The Danger of Fly Balls

Last year, I suggested that Wilson Ramos might want to try hitting the ball in the air more.

It turns out, there is a Washington National who appears to have made an effort to put the ball in the air more, but that is not Wilson Ramos. It is their soon-to-be-erstwhile shortstop, Danny Espinosa.

Last year, Espinosa rode a hot start to a .240/.311/.409 line at the end of the season, good enough for a 94 wRC+. It was his first offensive season since 2012 that you would accept from a starting middle infielder, and you’d be excused for seeing it as a sign that he might be back to his 3-win form of 2011 and 2012.

This year, however, Espinosa is scuffling to a .201/.307/.288 line that has been inflated by five intentional walks. Overall his wRC+ is down to 58.

One might look at his 23% strikeout rate and note that, while poor, it is still better than his 27.5% career mark or 25.8% 2015 rate. (His plate discipline numbers are indeed better this year than last.) One might notice a .250 BABIP compared to his .296 career number and expect improvement there. Also noticeable is a 7.0% HR/FB rate when his career mark is 12.9%. So perhaps we could expect something more like his 86 career wRC+ going forward? Or at least his Steamer projection of 79? (That is, if Trea Turner weren’t highly likely to be called up shortly.)

Possibly, but there is something else about Espinosa’s numbers that create pause: he has become a fly ball hitter. Entering this season, Espinosa had never posted a full-season GB/FB ratio lower than 1.12, but this year he has hit 37 grounders and 43 flies for a 0.86 rate.

If you hit a lot of fly balls, your BABIP is going to suffer. If those flies don’t turn into home runs, it’s a double whammy, and Espinosa is certainly getting whammed pretty good by that combination.

This is the danger of fly balls. And they could become even more dangerous if you try to hit them.

I can’t read any player’s mind, so perhaps Espinosa just happens to be hitting the ball in the air more. But ground ball and fly ball rates stabilize pretty quickly, and how you hit the ball is one of the more controllable aspects of hitting (it’s where the ball goes that’s the rub).

Espinosa has had above-average power, so why not try to convert that into extra home runs by hitting more flies?

Another way to look at hitting grounders vs. hitting flies is the target launch angle. So another way to interpret “hit more fly balls” is “hit the ball at a higher angle.” Espinosa is hitting the ball at too high an angle, and it follows that if you intend to hit more fly balls, they may well on average end up launching at a higher angle than in the past.

Monday night was the clearest example yet of this problem: Espinosa hit fly balls at 56, 59, and 61 degrees in his three plate appearances, and all three were easy outs to left field. As for the exit velocity, his contact in the air spent much of this season around 95-96 mph, which is good, but that hasn’t done any good without the right launch angle, and now he’s also down to 94.5 mph on the season when he hits the ball in the air, with Monday’s 86, 89, and 92 velocities contributing to that decline.

This turned into an analysis of why Espinosa has been struggling even more than the most pessimistic might have imagined. Perhaps there is a general lesson as well, however, beyond the well-established fact that fly balls without home runs are nigh useless.

Some players might want to pick one approach and stick with it to improve as much as possible. This is especially true if that hitter isn’t a great one, because they might not get the results they are hoping for by changing things up. Although you could argue the potential rewards for a below-average hitter are worth the risk and it just hasn’t worked out for Espinosa, one might counter that the likelihood of the change working for a less-talented hitter is quite low. (And the risk in this particular case was even higher with the hot prospect on his tail, limiting the time he had available to work things out.)

Take Ramos, a better hitter than Espinosa over the course of their careers, but not a spectacular one either. He hasn’t changed a thing in ground/fly ball terms: his 2016 GB/FB ratio is basically identical to his 2015 ratio, but his BABIP has gone from .256 to .370 and he is hitting .333/.385/.512. That won’t continue, but his ROS projected wRC+ has improved to the 90’s, when his actual wRC+ in 2015 was just 63.

Consistency in approach can produce better results with time. If you want to change things up, beware the risks. You may end up with the worst of both worlds.

You could also end up succeeding, as Leonys Martin has.



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hscer (pronounced h-s-seer) is also the Curator of MLB quizzes at Sporcle.com. You can join Dan Szymborski in following hscer on Twitter.

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