Through May 4th, Jedd Gyorko is the St. Louis Cardinals best hitter. His play has firmly entrenched him as the full-time third baseman, his 178 wRC+ ranks second at the position, and his 10.2 WAR per 600 plate appearances is fifth highest among all position players. He’s even inserted himself into the NL MVP race. In short, Jedd Gyorko is playing the best baseball of his life.
It’s unreasonable to expect Gyorko to continue producing at this rate, but his start has fueled optimism that last year was less of an anomaly than most believed this offseason. Importantly, his success is the result of a change to his approach at the plate, not just a long streak of luck.
Jedd Gyorko has consciously adapted his approach at the plate to maximize the value of his batted balls. In fact, he recently said as much to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His strategy aligns with fly ball revolution noticed by Fangraphs. Balls in the air are the most valuable, and players who generate higher launch angles at higher exit velocities outproduce their peers.
Using the available Statcast data courtesy of Baseball Savant, we can analyze how well he is executing his new strategy at the plate. Since there hasn’t been a significant positive change regarding his average exit velocity, I will focus in on launch angle.
Just looking at his average launch angle since 2015, we can see a significant change. He added 3 degrees from 2015 to 2016, going from 12.7 to 15.6 degrees. Further, he has maintained that increase so far in 2017.
More importantly than just an average launch angle, though, is the launch angle distribution of batted balls. After all, you can get to an average of 15 degrees by hitting two balls at 10 and 20 degrees, as well as two balls at -20 and 50 degrees. The expected and actual results from those two samples would be dramatically different. Hitters who generate a larger percentage of batted balls between about 5 and 30 degrees will generally have the most success. Therefore, a look at Gyorko’s launch angle distribution over the years will yield better information than just looking at his averages.
With the small sample caveat for 2017 (reliability of batted balls is weird), we can make a couple conclusions from this distribution. Last season, Jedd Gyorko generated batted balls in the two highest wOBA buckets at a higher rate, and the result was a 28 point increase in his wOBAcon and a 30 point jump in his xwOBAcon. This year, the trend has essentially continued. Gyorko’s wOBAcon is up to .641 and his xwOBAcon is at .533. While that suggests he’s had a bit of luck, he’s also been exceptionally good so far; his wOBAcon ranks 5th among all players with at least 25 batted balls while his xwOBAcon ranks 13th.
Looking at his launch angle distribution another way, the shift is even more clear:
Since 2016, Jedd Gyorko has narrowed the concentration of his launch angle distribution. He’s hit more balls between 15 and 35 degrees at the expense of balls between -10 and 10 degrees. That change is almost certainly the primary driver behind his success so far with the St. Louis Cardinals, and his ability to consciously generate this distribution may indicate that he can continue to do so going forward.
Lastly, balls in the air obviously do more damage the harder they’re hit. While I said above that there were no meaningful trends in Gyorko’s average exit velocity, that’s not entirely true. When looking only at balls hit at a launch angle between 15 and 35 degrees, Gyorko’s average exit velocity has risen from 91.0 mph in 2015 to 93.1 mph in 2016. So far in 2017, it’s up at 98.9 mph. That exit velocity is good for 11th best in the league, two places ahead of Giancarlo Stanton and three ahead of Aaron Judge. So, not only is Gyorko hitting more balls at more ideal launch angles – he’s crushing them.
Of course, we have plenty of history that says Jedd Gyorko is only a league average hitter, and his history should still help guide our expectations. We shouldn’t expect Gyorko to have a Mike Trout-like year. We do, however, have cause to believe in what he’s shown during his time in a St. Louis uniform, as well as reason for optimism concerning his prospects going forward.