Batted Ball Changes: Fantasy Risers, Fallers

We are closing in on the end of April, which means we have a pretty decent-sized data sample for hitters now. The league leaders will clear 100 plate appearances in the next week or so, which gives us a lot of good stuff to look into.

A lot of times we find a breakout or dud hitter, it comes along with a big change in the batted ball profile. What we mean by that is generally the launch angle and launch speed of the balls they’re putting in play. In this post, we will focus on on ground-ball and fly-ball rates along with average exit velocity on fly balls to identify some hitters that may have made a conscious change in their approach coming into 2022.

None of these changes are sure to stick, it is still a bit early to declare that, but there is quite a good chance that the changes in the numbers are intentional rather than just caused by randomness. Let’s get to it.

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Fly-Ball Gainers

Raimel Tapia, Toronto Blue Jays

Stat 2021 2022 Diff
FB% 12.3% 24.0% + 11.7%
FB Velo 87.1 91.5 +4.4

Tapia led the league in ground-ball rate last year, so we should not be surprised that he is hitting fewer grounders early on, he simply had no other direction in which to go.

That said, there has clearly been some kind of change here. Beyond the numbers above, Tapia is also swinging more (+ 9%) and making harder contact (+ 11%). He already has five barrels, more than halfway to his 2021 total of nine. The bad news is that all of this is coming with more whiffs (+ 7% SwStr%), but that figure acts as evidence that he’s swinging the bat harder as well, which backs up the rest of the new profile.

It seems like a pretty good bet to me that Tapia has come into 2022 looking to hit for more power. This is a very, very similar profile to what we saw with Joey Votto last season. More fly balls, harder contact, and thusly more barrels – but less contact and more strikeouts.

I’m not sure this makes Tapia roster-worthy this year. He has started 15 games already for the Blue Jays, but that’s with Teoscar Hernandez on the shelf, so it’s unlikely that he remains a starter. But he may be worth an add in deep leagues as he appears to be set for a career-best performance in power numbers (at least the ratio numbers since playing time is a question mark).

Christian Walker, Arizona Diamondbacks

Stat 2021 2022 Diff
FB% 28.3% 40.0% + 11.7%
FB Velo 90.3 93.8 +3.5

The base-level stats on Walker do not look good early on with his .152 / .243 / .364 slash line through 74 plate appearances. Everything else looks pretty good, however, as he’s hit four homers already on a 14% barrel rate while maintaining a low 21.6% K%. He’s also posting a nice contact rate (78.9%) and an above-average walk rate (10.8%). All of these numbers I just rattled off make that slash line look like one of the unluckiest lines of the season.

Getting back to the data at hand, we have seen Walker hitting way more fly-balls and hitting them much harder. I like me a good histogram, so here’s Walker’s batted ball angles in that form:

The sweet spot for extra-base hits is between 15 and 40 degrees, and you can see a ton of Walker’s distribution falling between those lines. It’s been a really encouraging start for Walker, who had a miserable season in 2021 and very well may be bouncing back in a big way.

Tim Anderson, Chicago White Sox

Stat 2021 2022 Diff
FB% 19.3% 30.4% + 11.1%
FB Velo 91.8 93.3 +1.5

This might not actually be a good thing for Tim Anderson, since fantasy managers mostly drafted him for the batting average, runs, and steals. Hitting more fly balls will typically lead to a lower batting average for a speedy lead-off man like Anderson. That itself could result in fewer steals as he finds himself on first base less often.

The obvious good side of this change is the higher barrel rate, which we’ve seen from Anderson early. In 2021, he finished with a lower 7.8% barrel rate, and early on in 2022, that number sits at 15.2%. It’s also possible that I’m completely off base with the lower batting average speculation because so far he’s hitting .309 with an even better-expected batting average of .318. Things are looking up for Anderson, and you just might be getting some more homers out of him this season.

Alex Verdugo, Boston Red Sox

Stat 2021 2022 Diff
FB% 21.0% 30.8% + 9.8%
FB Velo 92.6 93.4 +0.8

Another guy that likely changed his approach a bit coming into this year, Verdugo has an FB% that is absolutely destroying his 2021 figure, which was also a career-best at 21%. He has also done it without losing any perceived batting average production as he sits with a .314 expected batting average and an elite .639 expected slugging percentage right now. He’s cut his strikeouts down to a ridiculous 7.8% at the same time.

All of this is very, very good news for fantasy teams holding Verdugo. I’m not sure a strikeout rate below 15% or so is really feasible for Verdugo over a full season, especially if he’s consciously trying to hit more home runs. The flip side of that is that it’s also really unlikely that he goes over 20% this year as his career mark sits at 15%.

Anthony Rizzo, New York Yankees

Stat 2021 2022 Diff
FB% 27.1% 33.3% + 6.3%
FB Velo 92.0 97.7 +5.7

The average velocity on fly balls of 97.7 miles per hour is a bit hard to believe. Only 11 players managed a number above 97 miles per hour last season, and they were mostly all high-strikeout players, which Rizzo is not.

