The 2017 season so far seems to have amplified every storyline written about baseball for the past two years. Home Runs! Strikeouts! Pitchers breaking! I want to focus on the first bit because dingers own, but also because there’s several very interesting guys out there playing right now who are testing the limits of what a team will put up with in terms of “traditional” production. Let’s look at two of ’em.
Below the Mendoza
Baseball fans are usually pretty familiar with The Mendoza line, so named for shortstop Mario Mendoza, who played from 1974 to 1982 and assembled a career batting line of *drum roll* .215/.245/.262, while finding himself getting at least semi-regular playing time because of his defensive prowess. Specifically, the Mendoza line is a .200 AVG, and being below it means there’s almost no way your defensive value can make up for the liability at the plate.
The guy who first got me thinking about this is actually the only guy who isn’t still playing in the majors: Ryan Schimpf. Schimpf is insane, statistically. He was sent down to AAA by the Padres on June 9th, but prior to that, he was hitting .158/.284/.424 and actually had a wRC+ above 100 almost right up until the day of his demotion. Look at that slash line again, it’s ridiculous.
Schimpf hit 14 home runs in 197 plate appearances. He only had ten singles in that same time period. He hit two doubles. Ryan Shimpf was all-or-nothing personified, while also being a below-average fielder at 3B. He pulled 50% of his hits, and put the ball in the air 63.9% of the time, turning just over a fifth of those fly balls into home runs.
I’m pissed that the Padres sent him down. Who are they trying to fool? They’re not gonna win crap this year, let us see what this ridiculous man can do over a full season! The human embodiment of the Fly Ball Revolution deserves that much.
Meanwhile, there’s another guy hitting below the Mendoza line whose team is actively looking for ways to keep in the lineup: Joey Gallo. Gallo’s current line is .193/.300/.514, which is good for a wRC+ of 108. The biggest difference between Gallo and Schimpf is that OBP, in that Gallo is willing to take that third true outcome of a walk. Interestingly enough, though, Schimpf has a higher BB% and lower K% (also with 90 less plate appearances.) Gallo has 21 HRs and only 13 singles, but since he hits the ball so hard, he doesn’t necessarily fly out everything not a homer, with 11 doubles and 2 triples to go along with them.
Gallo pulls 48% of his hits, but only 54% of them are classified as fly balls, converting them to homers at a similar 22% rate. That right there is the biggest difference between the outcomes for Gallo and Schmipf (the fact that Gallo isn’t nearly as much of a liability in the field helps his ability to stick in the lineup, too.) Whereas Schimpf was selling out not even necessarily for power, but for fly balls, Gallo has an Aaron Judge-like tendency to just hit the ball really damn hard. (Judge, of course, is a superior all-around hitter, but both guys have prodigious in-game power.) Gallo only hits infield pop-ups 13.4% of the time, whereas Schimpf was up at 19.4%.
The AAA Difference
That discrepancy shows the biggest caveat for guys trying to take advantage of the newfound love for getting the ball into the air: you have to be able to hit it hard, too.
As you can see, Gallo simply hits the ball harder than Schimpf on average, but he also hits them flatter. Schmipf seriously uppercuts and hits around the 30 degree mark:
Gallo, on the other hand, comes down to between 25 and 15 degrees, which is elevated enough to get out of the yard, but also where he can put much more of a charge into the ball;
Into the Unknown
It would also be remiss to leave out the fact that While Ryan Schimpf is 29, Joey Gallo is only 23, and it’s pretty conceivable that he can tighten up his plate discipline and bring his average up to a more generally acceptable level for a slugger (think .240 rather than .200?) Schmipf, on the other hand, has made a conscious decision over the past two years to become an extreme fly ball hitter, with little else to bring to the table.
The fly ball revolution, even while it creates a kind of “peak homerun” environment (Chris Carter was non-tendered after hitting 41 in a single season!) seems to be inching the Mendoza line ever so slightly downwards, or at the very least changing the criteria by which you get to stay in a lineup. And I’m OK with that, because who doesn’t like a home run?