Lifting Could Be the Key to Liftoff for Daulton Varsho

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

If you look atop the groundball rate leaderboard, you’ll see some of the usual suspects. Josh Bell and Masataka Yoshida have hit more than two-thirds of their batted balls on the ground this year, while Eric Hosmer and Jean Segura aren’t far behind. Bell, Hosmer, and Segura have been some of the most notable groundball hitters in the majors for years, while Yoshida was a groundball menace in Japan. Even at such an early point in the season, the groundball cream is rising to the top.

At the bottom of the leaderboard, the names are a little more surprising. Noted fly ball hitters Adam Duvall and Brandon Lowe are among the bottom 10, but there are also a handful of players you wouldn’t expect to see. One such player is Daulton Varsho.

Varsho has hit five groundballs this year, good for a 20% groundball rate. Only one qualified batter, Carlos Correa, has hit fewer balls on the ground. However, it was Varsho, and not Correa, who caught my eye, because of his extreme groundball numbers at the very beginning of the season. Over his first eight games, Varsho came to the plate 32 times and put 19 balls in play. Only one was a groundball.

Varsho hit a couple more grounders over the weekend, tripling his groundball total for the season and bringing his groundball rate up from 5.6% to 13%. He hit two more on Tuesday night, increasing his rate once again. Nevertheless, his low groundball numbers are enough to warrant a closer look, even in such a small sample of games. His 13% groundball rate over the first 10 games of the season was the lowest figure he’s ever posted over 10-game stretch:

Varsho has always been good at putting the ball in the air, but nothing like this. In his three seasons with the Diamondbacks, he posted a 38.8% groundball rate with a 90 GB%+; in other words, his groundball rate was 10% lower than league average. This year, his GB%+ sits at a crisp 48.

To be fair, Varsho also has two bunt singles, meaning he’s technically hit a couple more balls on the ground. However, I’d argue those bunts actually make his low groundball rate all the more fascinating. Typically, fly ball hitters don’t bunt that often because they’d rather swing for an extra-base hit than settle for a single. Indeed, among the bottom 30 hitters in groundball rate this season, Varsho is the only one to have attempted a bunt, let alone two – let alone two successful bunts. Thus, he has more bunt hits (two) than groundball hits (zero). That’s unusual, to say the least.

So, what’s Varsho doing differently? Funnily enough, his average launch angle isn’t especially high. It’s above average and higher than it was last season, but that’s not saying much. His 16.3 degree launch angle ranks 77th out of 264 qualified hitters:

Varsho’s Average Launch Angle
Year Avg. LA Percentile
2020 18.4° 86th
2021 18.0° 84th
2022 14.9° 69th
2023 16.3° 71st
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Since Varsho is hitting so many balls in the air, you’d think he’d have a higher launch angle. However, he isn’t just hitting the ball at higher angles, he’s making contact at better angles. Of the 20 balls Varsho has put in the air this season, only one had a launch angle above 50 degrees, and only five had a launch angle above 40 degrees. For comparison, nearly 20% of his balls in the air last season had a launch angle above 50 degrees, and 32% had a launch angle above 40 degrees. Hitting balls in the air is generally a good thing, but at a certain point, a higher launch angle will generate negative returns. Thus, Varsho isn’t just swinging to avoid groundballs at all costs. He’s elevating with purpose:

League-Wide Performance by LA (2022)
Launch Angle BA wOBA
10°-19° .734 .733
20°-29° .505 .713
30°-39° .267 .434
40°-49° .069 .085
50°+ .017 .017
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

“Now, wait a minute,” you might say. “Daulton Varsho doesn’t hit the ball very hard, and softly hit balls in the air aren’t always so effective. Is this such a good strategy for a guy like him?” That’s a good question, and it’s true that Varsho didn’t hit the ball very hard last season. His Statcast numbers ranged from good to average to mediocre:

Daulton Varsho’s Quality of Contact (2022)
xBA xSLG xwOBA Avg. EV maxEV Barrel% HardHit%
7th percentile 45th percentile 26th percentile 25th percentile 66th percentile 70th percentile 25th percentile
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

