Francisco Cervelli Is Taking Off

Monday afternoon, I wrote about Max Muncy. A few months ago, I didn’t think I’d ever be writing about Max Muncy again, but he’s suddenly emerged as a surprising value for the Dodgers, and at a critical time. Muncy is a 27-year-old with a 142 wRC+. In spring training, he was a non-roster invitee. He has what’s becoming a somewhat familiar profile: fringe big-league hitter who’s apparently reached the next level after making some significant swing changes. You could interpret those as changes made to try to save a career.

Most of the time, that’s how it goes. Muncy was a bubble player. J.D. Martinez was a bubble player. Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Justin Turner, Yonder Alonso, and so forth — many of them, bubble players. It tends not to be the proven guys who make major changes. They’re just not confronted with the same incentives, and besides, in order to become an established major-league veteran, a player is most likely to be close to his optimum approach. It’s a risk to change someone who’s already been good. Quite simply, there can just be more to lose.

Francisco Cervelli and the Pirates aren’t afraid, I guess. Cervelli has been a perfectly fine hitter, especially for a catcher. Coming into this season, nobody questioned that Cervelli would be the starter. It would’ve been easy for him to remain as he was. Still, he’s turned into a project. And the early results are both very dramatic and greatly encouraging.

How best to start? Cervelli’s previous season high for home runs was seven. He’s already hit eight. According to wRC+, he’s been just outside baseball’s top ten hitters, with a better mark than Kris Bryant and Francisco Lindor. According to Statcast’s expected wOBA, he’s again been just outside baseball’s top ten hitters, with a better mark than Jose Abreu and Jose Ramirez. To continue with the theme, Cervelli is just beyond the lowest ten chase rates. The surface numbers say that Cervelli has hit the crap out of the ball. That’s supported by everything underneath.

Ask Cervelli himself about what’s going on, and he’d probably mention his health. Last season, he landed on the disabled list four separate times. It was a season of fits and starts, and he could never really get himself comfortable. But while health is undoubtedly a part of this explanation, there’s also something more. Health isn’t responsible for Cervelli changing the way that he hits.

Using the data at Baseball Savant, I looked up everyone with at least 100 batted balls in each of the past two seasons. For every hitter, I found the change in average exit velocity, and the change in average launch angle. Here are those changes, with Cervelli in yellow:

Cervelli’s exit velocity is up — his gain is tied for 17th. But it’s the other thing that’s exceptional. Cervelli’s launch angle has increased by 13.5 degrees. That’s easily the greatest such change in the sample; the runner-up is at +8.8. Cervelli is suddenly hitting everything in the air, and that’s just not something he’s done before. He became a big-league starter in 2015, and for three years in a row, his seasonal launch angles were stable. Here’s what he looks like in rolling-average terms:

He hasn’t really sustained anything like this. His grounder rate is 31%. His career grounder rate is 49%. Here’s another rolling-average plot, this time for exit velocity:

Cervelli has made solid contact in the past. But what do you get when you make more solid contact in the air? This is precisely the premise of the so-called fly-ball revolution. All else being equal, the hitter should be more productive. Here are Cervelli’s batted-ball expected wOBAs over time:

We see a new, higher peak. When Cervelli first emerged as a different hitter in April, he put up a 159 wRC+. Sometimes, a hot month is just a flash in the pan, or pitchers figure out a new way to exploit a guy’s weaknesses. But since the start of May, Cervelli’s wRC+ is 150. He has yet to cool off in any meaningful way. And just to re-state how significant this is — compared to last year, Cervelli’s grounder rate is down almost 22 points. That would stand as the biggest season-to-season drop since 2006.

You might already be able to picture what Cervelli has done. But for those of you still wondering, here’s a Cervelli home run from 2017:

And here’s a Cervelli home run from 2018:

As usual, it’s maybe best viewed with screenshots:

Cervelli is just another guy who’s added a leg kick. It’s a healthy one, after years spent basically using a toe-tap. I don’t know if there’s a proven link between leg kicks and hitting for more power, but if nothing else, there’s a load of anecdotal evidence, and you can add Cervelli to the pile. In addition to the leg kick, Cervelli now stands up straighter. He’s not down in so much of a crouch, and as a consequence of that, Cervelli is swinging at pitches higher off the ground. Those are pitches that just happen to be easier to hit in the air. So some of it is intent, and some of it is side effect. Francisco Cervelli is living the fly-ball promise.

As we know, hitting more balls in the air isn’t a blanket solution for everyone. Kyle Schwarber is one guy who’s seemingly benefited from a flatter plane. The point of hitting isn’t to hit a fly ball — it’s to swing at good pitches and get on base. Sometimes, trying to hit more fly balls just messes a hitter up. Cervelli wouldn’t appear to be one of those guys. Even at the age of 32, he’s overhauled his own approach, tapping into power reserves he hadn’t previously reached. He hasn’t sacrificed any of his discipline or his bat-to-ball skills. Fly balls don’t work for everyone. That doesn’t mean they don’t work for *anyone*. Cervelli is putting his skills to more optimal use, at a time when it would’ve been justifiable for him to remain completely the same. He was already going to be the guy, and he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

Maybe you’re getting sick of reading about swing-change guys. I don’t know. I do know it can get tedious looking at leg kick after leg kick. It’s just important to recognize how Cervelli’s case is unusual. Seldom do you see changes this big and successful with established starters. It’s Cervelli, and Daniel Murphy, and…who? It’s a short list. Francisco Cervelli didn’t have to change how he hits. He was already doing fine. Now he’s doing better than fine. And that progress is in no small part responsible for the Pirates’ being very much alive in the race.

We hoped you liked reading Francisco Cervelli Is Taking Off by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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dcweber99
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dcweber99

Good stuff. Definitely a major pleasant surprise for us