The Curious Case of Cameron Rupp’s Exit Velocity
At the risk of sounding like an outdated Charmin Ultra commercial, sometimes in baseball, less is more.
Take Cameron Rupp. Through 118 plate appearances in the first two months of the season, no one in Major League Baseball with at least 20 balls in play recorded a higher average exit velocity (95.7 mph).
Exit velocity is not an established science that, upon its unveiling by Statcast, magically provided the key to understanding hitting. However, several correlations have been drawn to offensive production. Like any new metric, it has shortcomings and limits to its application. In the 2015 season, when segmenting exit velocities into 5 mph ranges (90-94, 95-99, etc.), batting averages rose with each incremental rise in exit velocity. Increased batted ball speeds also correlate to increased slugging percentage.
Unlike the first two months of Rupp’s season, his exit velocities in June dropped 7.3% to 88.7 mph, 170th out of 278 hitters with at least 30 at bats. The result, however, defied the common correlations described above.
As his exit velocity began to drop, all of his offensive metrics experienced a sharp uptick. No major leaguer, not Giancarlo Stanton or Miguel Cabrera, consistently hit balls harder in the first two months than Cameron Rupp. But all the Phillies’ backstop had to show for it was a .404 slugging percentage and .140 ISO.
|Avg. Exit Velocity||PA||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||wRC+||wOBA||BABIP|
His entire slash line, and subsequent advanced metrics, skyrocketed in June. His isolated power more than doubled for Pete’s sake. More on Pete (Bourjos) in a second.
He ranked 39th in slugging percentage of 305 players with 30-plus at bats in June. He had the highest ISO of 29 major league catchers (min 40 at bats) in June, the third-highest slugging percentage (behind only single-L Wilson Ramos and double-L rookie sensation Willson Contreras), and the fourth-best wOBA, wRC+ and OPS.
Using a 40 at bat minimum allowed for Contreras—who has raked since his June 17 call-up—to be included in the sample.
His month-to-month WAR has risen from 0.1 in both April and May (20th and 28th respectively among catchers) to 0.7 in June, eighth best of any backstop. Just two month’s ago, Rupp wasn’t even the best hitting catcher on the team. Sure, he was hitting the ball hard, but he was out-slashed by 37-year-old Carlos Ruiz through April. Hitting the ball hard doesn’t mean anything if you’re not hitting it where they ain’t. Now, among catchers with triple-digit plate appearances, Rupp ranks third in slugging and fifth in wRC+ and wOBA.
The decreased velocity has also coincided with a slight increase in both extra base hit and home run rates. In April/May, 10.2% of his plate appearances ended with extra base knocks and he averaged a homer every 59 trips to the dish. In June, his XBH% rose to 13.5% and he launched balls out of the park once in every 14.8 plate appearances.
Now it’s unclear if Rupp made any significant alterations to his approach at the plate heading into the summer months. The numbers seem to insist that he has, but he may still be settling into his newly retooled swing path, an end-of-season suggestion from Pete Mackanin last fall. Initially the adjustment seemed to help, and could potentially have catalyzed his league-best exit velocity. Last season, before his offseason swing alterations, his average batted ball was hit 89.9 mph.
In early May, Philly.com beat writer Matt Breen detailed Rupp’s new swing when the catcher, through 58 plate appearances, had hit just one long ball:
Blockquote text goes hereRupp’s aim is to keep his swing down toward the ball. Instead of swinging underneath a pitch, Rupp wants to stay on top of the ball. He has already noticed this season that he can find pitches that he was helpless against last season. His homerun – which he hit on April 15 – was a high fastball. Rupp said he would have whiffed on the borderline strike last season.Matt Breen, May 15, 2016
The home run Breen spoke of was a Hellfire missile that nearly grazed the second deck in left field at Citizens Bank Park, off a 94 mph fastball up and in from Max Scherzer. Rupp’s self-assessment seems to be on point. In 2014 and 2015, he struggled to connect on balls up and in and saw markedly more success when extending his hands on the outer half.But his new swing allowed him to time up one of the best fastball pitchers in the game and drive one out to deep left, the second furthest ball he’s hit this season at a Statcast-estimated 416 feet.
Just last week against Madison Bumgarner, his furthest homer of the year cut through the San Francisco Bay air, sailing 433 feet and over the wall in dead centerfield. This pitch came in his hottest of hot zones, belt high on the outer black where he could fully extend his hands and get his weight behind the ball.
It’s a great sign that while adjusting to allow himself to attack the up and in fastball, he hasn’t lost his ability to power balls on the outer half.
For a guy that admittedly struggled on hard stuff up and in early in his career, four of his seven homers this season have come on fastballs up and on the inner half of the plate.
I brought up Gorgeous Peter Bourjos earlier. What could these two possibly have in common you ask? Other than both riding recent hot streaks, Bourjos was also recently the recipient of some instruction from Mackanin, albeit significantly less constructive than his suggestion regarding Rupp’s swing path.
As reported by Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mackanin told Bourjos, “If you don’t start hitting, I can’t play you.”
Instead of pressing at the thought of being benched for his poor offense on a poor offensive team, the outfielder’s response was to free his mind, allowing thoughts like “I’m not going to swing hard” and “I’m going to stop trying to hit” to guide him at the plate.
Bourjos reverse engineered a productive June with that anti-approach to hitting. His .410 batting average was second-best in the league behind Jose Altuve among those with 40 plate appearances. He had a higher slugging percentage than Altuve, Manny Machado, Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt. His June 190 wRC+ ranked 12th in the majors.
Could Rupp, like Bourjos, be succeeding more by doing less? Could he be focusing more on his swing and exploring the power it generates rather than trying to create that power himself with his thick lower half?
That might explain the drop in exit velocity. It’s like golf: everyone at one point or another has overcompensated and aimed way off to the side to offset a duck hook or extreme slice so the ball would theoretically find the fairway. And when you do, you inevitably crush your ball hard and straight directly where you aimed, for once. By the time you’ve gotten into your own head, you’ve already lost.
In baseball, another fickle, mentally charged sport, the same can happen. In golf, you’re reminded not to try to kill the ball, that it’s much more productive to let the club head do the work. Certainly for Bourjos, that mantra has helped revive his season.
It’s unclear what change, if any, Rupp has made that slowed his exit velocity. But, from an organizational standpoint, it may have transformed his role as a non-factor in the Phillies’ next window of opportunity into a membership in the recently formed Hamels-Giles Club for Rebuild Enhancement.
This season officially signals the end of a generation, a metaphorical whitewashing of the prior regime’s players. A clean slate. Finally. This year is a buffer year, an opportunity to play an entire season with no outward pressure and determine precisely what the team has and what it still needs.
Heading into the season, the best-case scenario was a 70ish-win team, fourth place NL East finish and trade deadline that shipped off resident old-timers Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton to further bolster the farm system. After a hot start, Morton’s torn hamstring in late April erased that possibility, and even the scarcity of starting arms on the trade block doesn’t look to be enough to make Hellickson an attractive trade candidate.
But with the impending departure of Ruiz, switch-hitting Andrew Knapp knocking at the doorstep in triple-A, and the highly touted Jorge Alfaro just steps behind, the Phils may find they have stumbled upon an unexpected and expendable trade chip in Rupp.
Coming off the second best month in his major league career, his budding offensive prowess could have sped up his own exit velocity out of the organization that drafted him in the third round in 2010.
In the catcher-strapped MLB that, according to an American League executive, may not have “thirty legitimate starting catchers,” the 27-year-old Texan may very well have played himself into a deadline swap come July 31.