Hitters have been told for years and decades one thing: Don’t try hitting fly balls. Hitting a hard line drive or a ground ball right back up the middle is considered a success, said hitting coaches and people around baseball. It might be time to start reconsidering what the old adage has told us. In the year 2017, the rise of the fly ball hitters has skyrocketed and there may be some old myths about hitting debunked going forward. In the 2016 season, hitters were dropping bombs and fly balls at historic rates, thanks to a new influx of fly ball hitters. There are 3 main leaders of this so called fly ball hitting generation: J.D. Martinez, Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner. Those aren’t the only 3 hitters of this movement but they’re the prime examples that are showing what can happen with swing revamps and a different approach at the plate. Each of those 3 players ended up fixing certain aspects of their swings but they all came to the same ending conclusion: fly balls are a good thing.
If you want to know how Martinez feels about his new swing and approach, just ask him how he feels about hitting fly balls. Here’s an excerpt from an article from Fangraphs earlier this year by the phenomenal Travis Sawchik:
“In the cage, I talk about it all the time. I’m not trying to hit a f*cking line drive or a freaking ground ball. I’m trying to hit the ball in the air. I feel like the ball in the air is my strength and has a chance to go anywhere in the park. So why am I trying to hit a ground ball? That’s what I believe in.”
Martinez was essentially floundering in the major leagues with Houston from 2011-2013, when he slugged .387 and was worth -1.1 Wins Above Replacement(WAR) across 252 games. Martinez decided a change was needed and ended up going to California after the 2013 season to work with hitting consultant Craig Wallenbrock. Notice the term used was consultant, not hitting coach. This is because Wallenbrock is by name a hitting consultant, who also had 13 years of scouting experience in baseball. Wallenbrock is a firm believer of keeping your hands back as long as possible while your hips load, creating a rubber band effect that creates as much power as possible. The hands are important for any hitter’s swing but when you take the noise out of your hands by allowing them to stay back, you create opportunity for your lower body and upper body to be in fluidity, creating optimal strength. Many coaches at the lower levels and even higher levels believe in bringing your hands and hips forward at the same time, keeping the forward momentum in unison. That may not necessarily be the best way to create torque and power and new school coaches are preaching keeping your hands back as long as possible. After not making the Opening Day roster for the Astros in 2014, the Detroit Tigers swooped in and signed J.D. Martinez and made one of the best acquisitions in their franchise history.
Here is Martinez back in his pre Tigers days, hitting with the Astros AA affiliate:
Here is Martinez with the Tigers, after his swing revamp.
There is a complete night and day difference between these 2 videos. In his minor league/Astros Days, Martinez had no leg kick, no rubber band effect between his hands and hips, had no bat path geared for doing damage and essentially created no torque in his swing. With the Tigers, Martinez has the effective rubber band effect and uses a leg kick as a timing mechanism, creating the ultimate power and timing to do serious damage. The numbers don’t lie.
Martinez from 2011-2013: 33.3% Fly Ball(FB) rate, 45.8% Ground Ball(GB) rate, 34.8% pull rate, 29.2% hard hit rate, .387 SLG%, -1.1 WAR, 87 wRC+
Martinez from 2014-2016: 39.2% FB rate, 38.6% GB rate, 42% pull rate, 42.4% hard hit rate, .540 SLG%, 10.9 WAR, 143 wRC+
In the Travis Sawchik article linked above, Martinez makes it well known that he is trying to do one thing: hit the crud out of the ball in the air and in most cases, pull that baseball with authority. He has done just that since 2014.
Josh Donaldson and J.D. Martinez are basically 1A and 1B for leaders of the fly ball movement. We can essentially call them the alternate captains. Josh Donaldson’s story about his rise to stardom is pretty well known, as he was a floundering catcher in the Cubs and A’s farm systems, then made a transition to 3rd base, then transitioned into elite MVP caliber player. Eno Sarris, another phenomenal writer at Fangraphs who does many player feature stories, documented Donaldson’s swing changes and philosophy. Here’s an excerpt from his article:
“Honestly I never really think about my hands,” laughed Donaldson as we talked before a game against the Athletics. “It more has to do with angles with your legs, your spine, your shoulders. I wouldn’t consider myself a guy who has a handsy swing, that’s more of the old-school kind of thing, or guys that slap the ball around. I use more of my entire body.”
