How Masataka Yoshida is so successful without hitting the ball hard or far

Analyzing his whiff/strikeout rates, infield hits, and batted ball distribution
Boston Red Sox v Seattle Mariners
Boston Red Sox v Seattle Mariners / Alika Jenner/GettyImages

Red Sox 30-year-old rookie Masataka Yoshida has a 3.2 degree launch angle, the second lowest in all of baseball. He also has an .822 OPS, the 14th best in the American League.

This statistical combination is quite rare. Excluding the shortened 2020 season, you have to go back to 2016 to find a player with a lower launch angle and higher OPS than Yoshida. Milwaukee Brewer Christian Yelich had a 2.7 degree launch angle and .859 OPS that season.

Since Yoshida has a low launch angle and has only cranked 12 homeruns, it would make sense to assume that Yoshida makes up for his lack of power by hitting the ball hard. After all, in 2016, Yelich's 92.6 average exit velocity was the 6th best in baseball. Yet, Yoshida only has an 89.1 average exit velocity — which is the exact MLB average.

Despite his extremely low launch angle and average exit velocity, the $90 million dollar man is one of the best hitters on the Sox and is in the running for AL Rookie of the Year. How is this success possible without hitting the ball exceptionally hard or far? Let's look at a few stats that shed some light on the statistical enigma that is Masataka Yoshida.

Yoshida has helped the Red Sox by putting the ball in play and spraying hits across the field

It is rare for Yoshida to swing and miss and it is even more rare for him to strike out. Per Statcast, his whiff rate falls in the 89th percentile and his strikeout rate falls in the 96th percentile in all of baseball.

These low whiff and strikeout rates mean that Yoshida often puts the ball in play, which leads to the next fascinating statistic. Per FanGraphs, Yoshida has 21 infield hits (IFH), the most in all of baseball. These 21 IFH account for more than 17% of his total hits and have contributed immensely to his .300 AVG.

It would be reasonable to assume that Yoshida collects a lot of infield hits because he is relatively fast and able to beat out grounders. Yet, his 26.2 feet/second falls below the 27.0 average MLB sprint speed. So how does he collect so many IFH?

It appears that Hall of Famer Willie Keeler's famous quote "Hit ‘em where they ain’t" might help explain Yoshida's IFH — in addition to his high OPS. Per FanGraphs, he hits 33.8% of batted balls to the right side, 34.9% to center, and 31.3% to the left side. This is among the top five most even distributions in baseball, based on the amount of separation across the three percentages.

Even distribution is important because it makes defensive shifts less effective. Since fielders have more ground to cover, it is more likely that balls will find holes in the infield and gaps in the outfield. It also takes longer for both infielders and outfielders to get to balls in the hole or gap. This has not only allowed Yoshida to collect 21 infield hits but also 41 extra-base hits, which greatly contributes to his .822 OPS.

While his whiff/strikeout rates, infield hits, and even distribution begin to tell the story, it is still hard to fully understand Yoshida's season. Perhaps his success serves as vengeance for the fans who kept his first homerun ball. Or, this is payback for the MLB evaluators who initially criticized the Sox for the massive contract. Regardless, Yoshida's stellar rookie campaign is a satisfying reminder that modern-day players can still succeed even when launch angle and exit velo suggest otherwise.