Analyzing April 2019 Flyball Data for MiLB

Flyball distance is a unique piece of information to interpret. It’s just one branch of what should be a larger tree of information. Thanks to Smada, we now have April 2019 flyball distance data and how it stacks up to a player’s 2018 April, along with flyball percentage gains/losses. Before diving in, I want to be clear here: flyball distance is just one piece of the puzzle. It should be the jumping off point of more research, not the conclusion.

When presented with a vast data set like this one, the question, at least for me, is simple: who’s hitting the ball further that we’re overlooking?

Our data has a minimum of 15 flyballs for a player to qualify. This is already a very small sample and we felt going below that would provide more noise than necessary. We will also work to scrub Mexican League stats next time. Those stadiums play at elevations 2,000 feet higher than Coors, and their moon-like gravity only serve to skew data for our purposes. But if you’re in a Mexican ball fantasy league, go and scoop up Nick Torres, whose distance has jumped a comical 29 percent.

Here are the top 15 gainers in flyball distance in all of minor league baseball when compared to April 2018. Some of these, like Alex Mejia and Kenny Wilson are in the Mexican League.

Top 15 qualified MiLB hitters sorted by %Increase FB Distance

Top 15 qualified MiLB hitters sorted by %Increase FB Distance

Those are a lot of random names, huh? And a lot of names in Triple-A. Here are how the leagues stack against each other in distance gained.

AAA: 3% (304.7 ft)
AA: 0.2% (292.4 ft)
A+: 0.5% (290.3 ft)
A: -1.7% (285.3 ft)

While the new MLB ball narrative seems to fit here for Triple-A, the Mexican League numbers skew it. I’d venture it’s perhaps closer to two percent, but that’s still a significant gain year over year relative to other leagues. And what’s happening in the MWL and Sally? The runs per game are actually up slightly this year compared to last. It might just be anomaly and/or cold weather related.

Let’s skip Triple-A for now and look at Double-A, a league where they’re using the same ball as last year.

Top 15 Qualified Double-A hitters sorted by % Increase FB Distance

Top 15 Qualified Double-A hitters sorted by % Increase FB Distance

If you filter by largest percent gainers in FB distance, a few interesting names pop up. First on the list is Astros 6-4, 200-pound OF Granden Goetzman. He’s a 26-year-old who’s never made it past Double-A and spent most of his career in the Rays system battling injuries and ineffectiveness. Have the Astros unlocked something that’s seen his walk rate and power soar? I know very little about Goetzman, but hey, if you want to toss him into the farm system of your 30-team league to see what happens, go for it.

Of perhaps a little more interest are names like Rays OF Josh Lowe, Diamondbacks 1B Pavin Smith, Padres OF Jorge Ona, and Padres OF Buddy Reed. Lowe is looking like an early breakout player, already sitting two home runs behind his 2018 total of six. He’s had plus raw and it seems he’s tapping into it more, though it’s worth noting he was in the Florida State League last year, which suppresses power. Pavin Smith’s big question was always around his power and it looks like his profile is changing. He’s hitting the ball in the air more and pulling it less, though at the expense of some line drives. Not surprisingly his strikeouts have gone up a bit, though to a very manageable 18 K%. He’s someone I’m going to watch closer now because he already had the innate plate discipline. If he’s able to add power to that profile, I might be back in. Jorge Ona, whom the Padres signed out of Cuba in 2016 for $7 million, is chipping away in Double-A as a 22-year-old and while his .439 BABIP doesn’t let you fully buy in, he’s become less reliant as a pull hitter while smoking the ball more (increased line drive rate) and hitting it further. In April 2018, Reed was in High-A showcasing a power profile but that dissipated when he climbed to Double-A. It seems it’s back, hinting that the below-average power scouting grades need to be updated to reflect a potential 15 HR+ player. I noticed he’s only attempted three steals this year. At this point in 2018 he had 14.

Who has the lowest flyball distance in the early going? It’s Padres shortstop Xavier Edwards with a meager 240 feet. This jives with what Lance Brozdowski wrote about in his portion of our Midwest Live Looks post.

Edwards makes an insane amount of ground-ball contact to play into his wheels. While this is logically the thing for a small, speedy leadoff hitter to do, I wonder if there’s anything else in the offensive profile outside of infield singles and the occasional double down either line. He swings down on the ball often with below average bat speed and decent balance in the box. This is purely my initial impression of Edwards, but I will have a hard time making him a top 100 prospect without some line-drive based success to convince me he can slug .400 at the major league level.

In A-ball, Rangers C/1B Sam Huff sticks out like a (good) sore thumb, seeing a massive 16 percent increase in distance from April of last year. Not only is his 345 ft average distance fourth best of all 566 qualified batters, he’s the only one in the top 10 that’s not in Triple-A benefiting from the new ball. Huff is leading MiLB with 13 home runs through Wednesday and is just five away from his 2018 total. I’ll note that this is his second go around the Sally, and that his below-average walk and strikeout rates aren’t ideal. The power is real, though.

Before I release you and let you dive into the full leaderboards below, here are some random notes and things that caught my eye and might warrant further investigation:

  • Rays 2B/SS Vidal Brujan is 11th worst in flyball distance, losing five percent off his April 2018 numbers (but again, remember FSL vs. MWL). I saw him earlier this year and his swing is geared for line drives right now. That plus his body makes me think the power might take a little longer to develop.

  • White Sox 2B Nick Madrigal has increased his FB% from 23 percent to 35 percent. He’s gone from a 2.00+ GB/FB player to about 1.15 in the early going.

  • Pirates OF Cal Mitchell has maintained an almost identical FB distance (which is good because he moved up to the FSL), but has increased his fly ball percentage from 32 percent to 46 percent. When I saw him he flashed a short, compact stroke and always put the barrel to the ball. I expect him to grow into more power, but he’s already a bit filled out.

  • Dodgers MI Gavin Lux has suffered the second-biggest drop in FB% of all hitters. He’s down to a minuscule 24 percent after being after 34 percent last April. That might not bode well for people high on him like I am who are predicting 15 home run power.

  • Pirates 1B Will Craig has just one XBH in his last 50 plate appearances, and while that in itself could be hand waved as a dry spell, I was perplexed by his April 39 FB%. It seems he’s tweaking his profile to become less of a TTO player but I wonder if that’s going to start affecting his power.

  • In Double-A, Drew Waters has the 13th highest increase in FB% from last April along with a modest three percent increase in distance. He’s a top 50 prospect for me after graduations.

  • Fellow Arismendy Alcantara (remember him from the Cubs?) has a 70 FB% with no home runs and has significantly dropped in flyball distance. Lazy flyballs everywhere.

  • Rockies 1B Grant Lavigne has increased his FB% (27% to 35%), but his distance has collapsed at 266 feet, 13th worst in A-ball.

If you have any questions about the tables, feel free to drop a comment.