The Next Stage of the Air-Ball Revolution

Francisco Lindor saw his fly ball rate jump 14 percent in 2017. (via Erik Drost)

Former FanGraphs managing editor Dave Cameron joked earlier this season that half of my posts in my first year writing for the website had been related to the Air-Ball Revolution. Quite a bit of what I wrote about in 2017 was documenting what I believed was the beginning of a seismic shift in the game, a counter-punch by hitters to combat the proliferation of defensive shifts and ever-improving velocity and stuff off the mound. Of the 330 posts I published through the end of the season, 49 included the term “launch angle.” So, yes, I am invested.

What I’ve learned along the way, through reporting and research, is that I believe we are only in an early chapter of this story.

Since last offseason, I’ve been curious to see if more hitters would adjust to the velocity and shifts they were facing. The first person I contacted on the subject was an old source, a private hitting instructor, Doug Latta, whom I first encountered in 2013 when I was reporting on the Pirates for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I was fascinated then with how Marlon Byrd, whom the Pirates had acquired prior to the 2013 postseason roster deadline, had dramatically changed his batted-ball profile.

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While an earlier PED suspension tainted Byrd’s performance and legacy, he did make real swing changes and better lifted the ball. He transformed himself from a groundball to a flyball hitter. He was a real student of hitting. He could articulate his craft. He made himself a better hitter through the approach. And in speaking to Byrd, he directed me to Latta. And it was Byrd, who with the Mets, directed Justin Turner to Latta and his spartan, suburban Los Angeles facility.

So nearly a year ago, back on Feb. 6, I published a post after speaking with Latta, wondering if more MLB hitters could get off the ground.

And in 2017, hitters did a better job of getting off the ground.

Hitters have changed, and thanks to Statcast we can monitor these changes. Major league batters produced an average launch angle of 10.1 degrees in 2015, of 10.8 degrees in 2016, and of 11.8 degrees this most recent season. In the 2017 postseason, launch angle continued to inch up to 12.1 degrees.

The teams that had the most success in the postseason were those that launched the ball over the defensive shifts and outfield walls, those that were less concerned with stringing base hits and base runners together in a game in which strikeout rate has increased dramatically.

2017 Playoff Teams Ranked by Launch Angle
Rank Team Sample size Avg. Launch Angle
1 MIN 22 18.7 °
2 HOU 479 14.1 °
3 NYY 290 12.8 °
4 LAD 372 11.9 °
5 CLE 105 11.7 °
6 WSH 122 11.4 °
7 ARI 98 10.3 °
8 BOS 105 9.5 °
9 CHC 203 9.2 °
10 COL 33 6.8 °
SOURCE: Statcast data via Baseball Savant

Teams look to copy successful teams. Players look to copy successful players.

We should be most interested in that 25- to 30-degree launch angle. That’s the sweet spot for home runs. The data are pretty straightforward:

In 2015, 7,563 balls were launched between 25 and 30 degrees. In 2017, despite more strikeouts and fewer balls in play, 7,839 balls were launched between 25 and 30 degrees.

The major league groundball rate has declined by a full percentage point since 2015, which means hundreds of batted balls once placed on the ground were lifted into the air.

But it’s where this trend goes from here that is so fascinating. This idea interests me following a year when terms like “launch angle” first really crept into the public consciousness. Have we reached an air-ball tipping point? What causes a small movement to become a large one? Or, in other words, what’s behind a revolution, and are we still in the early stages? My suspicion is that we are still in the very early stages.

Let’s first think about how fast an idea can spread by considering another data-based innovation, the defensive shift.

Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay Rays are largely credited with ushering the defensive shift into the contemporary game. Maddon’s Rays accounted for about 10 percent of total shifts in 2010. Shifts were a curiosity at that point. Then consider what happened:

The Speed of an Idea: The Increase of Shifts in MLB
Season Total shifts Pct. Change
2011 2,350 n/a
2012 4,577 94.8
2013 6,882 50.4
2014 13,229 92.2
2015 17,826 34.8
2016 28,130 57.8
2017 26,705 (-5.0)
SOURCE: Baseball Info Solutions

Baseball often has been slow to change, so that a radical defensive philosophy—that being defensive shifts—would increase by 1,097 percent from 2011 to 2016 is remarkable.

What is required for an idea to become an epidemic? For starters, every movement requires early adopters.

Maddon was the early adopter of shifts, and the Rays had success. Byrd, Turner, J.D. Martinez and Daniel Murphy were among the early air-ball adopters. They have had success. And what they all had in common was that they were on the fringe of major league rosters; they had to search for change and improvement to remain in the major leagues and become better players. They had the incentive—and curiosity and work ethic—to change.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point he describes one type of person essential to a trend gaining traction as a “maven” or “people we rely upon to connect us with new information.” Gladwell said, “maven is someone who wants to solve other people’s problems, generally by solving his own…mavens start word-of-mouth epidemics because of their knowledge and communication ability.”

And the Dodgers clubhouse is perhaps an example of this, a place where Turner’s words have made an impact. The Dodgers decreased their groundball rate by 3.5 percentage points this season, the second-greatest decrease in the game. Consider the following anecdote from the Sports Illustrated Best. Team. Ever? cover story by Stephanie Apstein.

