Manny Margot and the Stickiness of a Launch-Angle Breakout

Manny Margot had a breakout within a breakout last year. After accounting for his offensive and defensive contributions, the Padres’ rookie center fielder was worth roughly two wins in slightly less than a full season’s worth of plate appearances. Even for a player who was highly touted as a prospect, producing league-average work at 22 years old represents, in itself, a kind of breakout.

Hidden within that strong end-of-year line was a drastic change in the second half, though. Margot started hitting the ball in the air. That’s a change that has powered many other breakouts. But before we book the skinny center fielder for all of the homers next year, we have to ask: what’s happened with launch-angle surgers in the past?

Last year, there wasn’t another player who upped his launch angle more in the second half than Margot.

Second-Half Launch-Angle Surgers
Player 1st Half LA 2nd Half LA Diff
Manuel Margot 4.5 14.3 9.8
Trevor Plouffe 8.7 18.5 9.8
Brian McCann 9.9 19.3 9.4
Ezequiel Carrera -0.8 8.6 9.4
Ichiro Suzuki -0.4 9.0 9.4
Jacoby Ellsbury 4.3 12.8 8.5
Didi Gregorius 12.7 21.0 8.3
Maikel Franco 7.4 15.7 8.3
Brandon Belt 19.3 27.5 8.2
Tommy Joseph 10.4 17.7 7.3
Hunter Renfroe 13.0 20.0 7.0
Eddie Rosario 8.8 15.8 7.0
Tyler Moore 13.4 20.4 7.0
Bryce Harper 11.2 18.0 6.8
Bradley Zimmer 1.7 8.4 6.7
SOURCE: Statcast
Launch angle expressed in degrees. Minimum 50 balls in play in both halves. Half defined as before and after July 1st.

It didn’t turn him into a slugger, necessarily: Margot didn’t quite push his launch angle into Yonder Alonso territory. He did produce a .161 isolated slugging percentage in the second half, however, which is more power than he showed at most stops in the minors. It’s also more power than he’s projected to put up next year.

Could Margot keep up the new launch angle next year and better his projections? We know that launch angle gets “sticky” quickly and has decent year-to-year correlations. What has actually happened, though, with the players who have surged like this in the past.

There are only three years of Statcast data, and that means only two testable seasons. But if we limit our pool to those batters who recorded 50 balls in play in the first and second halves of both 2015 and 2016 — launch angle tends to become stable in that sort of sample — we find 34 players who saw a second-half surge of more than six degrees.

Here’s how they fared, as a group, in the first half, the second half, and in the season after their surge.

Launch-Angle Surgers in the Next Year
1st Half 2nd Half Next Year
Launch Angle 7.8 15.7 12.5
SOURCE: Statcast
Launch angle expressed in degrees. Minimum 50 balls in play in both halves.

There was regression to the mean, of course. Only five players — Didi Gregorius, John Jaso, Starling Marte, Jose Ramirez, and Ichiro Suzuki — continued to push their launch angle even higher the year after they first surged, and all of them save Jaso recorded an angle within one degree of their second-half surge.

But look past that regression, and you’ll see that, as a group, they kept most of their gains. While they collectively lost three degrees from their second-half launch angle, they also still gained nearly five degrees over their original first-half launch angle.

Take a look at Anthony Rendon. He boosted his average launch angle from a 2016 first-half mark of 13.2 degrees to 20.7 degrees in the second half. He lost 2.6 degrees moving to 2017, but his resulting 18.1 figure was still significantly higher than his 2016 first-half number.

Now, back to Margot. It’s likely that he’ll take a slight step back and won’t join Rendon with a slugger’s launch angle in 2018. But he’s also not likely to drop all the way back to the first half of 2017, when he had a 4.5-degree average launch angle and hit 1.5 grounders for every fly ball. The group suggests he’ll keep 60% of his gains and have something like a 10.3 degree launch angle next year. That’s between Lorenzo Cain (10.2) and Yasiel Puig (10.6) and absolutely sounds like someone who could put up better-than-average power numbers in 2018.

The next time you hear about a launch-angle surge like this, particularly one that happened in-season, you have more context. Manny Margot may not be everything he showed in the second half last year, but he’s going to keep more than half of those gains, and he’ll be better than he was in the first half last year.

That’s how you regress to the mean and also keep much of your gains.

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.

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6 years ago

Good stuff, thanks Eno!