The two loveable scamps who host Baseball Prospectus’ Effectively Wild podcast, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, had a fun idea on Friday’s show: they drafted a dream home run derby team. Not just in terms of “which team would win” but which team would feature the most entertaining players? They sought entertaining players more than effective players for this hypothetical situation.
After the usual suspects (Giancarlo Stanton et al) and some off-the-board choices including football player/famous progeny Trey Griffey, Ben Lindbergh selected Munenori Kawasaki of the Toronto Blue Jays. Kawasaki is enjoying a fun run for the Toronto Blue Jays, mostly scoring points in the “antics” column. He is a solid defender at shortstop and turns in solid at bats but he is not an everyday player in the big leagues.
Which is the point of Ben’s tongue-in-cheek selection: it would be fun to see the slight, slap-hitting Japanese import swing for the fences.
As someone who joylessly drifts through life as literally as possible, it got me thinking: how might Munenori Kawasaki actually fare in the home run derby? To answer that question, I did some digging and watched him take batting practice. The results might surprise you!
Munenori Kawasaki is not a good hitter. Not anymore, anyway. During his prime in Japan, he was a high-average hitter who hit .294 for his career in Japan. He hit just 21 home runs in 3400 career at bats in the JPL.
Kawasaki has played just about every day for the Blue Jays for the past two months, hitting just .219 but posting a robust .337 on base percentage, owning mostly to his outright refusal to swing the bat at all, really.
There is a reason Kawasaki swings the bat with great reluctance – when he hits it, it doesn’t really go anywhere. His spray chart is rather hilarious, as so few of his batted balls even approach the warning track.
Kawasaki’s entire gameplan is based on keeping the ball on the ground, as his second-highest in baseball ground ball-to-fly ball ratio attests. Nonetheless, Kawasaki occasionally lofts a ball into the outfield.
When he does so, the outcome is generally bad. Or sad, depending on your outlook. ESPN Stats & Info, who provides the above spray chart, also tracks average fly ball distance. According to their measurements, Munenori Kawasaki has the 20th lowest average fly ball distance, just 253 feet per outfield fly. Most of the hitters below him on the average fly ball leaderboard are hitters very much like Kawasaki, with names like Nick Punto, Elvis Andrus, Emilio Bonifacio, Ichiro Suzuki and Brendan Ryan jumping out at me.
When Kawasaki does put the bat squarely to the ball, good things happen. Below are two examples of solid contact by the famous
mascotinjury replacment, lining extra base hits over the heads of non-believing outfielders.
Playing Kawasaki shallow the other way is probably good practice…until Muni takes one over your head!
But what does all this have to do with the home run derby? Even the well-hit balls off Kawasaki’s bat don’t threaten the fence. Fun as it might be, facing live pitching doesn’t bode well for Kawasaki’s ability to deliver the unexpected entertainment Ben & Sam seek.
Eyes-On Scouting Report
Batting practice is a strange ritual. Part warm up, part rehearsal, all players use BP differently. Some hitters choose to work on a specific part of their approach, working the other way or driving the ball to center field. Others just bomb away, seeing how many they can put into the seats and by how much.
Typically hitters take five rounds of BP, five swings per turn. With my trusty notebook at my side, I watched Munenori Kawasaki take batting practice in search of some glimmers of untapped power.
Rather than waste your time (and hours of mine) trying to stuff the pitch by pitch information into a silly, WordPress-destroying html table, allow me to report Munenori Kawasaki worked line drive back and forth across the field in his first round of BP, sending liners over the heads of an imaginary shortstop and second baseman one at a time.
In his second round, Kawasaki flashed some pop, sending a fly ball to the track in right field (his pull side). He also hit a ground ball through the second base hole and popped a pitch up over the middle of the diamond.
In his third round, Munenori let it rip with a one-hopper into the right field wall. Genuine pop! It wasn’t until his final round that Kawasaki hit another deep drive which actually reached the right field wall!
Could Munenori Kawasaki put the ball into the seats? Yes. He worked a plan in batting practice and has a highly specific approach during the game. If he really, really wanted to, he could send a few crashing into the bullpen or scraping the wrong side of the fence as required. He’s a professional baseball player, it’s really that simple. A gimmicky player as he might be, he still spends his days hitting baseballs for fun and profit.
Thinking back to the average fly ball leaderboard, the name at the very bottom of the qualified batters list is Pete Kozma, who averages just 241 feet per fly ball this season. Kozma, unlike Kawasaki, does have one home run to his name this season. He hit that home run in Arizona and it traveled 440 feet. In the air, hitting some poor bystander in the neck.
Even Pete Kozma, possibly the most pop-less player in the league this season, can turn on a fastball and hit it 440 feet into the unsuspecting lap of an observer. So could Munenori Kawasaki put everything he knows about baseball aside and smack a few dingers for fun or charity? Of course he could – scouting reports be damned.