The Reality of the Anti-Ground-Ball Revolution

Is your name Christian Yelich? If not, please stop hitting ground balls. Right now. Please. Thank you.

Christian Yelich is the only MLB player to log 2400 PAs over the course of 2014-2017, hit 55% or more ground balls and log a wOBA of .340 or higher in a single-season. And he’s done it in all four seasons.

How does he do it? He combines a league-average line-drive rate (22%) with a .270 batting average on ground balls and a 10%+ walk rate.

Sure, Jean Segura (3yr+ GB 55.9%) did it last year, but he dropped his GB rate to 53% and had a HR/FB excursion up in the 13%+ range that year.

You might point out that during the same year, Jonathan Villar managed a .356 wOBA, but he needed an even-better-than-Yelich .316 average on ground balls with a 20% HR/FB ratio and an 11%+ walk rate. We’re talking about the definition of outlier seasons.

After a quick back-and-forth with another FanGraphs reader/commenter, John Autin, in the recently published Justin Turner piece by Travis Sawchik I started wondering what sort of wOBA does each type of player carry based on the percentage of ground balls that player hits on average. But for starters, I had to understand how many players carried ground-ball rates in what ranges.

wOBA

More than half of the qualified player seasons in the last four years have come from players who averaged 40-50% GB. Of those, 65 (16%) resulted in players contributing less than a .290 wOBA. FanGraphs’ own wOBA rule of thumb page considers these seasons “awful.” This includes seasons you might remember such as “Albert Pujols’ season in progress (2017),” “Every Billy Hamilton season ever,” and “most seasons from Alcides Escobar.”

To provide a little more context, let’s view these player seasons on a 100% graph. Players who have averaged greater than 40% ground-ball rates have a 4-in-10 or better chance of producing a below-average season by wOBA standards (.310-.319 bin and lower).

wOBA2

The “Great” (.370+) seasons lodged in the 50% bin are from Eric Hosmer (2017), DJ LeMahieu (2016) and Ryan Braun (2016). Braun needed an outlier HR/FB (~29%) season, LeMahieu is one of the ten deadliest line-drive hitters in all of baseball, and Eric Hosmer, well, he’s straddling the line 5/6th of the way through the season. There just aren’t that many great hitters carrying a GB rate between 50-55%. You’re going to either need to hit a TON of line drives to make up for all those ground balls, or pound three out of ten FBs for a HR. Otherwise you’re looking at a very average offensive season a quarter of the time, and well below average another 50% of the time.

What I’ve learned is that 30-40% GBs is the sweet spot, and only a quarter of MLB player seasons from 2014 have been recorded by players in this bin. Freddie Freeman, the king of line drives, has lived in the 30-35% GB range over this time period. He’s joined by players like Lucas Duda (putting up three above-average seasons), Kris Bryant, Matt Carpenter and Brandon Belt.

Interestingly enough, Ian Kinsler might want to rethink his approach. Along with a high infield fly rate, he’s just not doing enough damage with the HR to put up high wOBAs. The exception being his 2016 and 2011 seasons. Being that he’s an above-average line-drive hitter, he could benefit from shifting his focus a little more that way as he ages through his last few seasons. Or I suppose he could benefit from a more hitter-friendly home park as he enters free agency this year.

Now that we have the table set, I’d like to share a short list of players that are putting up terrific wOBAs, but could benefit from putting even more balls in the air. Of course there’s Christian Yelich, but let’s let him do what he’s doing. And while we’re at it, we won’t recommend any changes for Joey Votto.

One thing I’ve noticed, and this isn’t a new revelation to me, is that Cuban players like Puig, Grandal, and Abreu all hit a very high number of ground balls, even while enjoying quite a bit of success. But if they ever decide to make the anti-ground-ball leap, they may find an MVP trophy or two. Ditto for George Springer. Let’s get him ripping air balls and see how high he can fly.

And maybe there are a couple of careers to save as well, a la Yonder Alonso or Justin Turner? Here are the low-flying 2017 players who could use the #turneradjustment

Looking team by team, at the approaches employed by their players who gathered at least 400 PAs minimum in any given year, and also have accumulated 1000 PAs over the last four years, we can pick out some trends as well. I was a little surprised to see the Mets at the top of the list, but the A’s, Tigers, Reds and Blue Jays didn’t surprise me as “put it in the air” types of teams. You’ve got some of the poster children for the air-ball revolution on those teams such as: Donaldson, J.D. Martinez, Jose Bautista, and Yonder Alonso. Those teams also feature some of the game’s deadliest line-drive hitters in: Nicholas Castellanos, Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, and Daniel Murphy (from his Mets years).

On the flip side, we see the Marlins, led by aforementioned ground-ball expert Christian Yelich, pound-it-into-the-ground Dee Gordon, and Ichiro Suzuki, as well as a team-wide approach by Ozuna, Realmuto, Hechavarria, and Martin Prado to hit ground balls and line drives. Prado is the only one other than Yelich to do it well.

The White Sox were led by Adam Eaton (54% GB), Avisail Garcia (52%), Alexei Ramirez (49%), Yolmer Sanchez (48%), Melky Cabrera (47%), and Jose Abreu (46%). Tim Anderson is the latest, though he doesn’t factor into the analysis yet, to pound out 52% ground balls like it’s his job and turn in awful wOBA seasons (.315 and .274 in progress).

