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:
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.
|10||2002||Frank Thomas||White Sox||148||628||56.7%|
|12||2017||Russell Martin||Blue Jays||10||39||55.6%|
|15||2004||Jose Valentin||White Sox||125||504||55.2%|
|16||2003||Frank Thomas||White Sox||153||662||54.9%|
|20||2010||Jose Bautista||Blue Jays||161||683||54.5%|
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 …