The Runner Sports

Elevate To Celebrate: How The Fly Ball Revolution Has Impacted The Oakland A’s

With the increased usage of advanced data and metrics, there seems to be a revolution taking place league-wide. Home run rates are skyrocketing, and much of this can be attributed to a change in the hitters’ approach. While traditional thinking compels hitters to swing down on the ball to generate backspin, the new age hitters are adopting more of an uppercut to hit as many fly balls as possible. The logic is simple: The home run is the most productive outcome in baseball. The only way to hit a home run is to put the ball in the air. And now, to maximize their offensive potential, more hitters than ever are putting the ball in the air, and the homers are following. The Oakland A’s, always at the forefront of metrics and modern thinking, are no different.

Despite playing in one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in the majors, the A’s are currently 5th in the MLB for home runs. Perhaps not so coincidentally, they also lead the league in fly ball percentage (41.6%), and are tied for the lowest groundball to fly ball ratio (0.92). Individually, they have three hitters in the top 10 for lowest GB/FB ratio. All this has led to an offense that has been carried mainly by the long ball.

The most obvious example of an A’s player finding success by elevating the ball is Yonder Alonso. His former career high in homers was nine, set in 2012 across 619 plate appearances. As of June 5, he has already mashed 16 dingers in just 172 plate appearances. His ISO is .378, more than double his career high and tripling last year’s figure. What changed?

Alonso, who stands in at 6’1”,  230 lbs, has always had plenty of raw power. The biggest problem was that his hard contact came in the form of grounders.

Last season, Alonso posted a groundball percentage of 44.1% and a fly ball percentage of 33.3%, largely in line with career norms. This year, the fly ball percentage spiked to 51.8%, making him one of the most extreme fly ball hitters in the league. By just putting the ball in the air more often, Alonso has transformed himself into one of the premier sluggers in the league. His 16 round-trippers tie him for 3rd in the majors, only behind rookie sensation Aaron Judge, and teammate Khris Davis.

Judge has been the center of most media attention as the home run-bashing newcomer, but the A’s have a rookie slugger of their own. Chad Pinder has hit 7 homers in just 87 plate appearances, including a 483-foot bomb that ESPN tracked as the farthest homer of the season. His ISO is .346, blowing away his minor league .201 high mark in hitter-friendly Stockton. What changed? Surprise! His fly ball rate jumped. Last year in AAA, his fly ball rate was 37.5%. This year in the majors, he’s hit fly balls at a 56.6% clip, making him even more extreme than Alonso.

It’s not just Alonso and Pinder either. The league as a whole has a GB/FB ratio of 1.25, meaning for each fly ball hit there are 1.25 grounders. Out of everyone on the team (min. 25 PA), there is only one hitter that is over that mark. All but one player is above average at putting the ball in the air. Problem is, even though the A’s are near the top of the league in home runs, their offensive production is roughly league average.

Putting so many balls in the air has its drawbacks. While fly balls are the only type of batted ball that can result in homers, it is also the least likely to fall for a hit. As a result, the A’s have a .278 BABIP, currently 6th worst in the league. The uppercuts that inadvertently comes with trying to elevate has led to more whiffs as well. Their 24.8% K-rate and 11.2 swinging strike rate are fourth and eighth in the MLB, respectively. The A’s struggle greatly against high-strikeout pitchers, which likely relates to their fly ball-happy approach.

Overall, the increase in fly balls has both helped and hurt the A’s. The home runs have spiked, but so have the strikeouts. This may be a league-wide trend, but it is especially extreme here in Oakland. At 26-33, the A’s are last in the AL West, but it is still June and a hot streak puts them in striking distance for a Wild Card spot. If they can cut down on the strikeouts without sacrificing their newfound power, they might still have some magic left in them.

Johnnie Teng

Johnnie Teng

From the Bay Area, Johnnie started sportswriting on his own blog at Baseball MTJAG before writing for TRS. He has a strong passion for the sport and aspires to grow and develop as a writer or work in baseball operations someday. Follow him on Twitter @hard90hustle
Johnnie Teng

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