The Toronto Blue Jays swing for the fences. Jays From the Couch looks into their contributions to the “flyball revolution”
We know that the Toronto Blue Jays live (and die) by the home run. They’re a pretty obvious offense to face. they have been for years. It is a source of frustration among many that this team does not have a more ‘balanced offense’. It seems they sit back and wait for the home run, or at least, that is the criticism. It’s not new.
At Fangraphs, Jeff Sullivan wrote about the “Flyball Revolution”. It is an interesting read as he looks into the escalating launch angles in baseball. Essentially, players are trying to get the ball in the air more. Hitting the ball in the air leads to extra bases and home runs. In short, it is more potent.
When players focus on this, they tend to hit their share of groundballs, which might cause you pause to think. But, what happens is that when a player tries to get loft and misjudges a pitch, or his timing is off, he will hit the ball on the ground instead of in the air. In fact, Josh Donaldson explained it clearly in a piece by the Washington Post:
No grounders. Groundballs are outs. If you see me hit a groundball, even if it’s a hit, I can tell you: It was an accident.
Donaldson is referred to as a rather loud proponent of launch angles, getting the ball in the air and all that. Calling a groundball an accident is exactly right; the player didn’t quite get all of the pitch, by not seeing spin, or his timing is not right, etc etc. What ever it is, the goal is to use the launch angle to drive the ball deep.
Sullivan found that, in 2017, the average launch angle has gone up a degree since 2015. As well, ISO has increased. Meanwhile exit velocities are down. all of this would mean that baseball is seeing guys try and hit the ball in the air, which pays off when it works, but results in weak contact when it doesn’t.
Before we get into looking at the Blue Jays hitters in this context, it is worth noting that I previously explored the pitching side of this. I looked into whether Toronto pitchers were working down in the zone; if the club had a strong, consistent message for them. It would make sense that pitching down is a way to counter the ‘flyball revolution’. As it turns out, the club wants to avoid working down in the zone because if you miss, it leaks right into the middle. They recognize that players are trying to lift the ball, so throwing high with spin might be better.
The Blue Jays organization recognizes what Sullivan is saying. But, what are their own hitters doing? Now, we get to the point. Where do they Blue Jays hitters fit into the ‘flyball revolution’? To Baseball Savant!
On the left, we have the 2017 results of Blue Jays’ launch angles and swings. Compare that to the right, which shows 2015 and 2016. There is a decided difference in negative launch angle, which would indicate more balls in the air. It shows a definite attempt at moving away from ground balls. If the team, as a whole, is hitting more ball sin the air than the previous two years, it would show in the flyball rates (and possibly the groundball rates, if they’re missing). Let’s take a look.
|FB% +/-||GB% +/-||ISO +/-||2B +/-||HR +/-|
|Bautista||- 0.05 %||- 0.5 %||- 0.078||- 1.5||- 9|
|Donaldson||+ 2.15 %||- 0.1 %||- 0.007||- 19.5||- 14|
|Martin||- 6.4 %||+ 0.65 %||- 0.0345||- 12.5||-9.5|
|Tulo||- 5.45 %||+ 11.75 %||- 0.046||- 14||- 13.5|
|Pillar||+ 0.2 %||- 0.3 %||+ 0.036||+ 1||- 5.5|
|Smoak||+ 5.6 %||- 2.1 %||+ 0.064||+ 11||+ 21|
|Morales||- 2.5 %||+ 4.95 %||+ 0.001||+ 8.5||+ 1|
To calculate these numbers (all of which came from Fangraphs), I simply followed Jeff Sullivan’s lead and lumped 2015 and 2016 together to compare them to 2017. So, the change in results reflects the 2017 number versus the average of 2016 and 2016. It i snot scientifically perfect, but it gets the job done. I also included Kendrys Morales because if there is a common approach, he might have adopted it. Of course, the flip side of that is that the Blue Jays would leave a veteran alone to do his own thing. It also must be pointed out that this exercise is impacted by the time players missed. For example, Russell Martin would certainly see his numbers dip after missing a month of games. Same goes for Troy Tulowitzki, and so on.
In order for this to make sense, we would have to look at flyball rate first. Donaldson shows an increased effort to get some loft on the ball with an increased FB%. The more interesting examples are Kevin Pillar and Justin Smoak. Pillar finds himself with a bit of an increase, which is also resulting in a bit more ISO. The largest gain comes from Smoak, whose power game has risen to another level this season. More power (more homers and doubles) come from fewer grounders and more flyballs.
The downside of trying to lift the ball is that you miss and hit grounders, or mistakes as Donaldson calls them. It will come as no surprise that Martin, Tulo and Kendrys Morales have seen their GB% increase. The amount by which Tulo’s escalates is a bit surprising, though. while Morales doesn’t really have this excuse, Tulo has been hampered by injuries and has had a disappointing (some would say declining) season. Martin had difficulty getting things going early on. This would indicate timing, etc impacting the ability to get the ball in the air.
The results haven’t been what the Blue Jays would have hoped for at the start of the season. They currently sit in 10th spot in MLB with 198 home runs, the most obvious product of the intentional launch angle increase. They are 19th in doubles, 14th in ground balls, 15th in flyballs, 13th in GB/FB ratio (0.84) and 21st (!) in extra base hits (442).
The Blue Jays may have been living by the home run for years. But, when it comes to the ‘flyball revolution’, they are struggling. It is not paying off for them the way the it should. Perhaps, with a return to health, things could be better in 2018. But, as things look now, the Toronto Blue Jays are falling behind in the ‘flyball revolution’.
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