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April 22, 2018

The Fly Ball Era

With the age of information extending into the sporting world, teams are now in a position to specialize more than ever, allowing them to put their players in the best possible positions to both enhance their performance and ultimately win their team games.

In baseball, this has become clear through the teams’ usage of methods such as player-specific defensive alignments and the specialization of bullpen roles. The league-wide usage of defensive shifts has drastically weakened the impact that a ball hit on the ground can have – given that there is a high percentage that they will be hit right into the shift, something that the data available to teams indicated would happen more often than not. What was the most recent response of the batters in this cat and mouse game of adjustments? Hit the ball in the air and over the shift. A simple explanation from this approach can be borrowed from Blue Jays colour commentator, Pat Tabler. As he commonly says on broadcasts – “you can’t defense that” when referring to a ball hit over the fence. As grammatically incorrect as Tabby might sound in that statement, he is correct.

The “fly-ball revolution” has seen the rebirth of hitters such as Logan Morrison and Yonder Alonso. In 2017, because of the “say no to grounders” approach, these two players went from former top prospects who had begun fading away to ranking in the top half of the leagues offensive first basemen. In Morrison’s case, the difference between his fly-ball percentage between 2016 and 2017 was 11.5%, this increase in hitting the ball in the air, combined with Morrison’s power, resulted in him hitting a career best .246/.353/.516 with another career high in 38 home runs. For Alonso, his 9.9% increase in fly-balls also resulted in career highs with his .266/.365/.501 batting line and 28 home runs, after never previously reaching the double digit mark in his career. Using these two players as an example, it is easy to see why many players have also adapted a similar approach, it is drastically improving their offensive performances, which gives them a better shot of remaining a positive contributor in the big leagues.

Now, more than any other time in the last decade, ground-ball pitchers have been essential due to their ability to limit batters who carry a similar approach to Morrison and Alonso from lifting the ball into the air, and ultimately over the fence. During the seasons 2015-2018 (I elected to include the few starts made by pitchers in 2018), some of the names listed amongst the top ten qualified starting pitchers for the highest ground-ball percentage include… Dallas Keuchel, Luis Perdomo, Clayton Richard, Tyson Ross, Tyler Chatwood, Charlie Morton, and Lance McCullers Jr. Now, those are just seven out of the top ten qualified, the other three? They are all members of your Toronto Blue Jays. Those starting pitchers would be Marcus Stroman (#1), Jaime Garcia (#7), and Aaron Sanchez (#10). Nine out of the top ten pitchers pitch for just three teams – Houston, San Diego, and Toronto. The only pitcher who is not a member of those teams would be Tyler Chatwood. Each of those teams can say that they play in a hitter friendly ballpark and therefore have realized the value and importance in having pitchers that can limit fly-balls and ultimately limit the damage that home runs can create. San Diego has the most pitcher friendly park out of the trio, but after moving the fences in, is more of a hitter/pitcher friendly neutral park rather than the fly-ball cemetery that it once was.

The current ground-ball heavy approach by three of the Blue Jays starting staff is driven by the effectiveness of their sinking fastballs. For the newest of the trio, Jaime Garcia, in that 3+ year span, he has generated an overall groundball percentage of 56.9%, but his sinker itself has generated a groundball percentage hovering around 65%. For Marcus Stroman, his league leading 61.5% groundball percentage has been assisted by his elite sinker getting a groundball on around 72% of the times it has been put into play. With Aaron Sanchez, his 54.3 groundball percentage has been assisted by his power sinker which generates grounders at a rate anywhere from 49-65%. With all three of these pitchers having effective groundball pitches, it is key that they have a defense behind them that they can rely on. With the Blue Jays, that is the case.

Around the diamond, at the hot corner they have their MVP, Josh Donaldson, who since 2015 has saved 18 defensive runs with his glove, which ties him with Justin Turner of the Dodgers for the fourth best third baseman in terms of defensive runs saved (DRS) since 2015. At shortstop, they would like to have Troy Tulowitzki, who has saved 15 DRS and is sandwiched between Adeiny Hechavarria and Trevor Story at fifth place. At second base, they have Devon Travis, who has saved 6 DRS but has been limited to just 1879.0 defensive innings due to multiple injuries. Last but not least, they have the All-Star Justin Smoak at first base, who ranks 13th with 1 DRS. Smoak appears to be the weakest link if going by just the numbers, but is a victim of the flawed defensive metrics for first basemen. As reserves, they have Aledmys Diaz, who is a career -15 DRS at shortstop but has impressed early on with the Blue Jays and who spent the spring working with Luis Rivera on his defense and they have the utility-man Yangervis Solarte, who grades out as about average at nearly every position he plays.

In an era where baseballs are being hit out of the park like never before and players are avoiding hitting the ball on the ground like Adrian Beltre does having his head touched, the Blue Jays are in a position to succeed with the current starting staff leading the way. With the Blue Jays carrying a trio of elite groundball artists and employing an above average infield defense, the team can go as far as the pitching staff can carry them, and with the Blue Jays currently leading the league in average double plays per nine innings, that is a sign of hope for both the team and the fan-base who are just a few months out of a disappointing 2017 season that left much to be desired.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

A native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Michael Torrey is a proud Bluenoser, student by day and baseball fanatic by night. Ever since he was a young boy, he had a love for not just the sport of baseball, but also covering it. The sport of baseball has given Mike many memories – with some of the highlights being the Bautista bat flip and being in attendance for the 2016 Canada Day marathon.

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