Baseball players are smart people. Over the past few years, they’ve figured out that ground balls are actually bad, so they stopped hitting them. Players like Yonder Alonso and Francisco Lindor started hitting more fly balls and, in turn, hit a lot more home runs. The entire league has caught on to this trend as well. In fact, as many of you may know, the MLB set a record this year, hitting 6105 home runs, nearly 500 more than the previous most in 2000. Now, this also has a lot to do with the fact that the ball may or may not juiced (which it more than likely is), but nevertheless, players have learned to adapt. Although the league FB% and GB% aren’t at extremes, it is very evident by the increase in home runs that the league has shifted towards a fly-ball mentality. Jeff Sullivan did a great breakdown of this earlier in the year, where he showed that the league-average exit velocities and launch angles and are all-time highs for the Statcast era. Players are making better contact at higher launch angles, and that’s something that the league has caught on to.
Players like the before-mentioned Alonso have changed their swings completely to full take advantage of the fly-ball revolution. Their swings prey on pitchers who throw low in the zone, and because of this, pitchers have adapted in turn. Teams like the Red Sox and the Rays have led the charge in throwing high fastballs, while pitchers like Trevor Bauer and Lance McCullers Jr. have started throwing a lot more breaking balls. The intention of this post isn’t to figure out what pitchers can change in order to succeed, but what pitchers already have the skillset to embrace the current fly-ball environment. For this search, I wanted to focus on a few different things: pitchers who already throw high fastballs, pitchers who give up a lot of fly balls and soft contact, and pitchers who induce the weakest contact according to Statcast.
The league-average fly-ball rate is 35.5% and the league-average hard-hit rate is 31.8%, so I looked for pitchers with a greater fly-ball rate and a lower hard-hit rate than the league average. As for the Statcast data, I looked for pitchers who induced the most pop-ups and fly balls who also induced the poorest contact on those balls put in play. Statcast also helped me find who threw the most fastballs up in the zone. I’ll list a few of the pitchers who have already embraced the fly ball and then go a little more in-depth on some guys who can look to break out in 2018 if they continue in their ways.
One name that immediately stuck out to me is Chris Sale, who has a case to win the American League Cy Young this year. Sale lives in the top of the zone and induces a ton of soft contact, but he also has the other dimension of striking literally everyone out and not giving up many home runs. Sale’s skillset makes him one of the best pitchers during the fly-ball revolution. Below him, there are a few more established names, like Ervin Santana, Marco Estrada, and Jeff Samardzija, a group of solid pitchers who strike out a decent number of batters, but not a ton, and also have some home-run problems. That being said, all of them had an fWAR of 2.9 or higher, proving them to be successful against opponents by learning to love the fly ball. The next few names that’ll get listed off are up and coming players who haven’t had much exposure and are still adjusting to the league. I’ll be giving a short profile for each.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Ariel Miranda is, in fact, a pretty bad pitcher. I’m not trying to say he’s good, but I’m saying there are some faint glimmers of potential here. Miranda is a 28-year-old lefty who found himself pitching in what was the Mariners’ desolate wasteland of a starting rotation in 2017. Due to a multitude of injuries, Miranda started 29 games for Seattle and was, in all reality, bad. This was mainly due to the fact that he allowed an egregious 2.08 HR/9, but thankfully, we know that home-run rate fluctuates from year to year. His over-inflated HR/9 is definitely caused in part by a 52.5% fly-ball rate and a fastball with a lot of rise, but Miranda never had a HR/9 over 1.0 in the minors, so there’s a chance he can rebound and use his ability to generate soft contact in the future. In 2017, he had a below-average hard-hit rate, and according to Statcast, 5.9% of his pitches resulted in weak, fly-ball contact.
After an impressive 2016, Eduardo Rodriguez continued to succeed in 2017 despite injury. In fact, he may be the most promising of this bunch. Although he has a lower fly-ball rate than Miranda and his opponents make better contact, his HR/9 is much better at 1.25. Rodriguez also strikes everyone out, showcasing 9.83 K/9 with great stuff, including a plus change. Rodriguez has already shown he can succeed in the league and it looks like he’ll continue to do so.
Lopez was one of the key pieces in the Adam Eaton trade of last offseason. Lopez only pitched in 8 games last year for the White Sox, and although the stats weren’t super impressive, there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic. He throws very hard and throws 31.4% of his fastballs up in the zone, while also being in the upper echelon of creating weak contact. 6.78% of his pitches resulted in weak fly-ball contact, and Lopez also posted a great 27.8% hard-hit rate. If he can keep his control under wraps, while keeping the ball in the yard like he did last year, he could break out in 2018. The only thing that could be an issue are his strikeouts, but his numbers in the minors suggest those will catch up.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t even know Ben Lively was a baseball player until a day ago. Lively surprised in 2017, coming basically out of nowhere and posting a pretty average year, but I don’t think a whole lot of people even saw that coming. He didn’t strike anyone out, but he also didn’t walk a whole lot of people, and did a decent job of keeping the ball in the yard. Lively also throws the ball up in the zone and gives up 44.2% fly balls. He’s probably the most vanilla out of all of these pitchers, but the fact that he gives up below-average hard contact (30.2%) means that he could continue to surprise in this environment.
As if the Dodgers didn’t have enough exciting young players, Brock Stewart is yet another electric arm with good velocity who came up as a starter, but also could profile as a reliever. Stewart was very good at limiting hard contact; only 22.5% of his hits resulted in hart contact. That being said, he didn’t throw up in the zone very often and gave up the lowest amount of fly balls at 40%, but his HR/9 was below average at 1.05. Now, it’s debatable whether or not Stewart is a true fly-ball pitcher, but his fly balls when he gets them are very weak, so I’ll give him a pass.
It will be interesting to see where these starters go in 2018, and whether or not these assumptions actually mean anything. It could be that they’re just bad, and that hitters will just crush everything that they throw. But, I like to think that if hitters have dramatically changed their swing planes to focus on low balls and are struggling to catch up to high pitches (and when they do, the ball is hit very softly), then maybe this group will have a chance. Baseball is a game of adaptation, and fortunately for these guys, their skillsets fit that adaptation, so it will be interesting to see what 2018 holds.