraftKings & FantasyDraft. Annual NFBC high stakes league participant. Loves his wife, his job, his dog, pizza, burgers, beer, sushi, baseball & golf.

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