Are Early Adopters of the Uppercut Influencing Their Clubhouse Peers?

As a faithful reader, you’re probably aware that a number of authors have written about the fly-ball revolution at FanGraphs this winter, examining the potential for a sea change in batted-ball profiles. If you’ve missed some or all of our posts you can read them, or revisit them here, here, here and here.

As I toured the central region and Gulf coast of Florida for FanGraphs this spring, a couple comments were particularly memorable. One was from this piece on Tampa Bay’s sharing of changeup knowledge, a success that Jim Hickey attributed less to organizational philosophy and more to pitchers with excellent changeups, like James Shields and Alex Cobb, sharing their craft and skills.

“It’s not so much a philosophy as it is a lineage,” Hickey said.

That struck me as quite interesting: the power of peers and word of mouth to have such a profound influence on the fortunes of a club. I also thought it was interesting when J.D. Martinez noted that more players have approached him this spring, curious about his loft-generating swing plane. Martinez is one of the notable early adopters of the uppercut, joining the likes of Justin Turner, Daniel Murphy and Josh Donaldson. They are not only excelling but espousing the philosophy.

So just as the Rays have handed down quality changeup grips from one generation to the next, and have led baseball in the value produced by changeups since 2006 — when Shields debuted with modest overall stuff but an excellent changeup — shouldn’t teams benefit by having early adopters of fly-ball philosophy? While most coaches in the game still seem to be subscribing to conventional hitting techniques, even if more coaches in the game spoke like private instructors like Doug Latta outside of the game, it stands to reason that players’ peers — trusted teammates, that is — might hold more influence when electing to made a radical adjustment.

The Rays have a changeup lineage. Are some teams creating the foundation of an uppercut lineage?

Maybe.

Baseball Prospectus in Toronto noted that five players last season — Justin Smoak (7.4%), Devon Travis (5.6%), Donaldson (4.5%), Russell Martin (3.2%), Troy Tulowitzki (2.2%) and Edwin Encarnacion (1.5%) — made significant gains in average launch angle. Donaldson has, of cours,e preached to the public about the philosophy. We can only imagine how passionate he is about the matter in the batting cages and clubhouse of Toronto.

So are these guys influencers? Is this akin to the cool kids starting a new fashion trend?

In the hope of finding something interesting, I solicited the help of colleague Sean Dolinar to explore whether we were seeing other increases in launch angle and decreases in ground-ball rates among teams that have had known early adopters of the fly-ball swing. We examined 2015-16 changes in launch angle via Statcast data, and we also examined ground-ball rates.

This was not a perfect study. We don’t know every hitter who has adopted a new swing plane, had success, and shared the underpinnings of that success. We also don’t know the open-mindedness of surrounding teammates. But the following perhaps is suggestive of something, that it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a Donaldson, Murphy or Martinez sharing their ideas with teammates.

Consider the following charts that plot last season’s ground-ball rates and launch angles by team. The Mets — the club with which Murphy reinvented himself — produced the sport’s lowest ground-ball rate and also had an above-average launch angle as a club. The Tigers also ranked better than most the league ranking in each categories, and the Blue Jays were above average in reducing their ground balls while also sporting a double-digit average launch angle.

But since this movement has really been gaining steam over the last year or so within the game, do we see year-to-year changes perhaps due to the recommendations of teammates like Martinez, Donaldson and Murphy? Well, the Blue Jays, Mets, Nationals and Tigers show up as teams that did improve their collective launch angles in 2016 while also reducing their ground-ball percentage.

There were individual improvers in Toronto, as noted by BP Toronto. Mets infielder Neil Walker posted the top fly-ball rate of his career in 2016 and increased his launch angle from 13.7% in 2015 with Pittsburgh to 17.1% last season. Yoenis Cespedes increased his fly-ball rate and his launch angle improved from 11.6% in 2015 to 14.4% last season in New York. Is that tied to the Murphy legacy in New York? The teachings of Kevin Long? Both?

The Nationals showed the most improvement from 2015 to -16 in decreasing ground-ball rates and increasing launch angle. While adding Murphy helps, perhaps some of that is also tied to Murphy serving as the Johnny Appleseed of Swing Plane. Anthony Rendon reduced his GB/FB ratio from 1.32 in 2015 to a career-best 0.82 last season, the first time he has hit more fly balls than ground balls in a single campaign. For the first time in his career, Danny Espinosa (0.90 ratio) hit more fly balls than ground balls, too.

In Detroit, Nick Castellanos posted a 0.73 GB/FB ratio, the most fly-ball prone he has been in his career, his launch angle inching up from 16.8% in 2015 to 17.3% last season. While having always been a fly-ball hitter, Ian Kinsler was the most extreme he’s ever been last season, posting a 0.71 ratio, his launch angle improving from 17.3% to 18.1%.

While we have only two years Statcast data and while we have only incomplete information at this point, Jeff Sullivan found that more hitters appear to be trying to lift the ball. And if a few teams are enjoying a greater share of the gains, then it’s more evidence of the power of what Hickey described as “lineage,” the power of word of mouth, of ideas being spread around a clubhouse or batting cage.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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bosoxforlifemember
5 years ago

This is the first time I have seen Neil Walker mentioned as a player who had increased his fly ball rate and launch angle dramatically in 2016, even though the substantial increase in HR’s, especially from the right side, was clear to see. While Kevin Long has an excellent reputation as a hitting coach I have never seen him directly associated with the fly ball philosophy, but the sharp upsurge in power from Daniel Murphy and Neil Walker, both with similar profiles before, hint that Long could be the reason. Walker will be a player to watch closely in 2017 to see if the power surge continues.