Much has been said about the fly ball revolution over the past two years, but every word has been appropriate – especially as juiced balls remain a potential issue – because it transformed a number of players’ careers.
Take Ian Happ, for one example. After improving his fly ball rate from 33.3% at High-A (2016) to 35.8% at Double-A later that season, and eventually 38.7% at Triple-A a year later, his ISO improved from .179 to .317 in the Minors.
And in his Major League debut last season, Happ’s fly ball rate climbed even further (39.7%), and that helped him transform league average soft/hard contact rates into 24 home runs, a .261 ISO, and a .514 slugging percentage over 413 plate appearances. Happ was always expected to have some power, but he wasn’t necessarily expected to be *this* kind of slugger.
Something changed along the way, and more fly balls was probably a big part of that.
HOWEVA, the honeymoon can’t last forever – and not just for Ian Happ, who is now struggling, but for every hitter trying to take advantage of launch angles. These things tend to swing like a pendulum, and if you trust Joe Maddon, who recently discussed this issue on 670 The Score, this particular pendulum might swing back the other direction:
“I also believe the fly ball thing is going to gradually simmer down a little bit. I think the launch angle is going to become less prominent with the elevated fastball. As more teams are incorporating that, then the natural progression is going to be how do you combat that? You combat that by the tried-and-true principles of top half of the ball, inner half of the ball, staying inside the ball …. So velocity in the bullpen, elevated fastballs, all those things don’t speak very well for the launch angle or that type of swing.”
I sense that Maddon could be right about that. As more hitters try to elevate, they’ll become more susceptible to whiffs on high fastballs. And when you throw in the fact that all pitchers are throwing harder than ever before while also focusing on spin rate (which helps keep the fastball elevated), those high fastballs are about to get even more challenging.
For what it’s worth – and you can debate just how much, given the early stage of the season – it does look like Happ is being challenged more often by high four-seam fastballs. Here’s 2017’s distribution of four-seamers to him (Brooks):
And here’s 2018 (Brooks):
It’s only one player and a super small sample, but it just serves to illustrate Maddon’s point.
Ultimately, it’s nice to have a forward-thinking manager like Maddon working with the Cubs’ young hitters at this particular moment in baseball time. The launch angle revolution is an attractive beast, and young guys like Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez, Albert Almora, and Ian Happ are all plausible candidates to buy in, given their desire to add power. Maddon’s job is to make sure they don’t go too far with it and remain the best overall hitter each can be.