Is your name Christian Yelich? If not, please stop hitting ground balls. Right now. Please. Thank you.
Christian Yelich is the only MLB player to log 2400 PAs over the course of 2014-2017, hit 55% or more ground balls and log a wOBA of .340 or higher in a single-season. And he’s done it in all four seasons.
How does he do it? He combines a league-average line-drive rate (22%) with a .270 batting average on ground balls and a 10%+ walk rate.
Sure, Jean Segura (3yr+ GB 55.9%) did it last year, but he dropped his GB rate to 53% and had a HR/FB excursion up in the 13%+ range that year.
You might point out that during the same year, Jonathan Villar managed a .356 wOBA, but he needed an even-better-than-Yelich .316 average on ground balls with a 20% HR/FB ratio and an 11%+ walk rate. We’re talking about the definition of outlier seasons.
After a quick back-and-forth with another FanGraphs reader/commenter, John Autin, in the recently published Justin Turner piece by Travis Sawchik I started wondering what sort of wOBA does each type of player carry based on the percentage of ground balls that player hits on average. But for starters, I had to understand how many players carried ground-ball rates in what ranges.
More than half of the qualified player seasons in the last four years have come from players who averaged 40-50% GB. Of those, 65 (16%) resulted in players contributing less than a .290 wOBA. FanGraphs’ own wOBA rule of thumb page considers these seasons “awful.” This includes seasons you might remember such as “Albert Pujols’ season in progress (2017),” “Every Billy Hamilton season ever,” and “most seasons from Alcides Escobar.”
To provide a little more context, let’s view these player seasons on a 100% graph. Players who have averaged greater than 40% ground-ball rates have a 4-in-10 or better chance of producing a below-average season by wOBA standards (.310-.319 bin and lower).
The “Great” (.370+) seasons lodged in the 50% bin are from Eric Hosmer (2017), DJ LeMahieu (2016) and Ryan Braun (2016). Braun needed an outlier HR/FB (~29%) season, LeMahieu is one of the ten deadliest line-drive hitters in all of baseball, and Eric Hosmer, well, he’s straddling the line 5/6th of the way through the season. There just aren’t that many great hitters carrying a GB rate between 50-55%. You’re going to either need to hit a TON of line drives to make up for all those ground balls, or pound three out of ten FBs for a HR. Otherwise you’re looking at a very average offensive season a quarter of the time, and well below average another 50% of the time.
What I’ve learned is that 30-40% GBs is the sweet spot, and only a quarter of MLB player seasons from 2014 have been recorded by players in this bin. Freddie Freeman, the king of line drives, has lived in the 30-35% GB range over this time period. He’s joined by players like Lucas Duda (putting up three above-average seasons), Kris Bryant, Matt Carpenter and Brandon Belt.
Interestingly enough, Ian Kinsler might want to rethink his approach. Along with a high infield fly rate, he’s just not doing enough damage with the HR to put up high wOBAs. The exception being his 2016 and 2011 seasons. Being that he’s an above-average line-drive hitter, he could benefit from shifting his focus a little more that way as he ages through his last few seasons. Or I suppose he could benefit from a more hitter-friendly home park as he enters free agency this year.
Now that we have the table set, I’d like to share a short list of players that are putting up terrific wOBAs, but could benefit from putting even more balls in the air. Of course there’s Christian Yelich, but let’s let him do what he’s doing. And while we’re at it, we won’t recommend any changes for Joey Votto.
- Adam Jones (.335 wOBA, 45% GB)
- George Springer (.370 wOBA, 47% GB)
- Yasiel Puig (.365 wOBA, 49% GB)
- Yasmany Grandal (.350 wOBA 44% GB)
- Xander Bogaerts (.340 wOBA 47% GB)
- Jose Abreu (.370 wOBA 46% GB)
- Domingo Santana (.360 wOBA 47% GB)
One thing I’ve noticed, and this isn’t a new revelation to me, is that Cuban players like Puig, Grandal, and Abreu all hit a very high number of ground balls, even while enjoying quite a bit of success. But if they ever decide to make the anti-ground-ball leap, they may find an MVP trophy or two. Ditto for George Springer. Let’s get him ripping air balls and see how high he can fly.
And maybe there are a couple of careers to save as well, a la Yonder Alonso or Justin Turner? Here are the low-flying 2017 players who could use the #turneradjustment
- Kole Calhoun (.311 wOBA, 42% GB 3yr+ Avg, 44% 2017)
- Danny Valencia (.313 wOBA, 47% GB 3yr+ Avg, 47% 2017)
- Kendrys Morales (.316 wOBA, 47% GB 3yr+ Avg, 51% 2017)
Looking team by team, at the approaches employed by their players who gathered at least 400 PAs minimum in any given year, and also have accumulated 1000 PAs over the last four years, we can pick out some trends as well. I was a little surprised to see the Mets at the top of the list, but the A’s, Tigers, Reds and Blue Jays didn’t surprise me as “put it in the air” types of teams. You’ve got some of the poster children for the air-ball revolution on those teams such as: Donaldson, J.D. Martinez, Jose Bautista, and Yonder Alonso. Those teams also feature some of the game’s deadliest line-drive hitters in: Nicholas Castellanos, Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, and Daniel Murphy (from his Mets years).
On the flip side, we see the Marlins, led by aforementioned ground-ball expert Christian Yelich, pound-it-into-the-ground Dee Gordon, and Ichiro Suzuki, as well as a team-wide approach by Ozuna, Realmuto, Hechavarria, and Martin Prado to hit ground balls and line drives. Prado is the only one other than Yelich to do it well.
The White Sox were led by Adam Eaton (54% GB), Avisail Garcia (52%), Alexei Ramirez (49%), Yolmer Sanchez (48%), Melky Cabrera (47%), and Jose Abreu (46%). Tim Anderson is the latest, though he doesn’t factor into the analysis yet, to pound out 52% ground balls like it’s his job and turn in awful wOBA seasons (.315 and .274 in progress).
|Team||Air Ballers||Neutrals||Ground Ballers||Air to Ground Ratio|
Minimum 400 PA single season to be included