Are hitters consciously deciding to hit more balls in the air, now that more data is available? I don’t know. There is certainly evidence that more players have hit the ball in the air over the past 2 years. Maybe it’s the ball. Maybe it’s the availability of StatCast, though teams have had more batted ball data than what is publicly available for some time. Would more widely available data be all that was needed in order for a player to see the merits of hitting the ball in the air?
I’m skeptical. Perhaps, hitters have always known that hitting the ball in the air is valuable, but now we have a standardized way of articulating these changes? These are just a couple of questions that sift through my head as we sort our way through changes in league wide batted ball tendencies over the past 2 years.
We know that expected production based on qualify of contact changes as we change launch angles and increase exit velocities, with the least valuable batted balls being those hit under 0 degrees and over 39 degrees. Balls in play fall into these buckets nearly 50% of the time.
Given this, I was curious if players increasing their launch angle are, on average, increasing their expected production. Much could be said about Yonder Alonso deciding to hit more fly balls. It’s worked out well for him, but there’s some survivor bias involved here. We remember Alonso because he has succeeded. Has everyone who has added more lift to their swing seen similar improvements?
To consider this, I have looked at all hitters with 100 batted balls in 2016 and 2017, while increasing their average launch angle by 5 degrees or more.
|Name||xOBA – 17||xOBA – 16||LA – 17||LA – 16||Delta|
|C. J. Cron||0.308||0.340||18.8||12.7||6.1|
So between 2016 and 2017, we are looking at a sample of 15 hitters with an average launch angle increase in excess of 5 degrees. As you can see, the results are mixed. While Yonder Alonso and Aaron Altherr have enjoyed the most success of the group, a large portion of the names listed here have not seen the breakouts we may suspect when examining players with increased launch angles.
Besides Altherr, Lowrie has seen the largest increase in production from the group, with Alonso just behind. However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, we can see substantial decreases in expected production from C.J. Cron, Christian Vazquez, Yadier Molina, Adrian Gonzalez, and Alcides Escobar. While none of these names are (at least at this point), core pieces on respective Ottoneu teams, it is worth remembering that just increasing your launch angle does not always predicate an increase in production.
|Name||DB% Change||PU% Change||DB%-16||Other-16||PU%-16||DB%-17||Other-17||PU%-17|
|C. J. Cron||-9.00%||8.10%||34.20%||49.30%||16.20%||25.20%||49.50%||24.30%|
Taking a slightly different approach, we would expect that each of the players listed above (the same list we originally examined) would show a decrease in the percentage of their batted balls under 10 degrees (DB%). Intuitively this makes sense, we are examining hitters who have increased their average launch angle by 5 degrees. In selecting that group, we would expect that most of them are hitting less balls immediately on the group than they were previously. However, is the change worthwhile?
From our first chart, we know that batted balls below zero degrees are more valuable than batted balls above 40 degrees by about 120 points on the wOBA scale, so what we would like to see is that hitters who are increasing their expected launch angle are not simply trading ground balls for pop ups.
Overall it’s a mixed bag. While Carlos Gomez is hitting less balls under zero degrees, and maintaining a nearly equal pop-up rate to what he has done in the past, many of the names who popped up with production drops (Escobar, Gonzalez, Molina) have swapped their weak ground balls for pop-ups, a trade they would be better off not making.
Certainly, there are success stories, and increasing the loft in one’s swing is a step that has helped several attain success. My trepidation with this line of thinking is that in viewing the success stories of Martinez, Murphy, Donaldson, Alonso, et al. we run the risk of forgetting the numerous (and probably larger group) players for whom increasing loft did not correspond to increasing production. Launch angle is tricky, and often misunderstood. Perhaps instead of focusing on one catch all that applies to all players (ie hit more fly balls), we should be examining the individual swings of each specific player in question to see what batted ball results are ideal based on their bat path.
Joe works at a consulting firm in Pittsburgh. When he isn't working or studying for actuarial exams, he focuses on baseball. He also writes @thepointofpgh. Follow him on twitter @Ottoneutrades