Just before the start of the 2018 regular season, I did similar research looking at hitter’s ground out air out ratios (GO/AO). It spawned from an article Jeff Zimmerman wrote about which spring statistics have the highest correlation to the regular season. Most spring numbers don’t matter, but an increase in the percentage of balls a player is hitting in the air may signify an approach change. With an entire offseason for players to work on a change such as trying to elevate the ball more, could be important when trying to identify potential power spikes or breakouts. Last year, I wrote about Ozzie Albies, Brandon Nimmo, and Steven Duggar. So Albies was a great one and Nimmo wasn’t too bad either; I’ll take the “L” on Duggar. In addition to those three, guys like Jesus Aguilar, Kiké Hernandez, and Christian Villanueva showed up on this list; all ended up with career-highs in home runs. With a limited sample, I’m mostly looking at a minimum of 50 plate appearances and 35 balls in play for these players.
GO/AO Rates - Spring Training 2019
|Player||Spring GO/AO||Career GO/AO||Est. Reg Season GB%||Career GB%|
Some players that just missed the cut who I am keeping an eye on include Clint Frazier (OF – NYY), Scott Kingery (2B – PHI), Billy McKinney (OF – TOR), Willie Calhoun (OF – TEX), Eric Sogard (2B – TOR), and Chad Pinder (OF – OAK)
Paul Goldschmidt (1B – STL)
There’s not much more we can say about Goldy because he’s still a monster at the plate. His extreme fly ball approach this spring is interesting because he has never had a GO/AO ratio below 1.00 in any season. He’s almost literally hitting everything in the air this spring. Last year was his lowest ground ball rate at 38.6% but is regularly in the mid-40s. If he carries this approach to the regular season, he has a shot at his first 40-homer campaign. He might take a hit in batting average but an upside of .270-40-110 looks pretty nice.
Juan Soto (OF – WAS)
Well, this could be scary. At age-19 Soto had shown power to all fields but carried a low fly ball rate at 28.8% in 2018. This spring, It’s only been 59 plate appearances, but based on Jeff Zimmerman’s table from last year, that pegs Soto between a 43% and 44% ground ball rate. That’s potentially significant because his ground ball rate was all the way up at 53.7% last year. Now, his line drive rate was relatively low at 17.5%, so I’d expect to see that jump up to 20-22% given his profile. That would still leave a nice 5% bump in fly balls for Soto. The question remains, can he maintain a lofty HR/FB rate which was an impressive 24.7% in 2018?
Soto hits the majority of his fly balls to the opposite field. He was able to maintain a 19.6% HR/FB on those fly balls the other way which ranked seventh in all of baseball last year. Here are the names ahead of him: Aaron Judge, Jesus Aguilar, Khris Davis, J.D. Martinez, Giancarlo Stanton, and the aforementioned Paul Goldschmidt. I would say, that list depicts power hitters to a “T.” Soto’s 47.8% hard contact on those balls backs up the high home run rate to the opposite field. I was skeptical coming into the season about Soto due to a high HR/FB rate and elevated BABIP ticketed for regression (which I still believe), but I’m coming around on his power. I’m a little disappointed that I missed out on shares of Soto this year but I still think top 30 overall is just too pricey.
Jose Abreu (1B – CHW)
Is Abreu changing his approach? He’s given us a pretty good sample and he’s walked just once this spring and stuck out 12 times putting the ball in play a total of 51 times. He’s never been a patient hitter and it looks like he’s elevating the ball more as well with four homers and nine extra-base hits. Referencing Zimmerman’s data, Abreu would carry an approximate 42% GB rate compared to a career 45.6% GB%. Abreu is a notorious slow starter so it’ll be interesting to see if he can buck that trend this year with more fly balls. I’ll be watching Abreu early this year because he had some rough injuries in the second half last year curbing his production. If he can have a solid April, he could end up back around the top 30 overall with some nice value.
Brandon Nimmo (OF – NYM)
Nimmo once again shows up on this list. After a 0.87 GO/AO ratio last spring, he ended up right around his career rate in the regular season of 1.35. Even with a similar GO/AO ratio, he managed a career-best 17 homers. This spring, Nimmo has really gone to the extreme hitting nearly everything in the air. The data says he should decrease his fly ball rate by nearly seven percent this year compared to last season. His power numbers aren’t off the charts with just two homers and six extra-base hits but he’s cut his strikeout rate and is hitting a solid .291. After a 2018 breakout of sorts with 53 extra base hits, it seems like Nimmo is making even more of an effort to elevate the ball this spring. I worry a little about his batting average given his patience and contact rates, but given his approach this spring we may be looking at 20-25 homers this year from Nimmo.