Now we’re talking. J.D. Martinez was a little more straight forward with his thought process, talking about straight up hitting the crud out of the baseball and putting it in the air. Donaldson, meanwhile, is getting into the anatomical aspect of the human body, talking about putting certain body parts in certain spots to create the best angles for success with a swing. It may sound like he’s over thinking; that’s not the case. He simply knows his swing better than most players. Donaldson, like Martinez, sought an outside source from the main MLB community to try to fix his swing when he was a fringe AAA/MLB player. He resorted to Bobby Tewksbary, who runs his own hitting company, that does 1 on 1 instructions and is preaches a very much different style of hitting than most hitting coaches do.
Tewksbary was interviewed on MLB Now, where he explains that his philosophy is all about creating the optimal bat path. To become a successful hitter, creating the best angle through your hand load is where it all starts. This is similar to what Craig Wallenbrock is teaching in some way, with both men preaching that keeping your hands back while the hips load forward is the best way to create a fluid bat path. Bringing the knob of your bat forward too early and trying to create your own bat plane takes a lot of power out of your swing, which leads to less impact when the bat meets the ball.
Josh Donaldson ate up all of this knowledge, completely revamping his swing and is now an absolute firm believer in hitting fly balls and trying to pull them with a meaning. Just like J.D. Martinez, the numbers don’t lie.
-Donaldson from 2010-2012: 38.2% FB rate, 40.8% GB rate, 39.7% pull rate, 25.6% hard hit rate, .386 SLG%, 84 wRC+, 1.2 WAR
-Donaldson from 2013-2016: 38.8% FB rate, 43.1% GB rate, 42.1% pull rate, 35.9% hard hit rate, .518 SLG%, 146 wRC+, 30.5 WAR
Donaldson started to make these swing changes prior to the 2012 season, when he finally got some real extended time in the major leagues for the first time. He held his own in 2012, then absolutely exploded into a perennial superstar after that. Donaldson, like Martinez, creates a buggy whip action with his hands loading back all the way until his big leg front leg kick reaches the ground. Donaldson creates the unique angle with his bat path by keeping his hands completely out of the equation, essentially just doing a simple load back and then absolutely unleashing force on the baseball. Donaldson has preached keeping his front elbow above the baseball, using shoulder plane to create a clean bath path and using the rubber band effect to create a maximum effort swing geared for hard contact. Here’s a perfect swing from Donaldson:
I’ll let Josh Donaldson do the rest of the talking in these two epic videos he had on MLB network.
Justin Turner, much like J.D. Martinez and Josh Donaldson, was a fringe MLB player when he was picked up off the scrap heap by the Dodgers. For 3 years with the New York Mets, Turner was a scrappy, hard nosed grinder who didn’t offer enough to stick at the big leagues long term.
-Turner from 2011-2013: 29.4% FB rate, 47.5% GB rate, 31.4% pull rate, 22% hard hit rate, .371 SLG%, 97 wRC+, 0.9 WAR
After the 2013 season, Justin Turner sought out Doug Latta, a hitting guru and former high school coach who does private lessons in Los Angeles. Thanks to advice from former MLB player Marlon Byrd, who worked with Latta, Turner was able to completely revamp his swing in one offseason. MLB beat writer Phil Rogers wrote a piece about the swing changes and how Byrd and Latta really helped Turner transform his swing. Said Turner about Byrd:
“He talks about gaining ground, catching the ball out in front rather than catching it deep, where I’d always been,” Turner said. “Trying to pick my foot up and put it down in the same place, stay back, back the ball up, and stay behind the ball. You’re still staying behind the ball, you’re still backing it up. You’re just moving your contact point out a little in front of you.”
Again, this is a similar principle to Martinez and Donaldson but it’s being described a bit differently. Essentially, Turner was starting his leg kick too late earlier in his career and wasn’t creating optimal power by keeping his forward momentum and hands back in unison. When Turner changed his leg kick and started keeping his hands back in a more simple manner, he created that same rubber band effect that Donaldson has preached, allowing Turner to tap into his natural strength. The Dodgers, thanks to a tip from then bench coach Tim Wallach, recommended the team signing Turner after the two of them attended an alumni game at Cal State Fullerton, as both played ball there. The signing proved to be one of the best in Dodgers history and the numbers speak for themselves.
-Turner from ’14-’16: 36% FB rate, 39% GB rate, 34.5% pull rate, 34.9% hard hit rate, .492 SLG%, 138 wRC+, 12.8 WAR
Here is video of the drastic swing change Turner made:
We see precisely what Turner and Byrd were discussing in regards to his leg kick. Turner gets a stronger leg kick, gets his foot down earlier, keeps his hands back and creates the optimal swing path to hit home runs. You can even see the potential with his Mets swing, as he already has a pretty clean bath path but the lack of the rubber band effect definitely sapped his potential, which finally showed up with the Dodgers.
