Hitting it high with Adam Duvall

Honestly, there’s not much baseball to talk about now, at least not in the manner I’m accustomed to.

With the regular season coming to a close, less than a month away from the Postseason and a lot of spots atop of Divisions and for Wild Cards still to be reserved, all the eyes are on such races, team against team so that winning when the other loses is double the fun and viceversa, each of your losses hurts twice as much when your competitor gets a W.

This is the perfect time to have some unfiltered fun, or what the common mortals call data visualization. No thesis, no proof, no buried truth to uncover, no player to fix this time around, just graphs, tables and colors, back to your high school desk as Italian students are going to have to in a week or so.

If you followed my past endeavours, you know my personal favorite when it comes to data viz: Balls In Play clustering. I already looked at how to group BIP allowed by pitchers, focusing on Astros hurlers such as Valdez, Javier and Greinke, but I’ve never tried the same approach with a hitter and therefore I decided to give it a go.

Who though? Well, in baseball as we know it, 2020s style, there’s nothing better than a Barrel, which is a combination of a ball hit hard, 95 mph+, and at the right launch angle so that the small white sphere can fly over the wall for a bomb or at least long enough to do damage without being caught for an out.

Hitting the ball hard isn’t really the issue though, many batters are really good at it and can’t buy a HR for the life of them, so it all comes down to hitting hit in the right LA, the so called loft on a swing that sends a ball on an upward trajectory, a strength/distance combination that leads to optimal results.

When it comes to hitting it high, no one does it better than Adam Duvall!

A Red, Brave, Marlin and Brave again, he’s nothing short of a known quantity in today’s baseball, a death and taxes kind of player: low AVG, low OBP with a ton of Ks and few walks but also resounding 30–40 HR pop, above average speed and Gold Glove caliber defense, a 4 tool player that lacks plate discipline to be a star, see Avisail Garcia.

This year he’s at it again: no one hits more flyballs than him, a 53% FB with decent pull tendency; no one hits balls on a higher avgLA, 24° which is 2 more than flyball enthusiast Austin Meadows; he’s also barreling at a precious 14.6% and averaging 90 mph EV on balls he makes contact with.

On a season he started in Miami to then be a part of Atlanta’s outfield overhaul, he’s punching his usual ticket: .227/.283/.486 with 31 bombs and a ghastly 33/140 walks to strikeouts ratio, almost a 90th percentile in both Sprint Speed and OAA, accounting for a total 2 WAR, yet another solid season for what is now a steady performer in his modus operandi.

To see how he’s hitting the ball in more depth, Savant offers a Batted Ball table with all kinds of specs:

Though, if I might say so, numbers are sexier if put on a graph, easier to digest and prettier for all eyes to see, not only for saberists and stats aficionados but for the whole audience to marvel at.

With that in mind I downloaded all of Duvall’s BIP in old reliable csv format straight from Savant and started my clustering. Icymi, I only consider three variables to cluster Balls In Play: Exit Velocity (EV), Launch Angle (LA) and xwOBA.

First of all, how many clusters should we consider?

Well, hello old friend! K = 8 is something that keeps on coming back, as if there were really 8 and only 8 kinds of BIP in baseball whereas there are thousands, still it’s good to see persistence in such a method.

Now that we have the quantity, what about the quality of Duvall’s BIP? For that we have to play “Name the cluster” and label each one of the 8 groups given us by the clustering algorithm. A reminder: each BIP belongs to a labeled cluster but that doesn’t mean it actually respects the rules of baseball to be named so. I’m labeling according to averages in EV, LA and xwOBA so in the Barrel zone a non-barrel could sneak in and some no-doubters could be outs in cavernous parks, aka Kaufmann.

See how a no-doubter was actually an out and some barrel-zone balls got caught or only produced doubles: labeling is not a perfect science, rather just another subjective choice in a mostly subjective process that is clustering.

