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Christian Yelich, Fly Balls, and a New Hope

Christian Yelich is a very good baseball player. Since becoming a full-time major leaguer in 2014, Yelich has accumulated 13.8 Wins Above Replacement, good for 35th among qualified hitters. Yelich owns a career 120 wRC+, showing he’s a fine hitter. Yet there has always been a lingering question: Can his bat be even better?

Yelich hits the ball hard. Since 2016, only 10 players have a greater average exit velocity (minimum 2500 pitches seen). More importantly, his 94.3 MPH exit velocity off of fly balls is 25th from the same group. If we add in line drives with fly balls, Yelich’s 95.7 MPH exit velocity ranks 17th, sandwiched in between Manny Machado and Yasmany Tomas. Exit velocity is only part of the story, though. His launch angle is not ideal. Despite hitting the ball more than a mile harder than sluggers such as Bryce Harper, Michael Conforto, and Anthony Rizzo, Yelich has routinely chosen a ground-ball-based approach. Since the All-Star break, we might have gotten another indication of a possible transformation. The prospects are tantalizing. Have always been tantalizing.

Last season, Yelich saw his wRC+ rise to 130, the best of his career. This was partly related to him increasing his power level, as shown by a .185 ISO, the highest of his career. No doubt like every other batter, he was aided by a mysterious force (most likely the ball), but he also had a slight approach change. Yelich hit more fly balls, and so far in 2017, he’s expanded on that. Yelich has the 35th highest (122 players) difference between his 2016 fly-ball rate and 2017 fly-ball rate (minimum 350 plate appearances in both seasons). Slowly, Yelich might just be embracing the fly-ball revolution. This is also seen in his launch angle. In 2016, Yelich’s average launch angle was 2.5 degrees. In 2017, it’s 4.9 degrees, nearly double (more on this later).

Yelich’s 15 Game Rolling GB% and FB%

Yelich seems to have committed to some sort of approach in which fly balls are more sought after. In September of last year, Yelich carried a fly-ball rate at nearly 30%. He began April hitting fly balls at a 27.2% clip, followed by 23.6% in May, and to a low 14.1% in June. He seemed to abandon the fly-ball approach as his results weren’t up to his standards. Have you ever done something you were excited about but didn’t do well that you sort of slowly stopped? I’d imagine something like that may have happened with Yelich. During the second half so far, his fly-ball rate is 32.3%! It could very well be the result of small sample size, but it could also be a sign of Yelich looking to become a better hitter. Since the All-Star break, the Marlins outfielder’s average launch angle has been 10.4 degrees. This is what we want to see. And interestingly enough:

Yelich’s 15 Game Rolling GB% and FB%

We haven’t really seen Yelich be at this power level. He’s had spikes for sure, but nothing as high as the power streak he has shown recently. It coincides with him lifting the ball more. Since the start of the second half, Yelich has a .250 ISO. To give you an idea of the type of power output, that’s pretty much what Anthony Rizzo and Miguel Sano have this season (both at .247).

This feeds into what I mentioned above with psychological factors possibly playing a role. Yelich is seeing good results; perhaps he may experiment a little more with a greater emphasis on fly balls.

As mentioned above, Yelich hits the ball hard. But he also hits it hard to all fields. This is just another example of the kind of strength that exists within Yelich and his all-fields approach making him a tough out. Being able to hit the ball to the opposite part of the park with authority is a rare skill. It’s one of the reasons why Rafael Devers is such an exciting prospect.

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Now combine that all-field power with solid zone control and you’ve got a good hitter. Then combine someone who is has a better batted-ball mix and you might just end up with a great hitter. If Yelich shows more power, which his 6’3″, 195lb figure suggests is there, Yelich will likely be given more free passes. Basically, Yelich has the tools to be that rare hitter than can hit for average and power.

Back to the launch angle which has nearly doubled — FanGraphs Andrew Perpetua recently had an intriguing article advising caution when using Launch Angle. In the article, Andrew writes, “Launch angle is largely dependent on the particular swing and approach of a given batter. If they have an uppercut, then they will produce high launch angles with their high-velocity balls. If they swing down on the ball, then they will have lower launch angles with their high-velocity balls.” Furthermore, Andrew mentions in the comments, “I think launch angle is so intimately tied with swing mechanics that you probably shouldn’t talk about it outside the context of swing mechanics.” This does make sense. Hitters need to alter their bat path to hit the ball at specific angles. Bringing it back to Yelich, we can try to see if he has altered his mechanics. Take the following with a massive grain of salt because it’s only a couple of videos, and I’m no swing expert. From the videos I’ve seen of Yelich, he seems to have a pretty smooth swing path and uses a leg kick for additional power. Here are two of his home runs this year: the first from June 2 against the Diamondbacks and the second from July 26 against the Rangers.

