On Tuesday night, Neil Walker gave Yankee fans one of the few highlights in a very annoying series loss to the White Sox, crushing a towering walk-off home run into the right field seats. It was the culmination of a nice stretch for Walker, who has shaken off a brutal start to the year to give the Yankees solid production in the midst of injuries.
Like most left-handed batters at Yankee Stadium, Walker had success when he got the ball up in the air. That’s been a driving mentality not just at YSIII, but across baseball itself. More and more hitters are actively looking to strike more fly balls, and inflict greater damage with each swing. In fact, two of the biggest beneficiaries of this attitude are teammates of Walker:
Didi Gregorius and Aaron Hicks have both made conscious efforts to hit more fly balls, and have correspondingly seen their total offensive output rise over the past four years. The “fly ball revolution” has turned them from below-average hitters to legitimate middle-of-the-order bats.
For the second half of 2018, Walker has also gone through this transformation. He was unplayable at the beginning of his Yankee tenure, but since the second half started has posted a 124 wRC+, 70 points higher than his first half mark. Your first thought, and certainly one buoyed by recency bias, is that he must be hitting more fly balls. He really hasn’t:
His recent stretch is slightly above career norms, but it’s not earth-shattering and certainly not the peaks he’s seen before. Instead, his return to form is driven, no pun intended, by a Little League approach: hit a bunch of hard line drives.
I don’t mean “Little League approach” in any condescending way. I simply mean that when we were all playing youth baseball, our coaches preached a level swing and hitting balls on a line, rather than uppercutting or swinging down on the ball. That wisdom is rapidly being abandoned at the major-league level, except in Walker’s case. For him, a focus on a more level swing correlates pretty well with his return to being a good hitter:
For all of Walker’s “good” time with the Yankees, his launch angle has stuck between 7-15 degrees, perfect “frozen rope” territory. When he needs some power, he can lift the ball, like Tuesday night, but at the beginning of the year you can see that his swing path was all out of whack, and he was hitting far too many fly balls for his style of play.
Swing paths are the most integral part of a player’s approach at the plate, and pretty difficult to change. It shouldn’t be surprising then that as Walker’s results regressed to his historical norms, we saw the same regression in his swing path.
Didi and Hicks, JD Martinez and Josh Donaldson have all found success with the launch angle revolution. Hitting balls in the air have led teams to maximize their offense in an era that’s still pitching-friendly, and does something to counter the rise of the elite reliever. Walker is an object lesson that one size - or approach - doesn’t fit all, and that you can still produce at a quality level with a flat, line-drive swing. As the Yankees turn down the home stretch, he’s become an invaluable hitter because of it.