Very Early Batted-Ball Trends: A Revolution in Increments?

CLEVELAND — We’re still early in the 2017 season. We should be careful not to make too much of the goings-on of April, of course. I’m aware of all the small-sample-size disclaimers that should be attached to nearly every bit of analysis and assessment at this point. Yet, I still must write and search for things that are interesting. The baseball media industry cannot wait silently at keyboards until sample sizes accumulate and become more meaningful in mid-summer.

Since so much was written about fly-ball philosophy and trends at FanGraphs this offseason and spring — like here and here and here — I thought it would be irresponsible not to check in early (and often) and examine whether we’re were seeing any hints of the revolutionaries growing in number.

Jeff Sullivan identified a slight increase in hitters adopting lift last season. Through two weeks of this season, hitters are producing fewer ground balls and more fly balls.

Through two weeks — that is, through Sunday’s games — major-league hitters combined to produce a 43.5% ground-ball rate collectively, which would mark the lowest ground-ball rate since 2009 (43.3%). The MLB ground-ball rate has stood at 44.4% or greater since 2011, rates perhaps influenced by a greater value placed upon two-seam pitchers, ground balls, and the proliferation of infield defensive shifts.

Fly balls are also up (36.2%) early this season, the highest rate since 2011. It’s an increase of nearly two percentage points from last season (34.6%) and the decade-low rate of 33.8% in 2015. It’s early, but we should also see evidence early if more hitters are trying to lift and drive.

And it’s not just fly balls that should be examined. We should also study Statcast “barrels” and hard-contact rates, as getting on plane with a pitch should result in more quality contact. And the percentage of contact catalogued as “hard” stands at 31.4% early this season, which is tied with last season’s mark and represents the highest mark since 2007 (32%), nearly a 2.5% jump from 2015 and 2014. Uppercut swing advocate J.D. Martinez, for instance, has not dramatically lifted more balls into the air by changing his swing plane, but he has significantly boosted his hard-hit percentage since making his alterations.

These are incremental gains, but string enough incremental gains together and a tipping point is reached. Consider this graph created by my colleague Sean Dolinar:

So perhaps there is a story to be told here — or, at least another chapter of a story to be written.

I’ve written about this trend this offseason and spring, but to date I’d spoken only with major-league players and outside hitting instructors. So at the end of the last week, I approached one of the more interesting hitting instructors inside the game, Todd Steverson of the Chicago White Sox.

Steverson is perhaps most well known for a decision he made while serving as manager of High-A Modesto during a minor-league game in June of 2012. It was then he had his pitcher intentionally balk with the bases loaded in the 18th inning to allow the winning run to score. Steverson, who was the A’s roving hitting instructor, was banned for a year from California League dugouts and fined. But you could argue Steverson was forward thinking. Said Steverson at the time:

“We had a position player out there and I didn’t want to put another position player on the mound and get him hurt … I didn’t get any of my pitchers hurt and I didn’t get any position players hurt.”

But Steverson is also an interesting figure for other reasons.

For starters, he was on Oakland’s major-league staff in 2008-09 and then in their minor-league system from 2011 to -13, when Deadspin noted the A’s had perhaps found a new market inefficiency. In 2013, the A’s won 96 games in part due to a fly-ball approach, posting the most fly-ball-leaning GB/FB ratio (0.90) on record since such ratios have been tracked.

But early in this season, two teams — the Mets (0.76) and Tigers (0.88) — are beating that number. The Tigers and Mets are, or have been, home to fly-ball advocates in Martinez and Daniel Murphy.

And Steverson is interesting for another reason: in Oakland, he coached the most vocal of fly-ball proponents, as judged by social-media prominence, in Josh Donaldson.

Steverson has been around the idea and the philosophy, and he has seen it work.

Steverson isn’t against the idea of getting the ball in the air. In a busy corridor within the road clubhouse at Progressive Field, he recites, without notes and within a reasonable range of accuracy, the batting average and slugging marks on ground balls, line drives, and fly balls. But he also believes hitters need different swings for different situations and pitch locations.

