One of the newest statistics available to baseball fans is Hard Hit Percentage from FanGraphs. A company called Baseball Info Solutions classifies every batted ball as being hit either soft, medium or hard. The classification is done by trained BIS scouts using video of every at-bat. They consider both the trajectory and the batted-ball velocity to categorize each hit. Because the judgement is made by humans there is bound to be a small amount of human error or bias built into the data. It is not perfect but it is a big step forward for the purpose of evaluating baseball players. This data has been available for purchase by individual stat-savvy teams for the last several years, but this is the first year it is publicly available to everyone via FanGraphs.

I assume the reason that this data is now publicly available to us is because BIS is no longer able to sell this info at high prices to individual teams, presumably because a newer, better secret metric has been developed that is now being marketed in its place. There are several companies that compile data for sale to teams, many of which are willing to pay exorbitant prices for the privilege of having access to exclusive data and metrics that can give them an edge over the competition. This hard-hit data is available to us now because something better has come along to sell to those teams.

Hard Hit Percentage, or Hard%, is the percent of batted balls that are hard hit. It is not the percent of plate appearances in which the player hits the ball hard. If the batter does not hit the ball then that plate appearance is not factored into the Soft%, Medium% or Hard% sets. That means walks, strikeouts, hit-by-pitch etc do not count for this stat. Bunts do count, so do infield flies and I believe foul-outs as well. For example, if a player had 100 plate appearances in which he hit the ball 80 times with 20 of those being hard hit balls, his Hard% would be 25%. There are some outlets who report the percentage of at-bats that result in hard hit balls, but that is not what the FanGraphs numbers that appear in this article represent.

Hard% can be used to predict future performance more accurately than batting average or BABIP. A player’s soft/medium/hard hit percentage will stabilize more quickly than his other stats and fluctuates less. So you can use it as a more accurate gauge of a batter’s true ability with a smaller sample size to work with. Hard% helps us determine if a hitter’s batting average or OPS is legitimate or if it is a fluke. Will it continue like it is, or will it get better or worse? It is another tool in the evaluator’s toolbox alongside other indicators like BABIP, line drive rate and BB/K and the other key hitting metrics. Taken together, these tools can help us separate the pretenders from the contenders. It allows us to make smarter decisions when deciding whether or not to rely on a player in the future or replace him.

For example, if a player is producing a dismal AVG/OBP/SLG slash line yet is displaying a high Hard% we can surmise that he has been hitting the ball well but the balls have been getting caught anyway. We saw that early this season when Jay Bruce was crushing the ball in April yet he had a .181 batting average and a .191 BABIP despite a 39 Hard%. I predicted then that he would soon bust out of his “slump”. (Read that article here.)

On the other side of the fence we can use Hard% to confirm that a batter simply isn’t very good. For example, one might look at Billy Hamilton’s .246 BABIP and conclude that he has been unlucky, especially considering his speed. But when you see his putrid 17.0 Hard% you are forced to admit that his woeful batting line is not a fluke nor likely to change anytime soon.

Here is a chart of all Reds hitters:

Todd Frazier 39.2 0.275 0.910
Jay Bruce 36.9 0.294 0.821
Joey Votto 35.7 0.326 0.902
Marlon Byrd 32.5 0.270 0.763
Ivan De Jesus 27.5 0.292 0.755
Zack Cozart 26.0 0.258 0.769
Eugenio Suarez 24.4 0.373 0.858
Brandon Phillips 23.5 0.303 0.683
Skip Schumaker 23.2 0.263 0.594
Brennan Boesch 22.9 0.200 0.312
Tucker Barnhart 21.8 0.274 0.679
Devin Mesoraco 19.4 0.222 0.519
Brayan Pena 18.7 0.296 0.649
Billy Hamilton 17.0 0.246 0.542
Kristopher Negron 14.1 0.188 0.403

There are 15 players in the chart sorted by Hard%. Notice how the Hard% correlates very well with OPS (On-Base Percentage plus Slugging Percentage). The players who hit the ball hard most often also have the best OPS scores. Of course OPS is considered one of the best ways to evaluate the quality of a batter much more accurately than batting average. wOBA and wRC+ are even better but that is the topic for another article.

The major league average Hard% is 28.5%. Amongst the 160 qualified hitters in the major leagues, Todd Frazier ranks 11th in Hard%, Jay Bruce is 24th and Joey Votto is 30th. The league leader is Giancarlo Stanton at 49.7%, which is five points better than the the second place hitter (J.D. Martinez of the Tigers). All the best hitters in baseball — Trout, Tulowitzki, Miguel Cabrera, Goldschmidt, Harper, Braun, Kemp, McCutchen, etc — show up on the Hard% leaderboard.

Only three players (Nori Aoki, Ben Revere and Billy Burns) have a lower Hard% than Billy Hamilton, who ranks 157th out of 160. One player who is often compared to Billy Hamilton is Dee Gordon, who appears 156th on the list, so it is possible to be an effective hitter with an atrocious Hard%. Both Gordon and Hamilton are speedsters with no power, but Gordon has a .403 BABIP compared to Hamilton’s .246 BABIP. This is partly because Hamilton hits the ball in the air twice as often (Gordon 16.5 FB%, Hamilton 38.4 FB%).

You can see that Jay Bruce’s BABIP has gone up more than 100 points in the last two months and now matches his career BABIP. Even when he was struggling in April and early May he was hitting the ball hard at a high rate of 39%. It was inevitable that his BABIP and OPS would increase when his luck evened out.

Eugenio Suarez has been very productive at the plate so far in his Reds’ tenure, sporting an excellent .858 OPS (ML average is .710). But there are some red flags in his underlying peripherals. His .373 BABIP is not supported by his subpar 24.4 Hard%. He also has the lowest line drive rate of any batter currently on the Reds’ roster. Based on his batted ball profile his BABIP should be .297, which falls very close to the league average. Moving forward we should expect Suarez to be a good hitter for a shortstop but only an average hitter overall.

Batting Average
Hard 0.700
Medium 0.400
Soft 0.150

This chart shows just how important it is to hit the ball hard. Not only is the batter more likely to get a hit the harder he hits the ball, he is also much more likely to get an extra base hit. So even if a batter does get a base hit by hitting the ball softly, it is almost always going to be a single. Extra-base hits, the kind that win ballgames, almost always require the ball to be hit hard.

Hard% is unrelated to ground ball rate, fly ball rate or line drive rate. It is possible for hard hit balls to fit into any one of those categories. You can have hard hit ground balls and softly hit line drives.

Batting Average wOBA
Line Drive 0.685 0.684
Ground Ball 0.239 0.220
Fly Ball 0.207 0.335

This chart shows why pitching coaches teach pitchers to keep the ball down in the strike zone to help keep batted balls on the ground. wOBA means weighted on-base average, a stat that is similar to OPS in that it gives batters their proper credit for each type of hit (walks, singles, doubles, triples and home runs) rather than counting all hits the same like batting average does. Line drives are killers for pitchers. Not only are line drives the most likely to be hits, they are also likely to be extra base hits. Batters hit for their lowest batting average on fly balls, but fly balls can do a lot of damage if they are not caught. Ground balls are more likely than flies to result in a hit, but they are usually singles and at worst are doubles. Fly ball hits are usually doubles or home runs.

The bottom line is that hitting the ball hard is the key to success in baseball. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone right? I mean it makes perfect sense. What is surprising is that it took so long for us to measure how often players hit the ball hard. Baseball’s new StatCast technology will soon tell us exactly how hard every ball is hit in miles per hour while also revealing the trajectory, hang time and distance. That will be another key piece to the puzzle of player evaluation.