The fly ball trend in the league
The 3 players mentioned above are the obvious leaders of this new generation but the fly ball increases are not just limited to them. The league as a whole is hitting way more fly balls and home runs than baseball has ever been accustomed to. If you go back 10 years, you can see the noticeable trend in fly balls and home runs.
2006: 1.08 ground ball/fly ball ratio, 7.8% Home Run/Fly Ball rate, 5,386 home runs
2016: 0.83 GB/FB ratio, 9.2% HR/FB rate, 5,610 home runs
The year 2000 was the most prolific home run year in baseball history, with 5,693 home runs. However, there were way more plate appearances in 2000, due to the extreme offensive environment. In 2000, there was a home run every 33.4 plate appearances. In 2016, there was a home run every 32.9 plate appearances. The stats don’t lie. The year 2016 was a home run hitting haven and it’s partially due to the influx of the fly ball hitting philosophy.
With fly balls being hit at a rapid rate and players seeing success with it, there are bound to be more players getting in on the action. Daniel Murphy, A.J. Pollock, Mark Trumbo, Mitch Haniger and Jason Castro are other examples of players who have made swing changes to try to lift the ball in the air more and have more success and all of them except for Castro have had success with doing so. Murphy himself could probably warrant a feature spot of his own, as he revamped his swing in the 2nd half of 2015, leading to a monstrous postseason and 2016 season. He had a career best FB%, hard hit rate, wRC+ and WAR in 2016 while posting a career low GB%, showing his changes to a fly ball hitter were extremely successful. With players doing all this damage on fly balls, how will the pitchers adjust back?
Just like hitters have always been told that fly balls are bad and that hitting the ball on the ground or on the line is correct, pitchers have also been told pitching down in the zone is the right approach. Leaving pitches up in the zone was a recipe for disaster for pitchers and keeping the ball down would avoid damage. This is not the case anymore as fly ball hitters have started to dominate the sport of baseball and have started to exploit pitchers with the deep ball. Most people would assume it is easy to hit the high fastball since it is left up in the zone and it’s easier to lift a ball rather than go down to get a baseball. The stats, however, don’t back up this theory right now. Below are heat maps from Fangraphs, which date back to the year 2007. I used the SLG/Pitch filter, which felt like an appropriate way of judging how much damage was done on low pitches compared to high pitches.
Again, the numbers don’t lie. Back in 2007, before the fly ball revolution, hitters were doing more of their damage up in the zone compared to low in the zone. Pitchers started to adjust and just got better as a whole, as velocity started to creep up to historic levels after that. Hitters in 2016, meanwhile, started to exploit pitcher who pitched lower in the zone, using the “new school” style of hitting by keeping a flat swing path through the zone and going down to get lower pitches with lots of success. Meanwhile, the pitchers who have utilized fastballs up in the zone are seeing success, while the pitchers going low aren’t seeing the success we saw back in 2007 when these maps became public.
Just like hitters started to adjust by hitting more fly balls and hitting low pitches with success, it’s now time for the pitchers to do their adjusting. Just like a single game of baseball, the timeline of a baseball season, or several seasons, is like a cat and mouse game. It won’t be surprising to see teams and pitchers start to pitch up in the zone, using these historic velocities with more success by pitching up. Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays have already recognized this trend and have compiled a rotation of pitchers who throw hard and succeed by pitching up in the zone.
What the fly ball revolution means for baseball
With more and more success stories occurring each year by not-traditional standards, the future of baseball at all levels could change. Old school coaches who tell little league kids to not hit fly balls could have a change of heart. High school coaches, who are trying to win more games and send kids to the next level, may preach a different style of hitting the ball. More importantly for the future of the MLB, more fringe minor league players who may be struggling to reach the next level could decide to revamp their swings. The 3 prime examples, Martinez, Donaldson and Turner, were all mediocre MLB talents who turned into stars in a hurry, thanks to swing changes and hard work on their craft. If those 3 can do that, what is holding back the hundreds of minor league hitters who may never reach the major leagues? It’s not easy and not everybody can just flip the switch and start hitting home runs with success. But with examples of players being successful with this approach, there’s no doubt we will see more stories like this in the next few years. As hitters make adjustments with this fly ball revolution, the pitchers may be starting the high fastball revolution shortly thereafter. Your move, MLB pitchers.
*On Episode 7 of OBP: The Official Baseball Podcast, co-host Jared Tims and myself talked about this exact topic so this article and the podcast go hand in hand. If you want to hear more about this topic, check out the podcast here.