Joey Votto and the Mounting Evidence of a Fly-Ball Movement

As one of the flag bearers of the fly-ball revolution — or the air-ball revolution as Daniel Murphy has suggested rebranding it — I thought it would be appropriate to check in on the status of the batted-ball trends after we’ve reached a stabilization point for air balls. And for many regular position players, we have reached a stabilization points for line-drive, fly-ball, and ground-ball rates.

I provided an update midway through April after a barrage of posts about the subject this spring.

Across the majors, fly balls (35.7%) are up 1.1 percentage points from last season and 1.9 points from 2015*. Ground-ball rate (44.3%) is down slightly and at its lowest level since 2011. Ground balls are down from 0.4 points from last season and 1.0 point from 2015. In an industry always looking for an extra 2%, the emergence of even slightly a slightly higher air-ball rate might be indicative of something — particularly since pitches in the bottom part of the strike zone have increased by more than three points this season. Those are pitches that should be even more difficult to lift.

*Numbers entering play Monday.

Moreover, average launch angle is up a tick (to 10.9 degrees) this season, compared to 10.8 degrees last season and 10.0 degrees in 2015, launch angle on pitches in the lower third of the strike zone has increased from 5.1 degrees in 2015, to 5.8 degrees in 2016, to 6.0 degrees this season, according to Statcast data.

While the slight increase in air balls league wide is perhaps explained by something else — or perhaps by many other things — or is perhaps just the product of random variance, there are definitely individual batters who’ve made a concerted effort to changing their swing planes. Which players, specifically, have meaningful altered their batted-ball distributions?

Among all qualified hitters, 25 hitters have increased their air-ball rate by at least 4.5%. And there are some interesting names dotting the top of the leaderboard.

The No. 1 changer – Yonder Alonsopurposefully stated this spring that he desired to drive the ball in the air more often. He’s increased his air-ball percentage by 19.1 points (and fly-ball rate by a MLB-best 20.0 points). The No. 3 changer is Francisco Lindor, at 12.9%, who has used an air-ball increase en route to home-run surge that has elevated him to perhaps the game’s most elite tier of players. The No. 11 air-ball gainer, meanwhile, is cerebral Reds star Joey Votto, whose air-ball rate is up 6.5 points, fueled by a 11.3-point spike in fly balls. Here are the top-20 changes among qualified batters in 2016 and 2017, courtesy of Sean Dolinar:

Air-Ball Gainers, 2017
Player LD%+FB% increase
1 Yonder Alonso 19.1%
2 Brett Gardner 13.5%
3 Francisco Lindor 12.9%
4 Josh Harrison 8.7%
5 Joe Mauer 8.7%
6 Jay Bruce 8.4%
7 Alcides Escobar 8.4%
8 Ryan Braun 6.9%
9 Denard Span 6.9%
10 Wil Myers 6.7%
11 Joey Votto 6.5%
12 Miguel Cabrera 6.4%
13 Salvador Perez 6.3%
14 Jose Ramirez 6.2%
15 Jose Iglesias 5.9%
16 Jose Bautista 5.9%
17 Corey Seager 5.7%
18 Buster Posey 5.6%
19 Yadier Molina 5.1%
20 Carlos Correa 5.0%

Votto does nothing without purpose and intent. If Votto is buying into the idea, the air-ball movement could not have a better spokesperson. I approached him to talk about a number of subjects in the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field last week, including the idea of the air-ball becoming more sought after.

And Votto, as he often does, offered some interesting thoughts and insights. Perhaps what’s most relevant? Votto believes that the so-called “revolution” is real.

“The consensus among all the hitters I’ve spoken to, and hitting people I’ve spoken to, is ground balls are bad, fly balls are good, line drives are good,” Votto said. “That’s definitely something I wasn’t used to when I first came up. The thinking was ‘Hit the ball hard no matter where it is.’ Hit the ball hard, put it in play. There used to be hits up the middle on ground balls, on the right side, on the left side, because the defense was more of a traditional style. Whereas now even right-handed hitters will hammer a ball to the left side and the shortstop will make a back-handed play right behind the third baseman. What previously was a single, is nothing. It is an out.

