There is no ideal batted ball mix for all players. Run the numbers, and there’s no strong correlation between things like pull, opposite-field, ground-ball and fly-ball rates and weighted on base average or similar production stats.
That said, there is at least one “bad” batted ball type, the infield fly. And there is a decent relationship between fly balls and power, and between oppo% and BABIP. So you can feel your way to the ‘right’ mix for each player type.
And the players do themselves, as well. In general, they hit fewer ground balls as they approach their peak, which is a way for them to increase their power. And there are plenty of anecdotes from hitters about either leveling their swing plane to get on base more, or trying to hit more fly balls in order to hit for more power.
It’s clear that batted ball mix is a source for improvement in younger hitters, and that — if you’re careful — you can use it to try and figure out the future for a young player. So let’s turn this spotlight on two very different players, Manny Machado and Billy Burns, to see what we can learn.
Machado is only 22, so maybe we don’t need to declare him a certain type of hitter yet, but his fantasy owners want power and batting average. So let’s look at how Machado’s ground ball and pop up percentages rate against the league average. You want fewer of each for power and batting average.
The added fly balls are good. The pop up rate continues to be a bit of a problem. If Machado maybe has an issue from time to time with his vertical angle, it does seem that he’s doing his best to have a spray approach that would normally be great for his batting average on balls in play anyway:
Going the other way has been great for his plate coverage, while also making him harder to defend. Take a look at how much better Machado has been on the outside part of the plate after deciding to go the other way more:
This, coupled with the best hard% of his career, seems to suggest that Machado is approaching a better mix for his skills. He won’t ever have a league-leading BABIP with that pop-up problem, but with a strong contact rate and a good strikeout rate and a batted ball mix that should otherwise lead to good BABIPs, he’s doing the best he can. There’s little here that suggests he can’t keep it up, in other words.
Unsure if that’s the case for Billy Burns, on the other hand.
Burns is fast as all get out, but he has no power. He should probably have a mix that looks a lot like Dee Gordon’s — some soft contact, everything on the ground, all sorts of opposite-field work. Spray and run.
They don’t look all that similar, though. Well, in some ways they do.
They both go oppo more than average, and they both have slightly more soft contact than most hitters, which is okay for their skill set. Imagine the slow bouncer to the left side of the infield — it might be a hit for these guys. So that part of their batted ball mixes is somewhat similar, and it’s therefore not surprising to see that they are atop the league in infield hits.
But not all BABIPs are created alike, and once you start to look at different parts of their batted ball stats, you start to like one BABIP more than the other here.
Billy hits some ground balls, but he’s not on the list of league leaders. Other names that are on the list of league leaders: Nori Aoki, Jean Segura, Dee Gordon, Ender Inciarte, Juan Lagares, Jose Iglesias, Erick Aybar. Billy Burns finds himself next to Yasmani Grandal, Steven Souza, Adam Lind, and Matt Kemp. Even the speedsters with his kind of ground ball rate have more power than Burns: Brett Gardner, Leonys Martin, and Michael Brantley all have decent enough reason to put some elevation on the ball.
And then look at that last number. By percentage, only Brian Dozier is hitting more pop ups than Billy Burns. Those are automatic outs on balls in play, and if you look at the BABIPs for the top 25 guys on the pop-up leaderboard, you’ll get an average (.279) that should open your eyes. Machado is in the next group of 25 (.300 average BABIP) and Andrelton Simmons is finally better than average at popping it up, so there is hope for Billy Burns eventually.
Burns is fast. He’ll get his infield hits. But no man can outrun a pop-up, and there’s an almost-perfect symmetry in Burns’ batted ball profile — 15 infield hits, 13 infield pop-ups. Much of the credit you’d give Burns for being fast goes away in this light. Believe his rest-of-season BABIP projections, in other words.
Pop-ups alone won’t doom a career — look at what Manny Machado has done to mitigate his problems in that area — but they are meaningful. If Burns could hit the ball on the ground more, and spray the ball more, maybe he could also get the most of his batted ball mix, even with pop-ups. But it’s clear he has more work to do, going forward.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.