MLB hitters swatted 6,105 dingers during the 2017 season, a number that shattered the single-season league record previously set in 2000. Players have begun talking openly about their willingness to elevate the ball on contact, and a quick Google search for “fly ball revolution” returns analytical insight from the likes of FanGraphs and FiveThirtyEight on the topic becoming tangible.
Empirically, it’s important to note that players aren’t necessarily hitting loads more fly balls now than in recent years. League-wide, 35.5% of all balls in play were categorized as fly balls by FanGraphs during the 2017 season, a number that’s actually lower than the 37.5% number from 2010, for instance. However, what launch-angle theory may be beginning to suggest is what’s lost in looking solely at those numbers - that while in previous eras fly balls were largely unintended accidents from improperly squaring up what was otherwise supposed to be a liner or a hard-hit grounder, fly balls today are exactly what an increasing number of hitters were precisely trying to do.
A quick look at the percentage of fly balls that resulted in homers might be one indication of that. 13.7% of all fly balls hit in 2017 resulted in dingers, the highest such rate since that particular stat began being tracked in 2002. More recently, that number has continued to climb, as it sat at 9.5% in 2014, 11.4% in 2015, and 12.8% in 2016. So, while fly ball percentage has continued to hover between 34% and 38%, it’s clear that in recent years more fly balls have resulted in dingers than in previous years.
Part of that is likely due to hitters’ willingness to hit more fly balls on purpose, but there’s also a serious bit of research that’s been done that suggests the balls themselves have been modified of late (with seams that are lower and produce less wind resistance). I’m not here to begin to definitively suggest which percentage of the culprit lies on the balls as compared to the hitters themselves; rather, I’m simply here to suggest that when building a modern pitching staff, teams just might be wisening up to the idea that limiting how often opposing hitters hit fly balls might be an increasingly effective way of limiting how many homers they smack.
Fewer fly balls —> fewer dingers —> fewer runs on the board.
At least, that’s one way to land on the Cincinnati Reds’ signing of Jared Hughes on Tuesday. Hughes, 32, inked a deal that will guarantee him $4.5 million over the next two seasons (with a club option for a third year), marking the first significant move made to augment the Reds’ bullpen. That’s the same Reds bullpen that has “led” all of baseball with 1.29 dingers allowed per 9 innings since 2015, has “led” all of baseball with a 14.3% HR/FB rate since 2015, and (as a result) has allowed 250 homers since 2015 - the single most of any bullpen in baseball.
Hughes is not your typical reliever, as his 5.71 K/9 during that span ranks as the fifth worst in all of baseball among relievers who have thrown at least 100 innings during that time. Strikeouts, of course, are the easiest way to ensure that the opposition isn’t hitting fly balls that become dingers. However, what Hughes has been able to specialize in is keeping opposing hitters from hitting fly balls at all, which seems to be the next best way of keeping them from swatting homers. His 21.3% rate since 2015 ranks as the 14th best out of those 186 relievers, and his 61.3% ground ball rate ranks as 9th best during that time, both of which suggest that as the way hitters and the ball have evolved to make prioritizing homers the most important aspect of hitting, Hughes’ repertoire increasingly looks like a more and more advantageous way of approaching them.
Now, rest assured that Hughes is not the only pitcher who possesses these kinds of traits, or that he’s the best on the planet at them. A perusal of those rankings above clearly shows he’s never at the top of any of them, for instance. But for a $4.5 million guarantee over a two-year window, he’s sure as hell not being paid like he’s been the best of the best, either. Rather, it seems that despite his unorthodox peripherals in today’s strikeout-driven game, the Reds have identified him as possessing a secondary set of skills that might well be undervalued in today’s evolving game and signed him to a deal accordingly.
At least, that’s what the Reds are banking on, and while I’ve presented the argument that they might be correct in their line of thought, it’s certainly important to note that other opinions certainly aren’t so sure. FanGraphs, for instance, has deemed the 369 career innings pitched of otherwise respectable 2.85 ERA ball worth a grand total of -0.1 fWAR, for instance, based largely on his minuscule strikeout rates and fielding-independent pitching numbers that are significantly higher than the ERAs he’s posted. That, though, stands in stark contrast to his bWAR totals over the last four seasons, as any replication of his 4.3 bWAR in 250.1 IP since 2014 would make the deal he signed with the Reds an incredible bargain.
Perhaps it’s playing 81 times a year in Great American Ball Park that has prompted the Reds to look for ways to finally keep opposing hitters from cranking ungodly amounts of dingers against their pitchers. Or, perhaps it’s a combination of staring at the unsightly numbers they’ve allowed during that time and the increasingly expensive amounts it now takes to sign the relievers that don’t allow them. Regardless, in signing Hughes - to a multi-year contract, no less - it seems like a clear attempt at limiting the opportunity for batted balls to leave the park, since limiting fly balls is a damn fine way to ensure that. And, in so doing, the Reds are banking that the decision by the Milwaukee Brewers to non-tender Hughes was one they might well rue.
*Stats and tables in this article come courtesy of both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. Also, this article was written with as many fingers crossed as I could physically manage, so please disregard any and all typos due to complicated matters derived from years of matured skepticism and superstition.