MLB Hitters Are Getting Off the Ground

Last week, Travis Sawchik wrote an outstanding article titled “Can More MLB Hitters Get Off the Ground?” The article went in depth about the optimal swing plane, and about the resistance it can face within the game when a player’s thinking about trying to hit the ball in the air. Players have been instructed for decades to swing down on the ball in an attempt to generate backspin. Recent breakouts like Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner, however, can vouch for simply letting it fly. They’ve found their success from always swinging up.

For the most part, right now, the conversation is built upon anecdotes. There have been players who have changed their swings, but we haven’t seen anything reflected in the overall league numbers. Last year, the average ground-ball rate was 45%. Five years ago, the average ground-ball rate was 45%. That number seldom budges, and it does in part speak to baseball’s consistency. We aren’t seeing a reflection of a whole bunch of guys suddenly adopting uppercuts.

But then, it all depends on how you dig. It turns out there is something. A sign, if a small one, that we’ve entered a period of transition.

There’s no perfect way to research which players are or aren’t changing their approaches. In theory, more players should be changing, to try to drive the ball in the air. We did, for what it’s worth, just observe a home-run spike, so that’s of note. Power numbers just took off, but that could have more to do with the baseball. So why don’t we settle for something simple, and look at ground-ball rates? Although we have data going back to 2002, I’ll go back to only 2009, when it seems like the system became less subjective. The details are important, but I’ll try to hurry up and get to the results.

Here’s what I did: I looked at all the players who batted at least 250 times in consecutive seasons. Then I counted up the number of players who saw their ground-ball rates drop by at least five percentage points. Very easy! It’s far from perfect. For example, this misses Donaldson, since he made his changes before he had enough big-league experience. And this misses, say, A.J. Pollock, who has definitely made changes, but while still hitting grounders. This is only a simple and imperfect glance, but the most recent number caught my eye.

Between the last two years, there were 53 qualifying hitters. The previous high in the admittedly short window was 37, and the six-year average was 30. This picks up a hitter like Rougned Odor, who made hitting for power the focal point of his game. This picks up Leonys Martin and Daniel Murphy. Christian Yelich and Jose Altuve. Not everyone necessarily wound up doing this on purpose — sometimes numbers just bounce around for no reason — but it’s at least interesting to see a recent surge. It fits in with what *should* be taking place.

While the above was happening, there were 33 hitters who saw their ground-ball rates increase by at least five percentage points. The previous six-year average was 41. So, last year, there were 20 more ground-ball decreasers than ground-ball increasers. The average before was 11 in the other direction. That’s another reflection of a swing in approach. The numbers, again, are going to fluctuate just naturally, but last year there was more of a fly-ball lean, and that should catch your attention.

All it is, for now, is a single data point. It might not capture a developing trend, and that’s something we’ll just have to look for further down the road. It’s just another detail to add as we think about the present and the future of hitting in the major leagues. It definitely seems like there’s a difference between the average big-league swing and what the average big-league swing ought to be. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry, with players who are highly incentivized to be the best versions of themselves, and they’re going to get to thinking. Especially if they feel like they’ve underachieved. There are enough other success stories to look at, and with more data than ever floating around, players are increasingly open-minded. And so are the people superior to them.

When it comes to examining the greater baseball landscape, the biggest changes have to occur below the majors. Players have to be taught how to hit the ball hard in Little League, in high school, in college. There’s still a lot of lousy instruction out there, or at least stubborn instruction, and that’s nothing you can tackle overnight. Coaches tend to be set in their ways, and we’re not heading into a regular season where every single player takes a swing like Ryan Schimpf. It’s going to be a very gradual process.

But this is one way in which big-leaguers are role models. You can see how Josh Donaldson found success. You can see how Justin Turner and A.J. Pollock and J.D. Martinez found success. Though it’s true their old approaches got them all to the majors in the first place, they only became stars when they made the same general change to trying to hit the ball hard in the air. You’ve read so many of the individual anecdotes. On some level you’ve probably sensed that there was a trend. 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.

We hoped you liked reading MLB Hitters Are Getting Off the Ground by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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I got my balls off the ground last year. And that’s how I made history.