[Justin Turner] persuaded a fringe major leaguer with a career .598 OPS to spend last offseason overhauling his mechanics; Chris Taylor, now a starting outfielder, has been L.A.’s best second-half hitter, with an OPS of 1.105. Since Turner assigned right fielder Puig five pushups for every grounder he hit in spring training, Puig has pounded the ball harder than in any season since his first. Turner cues up the curveball machine and challenges 22-year-old rookie first baseman Cody Bellinger to flyball competitions, with the winner taking home $10 per session. “I’m down a little bit,” Bellinger admits. It’s worth the lighter wallet, though: His .800 slugging percentage on curves is second in baseball. The team as a whole has cut its ground ball rate by 8%, the biggest drop in the league.”

A connector like Turner can be a big deal, a value-adding leader in a clubhouse. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Ryan Zimmerman transformed into an air-ball masher with Murphy as a teammate this past season. What’s interesting is that in 2017 even star-level players have taken notice. I asked the Reds’ Joey Votto about the air-ball revolution earlier this year.

The consensus among all the hitters I’ve spoken to, and hitting people I’ve spoken to, is ground balls are bad, fly balls are good, line drives are good. That’s definitely something I wasn’t used to when I first came up. The thinking was ‘Hit the ball hard no matter where it is.’ Hit the ball hard, put it in play. There used to be hits up the middle on ground balls, on the right side, on the left side, because the defense was more of a traditional style. Whereas now even right-handed hitters will hammer a ball to the left side and the shortstop will make a back-handed play right behind the third baseman. What previously was a single is nothing. It is an out. I could see hitters evolving into more of a fly-ball-hunting type group.”

It’s word of mouth and information that is perhaps about to push the air-ball revolution forward to another level. Like with the shift revolution, the air-ball revolution was made possible with data. We’ve known for quite some time that line drives and fly balls are more valuable than ground balls. But unlike for all past generations–and thanks to Statcast–there is now hard evidence that hitters can study to optimize their swings and monitor their gains or setbacks in performance at a deeper, more process-oriented level. It is in part Statcast data that is helping players evolve, players like Taylor who have shown us that skill sets and swings might be more malleable than we thought.

Consider Francisco Lindor’s career by launch angles and home run totals.

  • 2015: 4.4 degrees (12 HR)
  • 2016: 9.6 degrees (15 HR)
  • 2017: 13.7 degrees (33 HR)

Lindor was one of 26 hitters who qualified for the batting title in both 2016 and 2017 to improve his line-drive and flyball rates by a combined five percentage points or greater in 2017.

Air-Ball Gainers of 2017
GB rate decline Player
1 -10.1 Yonder Alonso
2 -10.0 Francisco Lindor
3 -9.1 Alcides Escobar
4 -7.8 Brett Gardner
5 -7.8 Josh Harrison
6 -7.7 Denard Span
7 -7.2 Wil Myers
8 -6.5 Hanley Ramirez
9 -6.2 Yadier Molina
10 -4.9 Buster Posey
11 -4.7 Justin Turner
12 -4.7 Kyle Seager
13 -4.7 Jake Lamb
14 -4.6 Jay Bruce
15 -4.5 Mike Trout
16 -4.4 Khris Davis
17 -4.2 Corey Seager
18 -4.0 Joey Votto
19 -3.9 Nelson Cruz
20 -3.9 Didi Gregorius
21 -3.7 Curtis Granderson
22 -3.7 Matt Carpenter
23 -3.6 Marwin Gonzalez
24 -3.4 Jonathan Schoop
25 -3.3 Freddy Galvis
SOURCE: Baseball Info Solutions

While Lindor denied being a part of the flyball revolution, he anecdotally seemed to be taking more forceful, uppercut swings.

Lindor, Murphy—and most notably Jose Altuve—each offer evidence that hitters do not have to make a trade-off of adding more strikeouts, or eroding plate discipline, to produce more fly balls. Lindor’s walk and strikeout rates in 2016 (8.3 percent and 12.9 percent, respectively) were identical to his rates in 2017 (8.3 percent and 12.9 percent). Murphy and Altuve remain elite contact hitters despite adding considerable power to their profiles.

With the flyball revolution, there were early adopters, there were new streams data reinforcing their practices, and there was something else that is required to push a seismic event forward: environment.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell also wrote of another key part of such phenomena, “Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.”

And this swing epidemic is in large part tied to its environment. As noted earlier, the environment had swung in favor of run prevention by 2014 as teams began to more efficiently defend pull-side ground balls and as pitchers enjoyed increased velocity and breaking-ball usage, pushing the game into a record era of strikeouts. With fewer balls being put in play, it became more difficult to manufacture offense.

As recently as 2014 the run-scoring environment was so depressed there were concerns about how more offense could be added to the game. While Rob Arthur, Ben Lindbergh and Alan Nathan have offered compelling evidence that the ball began playing differently in 2015, that it became livelier due to perhaps a reduced seam height and internal properties, a juiced ball does not do any good if it’s not hit into the air. So it is the environment of more shifts, more strikeouts and an apparent juiced ball that has further compelled hitters to launch balls into the air.

And we might still be early on in this movement.

Last season marked the first year in which launch angle became a regular part of the discussion about the game inside and outside clubhouses. Players often make significant changes to their craft and skill sets during the offseason. I suspect we will see a number of new hitters join the movement next season.

Hitters now have three years worth of Statcast data to see the changes, to examine their own performances. They perhaps have a “maven” as a teammate, as there are a number of individual success stories that are public. The air-ball revolution could very well be where shifts were in 2012, a point in time when they started to be adopted more widely, when more teams had become curious, but they had not proliferated in a wholesale, nearly-every-play fashion.

The game has become more extreme, from alignment to velocity, to strikeouts to home runs. And as a response, we are perhaps just in the early stages of this air-ball movement. The game is becoming more extreme, more grounded in data to inform process, and it is showing few signs of slowing.

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.