With spring training officially underway, the Mets and their fans are gearing up for the 2017 season; the 2016 is officially in the rear-view mirror. But before spring really gets into full swing, let’s take one last look back at the 2016 season. More specifically, let’s look at one event from 2016 that we should probably talk about.
Launch angle is a really cool stat. Released to the public in 2015 via Baseball Savant, it essentially measures the angle at which the ball comes off the bat of the player who hit it. For balls hit into play—as opposed to foul balls—a fly ball is estimated as any ball between 25-50 degrees, a ground ball is estimated as anything lower than 10 degrees, and a pop-up is anything over 50 degrees. To help illustrate this, here is a launch angle breakdown of Asdrubal Cabrera last year:
As you can see, a ball hit at 80 degrees is essentially a pop-up straight up, whereas a ball hit at -80 degrees is basically a ground ball pounded directly down. Believe it or not, in 2016, there were 48 balls hit below -79 degrees. That includes a number of balls hit below -80 degrees. Yes, it’s possible for a ball to be hit below -80 degrees. It is possible to hit a ball almost straight down and have it bounce forward into fair territory.
The lowest launch angle recorded on a ground ball in the 2016 season was “hit” by Salvador Perez at -87.44 degrees. There were some balls hit worse than this in 2015, but this was the worst in the 2016 season by a safe margin. The pitcher who induced this awful contact was the Mets’ Erik Goeddel on June 21. One way of looking at it is that Goeddel coaxed Perez into hitting the worst-contacted ground ball of the entire season. It wasn’t the slowest ball hit, and it wasn’t the shortest ball hit, but it was the most downward-hit ball from the point of contact.
It should be noted, though, that accuracy is not always guaranteed with granular data like this. There are errors, and not everything is always precise down to the millimeter. The difference between a ball hit at -80 and -60 degrees is mere inches. So whether this was actually the worst-struck ground ball of 2016 is not completely certain. That said, launch angle says it is, so we’re running with it.
Unsurprisingly, balls hit at these angles don’t usually see much success. 163 balls have been hit at or below -75 degrees in the last two years, and only 23 of those have gone for a hit, which is a batting average of .172. Only two errors have been made on those 163 plays.
And Perez is remarkably slow. Fangraphs’ speed score measures a player’s speed in one number, and in 2016 they rated Perez’s speed at 2.0, which Fangraphs classifies as “awful.” A 4.5 is considered average. Only one of those 23 hits was struck by a player—Troy Tulowitzki—with a speed score as low as 2.0 for the season they hit it in. So not many players beat out ground balls like this to begin with, but players as slow as Perez almost never do.
This is the worst-hit ground ball of the season by an extremely slow runner. This might be the easiest out of Goeddel’s career—except it isn’t.
Goeddel was charged with a throwing error. How did this happen? How did Goeddel and the Mets mess this up? Let’s have a look at what went wrong.
First of all, let’s review how we got here. Bartolo Colon had to leave this game in the first inning after being hit by a comebacker, so this was a bullpen game. Goeddel came on to pitch in the sixth, and got the first two outs without issue. Perez came up as the third hitter, and Goeddel delivered a fastball on 0-2 in this location:
That got Salvador Perez to reach for it, and he hit it completely off the end of the bat:
And that is how you hit a ball at -87 degrees, which looks like this:
The ball trickles out in front of the mound, and there is momentary confusion between Goeddel and Travis d’Arnaud about who is going to pick the ball up. Goeddel gets to it, but unfortunately, he rushes the throw and chucks the ball into the ground:
There was no need to rush this throw. Look at where Perez is when Goeddel gets to the ball. This is just a case of Goeddel’s inexperience rearing its head. He had never faced the Royals before this, and clearly didn’t know the speed of the runner, so he panicked. That said, the ball was still playable, and it got to James Loney well before Perez got to first base. It went in and out of Loney’s glove. The biggest problem here isn’t Goeddel’s throw, it’s actually how James Loney tried to play this ball:
This throw is coming from the pitcher’s mound. Loney stretches his leg towards second base and bends his knee to play it on a hop. If he had simply stepped toward the throw and actually stretched his leg, reaching for the ball, that would have been a routine play, Perez would have been out, and this article would not have been written. Fielding balls awkwardly like this was a common theme for Loney last year, as Steve Schreiber documented.
And on the broadcast, Keith Hernandez similarly criticized Loney’s fundies on this play and pointed out his odd instincts to go to a knee to field a ball:
“This is a habit that Loney has. See how he’s on his knee and not stretching? He’s getting on his knee as if he’s receiving a throw from second base. If he would have stretched towards the throw, that ball would not have been in the dirt.”
Thankfully for the Mets, this didn’t come back to hurt them in any way, as Goeddel got through the inning and they won the game 2-1. But the point still stands: Goeddel and the Mets got what was probably the worst-struck ground ball of the 2016 season, and couldn’t turn it into an out against one of the league’s slowest runners. That’s a special feat.