As a young baseball player, I remember several coaches constantly trying to tweak my swing mechanics. “Try to hit a line drive,” they would say. Hey, don’t you know that’s exactly what I am trying to do!
The science of hitting, or how it has been taught, has changed immensely in recent years. For years, the emphasis was placed on trying to swing down on the ball. However, we have learned better since then.
I am scared to call the new emphasis on hitters lifting the baseball the “launch angle revolution” because it isn’t really a revolution. In fact, this is the same style of swing that Ted Williams was preaching when he was playing nearly a century earlier. Launch angle is just an informative statistic on the trajectory of the baseball, nothing else. Regardless, it’s clear that a majority of professional baseball hitters are doing what it takes to hit the ball in the air.
After all, this is where the most optimal results come from, based on the weighted on-base average for each batted-ball type:
Obviously, you want to avoid hitting the ball TOO far in the air, but line drives and fly balls are the clear optimal trajectories of contact over ground balls, which lead to much less success offensively.
Okay, now that we’ve established that hitting the ball in the air is good, and hitting the ball on the ground is less good, we can get to the premise of this piece: discovering which hitters would benefit most from a swing change.
In fantasy baseball, we are always looking for untapped potential and upside with the players we draft, and that’s exactly what looking into swing change candidates can provide! These players all can hit the ball extremely hard; they just haven’t been doing at the optimal trajectory. With improvement in the latter category, they could take off into being true power threats. We’ll look through several different categories when it comes to identifying the need for a swing change, before taking a more general approach to specify which hitters stand out above the rest. What are we waiting for? Let us get right into it!
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These hitters, based on a singular batted-ball event, have demonstrated the ability to hit the ball at an extremely high exit velocity. However, despite this, they didn’t hit the ball hard consistently, leading to a lower average exit velocity than expected.
This takes a look at each of these players’ percentile average exit velocity subtracted from their percentile max exit velocity. As you can see, ground balls and pop-ups are hit at a significantly softer exit velocity than fly balls and line drives:
Thus, it shouldn’t surprise you that most of the hitters at the top of this list have either high ground ball rates, pop-up rates, or both. Poor batted-ball trajectory can suppress the potential of players’ offensive capabilities.
With that, let’s compare players’ launch angle to how hard they are hitting the ball, converting each statistic to a percentile score to assist in the comparison.
These players have the raw power, but aren’t taking advantage of it due to a low launch angle:
Did the Padres strike gold by trading for Jorge Alfaro? There seems to be some clear untapped potential to tap into!
High % 95 EV, Low Launch Angle
These hitters hit the ball over 95 mph consistently, but if their launch angle was higher, perhaps they’d be able to strike gold more often:
Hey, Jorge Alfaro shows up at the top again! Now, it’s time to put it all together.
Now, by averaging the difference between launch angle and how hard players are hitting the ball in the four categories we looked at, we can see which hitters have the most untapped potential:
There are some interesting names here. Harold Ramírez was a hot commodity in deeper leagues last season before struggling towards the end of the season, while Kelvin Gutiérrez could get some playing time in Baltimore. Oh, and of course, Eric Hosmer shows up at the top of the list! Haven’t we been waiting on a swing change since he came into the league!
There is no quality of contact better than a barrel. According to Jonathan Metzelaar at Pitcher List, 56.78% of barrels resulted in a home run between 2018 and 2019, in addition to an absurd isolated power (ISO) of 1.939. Furthermore, this season, barrels resulted in a wOBA of 1.342. In other words, barrels are what hitters should be striving for.
What is a barrel? Per Baseball Savant, here is how it’s classified:
The Barrel classification is assigned to batted-ball events whose comparable hit types (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage since Statcast was implemented Major League wide in 2015.
But similar to how Quality Starts have generally yielded a mean ERA much lower than the baseline of 4.50, the average Barrel has produced a batting mark and a slugging percentage significantly higher than .500 and 1.500, respectively. During the 2016 regular season, balls assigned the Barreled classification had a batting average of .822 and a 2.386 slugging percentage.
To be Barreled, a batted ball requires an exit velocity of at least 98 mph. At that speed, balls struck with a launch angle between 26-30 degrees always garner Barreled classification. For every mph over 98, the range of launch angles expands.
Long story short, hitters should be striving for barrels. Interestingly, no statistic has a greater correlation (r^2= .712) to barrels than exit velocity on fly balls and line drives.