But that’s the old Varsho, or so it seems. The new Varsho is hitting the ball a whole lot harder. He topped his personal best in maximum exit velocity on Opening Day, ripping a 112.5-mph double at Busch Stadium. His max exit velo this season currently sits in the 94th percentile; last year, it was in the 66th. Moreover, that hard-hit double was hardly an outlier. Even if you remove that hit, his average exit velo is significantly higher than it’s ever been. You would have to remove his five hardest-hit balls from the equation before you saw an average exit velo that resembles his number from years past. His hard-hit rate is higher too; more than half of his balls in the air have been hard-hit:

Varsho Is Hitting the Ball Hard
Year EV maxEV HardHit% xwOBA
2020 86.2 109.5 38.2% .288
2021 87.7 110.9 39.9% .323
2022 87.7 110.3 35.3% .298
2023 91.5 112.5 44.4% .347
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Varsho is avoiding groundballs like never before, which is what initially drew me to this topic. But what really matters is that he’s elevating the ball at an optimal angle and hitting it harder than he has in the past. Put those two things together, and you’re going to get some pretty great results. The small sample size warning certainly applies, but what Varsho is doing is so extreme that it’s worth taking note right away.

That being said, there are a few red flags in Varsho’s profile. For one thing, he has a low contact rate on swings outside the zone, which means he’s whiffing on the kinds of pitches more likely to induce weak contact. Meanwhile, he has swung at 13 of 15 “meatball” pitches received; with the same number of pitches, the average player would only get 13 or 14 meatballs and swing at about 10. Moreover, Varsho has an unusually low called strike rate and a low strike rate overall. Of the 189 pitches he’s seen, 73 have been balls, which is about eight more than you’d expect based on his career average strike rate. More balls means more hitter-friendly counts, which in turn means more opportunities to crush the baseball. Finally, it’s fair to be skeptical about a sudden increase in a player’s exit velocity. As Davy Andrews found, the average player increases his hard-hit rate by only a bit more than 1% after his rookie season.

Nevertheless, I’m keeping an eye on Varsho as a potential breakout hitter this year. Eventually, he’ll make some more weak contact and get some more called strikes, but that’s to be expected. No one is counting on him to maintain such a low groundball rate all year. As for his exit velocity, it might be unusual for a player to suddenly start hitting the ball harder in his fourth big league season, but it’s not impossible. Varsho is really doing it, and as Ben Clemens recently explained, “You can’t fake hitting the ball hard. It’s one of those things that you either do or don’t, without much room for interpretation.” If Varsho can hit the baseball 112 mph, then Varsho can hit the baseball 112 mph.

More to the point, his microscopic groundball rate suggests that Varsho is trying a new approach at the plate. He seems to be seeing the ball more clearly and taking better swings, and if that’s the case, it stands to reason he would make more powerful contact too. Varsho has already hit four baseballs as hard as his 95th-percentile exit velo from the past three seasons. It’s hard to believe that’s an accident. Besides, his 40 barrels last season demonstrate he’s always been capable of making good contact. This year, he’s just doing it more often:

If this is indeed the start of something new, it’s an excellent development for Varsho and the Blue Jays. Heading into the year, the 26-year-old outfielder was widely considered a candidate for regression. According to the doubters, his 4.7 WAR in 2022 was inflated by unsustainable defensive metrics, while his 106 wRC+ was buoyed by a batting average and slugging percentage far higher than their expected counterparts. Varsho won’t be as valuable in the field this year (he’s no longer a catcher or a regular center fielder), but this could be his best offensive season yet. If he continues elevating the ball and making hard contact, it’ll go a long way to silencing the skeptics.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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10 months ago

This is interesting because arguably ZiPS’s most confounding preseason prediction was that Varsho would have a wRC+ of 133, and here he is at 138. Of course, the way he got there won’t continue (a .385 BABIP?) but if more balls go over the fence, then the Blue Jays are going to thrilled they traded Moreno for him.