Checking the force behind a hitter's batted balls can shed some light on a few things. For one, it can show how often a hitter is hitting the ball with authority. Once exit velocities cross into the 95+ mile-per-hour range, results start to noticeably rise. Batters hit .390 when hitting the ball with an exit velocity between 95 and 99 mph. Batting average jumps to .570 with an exit velocity between 100 and 104 mph, and .700 with an exit velocity of 105+ mph. Batted balls at high exit speeds—when they're not buried into the ground in front of home plate with a poor negative launch angle—cut through defenses more easily and go over outfield walls for home runs.
I've been intrigued by using exit velocity readings as a possible measure for hitter health. If a player is playing through a nagging wrist injury, maybe his bat control isn't quite the same, and he isn't barreling the ball up as well. Or if a player is playing through an injured quad, maybe he's getting less power from his legs in his swing, and the overall force in his swing is down.
That brings me to Michael Conforto. When a very talented baseball player goes through a prolonged stretch of very poor production, I usually wonder if he's playing with some sort of injury that the player himself or team is downplaying. The type of injury that isn't severe enough to prevent them from taking the field, but significant enough to throw something off. We saw this to some degree with Matt Harvey earlier this year. Harvey had trouble feeling the ball dating back to the end of spring training, but he tried to tough it out and ended up looking nothing like his past elite self.
We learned in the second week of June that Conforto complained of wrist discomfort and had a cortisone injection for it on June 15. An MRI revealed sprained cartilage in his wrist. Conforto told reporters that it bothered him during batting practice but not during games.
Checking in with Statcast, we can see that Conforto's high-end exit velocity has had a massive drop-off since early May, which is around the time his slump began.
|% of balls in play hit 100+ mph||% of at-bats hit 100+ mph|
|Opening night-May 3||40.3%||31.4%|
|2016 MLB average||20.1%||15.7%|
Conforto went from creaming the baseball at levels way above the average MLB hitter to resembling a league average hitter. Those exit velocity endpoints align with a dramatic difference in production. In April, Conforto had the second-best wRC+ in baseball at 198 and the 14th-best ISO at .311. Those are ridiculously elite numbers. Since then, Conforto's 59 wRC+ is on par with the worst in the sport, including the light-hitting Alcides Escobar (55), Freddy Galvis (58), and Prince Fielder (63), who just had to undergo neck surgery.
|Opening night-May 3||168||.267||.326||.404||.593||20.2%|
|2016 MLB average||96||.161||.255||.321||.416||21.0%|
There are, of course, other things in play here. Conforto's selectivity at the plate hasn't been the same. He also has not had consistent playing time, sitting against almost all left-handed pitchers, which could be disrupting his timing and development, although the Mets did mostly platoon him in 2015 and it did not seem to affect his production.
Either way, whether Conforto isn't hitting the ball with authority as often anymore because of a wrist problem or because of some other reason, there has been a noticeable drop in his high-end exit velocity, and that's something to consider.