Not a bad spread of hits for Adam: his barrel zone + no doubters checks at over 20%, so more than 1/5 of his BIP are crushed on average. A flyball hitter indeed, he grounds only 24% of his BIP, lines a good 15% but has also a ton of weak outs in the air, with warning tracks + got unders almost accounting for 34% of his total.

Still, these are numbers and labels…we want meat, our cartesian plane and data points! First come, first served:

Duvall’s extreme LA shows up if you look at where the 0 in the x cuts the graph: right on the border of the barrel zone! Adam averages the precise LA that is conductive to a Barrel, which is to say that he’s got much less points on the left of his 0 LA imaginary line, albeit a good number of base hit liners, than data on the right, although a lot of them are hit at such a high LA that they go from the barrel/no doubt Eldorado to the wasteland of popups and harmless flyouts.

Is this it? That wasn’t much though, as we already knew Duvall’s FB penchant and his high LA mastery…what about pitches he feasts off? Is he a dead heat masher or a wait and see breaking ball destroyer?

Again, Savant has all you need on the numerical side of things, with Duvall’s results against Fastballs, Breaking and Offspeed, but on a micro scale, with each pitch type considered stand-alone?

Note how Duvall is seeing the usual deluge of 4 seamers (FF) and sliders (SL), making most of his BIP on those pitches while others are fewer and less put in play, such as cutters (FC) and changeups (CH). Numbers though….bleh! Graphs please!

That’s the same clustering as before with different labels, this time pitch types instead of BIP results, first off focusing on Four-seam Fastballs: against straight heat Duvall launches his cannon at a height, averaging 26° of LA so that the majority of FF are shot in the air, proficiently or not, and grounders are scarce. Also, almost half of his barrel zone + no doubters BIP are 4-seamers: Duvall can sure demolish fastballs…but what if they sink?

Not as much! That screams to me that Duvall’s bat path is kinda grooved so that the late movement of a sinking fastball eludes his barrel’s sweet spot: instead of hitting it square, he is more on top of sinkers, as they are built for, leading to less loft and more balls on the ground, although a potent hitter indeed, Duvall can send lasers all over and even land a blooper when push comes to shove.

Last but not least, what about his performance against a RHB’s worst nightmare, a slider going down and away?

Fewer BIP and less results but I wouldn’t recommend hanging a cement mixer to Duvall as he can elevate the middle-in slider pull side to the bleachers, with 7 of his bombs coming against sweepers. There’s a lot of warning tracks so adding a wrinkle seems to work against Adam, as long as the pitch is somehow located where it should.

For the techies out there, Nelson Cruz approves, you can do all in one with Shiny and his tables, parsing the whole clustering by creating an index of pitch types to select and show on screen. However this was the easiest and friendliest way of showing without showing off, clarity first.

What have we learned about Adam Duvall then? Well…nothing we didn’t knew beforehand! The man hits the ball quite hard and is the best when it comes to letting it fly, moreover his average LA is so high he’s always a threat to barrel, particularly if served dead red, so, for pitchers out there, you should think about throwing him something that moves and let him bash flyouts by defying his barrel.

Not all baseball articles are about finding a player’s weakness and fixing it, nor are they about highlighting his strengths and reasoning about them. Sometimes facts are well known and the only thing you can do is presenting them in such a way everyone can understand what the matter is.

Adam Duvall is not going to change anytime soon: he’ll keep hitting a ton of flyballs to the pull side, high arching shots going out or dying in the warning track while playing a competent if not elite defense. He’ll annoy you with strikeout parades, walk famines and he’s never going to climb much higher than the Mendoza line, still each of his ABs has serious potential for damage.

What could he do in a ballpark kinder to RHB, one with a ridicolously short LF transforming warning track outs into HRs? I’d loved to see him in Minute Maid, peppering the Crawford Boxes while playing a sneaky decent CF, but that’s maybe for another year.

In the meanwhile, enjoy his flyball show in Atlanta. High to the sky, Adam!

All stats from Fangraphs and Baseball Savant, data updated to September 4th.

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball and Korean dramas/shows. A lot of graphs, Astros related content and references.