The fly ball revolution isn’t working for everyone

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
1 Comment

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.