I don’t see a major difference. A bit of a stronger leg kick in the homer against the D’Backs.

In both of these videos, Yelich hits an opposite-field double. Against the Braves, Yelich seems to do a double leg kick. He did this in the next game as well. It’s not something that I’ve seen stick. I’d imagine it might have been due to seeing something he may not have been expecting. Either way, it must’ve been an interesting conversation between Yelich and the hitting coach.

From the limited video evidence, I can’t decipher much. Someone more experienced might want to look into it. The numbers show Yelich very well may have altered his bat path slightly.

One of the criticisms of Yelich was his lack of damage done when pulling the ball. He’s been the fourth-best hitter when going opposite field over the past three calendar years.

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On the plus side, this is another area of improvement for Yelich.

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Christian Yelich could very well remain a ground-ball-heavy hitter and be one of the better hitters in the majors. His plate approach has been lauded for many years to go along with his full-field power. If he is part of the fly-ball revolution, Yelich very well could be one of the best hitters in the game. He’s shown signs of a different approach. With the results to back it up, the rest of the season will give us a glimpse into the hitter that Yelich both wants to be and could be.

Marco Estrada Might Be Getting Better

Marco Estrada has a .302 BABIP. If you don’t know, Estrada has been one of the best pitchers at limiting batting average on balls in play. Of the 41 qualified pitchers who have at least 750 innings pitched throughout their career, Estrada has the sixth-worst BABIP difference this season relative to his career.

Despite this increase, Estrada has managed a 3.86 ERA. It’s not great but it ranks 43rd among qualified pitchers (90) this season. Marco’s 3.59 FIP ranks 25th, one of the more intriguing developments of this season. From 2015-2016, Estrada had the second-largest difference between his FIP and ERA, behind only Dan Haren, who did not pitch in 2016.

One of the game’s better contact managers, Marco Estrada looks to be adapting. The Blue Jays ace has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career thus far. Estrada has the thirteenth-best strikeout percentage this season, sandwiched between Cardinals ace Carlos Martinez and Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg. There are 45 pitchers who qualified for the leaderboards for the past two seasons, only six of which had a greater K/9 increase. Driving this increase looks to be the change.

Estrada’s changeup is one of the best in the league. It’s not a hard change like Stephen Strasburg’s; rather the second-slowest in the league, ahead of only Jered Weaver. There are a couple of factors that make Estrada’s changeup one of the best. Foremost, it comes with an 11 MPH separation between his fastball, making it great for generating whiffs. Furthermore, his release points allow him to deceive batters. The pitch comes from a similar angle as the fastball but travels 10+ MPH slower, making it more difficult to pick up. If you’re thinking the fastball is coming, and a split-second later you realize it’s much slower, by then you’ve already swung as the ball goes right by you. Lastly, the pitch gets little drop. Estrada’s vertical movement on the changeup was 2.56 inches higher than the next right-hander, Chase Anderson. This is another problem for the hitter as the pitch barely drops relative to a major league pitcher’s average changeup.

In the end, you’ve got a pitch that might look like a fastball from the arm slot, is going quite slow, and doesn’t drop much. You can see how the batter faces a tough quandary. The fastball-changeup combo play off each other well. Deception is a key part of Estrada’s arsenal. To get even better, Estrada began to utilize his best pitch more. Using your best pitch isn’t a novel concept. We’ve seen Rich Hill and Lance McCullers Jr. have success in this mold.

Decreasing the usage of the cutter has brought better performance thus far. The cutter is inducing more swinging strikes, and less contact, as hitters have swung more often when he throws it. In 2016, Estrada threw 625 cutters leading to a .352 wOBA, the worst of his four pitches. In 2017, Estrada has thrown 93 cutters, to the tune of a .272 wOBA, currently the best of his repertoire. Why the change? The cutter has seen a massive drop in vertical movement, likely the reason for its reduced usage. While the results have been better, the process might not be. Marco has been unable to get sufficient rise on the cutter. Moreover, the increased effectiveness might simply be due to small sample size. Or perhaps throwing it less brings its own added value.

ACEstrada, as he is affectionately known as to Jays fans, has ramped up usage of his four-seam fastball as well. The pitch is still strong and it’s traveling a mile faster. It won’t keep a 31% strikeout rate but it should continue to induce lots of infield fly balls. On the downside, the average launch speed on the fastball on line drives and fly balls is up 1.5 MPH from last season, to 94.7 MPH. This would explain part of the .316 BABIP it currently sports, up 52 points compared to his career. With a first-pitch-strike rate the highest since his last season with the Brewers, and his best walk rate since 2013, Estrada’s not making it tougher than it has to be. Pitches inside the strike zone are at the highest rate of his career. Once again, it’s because of a changeup he’s commanding very well. It’s practically 50/50 whether the change will make it in the zone, up 8 percentage points relative to his career average.

