Has the Fly-Ball Revolution Begun?

Last month, I explored whether more MLB hitters will get off the ground to improve their offensive numbers. As background for that piece, I asked private hitting instructor Doug Latta, who believes in lifting the ball, why there has been resistance to the the uppercut swing. Latta’s philosophy helped two of his clients, Justin Turner and Marlon Byrd, become dramatically better hitters.

We know fly balls are much more valuable than ground balls. In 2016, batters hit .241 with a .715 slugging mark and a wRC+ of 139 on fly balls versus a .238 average, .258 slugging mark and of wRC+ of 27 on ground balls.

“You see a (Josh) Donaldson, you see a Turner, you hear people talking a little more. Now you can quantify [quality of contact]… But it’s still a small movement,” Latta told me. “The results speak for themselves, but you are taking on 100 years of thought.”

Latta noted how slow the game is to move from conventional thought, and there appears to be little change in GB/FB tendencies league wide.

But following that piece, Jeff Sullivan drilled deeper and found that, between the last two years, there were 53 qualifying hitters who lowered their ground-ball rate by five percentage points or more, the greatest change in his study. And perhaps that speaks to the beginning of a trend. Wrote Sullivan:

There does appear to be something of a present-day shift, as hitters fight back against the information advantage so many pitchers have been provided. Pitchers these days know what their pitches do, and they know where all the hitters struggle. So more hitters appear to be preparing themselves to hit the crap out of every mistake.

An important story line to follow in 2017 and beyond could be whether more hitters buy in — and whether the shift identified by Sullivan turns out to mark a more widespread a change in philosophy. Will subtle changes become dramatic ones?

The early years of baseball’s information age have favored pitchers who employed PITCHf/x and Trackman to investigate the quality and movement of their offerings, who could investigate hot zones of opposing hitters. Now, with optimum launch angles being quantified and better understood, perhaps hitters are beginning to better understand their craft and how to fight back.

Earlier today, Latta forwarded me an MLB.com story by Adam Berry on the Pirates’ growing belief in the the uppercut swing.

Has the revolution begun?

The Pirates are of interest because, as Berry notes, they have been one of the more ground-ball-oriented lineups in the game, posting an average launch angle of 10.3 degrees last season, according to Statcast, which was the 27th-lowest angle in the majors.

In my four seasons covering the Pirates, I had never heard an OPS-in-the-air philosophy articulated by Hurdle or a Pirates coach. But here’s Hurdle elaborating on the fly-ball concept from the MLB.com story:

“I do think it’s a transition lane in which the game is going,” Hurdle said. “You’ve seen some very good hitters have very good success with it. More conversations are being had analytically about it. … We’re definitely having conversations.”

So if one of last season’s most ground-ball-prone teams is buying in this spring, if perhaps 53 hitters bought in last season (as Sullivan found), we could be on the verge of a tipping point where the uppercut swing becomes more accepted and practiced. What if the sport suddenly has dozens of more players like Donaldson and Turner?

At least one team has previously tried, and benefited, from a fly-ball approach.

The 2013 Oakland A’s won 96 games in part due to a fly-ball approach, posting the top fly-ball rate on record since GB/FB metrics have been tracked. A fly-ball swing plane is especially effective against two-seam, sinking fastballs, as noted in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, which is important in an era when ground-ball pitchers have become more prized.

The A’s proved a team-wide concept can be effective. That club finished fourth in baseball in slugging (.419) in 2013, fourth in wRC+ (108), and fourth in runs scored (767).

So what happens if the entirety of MLB adopts the uppercut? Then perhaps last year’s offensive outburst will not mark something of an outlier but, rather, a catalyst for ushering in a new era when hitters struck back.

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Oblarg
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Oblarg

I’m not sure where the equilibrium is here, though. Data indicate that fly-ball hitters do best against ground-ball pitchers, and vice-versa – iirc, launch angle effects from hitters and pitchers are slightly sub-additive, but only slightly, and there’s a reasonably narrow range of launch angles that yield good results.

A league-wide shift towards a fly-ball-based hitter approach could yield more offense in a league where many pitchers attempt to induce grounders, but it could also create an opportunity for some pitchers to see more success by, accordingly, abandoning the sinking pitches and trying to induce fly balls.

This seems like it could result in a cyclic pattern, or perhaps there’s an equilibrium to be reached somewhere. I’m not sure.