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Could the Yankees benefit from getting off the ground?

Hitting the ball in the air is generally a productive strategy. Which Yankees should be looking to get off the ground?

MLB: Spring Training-Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, the idea of swinging with the intention of putting the ball in the air has been en vogue. At FanGraphs, Travis Sawchick has written extensively about how some players are looking skyward. He points to the likes of Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner, players who have enjoyed huge mid-career offensive surges, and have credited their success to getting off the ground.

The merits of swinging for fly balls aren’t too difficult to see. Last season, batters slugged .258 with a 28 wRC+ on ground balls. They slugged .715 with a 139 wRC+ on fly balls. Groundballs generally find holes more often, leading to a higher BABIP than fly balls, but fly balls simply do more damage, due to their tendency to go for extra bases.

Could the Yankees benefit from getting more lift? At the team-level, the Yankees were somewhat ground-bound in 2016. Their 45.2% groundball rate ranked 13th in the majors, while their 34.2% fly ball rate ranked only 17th. That doesn’t seem optimal for a team that plays in a bandbox of a home stadium, one that turns fly balls into home runs more often than almost any other park.

At the player-level, things are rather mixed. Here’s how the individual Yankees fared last year by exit velocity, launch angle, and groundball rate (data courtesy of FanGraphs and Statcast):

Yankees batted balls in 2016

Player Exit Velocity Launch Angle GB Rate
Player Exit Velocity Launch Angle GB Rate
Gary Sanchez 94.1 6 49.3
Matt Holliday 94.7 9.2 50
Aaron Hicks 89.9 10.2 45.6
Starlin Castro 89 9.3 49.1
Brett Gardner 86.9 6.6 52.3
Jacoby Ellsbury 87.4 10.5 46.4
Chris Carter 92.6 18.8 31.7
Chase Headley 87.5 11.1 44.2
Didi Gregorius 86.6 13.2 40.1
Aaron Judge 95.5 19.4 34.9
League Average 89.2 11.7 44.7

Chris Carter and Aaron Judge are the Yankees that have had no problem getting the ball in the air. Carter’s groundball rate was the 7th-lowest among qualified hitters, and Judge’s launch angle was among the highest in the league. Both maintained strong exit velocities. Now, if only either could make contact with some regularity.

The Yankees’ biggest free agent hitter signing, Matt Holliday, could definitely benefit from more lift, something that Tyler recently touched on. Holliday, who early in his career lofted fly balls out of the park at hitter-friendly Coors Field, posted a career-high 50% groundball rate in 2016. He still scorched the ball at a high exit velocity, but those batted balls would do much more damage if they got off the ground.

Things get peculiar with Gary Sanchez. Sanchez’s offensive numbers speak for themselves: a .299/.376/.657 line, a 171 wRC+, 20 home runs in less than two months.. Yet I’ve written before about how odd Sanchez’s power profile was in 2016. Rather than generating power numbers by lifting fly balls, Sanchez skewered all his batted balls at low launch angles and high velocities, and plenty of those balls were struck hard enough to leave the park.

Sanchez’s groundball rate was one of the highest on the Yankees last year. He had the same groundball rate was as Ender Inciarte and JT Realmuto, who combined for 14 homers in over 1100 plate appearances in 2016. According to Statcast, 40 hitters with at least 50 batted balls had launch angles within one degree of Sanchez. Those players as a whole slugged .535 on those batted balls, while Sanchez slugged 1.032 on his batted balls.

Hitters generally just don’t generate power the way Sanchez does, and it’s hard to say if he should look to generate more fly balls. On the surface, it looks like he would benefit from getting the ball off the ground more, and that his power output is all but certain to regress unless he changes his approach. But it’s tough to look at Sanchez’s numbers and say something needs to change. Is it possible a more fly ball-heavy approach would mess with Sanchez’s timing, and hurt his production? Or would it lead to more power for the slugger? Time will have to tell.

Less ambiguous is the case of someone like Starlin Castro. Castro cut his groundball rate from 54% in 2015 to 49% in 2016, and his wRC+ increased 14 points. He slugged .763 with a 148 wRC+ on fly balls, and set career highs in home runs and isolated slugging. It seems probable Castro should look to get off the ground even more, take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s friendly confines, and try to carve an identity as a power-hitting middle infielder.

The highest groundball rate on the Yankees belonged to Brett Gardner, who, like Sanchez, is a strange case. Gardner’s launch angle is also quite low, and unlike Sanchez, Gardner doesn’t post massive exit velocities to power batted balls over the wall. At this point in his career, Gardner essentially is what he seems: a patient, fast, slap-hitter who puts the ball on the ground and runs.

That strategy is generally less fruitful than trying to drive the ball in the air, but Gardner has never found much success with hitting the ball in the air. Gardner has a career 68 wRC+ on flies, and a 51 wRC+ on grounders, a very small differential. His 48 wRC+ on flies in 2016 ranked 144th out of 156 qualified hitters. It’s possible that Gardner is a hitter whose best strategy isn’t to do damage on balls in the air, but to aim to get on base with hard grounders and liners, and walks.

Overall, hitting the ball in the air is more productive, and the Yankees as a team would probably benefit if their groundball rate fell. On an individual basis, however, things are trickier, as it can be hard to discern whether or not a player’s groundball/fly ball tendencies are the result of that particular player’s optimal approach. Regardless, we shall see if the Yankees next season aim for the air in their homer-happy ballpark, or if they will remain one of the league’s more grounder-heavy teams.