This past weekend in FanGraphs’ latest edition of Sunday Notes, David Laurila highlighted that “Manny Margot Has Elevated His Profile.” Fitting the mold of the many Fly Ball Revolution posts before it, these Sunday Notes detailed Margot’s motivation to generate more lift – “hitting the ball in the air gives you more chances in the gaps” – and the changes which led to Margot’s league leading increase in launch angle in baseball’s second half. While Margot didn’t undertake a major swing rehaul, he did focus on being more selective with his swings to hone in on pitches he could drive.
It’s become clear over the last two years that many hitters can benefit by hitting the ball in the air more often, provided they can maintain adequate contact rates. Of course, adequate is relative – Joey Gallo just posted the lowest contact rate on record among qualified hitters while still being about 20% better than average offensively by both OPS+ and wRC+.
At the MLB level, the fly ball trend is easy to spot using the Statcast database hosted on Baseball Savant. For example, the median launch angle among players with at least 100 batted balls increased from 10.7 degrees in 2015 to 11.2 degrees in 2016, and again slightly to 11.4 degrees in 2017. Meanwhile, the league-wide wOBA on fly balls increased from .308 in 2015 to .367 in 2016 to .462 in 2017. If you prefer the more traditional slugging percentage, that increased from .587 on fly balls in 2015 all the way to .893 in 2017.
Whether these increases in production are due to swings that are better designed for elevation, better pitch selection on swings, or a juiced ball (most likely a combination), it is becoming increasingly clear that, for the majority of hitters, getting the ball in the air is more valuable. If that’s the case, we would expect organizations to begin implementing changes in their minor league coaching (and potentially draft strategy) to develop hitters who elevate the ball.
To examine whether the St. Louis Cardinals are integrating elevation into their developmental strategy, I made long-overdue use of the Advanced Search on mlbfarm.com. While we don’t have the detailed data for minor leaguers that I’ve grown accustomed to using for MLB analysis, we can still access basic batted ball data and a variety of stats across all levels of MLB organizations.
Based on the data and trends available at the MLB level, I identified line drives (duh) and fly balls as the target batted ball trajectories – combined, I call these “air balls.” Popups appear to be mistakes that are, generally, more random than assignable to specific swing planes. Ground balls are mistakes.
I then pulled data for every player who made at least 100 plate appearances in the Cardinals organization in both 2016 and 2017, as well as Marcell Ozuna, Max Schrock, and Yairo Muñoz. I used this data to find each player’s percentage of air balls (Air Ball%) and wOBA on fly balls in each year.
Next, I calculated the change in each player’s Air Ball% and their change in wOBA on fly balls from 2016 to 2017. I ignored wOBA on line drives because i) line drives are always good and ii) getting better results on fly balls is more likely to indicate a change toward an elevation hitting philosophy than getting better results on line drives would.
In my view, the best place to be on the chart above is the top-right. Looking there, we find that players who are, at best, fringe prospects. While this may seem counterintuitive, keep in mind that fringe players are the ones who have the most to gain by making a change. Players with a higher pedigree, like Eric Hosmer and Christian Yelich, don’t need to make a change. They’re good enough as they are to where the potential reward for a change in hitting philosophy isn’t worth the risk.
Guys like Patrick Wisdom, on the other hand, may be desperate to take a leap forward. Patrick Wisdom hadn’t been even an average hitter for his league since a stint in A-ball back in 2013. In 2017, he hit 31 home runs for the Memphis Redbirds. Granted, he struck out at a near-career-worst 29.4%, but his batted ball quality showed real promise for the first time in five years.
Luis Bandes stands out beyond Wisdom and, at a glance, appears to have a similar story. Over the last five years, Bandes has made the rounds at various levels of Rookie Ball. In 2016, he posted a wRC+ of 74 (26% below league average) as a 20 year old in Johnson City. In 2017, he repeated Johnson City and played his way into our own Kyle Reis’ organizational rankings on the back of a big power uptick.
Wadye Ynfante and Oscar Mercado stand out as players who appear to have added power without big changes in their Air Ball% or, by extension, their swing planes. For Mercado, the change was a pleasant surprise in a season which featured a position change from shortstop to centerfield. For Ynfante, the data backs up the scouting report put together by Kyle and Colin Garner of Redbird Daily.
For both Mercado and Ynfante, it will be interesting to see if they can maintain their gains in batted ball production going forward. Given that the data doesn’t imply either made significant changes to their swings, I would expect regression from each in 2018.
I also noted Dylan Carlson, who finds himself as an outlier in the wrong direction – he increased his Air Ball% by about 5% but experienced a 166 point drop in his wOBA on fly balls en route to a very averae season at the plate (101 wRC+). However, at 18 years old, he was more than 3 years younger than the average Midwest League player. While the results were less than spectacular, I’d suggest it’s a positive sign that he was able to generate more batted balls in the desired trajectories despite moving up the ladder at a very young age.
The cluster within the blue circle includes Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong, and Luke Voit. All three increased their Air Ball% and improved their results on fly balls. Based on age and exit velocity, I’d venture that Voit’s gains are the most likely to be replicated an improved upon going forward.
Finally, to Jose Martinez. Despite all the hype about how Martinez embraced the fly ball revolution, this data doesn’t show that he made any meaningful changes. I’d place him in the same category as Mercado and Ynfante, with the caveat that he’s at an age where drastic changes to an offensive profile are exceedingly rare. By all indications, Martinez raked last year and more than deserved his 2017 results. Whether he can repeat that success in 2018 remains to be seen.
Thanks for reading, and credit to MLBfarm.com, Baseball Savant, and FanGraphs for their contributions to this post.