Using Fly Ball Rate to Identify Breakouts Candidates (Fantasy Baseball)
The fly ball revolution is upon us. We all know this. It’s been happening since the second half of 2015 and has continued through 2017. This doesn’t seem to be a fluke or blip on the radar. In 2017, a record-setting 4,545 home runs were hit. Until MLB changes the ball or does something to shift favor toward the pitchers, fly balls and home runs are going to continue to elevate (pun intended of course). The ratings are up and there’s a great young crop of major league players who play with a ton of passion and are embracing this revolution. Now that we know more players are changing their swings to increase fly balls because fly balls can turn into home runs and no batted ball is more valuable than a home run, how do we identify these potential breakout candidates? What should we look for in a player’s profile?
Makings of a Potential Breakout
I wanted to set some parameters when starting to identify potential breakout players. Without knowledge of a player actually discussing a swing change, how can do this? First, I broke down fly ball percentages into five percent windows 25-29.9%, 30-34.9%, etc and averaged wOBA for all qualified players within those FB windows for both 2016 and 2017. Here are average wOBA for all fly balls hit within these windows:
|FB% 50+||FB% 45-49.9||FB% 40-44.9||FB% 35-39.9||FB% 30-34.9||FB% 25-29.0|
Now, the 50%+ sample is very small, so it’s not as accurate as the other categories. What’s clear to me is even if I remove some of the outliers the most valuable batted balls, on average, are hit between 40 and 49.9%. There are many additional factors that a player who hits a high percentage of fly balls needs to be successful including: hard contact, IFFB%, pull%, contact%, etc. The “sweet spot” fly ball percentage for every player is going to be different depending on who that player is and what his profile looks like. For instance, take player A that hits the ball hard over 40% of the time. He will likely be more valuable if he hits 45-49% fly balls as opposed to 30% fly balls. For example, if player A hits over 400 balls in play, he could end up with 10 to 15 more or less home runs over the course of the season depending on how many fly balls he hits. Then again player B who hits the ball hard only 30% of the time may want to dial back his fly ball approach because a lot less of his fly balls will leave the yard compared to player A. Now that we know generally where we want our potential breakout player to be, let’s look at some players who could see an uptick in production in 2018.
Nick Castellanos (3B – DET)
Nick Castellanos is the first player I want to highlight. He’s always been a sabermetric darling, and he usually underperforms compared to his xstats. He hits the ball hard, hits a lot of line drive, but never seems to live up to his batted ball profile. In the first half of 2017, Castellanos had a hard contact% of 49.6% (which is amazingly high) and a fly ball% of 32.6%. An ideal FB% may have been more like 45%+ at that hard contact rate. So what did he do in the second half? He increased his FB% all the way to 43.6% but concurrently lowered his hard contact by 12%. Some good, some bad, but with the massive improvement in fly ball percentage, he did not increase his popups as he still maintained a sub two percent IFFB%. This bodes well for 2018, and I think he will maintain at least part of his fly ball jump. At close to a 40% hard contact and 40% fly ball rate, I’m confident Castellanos can maintain a high teens HR/FB rate and achieve his first 30-homer campaign in a full season of at-bats.
Manuel Margot (OF – SD)
The young speedster’s batted ball profile leaves a lot to be desired. He made a lot of soft contact and of course, not a whole lot of hard contact. However, based on the first-half and second-half splits, he made adjustments with not only more fly balls and line drives but also harder contact. That’s a good sign, but yet his BABIP dropped in the second half. Sure, a speedster like Margot can benefit from weakly hit ground balls (part of the reason Billy Hamilton doesn’t hit below the Mendoza line), but the increase in line drives should have certainly increased his BABIP. The point is, even with the slight improvement in wRC+ between the first and second halves, he was still unlucky. The increase in fly ball percentage up to 40% in the second half was accompanied by a six percent increase in hard hit rate. Again, his hard contact still sits just below 30%, but Margot is only 23 years old and his power is still developing.
I expect Margot to continue to make improvements with the bat in 2018. I don’t expect him to reach the 55 raw power grade yet, but he’s moving in the right direction. I also expect him to improve on the bases and utilize his speed a little more while he’s still at his peak (as far as speed in concerned). There’s an intriguing window with young players who possess speed and untapped raw power where the speed is still at (or near) its peak and the raw power begins to materialize. Margot will begin to approach that window in 2018 at age 23, so you need to jump in now before he’s fully reached his peak and becomes a premier power/speed threat that is so rare in fantasy baseball these days. Jump in now while his ADP is around 180 and you could be rewarded with around 15-18 HRs and 20+ steals in 2018. His absolute upside could be somewhere around Mookie Betts’ 2017 without the runs + RBI numbers. Will he ever reach those heights? I can’t say for sure, but it’s intriguing. In keeper/dynasty leagues, he’s a great asset to have at his current cost.
Maikel Franco (3B – PHI)
I know many fantasy players have given up on Franco, and he has certainly disappointed the last couple of seasons. Part of that is warranted, but some of it was due to very lofty expectations. After a solid half season at age 22, the .300-30-100 projections started getting thrown around. He hasn’t reached those numbers, but at only age 25, he’s not as far off as some may think. He’s also an afterthought in drafts going off the board around 260 overall as the 22nd third baseman overall.
In 2017, Franco killed fantasy owners with a terrible .230 average and moderate power and counting stats. His BABIP was laughably low at .230, but his K rate (15.2%) was well above average. The big negative for Franco is his popup problem (career 16.3%). His first half IFFB% was 11%, but in the second half it was an awful 21%! He did improve on his FB% from 32% to 42.7% as well as his Hard contact that jumped to 35.1% in the second half. Couple that with his pull% of over 50% and you have a recipe for home runs. Again, the pop ups appear to be the only obstacle in Franco’s way to a massive breakout. It won’t be easy because the pop ups have always been a part of Franco’s game, but the low K rate coupled with hard contact, high pull percentage, and 40+% fly balls could lead to 30+ home runs given a full season of at-bats. He’s not guaranteed that playing time, but he’s worth the gamble at the end of your draft.
Bonus Deep Sleeper: Colin Moran (3B – PIT)
Moran went the other way in the Gerrit Cole trade from Houston to Pittsburgh, and the 25-year-old third baseman has a good chance to start the season as the Pirates starting third baseman. Only David Freese stands in his way. Moran was the sixth-overall pick in the 2013 draft by the Marlins and never really panned out. He had middling power in the minors and looked to be a platoon bat at best until last year.
In 2017, Moran made a swing change as his fly balls went from 28-30% to 40%. He also cut down on his strikeouts. Here’s Jeff Sullivan’s take on Moran. There’s a clear change in approach at the plate. Hitting more fly balls and cutting down on strikeouts means more balls in play. Moran is a big guy (6’4″, 215 lbs) and it’s possible it took him some time to develop power. If Moran earns the job out of Spring Training and runs with it, he could be a surprise 25+ HR player similar to Yonder Alonso from 2017 who has a similar profile to Moran prior to his approach changes. He won’t cost you a thing, even in deeper formats. At worst, he’s a strong side platoon bat and ends up on waivers. In deep leagues (14+) and NL-only, he’s worth a late-round pick.