Launch Angle, the Fly Ball Revolution, and the Increasing Importance of Outfield Defense

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Launch Angle, the Fly Ball Revolution, and the Increasing Importance of Outfield Defense

Chicago Cubs

There’s been an odd delay in translation from our long-standing knowledge that groundball pitchers are a good thing to a widespread understanding that hitters should be trying to hit the ball in the air more often. Maybe it was simply a matter of the methodology and data catching up with our eyes (it’s easy to see a groundball or a fly ball with your eyes, but it’s not at all easy to see the precise launch angle and study the various impacts on results).

It’s not like we, as Cubs fans, would have had to look too far to find a fantastic example of how important fly ball contact can be. Anthony Rizzo does not hit the ball with extreme exit velocity, which is most typically attached to sluggers (like Rizzo) … and yet Rizzo has slugged over .500 with an ISO over .230 each of the past three years. If it’s not because he’s tattooing the ball every time, how is he doing it?

Well, first of all, it’s not like he has weak exit velocity. He squares the ball up. But of critical importance to his success on balls in play, especially given his size and pull tendencies: dude doesn’t put the ball on the ground. The league average groundball rate in 2016 was 44.7%. For Rizzo? Just 38.4%. And that was actually his highest mark in the last three years. Among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances from 2014-16, Rizzo’s 36.4% groundball rate is 24th lowest. (Oh, hey there, Kris Bryant at number 5, and just 32.2%!)

Rizzo is not an anomaly among the best hitters in baseball, and the trends are such that more and more hitters are going to be working to put the ball in the air more often, where shifts can’t hurt and the most damage can be done.

As former Cubs prospect and AL MVP Josh Donaldson puts it:

We are in an era of the Fly Ball Revolution (well, at least in the public discourse, as fly ball rates league wide are not noticeably higher in the past few years), and there is a whole lot out there that you can read about it if you are so inclined. Travis Sawchik, in particular, has been doing fantastic work – examples here, here, and here.

With so much more granular data available, it’s theoretically easier to get players to buy into something like “launch angle”, and adjust their game accordingly. Will we see more and more “good” hitters becoming “great” hitters by virtue of sending more balls into the outfield (and beyond)? It’s going to be a very interesting year to examine that question, given how much attention launch angle continues to receive.

That said, what I wonder about most at this moment, in an environment where small, individual changing offensive approaches could coalesce into a truly dramatic one across teams and the league, is what’s going to happen to the importance of outfield defense?

If the new (correct) philosophy is that almost all big league hitters would be better served trying to create more fly ball contact, won’t seemingly small differences in outfield defensive ability become magnified? We clearly passed the era of teams feeling comfortable parking any heavy hitter in a corner outfield spot about five years ago (I primarily credit the contrast of Adam Dunn and Alex Gordon for that), but I don’t think there is universal buy-in for the defensive component in WAR calculations, and my gut tells me that’s especially true for outfielders. And yet, in a world where there are more and more fly balls designed to create extra base hits into the outfield, it’s entirely possible that the defensive component of WAR for outfielders could undersell their value (or oversell immobile sluggers, as the case may be).

It’s something to consider as the Cubs head into the season with what projects to be a very good defensive outfield overall, and a year after sporting one of the best outfield defenses in baseball.

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Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.