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By the Numbers: Toeing the line

You can find more from Michael Salfino at Comcast SportsNet

A quarter inch on a collision between bat and ball that lasts 1/1000th of a second is all that separates a line drive from a can of corn.

The bottom-line impact is great – liners are hits about 75 percent of the time and that lazy fly ball finds a patch of grass (or goes over the wall) only 21 percent of the time. The line-drive rate overall in baseball usually holds steady at about 19 percent of batted balls, and '09 is no exception. Below we'll examine the biggest outliers relative to league average on the plus and minus side and project their performance going forward in our recommendations.

A line drive travels 100 yards in 4.0 seconds where an average fly ball to the outfield travels 98 yards in 4.3 seconds.

Consider, too, that home run hitters do not want to hit the ball perfectly square because they seek the backspin that carries the ball the optimal distance. And the great average hitters convert liners into hits by hitting just above perfectly square to get that top spin that makes the ball sink faster and thus better elude fielders.

How random might these minor variations be?

The 2009 outliers on the negative side (less than 15 percent line drives): Jose Guillen(notes) (12.9 percent), Jay Bruce(notes) (13), Ian Kinsler(notes) (13.9), J.J. Hardy(notes) (14.2), Jason Giambi(notes) (14.3), Hunter Pence(notes) (14.3), Alexei Ramirez(notes) (14.4), Mark Reynolds(notes) (14.4), Nick Swisher(notes) (14.7), Matt Holliday(notes) (14.8), Brandon Inge(notes) (14.8), Brandon Phillips(notes) (14.9) and Brendan Harris(notes) (14.9).

Positive outliers, defined as being over 24 percent line drives: Scott Rolen(notes) (27.3 percent), Kosuke Fukudome(notes) (25.8), Juan Pierre(notes) (25.3), David Wright(notes) (24.8), Pedro Feliz(notes) (24.3), Chone Figgins(notes) (24.2), Nick Johnson(notes) (24.2), Michael Bourn(notes) (24.1), Clint Barmes(notes) (24.1) and Jerry Hairston (24).

Yes, hitting a line drive requires a great degree of skill. And I will not assume luck as a major factor for the above groups. To better isolate it, let's take the above lists and see who is four percentage points or more off their career line drive rates. Then we can assume that their current performance level, whether good or bad, is less sustainable.

Only eight players from both of the above lists make that second cut and all of them are further analyzed in our recommendations below.

BUY

Jay Bruce, OF, Reds: The isolated slugging is very good (.242 difference when you subtract his average). But that .215 batting average hurts. While Bruce has significantly reduced his K-rate, that more important line-drive rate has sunk from 21.1 in '08. If he was even halfway between that range, he'd have nine more liners, about seven more hits – and still be hitting .238. But to get to 17 percent on the year, he'd have to have a 21 percent line drive rate for the remainder of the season, which would give him 48 total liners and about 14 more expected hits. That adds up to a .263 average going forward.

Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers: With 20 homers and 16 steals already at second base, no one is selling Kinsler. Just note that he's very unlikely to maintain that .253 average. Expect about .280 going forward given his career rate of liners (20.2 percent).

Matt Holliday, OF, A's: His career rate is 19.9 percent line drives and he's thus a solid bet to hit .300 going forward – especially if he gets out of Oakland, which mysteriously but consistently suppresses BABIP. But this will not correct the power outage (on pace for 16 homers).

HOLD

Jason Giambi, 1B, A's: While he does (barely) meet our threshold for being unlucky, his line drive rate the past few years is much lower than his career rate. We weight that more heavily.

Michael Bourn, OF, Astros: Bourn is a stolen base rabbit so we care not a whit about his liner rate. Ground balls will get him on base, too – and in position to run.

SELL

Scott Rolen, 3B, Blue Jays: The career rate is still above average at 22 percent. Rolen was a great hitter for sure, but isn't that anymore and forever remains an injury risk (shoulder).

Kosuke Fukudome, OF, Cubs: The career liner rate is 21.3 percent, but the MLB sample size is too small. He's only a very deep league play, anyway, given his average still stinks (.268). Maybe his liners are really sliners (soft line drives to infielders) or fliners (liners hit so square they make it to the outfielders).

Pedro Feliz, 3B, Phillies: Feliz's HR/FB rates are well below average two years running (especially adjusting for park factors): 9.2 and 5.2 percent in '08 and '09, respectively. I don't buy career .255 hitters with career 17.4 line drive rates for average and the RBI that come with it.

Michael Salfino's work has appeared in USA Today's Sports Weekly, RotoWire, dozens of newspapers nationwide and most recently throughout Comcast SportsNet, including SNY.tv, for which he also analyzes the Mets and Yankees. He's been writing "Baseball by the Numbers" weekly since 2005.

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