The St. Louis Cardinals will likely rely on Jhonny Peralta as their starting third baseman in 2017. Do his batted ball exit velocities tell us anything about his potential for a bounce back season?
After Jhonny Peralta struggled in 2016, many St. Louis Cardinals fans called for the team to move the former shortstop and upgrade the third base position. Once it became apparent that the front office intended to keep him, Cardinals bloggers and reporters came out in full force to argue whether we should expect Peralta to return to form or continue down an age-related decline.
A few weeks ago, Brendan Dlubala made a case for why fans should expect Peralta to bounce back. Viva el Birdos noted a sharp decline in performance beginning in July of 2015, which carried into 2016. Arch Authority argued that Peralta is still an average or slightly better player with upside, which makes him a valuable starter. Dan Buffa of KSDK told us that a Peralta comeback is just wishful thinking.
I’ve even noted that starting August 2nd, when the negative effects of his thumb injury might be assumed to have subsided, Peralta hit for a .284/.337/.403 line worth a 100 wRC+ (exactly average). I held that this was an encouraging sign for his potential to rebound in 2017 with the St. Louis Cardinals.
However, all these arguments focused on results. I decided instead to examine Jhonny Peralta’s batted ball quality by sifting through his exit velocities over the last two seasons using data available at Baseball Savant.
If Peralta is declining in ability, we should see a decrease in his average exit velocities. If he is still generating hard hit balls, then some of his statistical decline could be explained by poor luck. In that case, a rebound season is much more likely.
At first glance, it appears that Peralta did experience some decline in talent this past year. His average exit velocity declined nearly 1 MPH (which is worse when considering the league average exit velocity increased) and his batting average on batted balls (BABB) dropped 46 points. I define BABB similarly to BABIP, except BABB counts home runs.
There are some encouraging signs, however. First off, Peralta’s ISO remained strong in 2016. Additionally, while his Hard% has declined three straight years, Peralta’s 32.2% Hard% in 2016 was not far off his 34.7% mark in 2013.
Furthermore, Peralta posted a GB/FB rate of 1.16 this past year, which is more in line with his season totals since becoming a more fly-ball oriented hitter in 2010. Lastly, his 24.7% line drive rate was above the MLB average.
Given Peralta’s approach at the plate, the most important batted balls for his success are line drives and fly balls. To determine how his batted ball exit velocities impacted his approach last year, I broke down his exit velocities by type of batted ball: fly balls and popups, line drives, and ground balls.
On fly balls, Peralta posted a nearly identical line in 2016 as he did the previous season. His exit velocity held steady and actually improved slightly, and both years he was above the league average exit velocity. His average launch angle was essentially the same each year. Therefore, it appears that Peralta was no worse at hitting fly balls in 2016 than he was in 2015.
On line drives, Peralta actually posted a better average exit velocity in 2016 than he did in 2015. Despite an improved average exit velocity, his BABB on line drives fell almost 60 points. This could be partly due to bad luck, but also due to a slightly higher average launch angle. However, a slightly higher launch angle on line drives is better for power numbers. Accordingly, Peralta’s ISO increased by over 50 points.
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There are indications that Peralta suffered bad luck on his line drives in 2016. His BABB was almost 50 points lower than the league average, despite posting a slightly above average exit velocity. His ISO was also below average despite his above average exit velocity and slightly higher average launch angle. While part of this is due to playing home games in a pitcher friendly park, Peralta did hit his line drives better than league average despite earning below average results.
Ground balls were the only category where Peralta’s contact quality declined. His average exit velocity on grounders dropped nearly 4 MPH and was significantly below league average. Unsurprisingly, his BABB on grounders dropped over 40 points and was also below average. Fortunately, grounders are the least important batted ball to Peralta’s approach, and he is unlikely to fare much worse on grounders in 2017.
Some are concerned with his strikeout rate moving forward, but his 17.9% K% in 2016 was below his career average. A bigger concern was a declining walk rate, which fell to 6.4% . The assumption is that, due to a slower bat, Peralta had to start his swing earlier and took hacks at more balls outside the zone. However, his 2016 O-Swing% of 27.2% was barely above his career average and was his lowest since 2009.
Overall, Peralta’s batted ball profile shows that he suffered more from bad luck than from his thumb injury or age-related decline. Peralta actually improved his average exit velocities on both his fly balls and line drives in 2016. This indicates that he would have looked like an above average hitter if he had better batted ball luck.
The St. Louis Cardinals and fans should be optimistic about Jhonny Peralta heading into 2017. If his defense can hold up at third, his bat will again add depth and potency to the St. Louis Cardinals lineup.