2nd Half Fly Ball Escalators – Part 1

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.  Until MLB changes the ball or does something to shift the favor to the pitchers, fly balls aren’t going away.  The ratings are up and there’s a great young crop of major league players who play with a ton of passion and they are embracing this revolution.

First let’s start with the parameters I set for this statistical analysis.  It’s easier to see which hitters change their approach year to year but I wanted to focus on players who have increased their fly balls in the 2nd half of 2017.  I split the data between the 1st half and the 2nd half of 2017 with a minimum of 200 PA in each half.  I was only going to include hitters who increased their fly ball % by 4% of more between the 1st half and 2nd half but it would have excluded Byron Buxton (2.4% increase) and Giancarlo Stanton (3.4%).  I want to talk about both of them, so I went a little lenient to include those two.

Now that I have my crop of fly ball escalators, I also included Infield Fly%, BABIP, HR/FB, and Hard Hit %.  I wanted to see the changes in all of these statistics in addition to the FB increase and see whether of not they make sense or if luck played a roll.  Keep in mind, not everyone is benefiting from hitting more fly balls.  Here’s the table of players I believe should benefit in 2018 with the increase fly balls if their approach remains the same via google docs.

Eugenio Suarez

Suarez had a nice little breakout year in 2017 with a wRC+ of 117.  In the 2nd half of 2017 he significantly increased his FB% while decreasing his IFFB%.  That’s huge because of course infield fly balls are essentially an automatic out.  He did all that while increasing his LD% and Hard hit%!  This to me looks like a conscious change for Suarez coming into 2018.  While his overall numbers look pretty good in 2017 with a triple slash of .260/.367/.434 with 26 HRs (career high) and he’ll be entering his age 26 season.  All that being said, I think there’s still upside there.  Here is his slash for the 2nd half of 2017: .268/.378/.490 with a wRC+ of 126!  For reference, here are few players with similar wRC+ in 2017: Gary Sanchez (130), Nolan Arenado (129), Domingo Santana (126), and Chris Taylor! (126); more on him later, and Brian Dozier (124).  You get the idea.  But can Suarez do it for a full season?  If he does, we are looking at a 30-100 player in 2018 hitting 4th or 5th behind Joey Votto and Adam Duvall.  In my opinion, he’s a better hitter than Duvall and should be slotted behind Votto.

Of this group of 2nd half fly ball surgers, Suarez is one of the more intriguing for fantasy purposes.  Suarez is and has been the starting 3rd baseman for the Reds, but he’s also one of only two players on the roster who have logged significant time at SS within the last three seasons (the other being Jose Peraza) now that Zach Cozart is gone.  Nick Senzel who finished the season in AAA, is knocking on the door and 3rd base is his main position, but they are giving him reps at 2nd (which should tell you they like Suarez at 3rd).  This creates a logjam at 2nd with Scooter Gennett but still doesn’t solve the shallow SS position.  Maybe the Reds address it or maybe Suarez plays some shortstop and on those days, Senzel moves to 3rd.  If this happens and Suarez gains SS eligibility, he could be at top 8-10 shortstop right behind Corey Seager.

Manuel Margot

Coming into 2017 Margot was a consensus top 50 prospect and was ranked 24th overall by Baseball America.  Eric Longenhagan of fangraphs graded him at a 70 speed score out of a possible 80. So far, it checks out per baseballsavant as he ranks 8th in average sprint speed in all of baseball.  Something else you may notice on Margot’s fangraphs page is the potential for a 55 raw power grade.  You can’t totally ignore the 40 game power grade but these are the types of guys who have proved to benefit the most from the “juiced ball.”  Keep in mind that Margot played all of 2017 at age 22.  This kid is still learning the game and developing power.

That being said, his 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 1st half / 2nd half splits, he made adjustments with not only more fly balls and line drives but harder contact.  That’s a good sign but yet his BABIP dropped in the 2nd half.  Sure, a speedster like Margot can benefit from weakly hit groundballs (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 1st and 2nd halves, he was still unlucky.

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, 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) it’s peak and the raw power begins to materialize.  Margot will be approaching that window in 2018 at age 23, so you need to jump in now before he’s fully reached that window and becomes a premier power/speed threat that is so rare in fantasy baseball these days.  Jump in now while he’s ADP is around 200 and you could be rewarded with around 15-18 HRs and 20+ steals in 2018.  His 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.

Logan Forsythe

Forsythe was hampered by injuries in 2017, he broke his toe in April of 2017 and only appeared in 119 games.  In those games he had 439 PA, hit .224 with 6 HRs and 3 steals.  Woof, why is he a thing for fantasy baseball in 2018 at age 31?  Well, first the Dodgers traded Jose DeLeon to the Rays for him last offseason and exercised his option for 2018. With Utley now gone, second base is his to keep or lose.  So playing time is there unless they sign another 2nd Baseman this offseason.  On a plus side, he walked at a career high 15.7% and had some big at bats in the post season carrying at least some momentum into 2018.

You would expect Forsythe’s numbers to improve in the second half due to the toe injury in April and the numbers in the 2nd half look awfully good.  Yes line drive rate did drop by only 2.8% but the net positive on FB% + LD% is 12.6% and his hard hit rate increased by 10.9% in the 2nd half!  That massive BABIP drop of 0.082 seems way out of whack to me.  That’s the reason he hit .201 in the 2nd half.  Now, I’m not saying he’s going to go nuts, but he also cut is SwStr% to 6.6% and his O-Swing to a career low 18.7%.  So there are a lot of potential positives with Forsythe in both the average and power departments based on my research.  I expect the K% to go back down to about 20%, the BABIP to go up about .020 points and the HR/FB% to be back in the double digits.  His value is going to depend on playing time.  If he platoons, he’s an NL only bat.  If he doesn’t and gets say 550 PA, he could go something like .258/.339 14 HRs, 7 steals and is a solid deep league MI.

Jacoby Ellsbury

Over the last year or so I had left Jacoby Ellsbury for dead until this research piece.  All of his batted ball data in the second half of 2017 point to improved results. While his 2nd half 107 wRC+ was an improvement on his 95 wRC+ in the 1st half, I’d argue he was extremely unlucky and it should have been much higher.

Let’s look at the positives, his K% dropped, BB% went up, FB% went up, IFFB% went down, and Hard Hit% went up.  So then why did his BABIP, HR/FB, and BA (albeit minimally) all go down?  I don’t know.  How’s that for an answer.  In my opinion, it can be chalked up to straight up bad luck.

Since the Yankees are clearly moving in another direction, Ellsbury may not have a starting spot with Judge, Gardner, and now Hicks listed as starters with Clint Frazier ready to be a full time major league starter when healthy and possible a brief stint in AAA to start the season.  The best chance for Ellsbury is to be traded where he can start.  Of course with his huge contract, that could prove to be difficult.  Hypothetically, though if it happens, he’s good for 20+ steals; he was 22 for 25 last year so his speed is still there and steals are becoming more and more infrequent.  For fantasy in 2018, he could be a solid 4th or 5th outfielder going .270 10-20 next year.