Looking at Estrada’s batted-ball profile, the big one that jumps out is the decrease in popups. He’s inducing more than 50% fewer popups this season relative to last year. The main culprit: the changeup.  Given Estrada has an 18.2% popup rate on his changeup compared to the changeup generating popups at a 34% clip during his career, it’s likely this issue sorts itself out as the season progresses. With good command, Estrada is capable of finding those easy outs through strikeouts or pop-outs.

To counteract a cutter not moving like it usually does and some BABIP regression, Estrada turned to his two best pitches. The ERA should improve as the season progresses. Being a two-pitch pitcher isn’t an easy task; Estrada has the command of his two primary pitches to pull it off. The key during the rest of the season will be to hold his strikeout and walk gains while continuing to be one of the league’s better contact managers.  Combined, the Blue Jays ace might be getting better. Marco Estrada will play a key role down the stretch; whether it be with the Jays or for a contender in a contract year.

James Paxton Primed to Dethrone King Felix as Mariners Ace

The Seattle Mariners finished second in the AL West with an 86-76 record. With a strong offense — they scored the sixth-most runs per game during 2016, led by Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Nelson Cruz — the Mariners starting pitching lagged behind. With fans hoping for a bounce-back performance from Felix Hernandez, the King waned further, seeing an increase in ERA, FIP, and walk rate with decreasing number of strikeouts, first-pitch strikes, and swinging strikes. Hernandez was worth only 1 win above replacement, and at 30, it is unlikely the King will ever become the dominant pitcher he once was.

Despite logging only 121 innings, James Paxton pitched well, leading to a 3.5 fWAR, the highest among all Mariner pitchers. Paxton has always shown some upside, having strung along a 3.43 ERA and 3.32 FIP in 50 starts across four seasons. The 28-year-old has struggled to remain healthy, having only pitched 286 innings since 2013. Throughout the 2016 season, Paxton showed his best form.

Paxton averaged the highest fastball velocity for left-handed pitchers at 96.7 MPH. It was almost 3 MPH faster than the lefty ranked second, Robbie Ray. Among pitchers with 100 innings pitched, Paxton had the fifth-best FIP-, 17th-best SIERA, and 21st-best strikeout-minus-walk percentage. Furthermore, Paxton threw strikes. This was evident in his first-pitch-strike rate — 62.4% — and with the Mariners pitcher posting an elite 4.7% walk rate. Throughout the season, Paxton was unlucky, with a .347 BABIP and a strand rate hovering close to 66%. Paxton’s average exit velocity on line drives + fly balls was slightly above average. Couple that information in with a Deserved Run Average (DRA) of 3.09, and it is fair to say Paxton pitched fairly well and should have an impressive 2017 campaign.

One of the reasons for Paxton’s success? He changed his release points:

James Paxton Release Point Changes

In addition, Paxton’s cutter became one of his main pitches. Having reluctantly thrown it in years past, Paxton’s cutter was his second-most-used pitch and was quite effective. Among pitchers who threw 200 cutters, Paxton’s had the best whiffs per swing rate. Batters kept swinging, and they kept missing. It also boasted the lowest wOBA allowed in his arsenal.

James Paxton Cutter Vertical Movement

The big change in Paxton’s cutter, aside from the 1-mile increase in velocity: less rise (In 2014, Brooks Baseball classified the cutter as a slider). As the season wore on, Paxton also got more rise in his fastballs, leading to a greater induction of pop-ups. Paxton’s curveball was second in velocity among left-handed pitchers who threw at least 200. It featured an above-average ground-ball rate and swinging-strike rate.

Paxton showed significant growth during the 2016 season. With Felix Hernandez unlikely to return to his previous form, Paxton has the tools and ability to become the Mariners’ ace. The key for him will be to stay healthy in a pivotal season for both the Mariners and the 28-year-old pitcher.

Jose Bautista Might Be the Most Interesting Free Agent

It’s safe to say 2016 was a disappointing year for Jose Bautista. After posting three consecutive seasons with a WAR greater than 4, Bautista posted his lowest mark since 2008. The Toronto Blue Jays were ousted in the American League Championship Series for the second consecutive year and have looming decisions on how to go forward. Bautista is a polarizing figure in the baseball world and is a free agent in a relatively weak class. The big question teams will be asking is whether Bautista’s 2016 was more indicative of further decline or if there is a chance he rebounds. The 36-year-old will be looking for his last big payday.

