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What can the Yankees expect from Matt Holliday’s desire to hit fewer ground balls?

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Will a reduction in ground ball rate improve production for the Yankees designated hitter?

MLB: New York Yankees-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Holliday signed with the Yankees to show he could still mash.

“It’s my job to go out on the field and prove what I have left and what I can do on the field,” he told Mike Mazzeo of the New York Daily News. “I feel really good. I feel really confident with what I’m doing and what I can contribute to the team.”

These sort of statements are common around spring training complexes. A player will routinely remark that he’s in the best shape of his life. In the week leading up to actual game action, things are especially rosy. Holliday, however, is not one for general statements. He arrived in Tampa with a plan to succeed during the 2017 season. He’s going to try to cut down on the number of ground balls he hits.

During a Day in the Life video with the Yankees, Holliday explained his thinking:

“I’m just studying some of the advanced numbers and metrics and things like that. My groundball rate has gotten too high, and I’m just trying to figure out why, one, and then try to correct it. I’m just trying to get my bat path back on a little bit more of a cleaner path. That should get the ball off the ground and balls in the air more often, and get back into the sort of the percentage that most of the elite players are hitting in.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that quote. Holliday’s ground ball percentage (GB%) has trended upward in recent years. His three most recent seasons serve as a nice example. In 2014, he managed a 45.6 GB%. That jumped up to 48.1% in 2015, before peaking at a career-worst 50% in 2016.

He also indicated a mechanical adjustment. He’s looking to tweak his bat path in order to generate more fly balls. In the same Daily News article, Holliday mentioned that he’s “looking for the right trajectory and the feel of the bat and things like that.” This isn’t just idle talk, he’s testing out rather substantial changes.

Given his reputation as a student of the game, it’s entirely possible that Holliday will lower his ground ball rate in 2017. The real question is will this help his production? To get an idea of what the Yankees can expect, I’ve set up three categories into which he could fall. Each features a veteran batter who decreased his ground ball percentage from 2015 to 2016. I kept the rate in the 50% range to align the comparisons closer to Holliday’s production.

The Robinson Cano Model

Alternatively titled “The Injury Explanation Model.” In 2015, Cano posted a 50.5% ground ball rate. That actually represented a decrease from his career-worst 52.6% in 2014. It was during this period, however, that Cano struggled with a sports hernia. He underwent surgery in October 2015 to repair the damage.

Cano returned in 2016 with a 45.9% ground ball rate, a number more in line with his career norms. This accompanied an offensive campaign worth 138 wRC+, a notable improvement over his 116 wRC+ mark in 2015. From the looks of it, Cano’s increased ground ball rate and struggles at the plate were the results of a nagging injury.

This is relevant to Holliday considering he battled injuries during his final years in St. Louis. He fractured his thumb in 2016 and suffered a grade 2 quad strain in 2015. It’s possible that these setbacks skewed his ground ball numbers. Holliday is healthy now, and a Cano-style bounce back might just come naturally. This represents the best case scenario for the Yankees designated hitter.

The Joe Mauer Model

What if injuries weren’t to blame? For that case Mauer serves as our next comparison. In 2015, the Twins stalwart managed an enormous 55.7% ground ball rate. That accompanied a career-worst year at the plate culminating in a 94 wRC+. He didn’t struggle with any significant injury considering he appeared in a career-high 158 games.

In 2016, on the other hand, Mauer lowered his GB% to a more respectable (albeit still high) 51.9. Like Cano, the dip in ground ball rate coincided with improved production with the bat. He finished the season with a slightly above-average 102 wRC+.

The Mauer case study appears to be the most likely outcome. If Holliday priorities cutting down his GB%, then it seems fair to assume that his offensive production will increase. The safe bet is on a marginal improvement at the plate, a few points added on to his wRC+.

The Russell Martin Model

This is where things get ugly. Whereas the first two models offered optimistic visions of improved production, the Martin comparison paints a bleaker picture.

In 2015, Martin put up a 50.6% ground ball rate. That dropped to 46.5% in 2016. Unfortunately so too did his entire offensive production. Martin posted a quality 114 wRC+ in 2015. That crashed to a 99 wRC+ last year. He saw a drop in nearly every category possible. He didn’t struggle with injuries either. His 137 games played marked the most since his time with the Dodgers in 2008.

It’s possible that Holliday could improve his ground ball rate and perform worse at the plate. At 37 years old, he’s the elder statesman of the club. Players his age tend to see their production dip. Sometimes it just disappears entirely like Mark Teixeira last year. For the Yankees’ sake, let’s hope Holliday doesn’t fall into the Martin category.

The 2017 season is one of transition for the Yankees. The organization will carefully walk the line between rebuilding and contending. If the team wants to realistically remain competitive, however, they need a bounce back year from Holliday. Reducing his ground ball rate could be the key to unlocking that success.

Data courtesy of Fangraphs.