Yadier Molina appears to have emphasized launch angle this offseason. So far, we’ve seen mixed results.
The fly ball theory in baseball is relatively new. I am simplifying this to a great extent, but essentially the idea is that the only way to improve your batted ball output is to hit more fly balls. That may sound a bit ridiculous, but there is some logic behind it. Players rarely improve their batting average on balls in play, so they have to get a different type of hit. Fly balls lead to home runs, and thus hitters desire more fly balls.
This line of thinking is partially responsible for the league-wide emphasis on launch angle. Many players spend the offseason altering their swings to generate more fly balls. In some cases, this works out very well. The Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter benefitted greatly from such an adjustment.
Through 2014, Carpenter never had a fly ball rate above 36 percent or a ground ball rate below 38.7 percent. He also had never hit more than 11 home runs in a single season. Since 2015, Carpenter has never had a fly ball rate below 41.7 percent or a ground ball rate above 30.6 percent. He also has not hit less than 21 home runs in a single season since then, and already has 14 this year.
Carpenter represents the somewhat extreme case where a player makes a 15-20 homer leap on the strength of an improved fly ball rate. But many players have made improvements by hitting more fly balls. This season, Yadier Molina attempted a similar adjustment, and the results are notable, if underwhelming.
Yadier Molina tries for the fences
Aside from a single-season outburst in 2012, Yadier Molina has not been a power hitter. If you remove that 22 homer season from 2012, then Molina’s career high would be 14 home runs. Yet in his age 34-35 season, Molina is on pace for 19 homers.
Molina has a bit of an offensive resurgence last season after a difficult 2015 at the plate. This season hasn’t been as good as Molina’s 2016 was, but it’s been very different.
In 2016, Molina hit just 8 homers, but kept a low strikeout rate of just 10.8 percent. This year, Molina already has 9 longballs, but a 14.2 percent strikeout rate. The power output definitely increased, but the launch angle emphasis could be hurting other areas, too.
To begin with, Molina really did accomplish what he set out to do. His launch angle is higher, and he is hitting more fly balls. Nearly one-fifth of Molina’s balls in play have a launch angle between 20 and 35 degrees this season. Prior to 2017, his launch angle was in that region less than five percent of the time.
Between 20 and 35 degrees is usually right in the sweet spot for a hard-hit ball. The fact that Molina was reaching that launch angle so infrequently before just shows what we already knew: he wasn’t a big power hitter. This year, he is getting the desired launch angle more often, and that’s why we see the power spike.
Molina’s batted ball profile shows this change, as his fly ball rate is up to 35.8 percent, his highest since 2005. Molina is also hitting fewer ground balls, with his ground ball rate down six percentage points from last year. Even though Molina is also hitting more infield popups (still a result of the increased launch angle), it’s safe to say that he successfully made the adjustment to hit fly balls more often.
Homers at the expense of whiffs
The Cardinals will take the extra home runs, but it hasn’t all been good. Molina is striking out more often than he ever has. I am not sure if that is a result of his plate adjustment or just a coincidence. At nearly 35 years of age, Molina should start slowing down a little at the plate.
Age questions aside, we can’t ignore the possibility that the launch angle adjustment has made it harder for Molina to make contact. Carpenter also saw his strikeout rate rise after he made the adjustment to hit more fly balls. In particular, Carpenter’s contact rate on balls in the strike zone decreased by roughly eight percentage points.
While Molina’s contact rate within the strike zone has decreased by a noticeable margin (five percent), it isn’t the only thing contributing to his increased strikeout rate. Molina is chasing balls out of the zone slightly more often than he has in the past. The two percent increase in chase rate explains a little bit of the strikeout increase, and also the decrease in walk rate.
Theoretically, altering Molina’s swing should not affect his chase rate. Chase rate is a plate discipline issue, not a contact issue. If we are trying to focus on the effect of the launch angle adjustment, then we can ignore the chase rate. Of course, Molina’s chase rate is a reason why he is struggling a bit more at the plate this year.
Molina needs to walk more
Molina walks 6.8 percent of the time for his career, but is doing so just 4.3 percent of the time this season. His lowest single-season mark prior to 2017 was 5.5 percent. The small jump in chase rate is probably not the only cause of this, but it is really the only thing that sticks out as a potential cause when looking at his plate discipline numbers.
Molina’s contact rates in and out of the zone have decreased, so they wouldn’t hurt his walk rate. And pitchers are not throwing strikes more often against him. I wouldn’t be surprised to see his walk rate rise a little bit the rest of the season even if he can’t bring his chase rate back down.
The real reason walk rate is important here is because Molina’s total offensive output is down. He has managed just a wRC+ of just 86, after posting a 113 in that category one season ago. He could get up over 90 by walking as often as he was before (walk rate often affects more than just walks).
Molina may not be ten percent above average at the plate like he was last season, but he also had little chance of replicating his .335 batting average on balls in play from 2016. The question now is whether or not the increase in fly ball rate is helping or hurting him.
The home runs are more important
Molina has upped his home run rate to a little under four percent. He homered on roughly 1.5 percent of plate appearances last season. That jump is more than enough to offset a four percent increase in strikeout rate. The only question is whether or not it affects other categories, like BABIP or walk rate.
It’s hard to see how his adjustment can affect walk rate, but it might affect BABIP a little. Ground balls become hits more often than fly balls that stay in the park do. But when you factor in balls that leave the park, fly balls take the advantage. In other words, the fly ball adjustment may hurt his BABIP, but not necessarily in a way that hurts his overall production.
Given the home run increase, I believe that Molina is benefitting from more fly balls. His overall production may not show it, but the categories that should be affected by the adjustment show a net positive. We’ll see if Molina can increase his walk rate, or if his batted balls start finding more holes in the defense. In the meantime, Molina is the latest Cardinal to emphasize launch angle and starting hitting more homers because of it.
Photo Credit: Bill Streicher – USA TODAY Sports