According to Rob Neyer, Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics have found yet another market inefficiency – fly ball hitters. In 2013, the A's had the highest team fly ball rate in baseball, by a wide margin. They had a rate of 41.7% while the second highest, the Mariners, had a 37.3% rate. Meanwhile, the Yankees ranked thirteenth with a 35% fly ball rate. The A's have led the league in fly balls in 2012 and ranked fourth in 2011, so it's not really a fluke, and the Yankees have hovered around middle of the pack over the last three seasons.
Is this a good thing? Well, the 2013 A's had the third best offense in baseball (108 wRC+), so it definitely didn't have a negative effect. Neyer attributes the tactic as a means to offset the recent trend in valuing ground ball pitchers, as fly ball hitters usually outmatch pitchers who rely on grounders. Having the Yankees replicate such a strategy can only help them, not just against ground ball pitchers, but also in hitting more home runs at Yankee Stadium.
Adding in that advantage could actually make Beane's strategy more helpful for the Yankees than the A's. In 2013, Yankee Stadium had park factors of 116 for left-handed batter and 122 for right-handed batters, meanwhile, O.co Coliseum only had park factors of 70 and 92. Installing more fly ball hitters into the Yankee lineup would likely offer more of a benefit than it did for Oakland.
This offseason the Yankees lost Curtis Granderson (44.2% career fly ball rate), Robinson Cano (31%), Travis Hafner (38.4%), Mark Reynolds (46.4%), and Kevin Youkilis (42.8%). They have already replaced Chris Stewart (43.7% !!) with Brian McCann (42.5%), added Jacoby Ellsbury (31.1%) to replace Granderson, and brought in Carlos Beltran (38.6%) which will likely mean the end of Vernon Wells (40.7%). Kelly Johnson (38.3%) and Brian Roberts (38.9%) will attempt to make up for Robinson Cano. Brendan Ryan (34.8%) has been re-signed to replace Eduardo Nunez (35.7%). Essentially, the Yankees lost a career 40.3% fly ball rate and replaced it with a 37.3% fly ball rate. That's a 3% loss, though they have yet to finalize their roster.
They also have Aflonso Soriano (47%), Mark Teixeira (40.9%) and Alex Rodriguez (39.3%), though it's obvious that fly ball hitters aren't the end-all-be-all of offensive abilities. Ichiro Suzuki (24%) and Derek Jeter (21.6%) have had pretty successful careers as ground ball hitters. The team has had a good offense without fly ball optimization, but when you play in a ballpark like Yankee Stadium, it might make sense to bring in players who can utilize that advantage more than others.
Obviously the Athletics don't have the money to land an Ellsbury, Beltran, or McCann who would make any roster better, so they have to rely on any small advantage they can find. The Yankees are clearly not trying to optimize their lineup for hitting fly balls, but maybe they should be, at least when it comes to the role players of the team.
Mark Reynolds' abilities would surely play up in an environment like Yankee Stadium, so it would make sense to bring him in. Omar Infante (39.8%) and Mark Ellis (40%) would have represented upgrades over the likes of Johnson and Roberts, not meaningful upgrades for the amount they would have gotten, but upgrades nonetheless. Granderson would have probably been a better signing over Ellsbury if you value fly ball rates, especially given the contracts they each signed.
On the other side, the side the Yankees are acting from, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann are simply better players, and they'll help their team no matter where they hit the ball. Sometimes you can just outspend moneyball. Whether it will be a good idea or not has yet to be seen.