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The fly ball revolution isn’t working for everyone

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Baseball’s fly ball revolution has been talked about quite a bit, as it has changed the careers of players like J.D. Martinez, Ryan Zimmerman, and Yonder Alonso. The league average fly ball rate has changed by nearly two percent, from 33.8 percent to 35.6 percent, since 2015. Over hundreds of thousands of at-bats, a two percent difference makes quite an impact. That may have had something to do with why baseball has seen home runs hit at a pace not seen since 2000, the height of the “steroid era.”

More and more teams are promoting the idea of hitting the ball in the air as opposed to on the ground, or even on a line. But hitting more fly balls isn’t working for everyone, as Five Thirty Eight’s Rob Arthur shows. An increase in fly ball rate showed very little correlation with an increase in offensive production. “For every Yonder Alonso,” Arthur writes, “there is a 2016 Kiké Hernandez, who spiked his fly ball rate by 11.7 percentage points, only to watch his wOBA drop by 89 points.”

That is to be expected, however, as Driveline Baseball’s Kyle Boddy notes. Boddy says, “Bad hitters should not hit the ball in the air. Also, batted balls will be randomly distributed to a degree.”

While one increases his power potential by increasing his fly ball rate, one also increases the likelihood of hitting an infield pop-up. That, Arthur says, is about as bad as striking out because they’re outs virtually all the time and very rarely offer a base runner an opportunity to advance. Joey Votto, an outspoken critic of the fly ball trend, rarely pops up because he’s focused on hitting line drives instead of fly balls.

But the strategy of hitting fly balls only works for those who have the appropriate skill set. If one has the mechanics, the feel, and the strength, then hitting more fly balls is more likely to be a successful venture. Dee Gordon, for example, probably wouldn’t get any benefit from adding more loft to his swing. Someone like Tommy Joseph, on the other hand, might.

In the playoffs, the Yankees’ weakness has become their strength

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Two weeks ago, when the playoffs began, the idea of “bullpenning” once again surfaced, this time with the Yankees as a focus. Because their starting pitching was believed to be a weakness — they had no obvious ace like a Dallas Keuchel or Corey Kluber — and their bullpen was a major strength, the idea of chaining relievers together starting from the first inning gained traction. The likes of Luis Severino, who struggled mightily in the AL Wild Card game, or Masahiro Tanaka (4.79 regular season ERA) couldn’t be relied upon in the postseason, the thought went.

That idea is no longer necessary for the Yankees because the starting rotation has become the club’s greatest strength. Tanaka fired seven shutout innings to help push the Yankees ahead of the Astros in the ALCS, three games to two. They are now one win away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 2009.

It hasn’t just been Tanaka. Since Game 3 of the ALDS, Yankees pitchers have made eight starts spanning 46 1/3 innings. They have allowed 10 runs (nine earned) on 25 hits and 12 walks with 45 strikeouts. That’s a 1.75 ERA with an 8.74 K/9 and 2.33 BB/9. In five of those eight starts, the starter went at least six innings, which has helped preserve the freshness and longevity of the bullpen.

Here’s the full list of performances for Yankee starters this postseason:

Game Starter IP H R ER BB SO HR
AL WC Luis Severino 1/3 4 3 3 1 0 2
ALDS 1 Sonny Gray 3 1/3 3 3 3 4 2 1
ALDS 2 CC Sabathia 5 1/3 3 4 2 3 5 0
ALDS 3 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 7 0
ALDS 4 Luis Severino 7 4 3 3 1 9 2
ALDS 5 CC Sabathia 4 1/3 5 2 2 0 9 0
ALCS 1 Masahiro Tanaka 6 4 2 2 1 3 0
ALCS 2 Luis Severino 4 2 1 1 2 0 1
ALCS 3 CC Sabathia 6 3 0 0 4 5 0
ALCS 4 Sonny Gray 5 1 2 1 2 4 0
ALCS 5 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 8 0
TOTAL 55 1/3 35 20 17 20 52 6

In particular, if you hone in on the ALCS starts specifically, Yankee starters have pitched 28 innings, allowing five runs (four earned) on 13 hits and 10 walks with 20 strikeouts. That’s a 1.61 ERA.

While the Yankees’ biggest weakness has become a strength, the Astros’ biggest weakness — the bullpen — has become an even bigger weakness. This is why the Yankees, who won 10 fewer games than the Astros during the regular season, are one win away from reaching the World Series and the Astros are not.