Los Angeles Angels utility man David Fletcher doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard, or particularly high, but he finds a way to record base hits.
David Fletcher has become sort of a cult hero among Angels fans. The memeable utility man turning into an indispensable and interchangeable piece on the roster last season, having played at least 20 games at four different positions. But Fletcher also showed he could handle himself at the plate, batting .290/.350/.384 in nearly 600 plate appearances. It’s when you look deeper into how he got his hits that an interesting story evolves.
To understand why Fletcher is a bit of a strange hitter, you need to understand expected batting average (xBA), a metric derived from Statcast data. Defined in the Statcast glossary as “the likelihood that a batted ball becomes a hit,” the statistic is calculated using the hitter’s exit velocity and launch angle, along with sprint speed, to determine the probability of a batted ball resulting in a base hit.
In simple terms, the harder a ball is hit, relative to launch angle and sprint speed, the more likely it turns into a favorable outcome for the hitter.
Last season, Fletcher’s expected batting average of .302 ranked him in the top 4th percentile of qualified hitters, according to Baseball Savant. If we were to go back to our definition of xBA, it would be logical to surmise that the 25-year-old infielder hit the ball hard in 2019, with an optimal launch angle, or made up for a lot of weakly hit balls with amazing foot speed. Except, not all of these things were true.
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Fletcher’s average exit velocity ranked in the bottom third percentile of qualified hitters last season. Not only that, but it was extremely rare for him to get the barrel of the bat on the ball for squared-up contact. His barrel percentage of 0.4 percent ranked in the bottom two percent of hitters. And while his sprint speed placed him in the top 63 percent among baserunners, he isn’t exactly a speedster out of the box.
A lot of numbers to show you that his profile as a hitter doesn’t quite match up with a player who ended the season with one of the highest expected batting averages.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with launch angle.
While a higher launch angle is optimal for players looking to slug the ball into home runs and extra base hits, a launch angle that is too high results in pop flies. There is a sweet spot between pounding the ball into the infield grass and popping it up to the second baseman.
Fletcher’s average launch angle was 9.8 degrees last season, which puts him firmly in the optimal band of launch angles to produce base hits, according to this study. While Fletcher is hitting more ground balls (his GB rate was 44% last season), and his launch angle is far below what is needed to drive the ball over the fence, he is finding lots of hits on ground balls and bloopers over the infield.
Think of it like the perfect touch, hard to duplicate, but somehow produces results.
David Fletcher’s expected batting average suggests he is hitting the ball high and far to produce lots of base hits. It turns out he is doing it another way. His above average speed and perfect placement of ground balls and bloop hits allowing him to make up for weak contact. It all resulted in an actual batting average of .290 last season, pretty close to his expected number.