That is to say that I think Rizzo’s velocity numbers will be on the way down, but it does not mean it will fall the whole way back to the 2021 mark. We’ve seen what Rizzo’s done early on this year, currently leading the league in homers and looking better than he ever has before. We know that Yankees Stadium is a great place for left-handed bats, so Rizzo might be about to completely smash his draft value.

I always lean towards the sell-high on the best performers early on, especially if they are veteran players. There is typically some value there since they’re more likely to just perform as they usually do moving forward rather than keep repeating the hot month they had, but I’m not going to sell Rizzo for just anything right now – things are looking good for his power production in 2022.

David Peralta, Arizona Diamondbacks

Stat 2021 2022 Diff
FB% 15.6% 29.8% +14.2
FB Velo 90.8 86.8 -4.0

So he’s not hit the ball well early on, with a reduced fly-ball velocity so far this year (and a mark that is actually quite bad under 87 miles per hour), but we can maybe forgive that since it’s on so few batted balls thus far. Peralta has been platooning this season, which keeps him off the field a bit, but he’s on the better side of that platoon as the guy who faces right-handed pitching which makes up about two-thirds of the league.

We have usually seen Peralta as a decent batting average player with a little bit of power, but we might be seeing him this year as a fine batting average guy with a little more than a little bit of power. He’s another guy you don’t want to be starting in a shallower fantasy league, but someone worth taking a look at in deep and five-outfielder leagues.

Others: James McCann (+ 16% FB%, + 2.2mph), Jose Abreu (+ 16% FB%, + 2.2mph), Miguel Sano (+ 15.3% FB%, + 2.2mph), Jesse Winker (+ 13.2% FB%, -5.4mph), Kyle Tucker (+ 12.7% FB%, -0.2mph)

Fly-Ball Fallers

Matt Olson, Atlanta Braves

Stat 2021 2022 Diff
FB% 30.2% 11.3% -18.9
FB Velo 95.4 93.3 -2.1

This profile hasn’t hurt his performance this year as he’s hit a beautiful .329 / .435 / .543 through 85 plate appearances, but he is a bit low on the homer total with just a pair of dingers.

I wouldn’t worry much about Olson here, but it’s interesting that his fly-ball rate is so stinking low. For comparison’s sake, here are his fly-ball rates for his career from oldest to newest: 29%, 31%, 28%, 30%, 29%, 30%, 11%. Given the length of his career, we can say it’s pretty likely that he’ll end up above 25% once again and hit a bunch of homers, but for now, it’s something to notice and monitor.

Randy Arozarena, Tampa Bay Rays

Stat 2021 2022 Diff
FB% 20.6% 0.6% -14.6%
FB Velo 94.1 76.7 -17.4

This crazy low fly ball velocity number there has to do with the fact that he’s only hit three fly balls so far. It’s not a limited data sample problem though, as Randy has seen 72 plate appearances and has hit 32 ground balls. That’s pretty scary stuff. The extremity of it certainly has to do with the small sample size, but it’s surely not 100% to do with that, and it’s a scary start to the year for the Rays outfielder.

Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia Phillies

Stat 2021 2022 Diff
FB% 36.7% 19.0% -17.7%
FB Velo 95.4 96.4 +0.95

Really did not want to see more ground-balls from Hoskins this year, but that’s what happened as his ground-ball rate is the whole way up to 43%. That’s no good for a slow-footed power guy like Hoskins. In the same tune as Olson above, he’s a guy we have seen a lot of in the Majors and can probably count on to end up near his career norms again this season, but for now, it’s a bit of a concerning profile.

Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels

Stat 2021 2022 Diff
FB% 34.6% 20.0% 14.6%
FB Velo 99.6 94.9 -4.7

Ohtani hit a ton of fly-balls last season and he hit them incredibly hard. It’s not surprising that he’s not repeating that performance in 2022, but early on the signs aren’t encouraging that he can be a 40+ homer guy once again. The strikeouts are still high (29.4%) and he’s topping the ball a ton with his 49% GB%. He’s fast enough to turn grounders into hits at a good clip, but with the shift on him – the batting average isn’t going to be good at all with a strikeout rate above 28% and a ground-ball rate above 45%. If you roster Ohtani as just a hitter, I would probably be a bit concerned and might even try to move him if you can get a top-25 guy in return.

Nate Lowe, Texas Rangers

Stat 2021 2022 Diff
FB% 23.4% 5.4% -18.0%
FB Velo 91.7 92.9 1.3

Lowe quietly had a nice season in 2021, and he’s off to a pretty good start so far this year with a .343 / .387 / .443 slash line. That is coming with almost no power, however, with a 3.6% Brl% and just one homer. The ground-ball rate is way up at 55%, and obviously, he’s benefited from a high BABIP. I would still be holding Lowe if you drafted him, but I do not know if 25+ homers are in the cards.

Others: Jorge Soler (-14% FB%, -2.3 mph), Enrique Hernandez (-14.4% FB%, + 3.1mph), Ryan Mountcastle (-13.5% FB%, -7.7 mph)

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