Which Batters Are Getting Off the Ground Thus Far?

Earlier today, I took a look at some of the early-season batted-ball trends with a view to exploring whether there might be early signs that significantly more hitters — and perhaps teams and instructors — are adopting the uppercut-swing-plane plan.

Yes, it’s April and the following data represents only the first two weeks of the season, so take it with a healthy dose of skepticism. But there are a number of hitters who both (a) logged at least 500 plate appearance last season and (b) are hitting the ball in the air more often this season.

Consider the top-50 fly-ball gainers to date — and for good measure, George Springer — thanks to help from fellow Pittsburgh resident Sean Dolinar:

Top (And Really Early) Fly-Ball-Rate Gainers
# Name FB% Change
1 Rougned Odor 22.7%
2 Francisco Lindor 21.6%
3 Russell Martin 20.0%
4 Yoenis Cespedes 19.7%
5 Joe Mauer 19.7%
6 Danny Espinosa 17.6%
7 Jonathan Schoop 15.1%
8 Jose Iglesias 14.6%
9 Jay Bruce 12.9%
10 Yonder Alonso 12.5%
11 Jayson Werth 12.3%
12 Manny Machado 12.2%
13 Mike Napoli 11.6%
14 Stephen Piscotty 11.4%
15 Paul Goldschmidt 10.1%
16 Cesar Hernandez 10.0%
17 Starlin Castro 9.8%
18 Joey Votto 9.8%
19 Anthony Rendon 9.2%
20 Josh Harrison 8.9%
21 Jose Ramirez 8.7%
22 Corey Seager 8.5%
23 Kris Bryant 8.5%
24 Ender Inciarte 8.3%
25 Ryan Braun 8.3%
26 Christian Yelich 8.2%
27 Alcides Escobar 8.0%
28 Carlos Gonzalez 8.0%
29 Howie Kendrick 7.9%
30 Miguel Cabrera 7.8%
31 Adam Eaton 7.5%
32 J.T. Realmuto 7.5%
33 Jonathan Villar 7.0%
34 Dustin Pedroia 6.5%
35 Elvis Andrus 6.4%
36 Bryce Harper 6.2%
37 Troy Tulowitzki 5.9%
38 Carlos Correa 5.9%
39 Salvador Perez 5.7%
40 Nolan Arenado 5.5%
41 Jose Abreu 5.4%
42 Jose Bautista 5.0%
43 Curtis Granderson 4.8%
44 Addison Russell 4.6%
45 DJ LeMahieu 3.9%
46 Charlie Blackmon 3.7%
47 Zack Cozart 3.4%
48 Yasmany Tomas 3.2%
49 Adrian Gonzalez 3.1%
50 Hanley Ramirez 2.8%
51 George Springer 2.7%

Due to the nature of the author’s attention span, we won’t focus on every name that appears here, but let’s consider a few persons of interest from the above list, shall we?

Rougned Odor, the No. 1 gainers, has never had a problem with avoiding ground balls. He plays the game with an uppercut and an unrestrained panache. He has a career fly-ball rate of 40.5% and has increased his fly-ball percentage every year in the majors. But Odor’s fly-ball rate is 61.9% entering Tuesday, along with a 0.46 GB/FB ratio. That’s extreme. Perhaps he’s maturing as a hitter and is better identifying pitches he can lift and drive, or perhaps the belief in his approach has been reinforced by the growing numbers of hitters and instructors calling for more fly balls. Hopefully I can speak with him on the matter at some point this season.

Since fly-ball rate has been recorded, no qualified hitter has ever finished a season with a 60% fly-ball rate. Frank Thomas has the top qualified rate on record (57.3%) set back in 2006.

But this season, six qualified hitters – including Odor – are at 60% or better through two weeks. We are not at a point where batted-ball tendencies stabilize, we need about 80 batted ball events from hitters. But 12 of the top 20 fly-ball rates from seasonal qualified hitters belong to hitters this April. If some of those stick, that seems to represent something.

