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Can These 11 MLB Hitters Continue Making the Most of Their Fly Balls in 2017?

You’d be hard-pressed to find a baseball fan who doesn’t dig watching home runs. If you indeed dig them, the 2016 season was one of the best years to track the long ball in recent memory.

There were 111 different players who reached the 20-homer plateau, which is a new record and a substantial increase to 2015, where only 64 players slugged that many baseballs over the fence. The most beautiful part of it all? Not all 20-plus homer hitters are created equally, which we’ve touched upon a couple of times this winter.

While they can also happen on line drives, the home runs usually result from fly balls. Obviously, for someone to accumulate a lot of round-trippers in any given season, a healthy fly-ball rate (FB%) is necessary.

So, it makes sense as to why 100 of the above players produced a fly-ball rate in 2016 north of 30% (including 53 with a fly-ball rate of at least 40%). That also leaves us with an interesting group who didn’t put the ball in the air as frequently, and they probably wouldn’t mind it happening again in 2017.

Here are the 11 hitters who managed to enter the 20-homer club last year without a fly-ball rate above 30%.

Player PA HRs LD% FB% HR/FB Hard% wRC+
Joey Votto 677 29 27.3% 29.7% 22.0% 38.7% 158
Nomar Mazara 568 20 21.4% 29.7% 16.4% 28.7% 94
Corey Seager 687 26 24.4% 29.3% 17.9% 39.7% 137
Paul Goldschmidt 705 24 24.7% 28.8% 19.0% 37.5% 134
Jean Segura 694 20 19.1% 27.8% 13.5% 29.7% 126
Carlos Correa 660 20 22.4% 27.4% 16.5% 37.2% 122
Ian Desmond 677 22 20.6% 26.0% 18.2% 30.3% 106
Wilson Ramos 523 22 20.4% 25.3% 21.4% 35.4% 124
Ryan Braun 564 30 19.3% 25.1% 28.8% 34.4% 133
Eric Hosmer 667 25 16.5% 24.7% 21.4% 34.4% 101
Christian Yelich 659 21 23.4% 20.0% 23.6% 38.0% 130

Joey Votto continues to be an absolute machine. While he just makes the cut thanks to a 29.7% fly-ball rate, he also leads this group in homers (29), line-drive rate (27.3%) and wRC+ (158) by sizable margins. He did a lot of this work in the second half, posting a ridiculous .408/.490/.668 triple slash with 15 homers and 55 RBI in 262 at-bats after the All-Star break. That led an equally ridiculous 201 wRC+.

We go from the best overall hitter to the worst in Nomar Mazara — at least when we’re using wRC+ as the determining factor. There are some questions he’ll need to answer (along with the rest of the Rangers outfield) this season, but his performance as a rookie rightfully has people excited for what he can do during his age-22 campaign and beyond.

While we’re in the midst of the next golden age of shortstops, Corey Seager didn’t take long to show us he was worth all of that top-prospect hype. The power is for real — his .204 ISO can tell us that — and with so few fly balls to go along with a reasonably low pull rate (37.1% in ’16), his Rookie of the Year performance may only be scratching the surface of his potential.

It’s hard calling a 4.8-fWAR season a “down year,” but when you’re fresh off a 7.8-fWAR performance, it kind of is. Paul Goldschmidt‘s .194 ISO broke his streak of three consecutive years with an ISO of at least .240, but he still played pretty well. That 28.8% fly-ball rate may be an anomaly, though — prior to 2016, Goldy never produced one below 32.8% in a single season, which occurred in 2014.

They’re not teammates anymore, but Goldy and Jean Segura both proved to be super resourceful fly-ball hitters last year. Segura’s 27.8% fly-ball rate was actually a career high, coinciding with a power surge he’d never experienced at the big-league level. Before hitting 20 homers and posting a .181 ISO in 2016, he hit just 23 homers with a .094 ISO combined from 2012-15.

A 20-homer campaign and a 4.9-fWAR performance from your second-year shortstop is normally huge, but it was a slight step back for Carlos Correa. Why? Mostly because he hit two fewer homers in 2016 than he did as a rookie in 2015 despite having 228 more plate appearances. He’ll be an important piece to the Houston Astros’ success this year.

Ian Desmond enjoyed a resurgence with the Texas Rangers in 2016 and finally saw his strikeout rate decrease, something that he was unable to accomplish between 2012 and 2015. While manning first base for the Colorado Rockies doesn’t make sense, his offense should probably play just fine, especially since Desmond had a pull rate of just 31.2% last year — the lowest of this group.

Wilson Ramos‘ 523 plate appearances are also the lowest of this group, but only because his season was cut short due to injury. That was unfortunate because this was a career year for the backstop in many respects. His fly-ball rate didn’t change all that much (26.9% for his career), but his hard-hit rate jumped from 26.4% in 2015 to the 35.4% you see above.

Despite seeing his highest home run total since 2012, Ryan Braun saw a decline in fly balls hit. From 2007-14, his FB% was below 33% just once (32.4% in ’13), and he followed that up with 31.0% in 2015 before last year’s 25.1%. The area that’s seen the biggest change as a result is his ground-ball rate, which soared to a career-high 55.7%.

Eric Hosmer had such an interesting 2016 campaign that it’s hard to believe I’m just realizing it. Not only is he one of 11 hitters on this list in particular, but his 58.9% ground-ball rate was also the highest of any 20-plus home run hitter. His 16.7% line-drive rate was one of the nine lowest last year, and yet he still hit 25 homers.

We just talked about how good of a year Christian Yelich had, and it’s pretty clear to see why he’s someone to watch heading into 2017. Of the above group, he easily had the lowest fly-ball rate, but produced the fourth-highest line-drive rate and third-highest hard-hit rate.

Conclusion

As we see time and time again, there are countless ways for power hitters to reach their respective numbers in any given year, which is one of the reasons why baseball is so wonderful.

Limiting fly balls is generally a good thing — especially if it leads to more line drives — but if you’re going to put the ball in the air, you might as well make the most of it, right? The above 11 players enjoyed everything that came with reaching the 20-homer plateau, but without seeing as many lazy fly balls become outs as some others.

Can this continue for them in 2017? The current trends tell us one thing, but the players themselves will soon be telling us whether or not it’ll hold steady over the next several months.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference. Advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.

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