Bautista’s defensive game continued to deteriorate. After posting a -12.5 UZR/150 in 2015, Bautista had a -9.3 UZR/150 this past season. Moreover, he finished second to J.D. Martinez for the right field Iron Glove. The main takeaway here is that Bautista is no longer good defensively and we shouldn’t expect him to get better. Unless a team wants him playing in the outfield, his future likely rests at first base or in the DH role. That’s not say a team cannot be playoff contenders with a poor right fielder. The aforementioned J.D. Martinez and Mark Trumbo were both below-average fielders this past season and both teams were in the thick of the playoff race. Moreover, being a good base-runner has never been part of Bautista’s game. Which brings us to his offensive value.

Jose Bautista will be paid on the basis of his bat. With his bad defence and sub-par base-running, teams will be lining up for Bautista due to the offensive numbers he has put up since his breakout in September of 2009. Since 2010, only three players have had a higher wRC+, and nobody has more home runs. On the surface, Bautista’s 34-point drop in wOBA and 26-point drop in wRC+ show a declining bat. Factor in his age, and things aren’t looking so rosy. Digging deeper, it is possible this was somewhat of an anomaly and Bautista will have a better offensive season in 2017. This is what makes Jose Bautista the winter’s most intriguing free agent.

Jose Bautista Walk and Strikeout Rate

Bautista’s walk rate remained elite. The Dominican slugger is one of the more selective hitters in the league, having the tenth-lowest swing percentage since 2014. The strikeouts rose, becoming much closer to the league-average 20.6% strikeout rate. Since 2014, Bautista has the 65th-best swinging strike rate at 7.3%, tied with notable players such as Adrian Beltre and Joey Votto. Bautista’s swinging strike rate in 2016 was 7.2%. This suggests his strikeout rate has more to do with an increase in called strikes than swinging strikes.

It’s been said that when a player can no longer catch up to a fastball, the end is nigh. The swing is slower, leading to more swinging strikeouts and an increase in weak contact.

FB SwStr%: League and Bautista

Bautista’s been below league average at swinging and missing on fastballs throughout his career. He saw an uptick in 2016, but it was still better that most. Moreover, among players to see at least 1000 pitches, Bautista ranked 11th in the league in average fastball exit velocity on line drives and fly balls, at 97.8 MPH against. Overall, Bautista can still hit the fastball.

In a similar method as shown here by Andrew Perpetua, I took a look to see if Bautista was getting lucky or unlucky.

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As you can see, Bautista’s slugging was fairly close to its expected value. Bautista’s lowest slugging percentage over the past five years was .498. There is a big difference in batting average, likely due to the big difference between expected BABIP and actual BABIP. To look into this disparity further, I looked at Alex Chamberlain’s expected BABIP formula. Using that formula, the xBABIP was .287, a lot closer to Bautista’s batting average. Bautista has been a career .260 BABIP hitter. Some of that is due to him popping out a lot and a lack of speed. Lastly, by taking a look at xISO, Bautista also underperformed by both metrics. Through Chamberlain’s formula, Bautista’s expected Isolated Power would be .265, and under the work of Andrew Dominijanni, his expected ISO would be .257. Bautista’s .217 ISO was his lowest mark since 2009. It is likely that Bautista was a tad unlucky in regards to outcomes. The story told by the multiple variants of xBABIP, xISO, and xAVG all point toward a better fortune for the Dominican slugger.

Another potential concerning issue with Bautista was the drop in contact on pitches outside the zone. With a career 64.7% O-Contact percentage, this number dropped to 60.4%, the lowest since 2009. You can see the difference between 2012-2015 and his 2016 contact percentages in various parts of the zone below.

Bautista Contact% 2012-2015

Bautista Contact% 2016

While his zone contact rate looks consistent, his contact made outside the zone away from Bautista decreased. To compensate for this, Bautista swung slightly less on pitches outside the strike zone. If he continues to struggle to make contact on pitches outside, then Bautista will continue to take more chances on borderline calls. The overall contact rate remained solid and he continued to pull the ball at the same rate, showing that Bautista still has good bat speed.

Another riveting aspect of Jose Bautista is that over his career, he hasn’t had a platoon split. Against right-handers, the six-time All-Star has a career 131 wRC+, and against southpaws he owns a 135 wRC+. The current Steamer Projections peg Bautista to be worth 2.9 Wins Above Replacement, with a 128 wRC+.

Jose Bautista showed some signs of decline. He made less contact on outside pitches, and he saw a decrease in offensive stats such as wRC+ and Isolated Power. The three-time Silver Slugger however continued to show strong plate discipline, and continued to hit the ball hard, using the same approach he has over the past few years. Furthermore, many expected stats point toward Bautista being somewhat unlucky with balls in play. With a wRC+ of 122, it is clear he can still hit and a rebound in offensive numbers isn’t out of the question. With the sub-par season he had, he could very well be one of the better value sluggers in the market. ­It will be a fascinating offseason for the Dominican slugger.