“I could see hitters evolving into more of a fly-ball-hunting type group.”

The nature of batted balls and any MLB-wide change is, of course, complex. Votto acknowledges this, noting that there are “a lot of variables” involved. There’s also a selection bias in the media: writers like myself have documented the success stories but are perhaps less aware, and players are less willing to broadcast, the attempts that are not successful. If Trevor Story had enough plate appearances to qualify last season, he would be among the most extreme changers, as he’s increased his air-ball percentage 81.8% from 70.6%, which is in Schimpf territory. Story is batting .189. But Votto has bought it, at least to a degree. And that is perhaps significant.

“The only one that stands out to me that I’ve tried to avoid is the right side of the infield shift,” Votto said. “I’m not excited about hitting balls to that side because I could hammer a ball a one-hopper to the second baseman or shortstop, or whoever they have stationed over there… Personally, I embrace the fly-ball thing just because of that reason.”

While Votto has embraced the trend to an extent and while he himself is more often elevating pitches, he also believes there are factors that will limit the number of successful adopters throughout the game.

For starters, Votto said there is a key psychological force that must be overcome. What Votto labeled as a “a fear of failure.”

By nature, anyone dramatically willing to rebuild his swing is experimenting. There’s a risk that the change will not achieve the desired goal. A batter has to accept that risk. Votto says that, for his part, he’s in a perfect position to experiment. He baseline performance is already excellent. He doesn’t have to worry about losing his job with an extended poor stretch. He has financial security.

“I’ve been a pretty conservative player over the course of my career,” Votto said. “I think I’ve started to take a few more chances as I’ve gotten older just because, no matter what, I have a parachute. I have a backup plan. I think that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been willing to take risks.”

Similarly, Votto noted fly-ball advocates like Josh Donaldson and J.D. Martinez had high baselines from which to work. If the experiment failed, they had swings and approaches that allowed them to reach — and would likely keep them in — the major leagues.

“There are guys whose floor is not high enough to be able to take a risk like that. If they fail, they lose their job, lose their position, I think that’s the thing that stands out to me about those guys,” Votto said. “J.D. [Martinez] and [Josh] Donaldson are really upper-tier hitters to the point they can make that attempt and still fall back on their basic set.”

Patience and a high level of skill are also prerequisites, Votto believes, and they are not distributed equally through any population, including that of the ballplayer who’s in the upper tenth of 1% of all those who have tried their hand at the sport.

“If a player goes out with the mindset that ‘I’m going to make a change and start popping fly balls and hitting the ball in the air more,’ and for the first six weeks of the season they are really struggling, or they go through a bad stretch combined with an adjustment period, combined with the rigors of playing pro ball, and they are batting a .150 with no damage, that’s a good way for a player to go back to his old style,” said Votto of a hypothetical experimenter. “And I think that is the reason why it can be tough for some guys, is just because of the level of skill it takes to make that adjustment quickly inside of your career.”

Votto believes the philosophy, the idea, has proliferated throughout the game. He believes there are a number of adopters, but there are limitations that will limit the depth of the movement.

But more than a quarter way of the season, Votto appears to be another success story for the uppercut. His .276 isolated-power mark to date would match a career best. His .565 slugging mark would be his best since 2012.

Maybe Votto is right: perhaps there are limits to the movement. But it appears, early this season, with batted-ball rates having stabilized, that the movement is growing in adherents. And what might be significant is it’s not just average players now searching for an edge who are adopting. Arguably the game’s best hitter is now among the disciples.

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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5 years ago

I think votto could especially benefit from pulling the ball more as he gets older. He always hit enough non ground balls but never pulled the ball that much.

If he loses a bit of power he could squeeze more out of his power by pulling more because that is were the fences are short. With his bat control he could become Brian dozier as a backup plan.