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Examining the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Fly Ball Mediocrity

Big Flies? Ehhh.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates rank towards the bottom of the pack in ‘big flies,’ but the rest of their fly balls are also uninspiring.

Despite some encouraging individual performances, the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates are a power-starved bunch.

With a current ranking of 25th in baseball in home runs (146 as of this writing) and 23rd in ISO (.153), the club lacks the ability to change games quickly. While the Pirates hit their share of doubles (255, good for 11th in MLB), their overall power game is sorely lacking. Their team wOBA on fly balls of .428 (15th in MLB) backs this up.

This became even more readily apparent when I was looking at which Pittsburgh Pirates hitters have the most productive fly balls.

Pittsburgh Pirates Individual Fly Ball production

Player woba xwoba (wOBA-xwOBA) launch_angle Avg Exit Velo (mph) FlyBall Rate (min 250 PAs)
Player woba xwoba (wOBA-xwOBA) launch_angle Avg Exit Velo (mph) FlyBall Rate (min 250 PAs)
David Freese .703 .650 0.053 32.8 91.7 46.8%
Sean Rodriguez .570 .482 0.088 37.1 93.0 N/A
Starling Marte .563 .657 -0.094 35.3 95.3 33.1%
Gregory Polanco .542 .568 -0.026 36.4 93.9 47.9%
Elias Diaz .518 .493 0.025 33.6 90.8 35.8%
Colin Moran .433 .479 -0.046 36 91.3 28.1%
Adam Frazier .428 .334 0.094 35 89.1 30.2%
Francisco Cervelli .416 .519 -0.103 37.2 93.5 41.7%
Austin Meadows .373 .505 -0.132 32.9 92.0 N/A
Josh Bell .342 .486 -0.144 36.8 93.2 31.8%
Josh Harrison .320 .308 0.012 37.1 89.7 36.6%
Jordy Mercer .300 .381 -0.081 37.5 90.2 34.5%
Corey Dickerson .294 .407 -0.113 36.9 89.1 35.9%
MLB-WIDE .447 .479 -0.032 36.4 91.6 34.8%

This data is for all qualified Pirates hitters from only their fly balls. I pulled their wOBA and xwOBA, highlighting the differences between the two. A negative difference shows a bit of bad luck or stellar defense impacting the result, while a positive result shows the reverse. We must keep in mind that xwOBA is derived from comparing batted balls against other batted balls with similar exit velo and launch angle.

Want to see this a different way? Try this chart!

First, let’s pour one out for the departed David Freese and Sean Rodriguez, who got the most out of their fly balls.

As we start to pick this apart, a clear line of demarcation presents itself. Aside from Freese and Rodriguez, only Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Elias Diaz carry wOBA rates above the league-wide rate.

What can we take away from what those three are doing to get the most out of their fly balls?

For one, all of them make pretty good contact coupled with a fortuitous launch angle. Elias Diaz is just under on both metrics, but that does not seem to affect him much.

Polanco’s solid overall numbers are borne out through his ability to get the most out of his flies. He has hit the most — 104 — while launching them at exactly the average angle while besting the league-wide exit velocity. He lifted the ball, he pulled it often, and the result was a powerful season. That stands true for Marte, too, and one wonders what his final power numbers might have looked like if ithe could get al ittle more lift on the ball.

Others here stand out for peculiar reasons. Cervelli seems to be the “unluckiest” of this group, carrying a wide berth between his wOBA and xwOBA while putting the ball in the air at a pretty significant clip. Josh Bell’ is even more perplexing. His wOBA is more than 100 points lower than the MLB rate, but his xwOBA is a tick above. Perhaps if he, too, would elevate a bit more, he would see better results.

Adam Frazier, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison all bear out as the types of hitters that many think them to be, more or less. For all his talk of emphasizing launch angle, Colin Moran’s 28.1 fly ball rate is disappointing. While his xwOBA, exit velo and launch angle are all just about exact to league average, he carries the lowest FB rate of any current Pittsburgh Pirates hitter. Moran was not brought to the club to serve as a monolithic, stone-footed, singles hitting third baseman. He was acquired for his power potential. That potential may still be there, but we may never see it without giving the ball a chance.

Wondering why we have not mentioned Corey Dickerson yet? My colleague Alex Stumpf has some interesting data to share on him coming your way tomorrow. For now, the fact that he has a lesser wOBA than players such as Harrison and Mercer says all that needs to be said.

Lacking a true power threat other than, perhaps now, Polanco, the Pittsburgh Pirates must wring every bit of value out of their fly balls going forward. They simply did not do that in 2018, and that needs to change.