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What the fly ball revolution means for Kevin Plawecki and Juan Lagares

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Will higher launch angles result in more offensive production from Plawecki and Lagares in 2018?

MLB: Game Two-New York Mets at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Both Kevin Plawecki and Juan Lagares may find themselves in much bigger roles for the 2018 Mets—if they can simply hit their way into them. Both players have struggled to hit at the major league level, but given their ability to play defensively valuable positions on the field, even average offensive production could make them very valuable players.

There has recently been a dramatic shift in baseball regarding the approach batters take at the plate. As Sandy Alderson recently said, “You guys read Fangraphs. You guys read Baseball Prospectus. We all read it.”

With nearly unlimited access to data, especially given the recent advent of Statcast, players can make more informed decisions about ways to improve their game than ever before. For hitters, this has resulted in the realization that fly balls are more likely to be hits than ground balls, which has led to an obsession with launch angle. More and more hitters are adjusting their swings in an effort to increase their launch angle and hit the ball higher. Mets fans certainly do not need reminding that we watched the beginning of Daniel Murphy’s launch angle transformation first-hand. And he is certainly not the only player to have success with that change in approach.

We may be beginning to see those dividends pay off for Plawecki, who has been focusing on launch angle lately. In parts of two big league seasons in 2015 and 2016, he struggled mightily with the bat. Last offseason, an excellent and in-depth Fanpost analysis was written about mechanical issues that may have been contributing to Plawecki’s struggles. One simple thing was obvious, though, even to the most untrained eye: He was pounding the ball into the ground. Many jokes were made about the patented Plaw Groundout to Third™.

But toward the end of last season, Plawecki saw his first taste of offensive success, putting up very respectable numbers after getting called up from Triple-A. It seemed that he was grounding out less. And this was, in fact, the case.

Plawecki, 2016 vs. 2017

Year 2016 2017
Year 2016 2017
Launch angle 2.3 degrees 8.7 degrees
GB% 55.6% 48.8%
wOBA .255 .331

8.7 degrees is still below the league average of about 12 degrees, but it’s an encouraging sign. It obviously remains to be seen whether Plawecki can sustain his success over the course of an entire big league season, but the early returns on the adjustments to his approach at the plate look pretty good.

By contrast, let’s take a look at Juan Lagares, who also made adjustments at the plate between 2016 and 2017. He made a conscious effort to try to pull the ball more, in an attempt to increase his power output. He did indeed pull the ball more in 2017; his Pull% went from 27.5% in 2016 to 43.7% in 2017. But, he was mostly pulling the ball on the ground, which resulted in an overall drop in production.

Lagares: 2016 vs. 2017

Year 2016 2017
Year 2016 2017
Launch angle 12.3 degrees 8.5 degrees
GB% 42.2% 50.8%
wOBA .294 .287

So, this offseason Lagares is trying yet another approach. He has been working with Craig Wallenbrock, the hitting coach who retooled J.D. Martinez’s swing, in an effort to raise his launch angle and elevate the baseball. If he can have even a fraction of the success of Martinez, Murphy, and others while maintaining his defensive prowess in the field, Juan Lagares could be a star.

However, a word of caution is necessary to temper expectations somewhat. While the fly ball revolution has been quite the splash in baseball, it is far from a silver bullet. A recent analysis by FiveThirtyEight showed that for every Daniel Murphy, there was a Jason Heyward. This means that an increase in fly ball rate did not necessarily result in an increase in offensive production. In fact, there was no correlation between change in fly ball rate and change in wOBA from 2015 to 2016 for all players with at least 200 plate appearances.

So are Kevin Plawecki and Juan Lagares destined for the Daniel Murphy route or the Jason Heyward route? It is obviously impossible to know for sure; every hitter is different. However, we can point to the type of hitters that have seen good results from adopting more uppercut swings in an effort to predict whether Plawecki and Lagares will benefit from the same adjustment.

Think about some of the most notable success stories of the fly ball revolution: Daniel Murphy, J.D. Martinez, Josh Donaldson, Yonder Alonso. These are all players that already had incredible hit tools, but were underperforming in one way or another. J.D. Martinez was released by the Astros in 2014 before turning to Wallenbrock to salvage his career. Josh Donaldson was a top prospect who took a very long time to develop into the superstar he is today. Yonder Alonso was a below-average hitter in 2016. Daniel Murphy always hit for high average, but not an overwhelming amount of power. These were guys for whom the tools were already there, but mechanical adjustments helped them knock their production up a notch to become true sluggers.

Plawecki profiles much more like that type of player than Juan Lagares. He has a pretty respectable prospect pedigree. He was a first round draft pick and when he was first called up to the big leagues, he graded out at a 55 hit tool and a 45 power tool, with a 127 wRC+ in the minor leagues. The talent appears to be there and the aforementioned mechanical issues exist to be ironed out. It seems that perhaps Plawecki’s early successes in his foray into elevating the ball may be no fluke; he seems like exactly the type of player that could stand to benefit from this change in approach.

Juan Lagares, however, does not come with the same prospect pedigree and hit tool as Plawecki. Lagares rose to the big leagues buoyed by his defense, which, to be fair, the scouts completely underestimated. However, I fear Juan Lagares becoming the next Jason Heyward, being forced to swing in a way that runs counter to what is natural for him. Lagares said he was taught to hit “on top of the ball” growing up, but is now forgoing that approach. “This was my idea,” he said. “I’m trying to find the help that may benefit me.” He has even expressed interest in spending time hitting with his old teammate, Daniel Murphy. He is not necessarily wrong in trying an adjustment that has benefitted so many other players. He does not have much to lose in doing so. But, it would be uncharted territory for a player like him.

One thing is certainly clear. Strong contributions from Juan Lagares and Kevin Plawecki would mean a great deal to the 2018 Mets. And if the fly ball revolution is what it takes, then I say, “Give the people what they want.”