This means that 71.2% of a player’s barrel rate can be explained simply by their exit velocity on fly balls and line drives. Thus, it’s a predictive measure for barrels in a given season, which leads me to expected barrels. By converting a player’s exit velocity of fly balls and line drives into an expected barrel rate, we can see which hitters are poised to do the most damage:
Now, we have a better idea of which hitters are leaving the most on the table. A clear similar trait between all of the players on this list would be that they have high ground ball rates, meaning this isn’t the first list regarding untapped potential they’ve shown up near the top. I’m looking at Austin Nola, who had a respectable 7.8% barrel rate as recently as 2020, as a clear bounce-back candidate from a power standpoint. Meanwhile, I am hoping the Orioles give Kelvin Gutiérrez the chance to play; he is in the 93rd percentile in max exit velocity but had a 60.2% ground ball rate last year. It feels as though he’s one swing change away from being an everyday third baseman, though it remains to be seen if that tweak can be made.
However, I want to focus specifically on players whose power outbreak would draw the most buzz from a fantasy perspective. These three hitters have the most to gain with changes to their swing mechanics if it means more balls in the air.
Swing Change Candidate #1: OF Christian Yelich
Christian Yelich is no stranger to making a swing change. As a member of the Marlins, the 30-year-old got on base at a high rate, but never quite tapped into his raw power. Then came a change to Milwaukee, where Yelich hit 36 and 44 home runs, respectively, in his first two seasons with the team.
In 2021, however, Yelich’s power disappeared; he had just a .125 ISO with a paltry nine home runs. Yet, Yelich still ranked in the 94th percentile in max exit velocity, and in the 80th percentile in average exit velocity. The problem? A 55.7% ground ball rate; 43.9% of his batted-balls were “topped” — not the trajectory we’d be hoping to get from a hitter with such clear raw power. Now supposedly fully healthy, here’s hoping a full offseason gives Yelich the chance to get back to hitting the ball in the air. His peak production is special, and I believe I speak for everyone when I saw it would be terrific to see him get back to that production.
Swing Change Candidate #2: 1B Josh Bell
With a .215 ISO and 27 home runs last season, it isn’t as though Josh Bell didn’t hit for serious power. However, for a hitter with a 96th percentile max exit velocity and 92nd percentile average exit velocity, Bell has clear 40-home run potential.
When Bell posted .268 ISO and 37 home runs in 2019, he did so with a 44% ground ball rate. In 2020, however, his ground ball spiked to 56.3%, and the results were not much better (54.8%) in 2021. Similar to Yelich, I am comfortable taking a chance on Bell making a swing change because he has done just that before. As a later-round first base target, you cannot do much better.
Swing Change Candidate #3: 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes
From a former Pirate to a current Pirate, there was a lot of hype surrounding youngster Ke’Bryan Hayes after he posted a 195 weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+) in his MLB debut, but he disappointed with an 88 wRC+ in his first full season. Furthermore, for a third baseman, you’d hope for more than 5.1% barrel rate, in addition to just six home runs on 396 plate appearances.
The 24-year-old’s main bug-a-boo? A 57.7% ground ball rate, in addition to a 21.9% pull rate. That isn’t going to lead to much power, which doomed Hayes in 2021. Another issue? Pitchers seemed to catch onto his weaknesses; the average pitch height against him decreased throughout the season. Why is this a concern? Well, when you look at where his ground balls are coming from, it starts to make more sense:
Luckily, this would appear to be an easier fix when it comes to adding loft to the swing. Pitches down in the zone are the type that can be lifted with a loftier swing path, and if Hayes can adopt that, then he can hit for a lot more power. His 9.03 expected barrel rate suggests there’s more in the tank for him, and when his raw power (78th percentile max exit velocity) starts to turn into real power, he can be one of the better fantasy third basemen in the MLB. The question is; when will this reality come, if it ever does? That’s the real question, but, hopefully, we see Hayes emerge as a power-speed third baseman starting this season.
At the end of the day, it’s clear that better results happen when hitters lift the ball into the air. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. There are plenty of hitters that have a lot of raw power to tap into, but are hitting the ball too much into the ground to take advantage of it.
In fantasy baseball drafts, however, we can take advantage of this. If we are drafting the player for what they’ve been, then we are establishing a high floor, with the ceiling coming if they do make a swing change. This happens more often than you’d think, so you’ll want to be on top of who has the most to gain from a swing change. In my opinion, Yelich, Bell, and Hayes, but others, such as Edmundo Sosa and Alec Bohm also stand out. Sure, it isn’t a given that they’ll make these changes, but, as they say, a fantasy manager can dream, right?
Nationals Josh Bell – All-Pro Reels Photography
Photo by Gerry Angus – Icon Sportswire
Photo by Nick Wosika – Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@PalmerGuyBoston on Twitter)