“Do I believe in liners and homers and balls off the wall? Absolutely I believe in them,” Steverson said. “You don’t want to go in there with just a driver. You want to have a three iron, a seven iron.”

What concerns Steverson is, to him, it seems some of the advocates of the uppercut, some of the reporting on swing philosophies, make the philosophy seem as a magic pill, a quick-fix cure all, as if anyone — at least any professional player or high-level amateur player — can transform his swing and performance quickly by adopting such an practice.

“These guys [Martinez, Donaldson] already had a history of hitting balls over the wall and off the wall in the minor leagues,” Steverson said. “If you just want to try and create this swing, that ain’t that easy. You have to learn how to be a hitter first. Each one of these guys was a hitter first. These guys had good years in the minor leagues, just being good hitters, and they evolved into this. They learned this little by little. For somebody to snap their fingers and say ‘This is what I’m going to be,’ you are completely wrong… You have to be be able to put a barrel on a baseball.”

And of course there is more to hitting than swing plane. Timing, pitch recognition, bat speed, and eye-hand coordinator are critical skills and attributes.

Steverson said he and Donaldson had many discussions. He admitted they butted heads on occasions, though he said the A’s never tried to change Donaldson’s hitting philosophy. But Steverson emphasized that Donaldson did not revamp his swing overnight. Rather, it required incremental improvement over multiple seasons.

“I had him in 2011 and also as a coordinator. We had many talks,” Steverson said. “Donaldson is a very good hitter. He’s an evolution-istic hitter, if that’s a word… If you go back and look at his videos with the A’s to where he is now, he has a smaller leg and no leg kick. He had a small leg kick, and then bigger, and bigger — until he finally figured out what works for him. That is an evolution of an approach. It doesn’t come overnight. Kids that think they can do this overnight, it ain’t going to happen.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t realize what players go through on their way to the majors leagues. Trial and error. I know Donaldson has wanted to hit like he is now for quite a while. But he had trouble putting it together and how it was going to work for him. It took a while to understand the connection of how it was going to work for him. Once he figured it out, he is what he is now. He wanted to hit like this since he was in the minor leagues.”

And even hitters like Marlon Byrd and Justin Turner, who added loft to their swings through mechanical changes, needed a full offseason to rebuild swings as major leaguers working with outside hitting instructors.

So perhaps what Sullivan found — that about 50 hitters reduced their ground-ball rates by 5% or more last season — what we’ve seen the early weeks of 2017, is an incremental change. Perhaps any fly-ball movement will not be as dramatic as scores of major-league hitters snapping their fingers and adopting a more efficient swing path; it will more likely require trial and error, in addition to skeptics still needing to be won over. Perhaps the movement could accelerate and reach a tipping point, but perhaps it’s an evolution occurring in increments. Or maybe it’s something less than that.

It’s April. We’ll have to wait and see.

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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7 years ago

Is the overall offensive environment weaker to start year? I was comparing some batters and their wrc+ are similar or higher than last season with seemingly worse stats. Especially slugging. Is that common early season or anecdotal to the players I was viewing?

7 years ago
Reply to  southie

Keep in mind that April numbers are a bit lower on average. Also FBs might slightly suppress babip but 286 seems low.

I think mid year we will have similar run levels as last year.

But of course despite the historic hr spike offense is not really on a high level. It is higher than 3 years ago but still only at 2009 levels despite more home runs. Hr are up but so are strikeouts and obp is still low. Basically the game went from 3 true outcomes to 2 true outcomes?

7 years ago
Reply to  Dominikk85

Interesting take. Maybe I just never noticed or looked at this in April before.

Big Daddy V
7 years ago
Reply to  Dominikk85

.286 isn’t just low. It would be the lowest BABIP of any month since 1992. It is, I would say, weirdly low.