Highest Fly-Ball Rates, 2002-Present
Season Name Team G PA FB%
1 2017 Ryan Schimpf Padres 13 52 66.7%
2 2017 Trevor Story Rockies 14 53 66.7%
3 2017 Danny Espinosa Angels 14 52 62.1%
4 2017 Rougned Odor Rangers 13 55 61.9%
5 2017 Yoenis Cespedes Mets 13 57 61.1%
6 2017 Joey Gallo Rangers 13 49 60.0%
7 2017 Byron Buxton Twins 13 46 57.9%
8 2006 Frank Thomas Athletics 137 559 57.3%
9 2010 Aramis Ramirez Cubs 124 507 56.8%
10 2002 Frank Thomas White Sox 148 628 56.7%
11 2017 Lucas Duda Mets 11 45 56.0%
12 2017 Russell Martin Blue Jays 10 39 55.6%
13 2002 Tony Batista Orioles 161 682 55.4%
14 2017 Kris Bryant Cubs 13 61 55.3%
15 2004 Jose Valentin White Sox 125 504 55.2%
16 2003 Frank Thomas White Sox 153 662 54.9%
17 2010 Mark Reynolds Diamondbacks 145 596 54.9%
18 2017 Scott Schebler Reds 12 45 54.8%
19 2017 Manny Machado Orioles 11 47 54.8%
20 2010 Jose Bautista Blue Jays 161 683 54.5%
All single-season qualified hitters on record (since 2002).

We know many of these hitters aren’t here by accident. Schimpf is trying to lift the ball, as is Bryant. Ditto for Bautista of 2010 to present. But what about Lindor?

Is Lindor changing his profile from a contact-oriented, Gold Glove-caliber defender… to a slugging Glove Glove-caliber shortstop?

For the first two years of his major-league career, Lindor put 50% of his batted balls on the ground. This season, he’s putting 48.9% of balls into the air. (And he’s been driving with the ball with authority since the close of last season through the World Baseball Classic.)

What has gotten into Ender Inciarte?

When Inciarte signed an extension with Atlanta this spring, he was regarded as a defensive stalwart, one with good bat-to-ball skills but a low-slugging profile. In his first three years as a major leaguer — including all of last season with Atlanta, after arriving as the B chip in the Dansby Swanson heist — Inciarte did a lot of this…

This season, however, he’s already christened SunTrust Park…

… and he keeps hitting home runs. He appears like a player who might, might, have added loft to his swing.

And then there is the curious case of Joe Mauer, who has gone from being a ground-ball machine (50.7% career rate) to more of a fly-ball, line-drive approach.

There are other fascinating hitters to track.

Cespedes has always produced more fly balls than grounders but right now he’s producing a lot more. Could he produce his first 40-homer season in the majors? It seems to be just a matter of average launch angle. Machado hitting more fly balls at Camden Yards? Yes, please. And, of course, Schmipf.

It’s early. We’re aware. We must wait for batted-ball events to stabilize before we draw too many or too deep of conclusions. But if some of these early-season curiosities becomes something more concrete, we’re going to be in store for more home runs, perhaps more scoring, more importance placed on outfield defense, etc. BABIP could decline, too, and some hitters could be negatively affected. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Still, pitchers might be in need of new counter-measures.

Stay tuned …

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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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Six Ten
Member
Six Ten

I get that specific fly ball rates aren’t stable yet, but is there a threshold in that first table above which the shift is big enough to show significance? For example, an increase of 15 percent or more so far is a significant indicator of at least some real change in profile?

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

You could work that in easily enough through a simple two-sample t-test, where you have PAs for Springer’s (or anyone else’s) PAs in 2017 and 2016 as the sample sizes.

jlewyckyj
Member
Member
jlewyckyj

As a conservative estimate, take Odor’s FB% from this year in however many batted-ball events he has, and fill out remaining the 80 batted-ball with his career-average FB%.