When Kiley McDaniel wrote about the Athletics prospects before the 2015 season, Ryon Healy was just a “name to note” with “55 raw power that plays down in games.” After Healy produced a nice year at Double-A — albeit one without much power — Dan Farnsworth didn’t add much love, saying that he didn’t think Healy had the “swing path to keep driving balls.”
They weren’t alone. Baseball America made him Oakland’s 22nd- and 23rd-best prospect those two years, respectively. He didn’t make it into either of the team write-ups on Baseball Prospectus. Keith Law didn’t include him in his Oakland write-up going into this season.
Healy is 24, yes. He’s only had 184 plate appearances, sure. But he’s already shown more power than projections and prognosticators had in mind for him, and it’s probably not a fluke. He’s made a change we’ve heard about from many other major leaguers. He’s not using the same swing path that kept him off the top-prospect lists.
“I had a steep swing before,” Healy told me last month. “I would start high and then load even higher, and then drive down steep to the ball.” If you look back on his college film, it’s remarkable. Very few hitters set up that high, and even fewer then load higher. (Fast forward about 50 seconds into Steve Fiorindo’s Prospect Pipeline video below).
After a couple of pro seasons that saw decent batting averages but lowly power for a guy that profiles best at an outfield corner or first base, Healy was looking for inspiration. “Change was something I knew that I needed to do,” he admitted.
An offseason vacation to Atlanta with teammates Matt Olson and Carson Blair was an eye-opener. “They brought it to my attention,” Olson said of his steep path to the ball. That gave him the motivation to change, and so when it was time to hit, he was primed for change. Some cage work with his brother-in-law’s good friend Kevin Pillar, and some second-hand advice from Bobby Tewksbary and Ed Sprague, and Healy knew what he had to do.
“I lowered my hand slot so I could load to a lower, more powerful position,” the Athletics’ outfielder said of that adjustment. “Then my bat was flatter earlier and through the zone longer.” The change is easy to see if you’re offered the same angle as before. Thanks to Baseball America, we got that chance when Healy was at the Futures Game in July:
There are people that still challenge the validity of this finding, but baseball physicist Alan Nathan has used science to chime in on this, and a slight upswing does produce the best outcomes, it looks like. Especially if you’re looking to hit home runs. Against fastballs and curveballs, you get more distance with equal exit velocity and a slightly higher launch angle. Offset, here, is the distance between the bat’s center and the ball’s center, or a measure of how “flush” the ball is hit.
Along with the change came more power, but also more whiffs. That might seem to go against the purported benefits of the mechanical changes — more time in the hitting zone is supposed to mean more opportunity for strong contact — but once you start hitting for more power, your mindset changes sometimes. Like Joe Panik, who said that he’d learned to miss on purpose sometimes, in order to avoid soft contact, Healy has found that the whiff is not always bad news: “I changed my approach to hunting pitches I could drive. So if I swung and missed at sliders once in a while, or even a heater that I didn’t like, I’d rather swing through pitches rather than establish weak contact.”
Maybe this isn’t a plus-plus power package still. You can tell from his spray charts that, when he goes to the opposite field, it’s usually for a double, not a home run.
Healy explained his approach when it came to his spray chart. “I’m trying to hit a low line drive through the batter’s eye every time, so that helps control my effort level and where my body is going. When it misses, it just goes one side or the other, not pulled ground balls or pop flies.” So far that’s been the case: his pop-up rate is 30% better than league average, and he’s been able to do good things with fastballs both on the inner and outer thirds of the plate.
Put it all together, and Healy has only been about 12% better than league average with the bat while trying to find himself defensively. He could still benefit from reaching less on pitches outside the zone (36% this year, 30% is average), taking more walks, and even expanding his power further.
But that power that has taken his bat from below average to better than league average? It’s come from a fundamental change to his mechanics that is backed up by those using different kinds of evidence, a change that has led to other breakouts by other major leaguers recently.
Maybe that’s not something we can bake into our projections… yet. But it’s coming. Andrew Perpetua’s expected slugging percentage, based on Healy’s launch angle and exit velocities, is a meaty .492 compared to his actual .474. Maybe we should name that next projection system which uses this Statcast data to improve in-season projections KID or SPLINTER in honor of Ted Williams and his sweet science.
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.