In a recent article for Baseball Prospectus, which was later republished on Deadspin, Andrew Koo analyzed how the Oakland A’s may have found a competitive advantage through batted ball ratios. If you have time, I strongly urge you to check out the full article here. If you don’t, I’ll summarize the main points briefly.
In The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, authors Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin found in their study of platoon effects that fly ball hitters were on average better than ground ball hitters and that fly ball hitters happened to be particularly good against groundball pitchers. The advantage was slight, however, and could only be taken advantage of if multiplied across several hitters or an entire lineup. The A’s, in recent years, have successfully done this through the acquisition of players like Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss, and Jed Lowrie. In fact, if you look at every Oakland position player acquisition over the past two seasons, they have all arrived in the Bay Area with above average fly ball rates. 60% of Athletics at bats last season came from fly ball hitters, compared to only 16% for the rest of the league. With the league’s pitching becoming more groundball heavy, this has led to an increasing advantage for Oakland, as that matchup yielded Oakland hitters a .302 True Average in 2013. Against neutral pitchers, Oakland’s fly ball hitters posted a .282 tAV, 6 points above the league average for that matchup. This slight advantage was accentuated though because that matchup occurred almost 4 times as much for the A’s as it did for the rest of the league.
This theory for the A’s success builds upon Bradley Woodrum’s work for FanGraphs from August 2012 . Drawing on comments Joe Maddon made regarding starting Willy Aybar against Zack Greinke in a 2009 game due to Aybar’s success against fly ball pitchers, Woodrum proposed that players with uppercut swings were better against ground ball pitchers and players with level swings were better against fly ball pitchers. This hypothesis was drawn from the alignment an uppercut swing has with a sinking fastball, as the barrel stays on the same plane as the pitch longer allowing for more solid contact. The opposite is true with a level swing, which will only be on plane for a brief moment with a sinking pitch, but will stay on plane for an extended period with a pitch up in the zone. Fly ball hitters in general have uppercut swings, so this postulates why fly ball hitters have a matchup advantage against groundball pitchers. Woodrum’s data ended up not being conclusive due to limited sample size, but it is promising.
The problem that comes with looking at swing plane data is that many hitters’ swing planes are constantly changing. Also, with Batted Ball ratios, the majority of players fall somewhere in the neutral range. However, if you look at certain teams and their offseason decisions, it becomes apparent that this data is playing a prominent role. Two teams, whose recent acquisitions highlight this information both play in New York: the Mets and the Yankees.
The Mets most notable offseason position player acquisitions have been Chris Young and Curtis Granderson. Young led all free agents with 300 or more Plate Appearances in FB% at 49.4% and Granderson’s career mark of 44.2% is well above league average. The Mets already had the 7th highest fly ball percentage last season, and these acquisitions will help push them towards A’s territory of around 40%. Critics of these signings have pointed out the Mets play at Citi Field, a park which ranked 29th in park factor for 2013. However, as Koo addressed in his analysis, acquiring fly ball hitters isn’t necessarily about home runs. It’s about keeping the ball off the ground, where no team had a True Average higher than .200 last season. This criticism is also proven faulty by the A’s example, as O.co, their home, ranks 26th in the league in park factor and the strategy has worked for them.
The Yankees strategy of acquiring fly ball hitters seems more obvious given the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium. Yankee Stadium ranked 7th in the league in park factor last season, and the fly ball hitters they have acquired, especially those who are left-handed or switch hitters, should see a rise in power production. Of free agents not retiring with more than 300 plate appearances, Kelly Johnson ranked 2nd in FB%, Brian McCann ranked 7th, Carlos Beltran 8th, and Brendan Ryan 12th. Only Jacoby Ellsbury is an outlier and predominantly a groundball heavy hitter. The Yankees have also shown strong interest in signing Mark Reynolds who ranks 4th on that same list. I’m willing to bet it’s not a coincidence the Yankees have acquired so many players with such high fly ball rates.
It’s also interesting that both of these teams have been linked to Stephen Drew, whose FB% is the 9th highest amongst free agents. Whether he ends up in New York or not though, it’s undeniable that both teams have been successful in their quest for fly ball hitters. They should both rank amongst the league’s elite in the category next season, and opposing outfielders better get ready to do some running when they visit New York in the summer.
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