Manuel Margot (OF – SD)
Margot is once again putting balls in the air his spring. This approach has not worked out for him thus far in the majors and it resulted in just a 5.5% HR/FB rate in 2018. There’s hope here because while he improved his hard contact and decreased his soft contact last year, his home run rate was nearly cut in half. He was middle of the pack in terms of line drive/fly ball exit velocity last year, so there’s positive regression coming. Margot is still just 24 years old and I was invested in Margot heavily last year to my disappointment. However, Margot remains firm on putting the ball in the air this spring and it’s helped him hit .315 with three homers and eight XBH. The Padres have a crowded outfield, so Margot will need to earn his keep. I think the power should bounce back to the mid-teens given the opportunity. If he learns to be a better base stealer given his elite speed (96th percentile via BaseballSavant), there might finally be the breakout for Margot I’ve been hoping for.
Kike Hernandez (2B/SS/OF – LAD)
Hernandez mashed an impressive 21 home runs in 2018. I’m not sure anyone saw that coming, mostly due to lack of playing time. Hernandez has outright won the second base job for the Dodgers to start 2019. Given the depth of the roster, Hernandez will likely sit against tough righties given his splits. That being said, he can also play the outfield and should compile over 500 plate appearances in 2019. His improved contact rates have cut his strikeout rates each of the last three seasons. He’ll need to continue those high contact rates given his fly ball approach if he wants to remain in the lineup. I see a player that’s similar to Nimmo in Hernandez but without as much speed and more batting average risk. He’s still a great utility guy to roster as he’s eligible at multiple positions.
Jorge Soler (OF – KC)
Soler missed most of the season with an injury and has yet to accrue more than 405 PA or hit more than 12 homers in a single season. We know Soler has power, he mashed 24 homers in 2017 at Triple-A in just 74 games. He pulled that off with a 45% fly ball rate but it dipped to just 34% last year. If Soler can maintain his heavy fly ball approach, we might finally see the breakout we’ve been waiting for. He’s going to need to maintain an improved zone contact rate like he had last season and of course, requires a good bill of health. I’m sure he will struggle to maintain an average above .250 if he starts launching balls in the air at a 45% rate, but he went off the board after pick 300, so he’s basically free. If you’re in a 10 or 12 team league, he literally is free. He’s entering his age-27 season, so it could be now or never for Soler.
Max Schrock (2B – STL)
Schrock is an off-the-radar fantasy player who will start the year at Triple-A for the Cardinals. Schrock came over to the Cardinals from the Athletics and brings a contract-first approach. He’s never shown much power and has moderate speed but has never posted a strikeout rate above 9.2% at any level. Now, at age-24, he’s starting to modify his approach putting more balls in the air. Schrock previously hit ground balls over 50% of the time and looks to be elevated more the last couple of seasons and carried it into the spring. He’s a longshot to break out as he’s blocked at the moment by Kolten Wong but might be someone to keep an eye on if an injury occurs in the St. Louis infield. If Schrock unlocks some power with his high contact approach, he might just be useful in mixed formats later in the year.
Garrett Hampson (2B/SS – COL)
Hampson is currently locked into a battle for the second base job with Ryan McMahon. Both are having great springs and I smell a platoon a-brewin’. Unfortunately, the righty, Hampson would see fewer plate appearances if that is the case. Hampson has game-changing speed which is why fantasy owners are excited about him but his average to slightly below-average power could play up in Colorado. Typically, I’d expect an improvement on his power numbers from the minors but the Rockies’ minor league parks play up to power as well. Still, a jump in fly ball rate could make provide a few more home runs for Hampson over the course of the season. The range of outcomes is extremely large with Hampson. Over 600 PA, Hampson could hit 12 HR and steal 35 bases. Then again, in the short-side platoon, he may end up with a handful of HR and 15-18 SB. Given his potential approach change, I might set his HR ceiling at 15, so if you have room, go ahead and stash him if he’s on your waiver wire.