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Fun with flyball distances

By Al Melchior | Data Analyst

Matt Kemp could continue to be a frustration for Fantasy owners looking for power. (USATSI)
Matt Kemp could continue to be a frustration for Fantasy owners looking for power. (USATSI)

By now, many Fantasy owners know about ESPN's Home Run Tracker, which keeps track of home run distances and places them into "Just Enough," "Plenty" and "No Doubt" categories. This is a helpful tool when you want to know if, for example, the home run surges for Victor Martinez or Anthony Rendon might be fluky. Based on home run distances and other factors like climate and altitude, the 35-year-old Martinez appears to be the real deal, hitting just one-third of his 21 homers for "just enough" distance -- right around the major league norm. It's 24-year-old Rendon who looks like the bigger fluke, with seven of his 13 homers being of the "cheapie" variety.

Knowing home run distances helps to separate the fluky home run performances from the more legitimate ones, but what about the home runs that were just missed? Which players should be among the home run leaders, but have hit just a few too many shots to the warning track?

Baseball Heat Maps has your answer. Among other things, they rank major league hitters according to their average flyball distance, and all flies are included, regardless of whether or not they stay in the park. And your 2014 average flyball distance champion at the break is Juan Francisco (316.0 feet), who just might be among the major league leaders in homers if he could strike out about half as often.

The leaderboard makes for an interesting scan, and a quick read of the names near the top and bottom in particular give us some useful insight into some season-to-date performances. Here are just a few tidbits.

Alex Rios and Jason Kipnis rank in the bottom 60 of the 269-player list. Kipnis is hitting the ball almost 20 feet shallower on average this season, while Rios is falling just over a foot short compared to last year. Rios' average distance on his 18 home runs last year was more than 401 feet, so while he didn't typically hit balls deep, he occassionally showed he had the ability to do so. Given the large drop in Kipnis' average flyball distance, it's looking risky to assume he will have a power rebound in the second half.

Both sources raise doubts about the legitimacy of the modest power rebound we have seen from Matt Kemp. Though his Isolated Power is 34 points higher than it was last year, Kemp is barely in the top third of Baseball Heat Maps' rankings with an average flyball distance of 287.9 feet. That's not much more than last season's mark of 284.8, and a far cry from his average distance of 313.3 from 2012. That latter mark, by the way, was the highest in the majors. Though Kemp has mustered just eight home runs this season, ESPN Hit Tracker categories five of them as having "just enough" distance. In other words, Kemp may be an even longer way from recapturing his elite hitter status than his current stat line would suggest.

Fantasy owners looking for reassurance that Steve Pearce is having a true power breakout won't find it from his flyball distances. He ranks even lower than Kemp with an average flyball distance of 285.9 feet, and his average adjusted home run distance of 383.1 feet is not all that special either.

Pearce's maligned Orioles teammate, Chris Davis, looks far more poised to have a second-half power explosion. His average flyball distance of 305.8 feet ranks ninth among all hitters and is just three feet behind last year's mark. Davis will need to end his current strikeout binge, but as he has shown the last coulple of seasons, he doesn't need to be even a good contact hitter to put up big power numbers.

Jayson Werth and Wilin Rosario are both among the top 60 in average flyball distance, and Pedro Alvarez is in the top 30. Though all three have slumped power-wise in the first half, both Werth and Rosario are slightly ahead of last season's average flyball distance. That puts Werth's recent resurgence in a flattering light.

Alvarez has fallen off by just over 12 feet, but he is still among the leaders in average flyball distance, and he is striking out far less often than he has in previous seasons. The Pirates' third baseman has struck out in 27 percent of his at-bats, whereas his previous low was 33 percent. All four (including Davis) appear to present good opportunities to buy power at a discount from frustrated owners.

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