2014-2017 Player Seasons By Team
Team Air Ballers Neutrals Ground Ballers Air to Ground Ratio
Mets 12 4 2 6.0
Athletics 9 6 3 3.0
Tigers 13 10 5 2.6
Reds 8 10 4 2.0
Blue Jays 9 8 5 1.8
Padres 3 9 2 1.5
Rays 7 8 5 1.33
Twins 8 6 6 1.29
Rockies 9 2 7 1.29
Orioles 5 13 4 1.25
Cubs 8 7 7 1.14
Multi-Team 15 15 14 1.07
Nationals 9 5 9 1.00
Phillies 8 3 10 0.80
Pirates 10 3 13 0.77
Indians 5 9 7 0.71
Cardinals 7 7 10 0.70
Yankees 3 14 5 0.60
Royals 9 4 16 0.56
Angels 5 8 9 0.56
Astros 6 6 11 0.55
Mariners 5 4 13 0.38
Dodgers 3 11 9 0.33
Brewers 3 8 9 0.33
Red Sox 5 4 16 0.31
Giants 3 12 10 0.30
Braves 3 12 10 0.27
White Sox 2 1 17 0.12
Diamondbacks 1 7 12 0.08
Rangers 1 9 13 0.08
Marlins 1 3 21 0.05
Minimum 1000 PA from Player 2014-2017
Minimum 400 PA single season to be included



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Dominikk85
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I think that staying off the ground is good but I think the effect is mostly at high grounder rates above 45%. once you get under 40 the gains are diminishing fast and might even come at a cost of BABIP.

for example the 35 and under group has a 115 wRC+ with a .284 BABIP, the 35 to 40 group has a 116 wRC+ and a .300 BABIP and the 40 to 45 group has a 111 wRC+ and also .300 BABIP. at 45 to 50 the wRC+ is 108 (and the babip is 320) among qualified hitters in 2017 (the qualified thing of course skews the average since the worse bench players are taken out of the equation, the average among qualified hitters to date this year actually is 109 so the 45 to 50 group is below average.)

but overall there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between 35 and up to like 43% or so. it gets really bad if you get to more extreme grounder profiles above 45%.

If I would work with a young hitting prospect I would work with him towards grounder rates of 40% or under. more extreme than that doesn’t seem to bring an extra benefit.

John Autin
Member
Member
John Autin

Interesting topic worth a lot more discussion.

Just one little note on the Cubans: I wonder if that’s a significant “nationalist” difference, per se, or something more broadly cultural. For instance, I found these trajectory splits for 4 countries of origin, using B-R data for players with 1,000 career PAs who have played this year (unweighted averages, as % of non-bunt batted balls):

Cuba: 48.6% GB, 27.5% FB, 23.9% LD (11 players)
Venezuela: 46.6% GB, 29.1% FB, 24.3% LD (36 players)
Dominican: 46.2% GB, 30.3% FB, 23.6% LD (30 players)
USA: 43.7% GB, 32.2% FB, 24.1% LD (194 players)

All 4 groups have very similar LD%. The USA-born have a significantly lower GB% than the other 3 countries. And as the Cuban group is just 11 players, it’s quite possible their excess GB% over Venezuela & D.R. is just noise.

Dominikk85
Member

That is interesting. Not sure if it is intent or the way their swings work with the way mlb pitchers pitch (maybe their swing works better for high pitches while mlb pitchers mostly pitch down -just a theory).

But I is sticking out that many Cubans hit too many grounders. Moncada also might need to work on that.

An exception is cespedes who has a pretty extreme FB profile but the Mets generally are probably the organisation who has targeted that profile the most out of all clubs.

YKnotDisco
Member
YKnotDisco

Tommy Pham doesn’t qualify for your list (794 PA) but could definitely benefit from more lift. His career GB% is just over 50%. His HR/FB is 25.8%. If he met your 1000 PA minimum, his HR/FB rate would rank 3rd in all of baseball. Trailing only Stanton and Domingo Santana.

Dominikk85
Member

I think it is also important how narrow your batted ball distribution is. The batted balls are always distributed somewhat on a bell curve around the average launch angle but a player with very good bat control could have a narrower band.

A player that elevates more will shift a larger share of his distribution to angles above 30 degrees which are very bad especially with fringy power. That means elevating the LA could lead to more infield fly balls and also high outfield flyballs which are very bad for the babip.

But if you take daniel murphy for example he elevates everything but doesn’t have a really high fb rate and his pop up rate is low too (at least absolute pop ups on fly balls it isn’t that low). Generally line drive rate is not super stable year to year but murphy seems to have so good bat control that he can maintain a high 20s line drive rate. That means he avoids grounders but still stays in the line drive and low fly ball (20-30 degrees) range which is very productive.

But this skill is pretty rare, most have a wider distribution (swing angle has an effect on elevation but with the round bat it is also where you make contact on the ball which is dependent on intent but also bat control). These hitters might benefit from a more average launch angle (let’s say 12 degree LA or 43% grounders) since that means they avoid getting too much of their curve into the very bad extreme ends (bigger than 40 degrees or smaller than minus 5 or so – that lower end is also important, those minus 5 degree grounders have a babip of like 400 but at minus 10 or lower it is like 200 or so).

What makes murphy so special is that he has a very high average LA of around 17 degrees but without getting the punishment of pop ups and high warning track fly outs (35 to 45 degrees) that other guys with that LA have.murphy basically hits high line drives all day long without much variation of that. Murphy doesn’t even have a super low pop up rate on fly balls but he doesn’t hit that many fly balls to begin with (his fb rate is only slightly above average despite a super low grounder rate, he hits so many liners).

An exception might be the huge power guys. For example Gallo has that extreme fly ball profile. He is paying in pop ups but the high outfield flies are not as bad for him as they would be let’s say for altuve or murphy. For the latter guys those are easy outs but Gallo is so strong that those high 30 degrees balls and sometimes even 40 degree fly balls go out too. There is still some loss in babip but the homers make up for that.

35th and Not James Shields
Member
Member
35th and Not James Shields

Jim,

Thank you for sharing all of your research. For us who are further behind on the learning curve, this article was thought provoking.

Look forward to reading more of your research.