There has been a bunch of talk about a “Fly Ball Revolution” in Major League Baseball over the past several seasons—and with good reason. In the analytics and Statcast era we live in, the importance of metrics like launch angle and exit velocity and their strong relationship to offensive performance have led numerous players—including stars like hitting savant Josh Donaldson—to very openly disavow ground balls and weak contact as they flock to worship at the altar of the fly ball. In case you’ve missed it, the 2017 Mets are all-in on this fly ball fad. So let’s check in on how they’re performing on flies this year.
First, some housekeeping: all statistics are through May 20; additionally, unless otherwise noted, we’ll be focusing on data pulled from FanGraphs’ fantastic splits leaderboards, which I highly recommend readers check out.
So the Mets are really buying into the fly ball hitting philosophy, but did you know that the Mets actually lead the majors in FB% at 42.3%? For reference, the major league average in that category so far this year is 35.6%. So the Mets are blowing by that figure, checking in at a whopping 2.37 standard deviations beyond average. That’s very significant. in fact, the Mets and the A’s—the second-highest fly ball hitting team—are the only two teams who are hitting more fly balls than ground balls this season.
That the Mets are hitting a boatload of fly balls is not on its own a good or a bad thing. The key question to ask is: have the Mets been doing damage on those balls hit in the air? The answer to that question is a resounding “no.” The weird thing is that, per FanGraphs, the Mets actually own the ninth-highest hard-hit rate in the majors on fly balls, with a mark of 40.8%. That sounds promising.
Results-wise, though, things are not all that rosy. The major league average wRC+ on fly balls this year is a healthy 144. The Mets? They’re the third-worst team in the big leagues in this category, running up a 107 wRC+. The data say the Mets are hitting the ball hard in the air pretty consistently, and yet the results haven’t been great—what gives?
Let’s take a look at some other numbers to see if we can work this discrepancy out. As might be inferred by the Mets’ above-average hard-hit rate, Mets hitters are not hitting an obscene amount of pop-ups—the team’s infield fly ball rate is 9.9%, just slightly north of the major league average of 9.5%. Alright, so that’s not dragging down that wRC+ inordinately. So what’s going on here? It turns out the answer might come down to a few different things: home runs, luck, and batted-ball direction.
Overall, through May 20, major league teams are hitting home runs on 12.7% of their fly balls. While the Mets rank eleventh in baseball in home runs this year, they rank twentieth in baseball with a 11.8% HR/FB rate. They aren’t too far off the average pace here, but given what we know of this offense and its recent reliance on the home run ball for run-scoring, and keeping in mind that the Mets are hitting more fly balls than anyone else this year—and obviously focusing on putting the ball in the air—it’s really important that they’re doing damage in the air.
So far that hasn’t really happened. Fly balls aren’t getting out of the park for the Mets at a high clip, which means, obviously, that they’re staying in the yard—and fly balls that don’t leave the yard don’t become hits very often. This leads us to our next factor on the Mets’ fly ball futility: BABIP.
As a refresher, BABIP strips out home runs from its formula, which obviously has a bigger impact on fly balls than any other batted ball type. Looking at fly balls this year, the league is running a BABIP of .127. The Mets are way down at twenty-ninth in the majors with a .088 BABIP, nearly 31% lower than the league average despite having an above-average hard-hit rate. It’s pretty clear there’s some bad luck going on here. BABIP is one of those things that regresses to the mean quite heavily, as hitters have basically no control of the ball once it leaves the bat. All they can do is try to hit the ball hard, and collectively that’s something that the Mets have been doing on fly balls this year.
So what, we should just throw our hands up and say it’s all just rotten luck that will turn around? Well, maybe not. We’ve yet to come to our third factor noted above: the part of the field where the Mets are hitting their fly balls. It has been well-documented that pulling the ball in the air is the best way to cash in on fly balls. The major league average wRC+ on pulled fly balls is a robust 405, and the Mets are again lagging behind with a 361 wRC+ that ranks twenty-first in the league despite owning the eleventh-highest hard-hit rate in the league on pulled fly balls. So that’s definitely an area with room for improvement. The big thing in my mind, though—and it almost seems to simplistic—is that the Mets just might be hitting the ball to the biggest part of the ballpark too often.
The league is hitting its fly balls to the center portion of the field 36.7% of the time, while the Mets are leading the majors by a wide margin in Cent% for fly balls, hitting 42.1% of their fly balls to that part of the field. For reference, the Rays rank second in baseball with 40.8% of their fly balls going to this zone. So the Mets are hitting the ball to the biggest part of the field extremely often, and they are putting up astoundingly bad numbers on these balls.
Take your pick of what metric you want to look at for this subset of fly balls. HR/FB? The Mets are twenty-seventh at 5.6% versus the league average of 8.9%. BABIP? League average is .134, the Mets are twenty-eighth at .092. Isolated Slugging? The Mets are twenty-seventh at .261 versus the league average of .373. It all contributes to the Mets putting up a paltry 35 wRC+ on fly balls to the middle of the field, “good” for twenty-eighth in the league, against the league average of a 100 wRC+. When you’re hitting the plurality of your fly balls into the most cavernous part of the field, you should not expect phenomenal results, but the Mets—who are right about average in terms of hard-hit rate for fly balls hit to the center of the field—are taking it to a whole new level.
If the Mets want to have a chance to turn things around in 2017, a lot of things need to start going right in a big way really quickly. Pitching might be the most obvious and important thing to come to mind, but it certainly won’t hurt if the Mets start getting some good luck and do some real damage on fly balls. The Mets are already all-in on the fly ball revolution. The question will be whether it continues to fizzle out for them as the summer goes on.