In late March the Rays struck a deal with the Chicago Cubs to bring 27-year old Harold Ramirez down south to Tampa Bay.
Harold has been a fun pick-up for the Rays up to this point, he’s slashing .294/.335/.385 (114 wRC+) across 155 plate appearances, and is the team’s nominee at DH for the All-Star Ballot.
You could say his skills as a player fall on the extreme ends of the spectrum, which is evident in his percentile sliders on his Baseball Savant page. His exit velocity and contact metrics look awesome! His plate discipline and defensive value on the other hand, not so much. His .343 xBA is the best in baseball! His chase rate among the worst.
Beyond the obvious ups and downs of Harold Ramirez’s profile, there is something else going on under the hood here, and it has to do with the specific way that the ball comes off of his bat.
Introducing the concept of batted ball spin
When thinking about how pitches are measured in the modern game, metrics such as velocity, spin rate, movement, and approach angles are all brought up often. The same can be said for batted balls. Think exit velocity, launch angle, or distance. One area that hasn’t garnered much attention (yet) in the public sphere, however, is the spin characteristics of a batted ball. While spin rate and spin axis data for thrown pitches is public and available, the same is not true for batted balls.
There is likely a world of research to be done on truly how important batted ball spin is and whether or not a hitter can control or change their tendencies. Over at FanGraphs, writer Justin Choi has begun to dig into this concept using private data from last year’s college baseball season (he highlights talented Rays prospect Kyle Manzardo in this piece too). In the article Choi states, “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what combination of spin type and amount maximizes results;” however, he does show evidence that batted balls with more backspin do outperform their expected distances.
In support of this concept, Andrew Baggarly of the Athletic also recently wrote a piece with quotes from San Francisco Giants players on how they believe backspin creates more distance on flyballs.
This is exactly where Harold Ramirez comes into play, and we can use a few batted ball examples of his to illustrate it. Take a look at this flyout of his back on June 5th against the Chicago White Sox:
While this may look like a very typical flyball, the batted ball metrics paint a much more interesting picture. This specific ball was hit at an 84.5 mph exit velocity, 24 degree launch angle, and traveled 305 feet per Statcast. Using these values we can search for other similar batted balls and compare their respective distances to the 305 feet that Harold was able to produce here.
One important side note here is that batted balls are affected by more factors than exit velocity and launch angle. Wind, temperature, and humidity are examples of how the stadium’s location and time of year can play a big role in all of this. Luckily for us Rays fans, Tropicana Field is a domed stadium and all home games are played at a balmy 72 degrees.
In order to find the most similar batted balls to Harold’s flyout above, this search was limited only to balls hit in Tropicana field. Another factor that needed to be neutralized during this search is the spray angle that the ball is hit at which can affect the sidespin (which creates hook or fade) of the baseball. So, this search was also limited to balls hit to the batter’s pull side, just like Harold’s was.
Alas, the two most similar batted balls in 2022 to the Ramirez flyout above were:
- Elvis Andrus double on 4/13: 83.8 mph exit velocity, 25 degree launch angle
- Luis Arraez single on 4/30: 83.4 mph exit velocity, 23 degree launch angle
As you can see, these balls were hit at strikingly similar exit velocities and launch angles in comparison to Harold’s, were hit to the batter’s pull side, and were also hit in games played at Tropicana field. Now, given all of the similarities, wouldn’t you think these baseballs would fly at awfully similar distances?
This is where it gets interesting. Elvis Andrus’ double only traveled 283 feet, 22 feet shorter than the Ramirez flyball, and Luis Arraez’s single only traveled 244 feet, a whopping 61 feet shy. Here are the clips of those two batted balls, if you’re interested. The Andrus double:
The difference in distances between these batted balls is drastic, and the culprit could be batted ball spin. In the Arraez clip, you can see how much topspin that ball has as it takes a sharp downward turn towards the outfield turf. Now go watch the Ramirez flyball again and observe just how much more carry it gets than the Arraez hit, which is almost surely due to the much greater backspin on that baseball.
To illustrate this point further, I expanded the search to include batted balls that were hit outside of Tropicana field as well. Sure enough, that Ramirez flyball flew further than any of the other 22 similar batted balls did this season.
Now, this is simply just one batted ball for Ramirez, so, what if he got lucky and happened to induce some unusual backspin on this particular hit?
To test this, I built a simple linear regression model, which takes exit velocity, launch angle, and spray angle and predicts an expected distance based on these three factors. I also only included data from 2022 (to ensure that only this season’s baseball is used) and from Tropicana field (to ensure that the environmental elements are all constant) in an attempt to provide the most accurate results possible.
Then, I took each of Ramirez’s flyballs (launch angles between 15 and 30 degrees, exit velocities above 80 mph) at Tropicana field this season and was able to run this regression model to come up with an expected distance for all of those flyballs. On the plot below you will see each of those expected distances plotted against the actual distances that the batted balls traveled:
The majority of Ramirez’s fly balls travel further than they are expected to based on their exit velocity, launch angle, and spray angle. In fact, only two of the nine batted balls shown above landed shorter than their expected distance. (Batted ball number 6 on this plot is the example flyout from earlier in this piece.)
It’s still early in the season, but it is starting to look like Harold Ramirez has a skill of generating an above average amount of backspin on his flyballs and line drives, thus leading to more carry.
Is this extra distance a good thing?
At first, you may think of course this is good, the more distance you can get the better. However, what about a hitter like Harold Ramirez, who hits a ton of balls at lower launch angles? What if this extra added distance is actually turning some of his low line drives into outs because they aren’t dropping in front of outfielders?
Take this lineout of his as an example:
Would most other big league hitters have seen this ball off their bat drop in for a hit? It’s certainly possible, and there’s actually some evidence that Harold Ramirez has been hurt by this exact concept.
Despite his strong start to the year, Ramirez is one of the largest underperformers in both batting average and overall production (wOBA) in baseball so far this season. Maybe that has to do with the great backspin that he generates, and how his batted balls end up hanging and finding outfielder gloves more often than most hitters experience.
When Ramirez was first acquired, one of the first takes circulating around the Rays internet world was “Wow this guy hits the ball really hard, he should probably hit some more flyballs.” And while that basic level of analysis is valid and still stands true today, it’s possible that another reason why he should lift the ball more lies in his batted ball spin tendencies.
Instead of having his line drives and flares land in the mitts of outfielders so much, maybe more flyballs would allow his strong back-spinning shots to create extra base hits falling over the heads of the fielders.
All of this is to say that hitting is complex and batted ball spin is a whole new can of worms that has barely been cracked open.
Without the hard data, there aren’t a ton of conclusions that can be drawn from this, but comparing actual versus expected distances is an interesting proxy to use. If the data ever does become public, I’d bet that Harold Ramirez turns up as a guy who generates strong backspin in comparison to the rest of the league’s hitters.