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Yadier Molina should buck the fly ball revolution

Molina St. Louis Cardinals

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This season, I’ve praised Jose Martinez and Jedd Gyorko for buying into the air ball revolution. While Martinez is far from great, his new approach has made him a viable option as an MLB backup after spending 10 years in the minor leagues. For Gyorko, it took him from a 7% below average hitter (93 wRC+ from 2013 to 2015) to a 13% above average hitter (113 wRC+ since 2016).

The idea is simple: balls in the air do the most damage.

Both wOBA and OPS peak approximately between 10 and 30 degrees. The small dip near the 20 degree mark is most likely due to outfielder positioning (they have to stand somewhere).

Now that Statcast batted ball data is available, hitters and coaches are working the data into instruction. Yet, Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight found that the fly ball revolution is hurting as many batters as it’s helped. Which brings me to Yadier Molina.

It’s a strange time to be criticizing Molina given that he’s homered in three straight games. However, those results don’t invalidate criticism of the process. Molina’s wRC+ is “up” to 83 after sitting at 74 through June 16th, but would still be his second worst season at the plate in the last ten years.

The data clearly indicates that Molina is trying to lift the ball. Yadi’s average launch angle is up more than four degrees over last year from 9.1 to 13.4. His fly ball rate is up exactly five percent to 34.7%. His Pull% has jumped nearly seven points to 44.3%.

We can look at this more specifically by focusing on contact quality. Baseball Savant breaks out batted balls into six types of contact quality. Three types are good for the hitter (barrels, solid contact, and flares/burners) and three types are good for pitchers (poorly/under, poorly/topped, and poorly/weak). To better see the differences resulting from Molina’s new air ball approach, we can look at the differences in frequency and results of each type of batted ball and compare to league average.

Molina St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

The MLB numbers include aggregated data from 2016 and 2017. This year, Molina has either barreled balls or made solid contact at a slightly higher rate than he did in 2016, consistent with adopting an air ball approach. Put those two categories together and Molina is about league average at making strong contact, and above average when you include flares and burners. Unfortunately, Molina has also increased his weak contact and hit under rates, the two worst types of batted balls, by a combined 5.9%.

While Molina’s on-contact wOBA (wOBAcon) is down 24 points from .360 to .336, his 2017 xwOBAcon of .354 is nearly identical to his 2016 mark of .355. Essentially, the net gain from Molina’s air ball approach is zero. He’s getting identical expected results on-contact through a different process with worse actual results.

The air ball approach has resulted in some good for Yadi. His HR/FB rate is at 13.4%, which would be the second highest rate of his career. His isolated slugging percentage (ISO) is up to .162, also the second best of his career. There’s likely some home run regression coming, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Molina post a rate above his career average now that he’s selling out for pull-power.

On the other hand, Molina’s BABIP is down to .266 compared to a career .299 mark. His infield fly ball rate (IFFB%, or popup rate) is at a career high 16.4% and is more than triple his 2016 rate of only 5%. While you might expect that to regress some, the reality is that hitting more fly balls results in a lower BABIP. Fly balls that aren’t home runs are almost always outs.

As I stated above, the net impact in results on contact after adopting the air ball approach is ether negative or zero. The difference in wOBAcon is most likely explained by luck or defensive positioning. However, Molina’s overall xwOBA is still down 20 points from .343 in 2016 to .323 in 2017. So, while luck has played a part, Yadi has also been a worse hitter. And the difference is non-contact situations.

To hit more balls in the air, you might need to add an uppercut. Implementing even a slight uppercut to lift the ball makes it harder to make contact. Molina’s Contact% of 82.4% is his lowest since his debut season in 2004.

Additionally, since Molina is trying to pull more balls, he has to start a little bit earlier. Starting earlier means you’re more likely to chase bad pitches, and Yadi’s 38.2% chase rate is a career high.

Put a career low contact rate with a career high chase rate and you get exactly what you’d expect. Yadier Molina owns a 14.1% strikeout rate, which would be a career high, and a 4.6% walk rate, which would be a career low.

Unless Molina can make considerable strides to improve his contact quality, he shouldn’t be trying to hit more fly balls. And maybe there’s reason to think Molina will improve his contact quality. Taking a look at his “hit under” batted balls, there are eight outs that were only one or two mph away from being productive hits.

Molina St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

So is Molina “just missing” those balls? Or does he not have the bat talent to consistently generate high exit velocities and get out of the “donut hole”? He’s had a below average exit velocity in each year that Statcast data is available (since 2015), and his 2017 mark of 86.7 mph is down from 87.6 mph last year. His hard hit rate, which measures the percentage of batted balls with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph, was 8.3% below average in 2016 and is 2.1% below average this year. Maybe Molina just isn’t a power hitter.

I teased that I might compare Yadi’s fly ball approach to my slow pitch softball career (four games young). I don’t have the bat talent to hit home runs. When I hit fly balls, they’re routine outs. When I try to hit air balls and I miss slightly, I hit useless popups.

If I try to swing level instead, I’m more likely to hit lower line drives. Then, if I mis-hit, I’ll more likely hit ground balls. Ground balls have a better chance of being hits than routine fly balls and popups. By trying to hit lower line drives and ground balls, I might not hit even a double all year. My ISO might be .000, but my batting average will be significantly higher.

But the goal at the plate is to maximize batter value by managing a given contact profile. Mine doesn’t include the ability to hit the ball hard enough to do consistent damage through the air. So, for me, maximizing my batter value means hitting the ball lower. Maybe Yadi should go back to doing the same.

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