The 2016 season saw fly balls clearing fences at historic rates. Batters came up just 82 homers shy of the all-time record of 5,692 set in 2000. In 2016 batters accomplished this feat in 5,668 fewer plate appearances, however, so homers per plate appearance increased from 2.99% in 2000 to 3.04% in 2016.
Rays pitchers weren’t immune to the increase in homers. They allowed 210 homers last year (an increase of 35 from the 2015) which is second most in team history. And in the other seven seasons of high home run rates the team was still known as the Devil Rays. In other words, this is not what Rays fans have become accustomed to.
In the recent past the Rays have been collecting fly ball pitchers to take advantage of the home run suppression powers of Tropicana Field. As power evaporated from the league this looked like a great market inefficiency for the Rays to exploit.
Then 2016 happened.
Why did the home run surge seem to affect the Rays pitchers more than most?
Fly Ball Values
League Fly Balls
Despite a modest increase of 538 fly balls across the league we saw an increase of 651 home runs. BABIP dropped from .129 to .127, and there were 50 fewer triples. The numbers of singles and doubles stayed relatively unchanged besides the massive increase in home runs.
The additional home runs caused the triple slash on fly balls to increase by .011/.010/.049 and the wOBA to increase by .016.
All of this adds up to the wRC of fly ball events increasing by 798 to 7,430.
Were the batters able to pull more fly balls to lead to this increase?
Fly Ball Profile
As expected there is a significant increase in HR/FB rate of 1.4%. There is also a move of 1.1% more pulled fly balls.
HR/FB rates increased across the board with pulled fly balls showing the largest increase of 2.4% to 33.1% in 2016.
Pulled fly balls are by far the most damaging of the fly balls and in 2016 they were the most damaging since at least 2002 (as far back as the Fangraphs splits tool goes back). In 2016 pulled fly balls put up a .439/.431/1.541 line and .787 wOBA. In 2002 batters only put up a .336/.328/1.164 line and .596 wOBA on pulled fly balls.
Batters are absolutely smoking the ball compared to years past. Pulled fly balls have always been damaging, but not to this degree.
What was the increase in damage on fly balls for Rays pitchers?
Rays Pitchers Fly Balls
The Rays were absolutely pummeled in the air, with increases across the board outside of triples. Rays pitchers allowed a .027/.027/.092 higher slash line and .041 points of wOBA than they did in 2015. The BABIP increased from .092 to .102.
None of this would surprise anybody who watched the 2016 Rays.
Rays Pitchers Fly Ball Batted Ball Profile
The biggest difference is the 2.0% spike in HR/FB rate. The 0.5% decrease in IFFB% didn’t help, but only would account for about eight additional free outs over the season.
As far as pull/center/opposite field percents they were similar with a few more fly balls moving from center to the opposite field.
Surprisingly pulled fly balls did less damage to Rays pitchers in 2016 than in 2015. In 2015 they put up a .781 wOBA compared to a .769 wOBA in 2016. There was a small gain in HR/FB rate to 33.8% from 33.2%.
The increased damage came from fly balls to center field and opposite field fly balls. Center fly balls increased from .210 wOBA to .277 woBA. HR/FB rates increased from 5.6% to 8.1% on fly balls to center field. Opposite fly balls increased from .150 wOBA to .197 wOBA. HR/FB rate spiked from 2.6% to 5.0% on opposite field fly balls.
So, in short, the home run increases against Rays pitching were not attributable to the smoked pulled balls, which you would expect, but to balls crushed to center and opposite field.
Home Dome Advantage
Tropicana Field is notorious for being a pitchers park. It is nothing like any of the other parks in the American League East. It inflates strikeouts and infield fly balls. It is one of the toughest parks for right handed power and plays average for left handed power.
Rays Pitchers Home Fly Balls
Small increases across the board leading to a modest gain, but less than the league saw due to the power surge. Nothing much to see here.
Rays Pitchers Home Fly Ball Profile
As expected there’s an increase in HR/FB rate. This gain was offset by a move of center fly balls to opposite field and a 0.5% increase in infield fly ball rate.
Rays Pitchers on the Road
The road parks aren’t very friendly to pitchers and adding a west coast trip that included Coors Field and Chase Field to the list of road parks and the 2016 road schedule looks even more unfriendly to Rays pitchers.
Rays Pitchers Away Fly Balls
The .324 wOBA allowed in 2015 is the fourth lowest in the majors over the last two years behind the 2016 Red Sox, 2015 Pirates, and 2015 Mets. The Rays got great results and some regression would have been reasonable to expect here even without the great power surge of 2016.
The results of the 2016 pitchers on the road deserve a NSFW designation. Those numbers are horrific in comparison. It is still only the 14th worst wOBA posted over the past two years.
The gain of .047/.047/.166 and .076 wOBA is what derailed the Rays pitchers last year. The increase in BABIP from .100 to .120 combined with the massive home run spike isn’t a good formula for good results.
Rays Pitchers Away Fly Ball Profile
The 3.3% surge in HR/FB is the biggest culprit, but missing out on approximately 13-14 free outs by having the infield fly ball rate drop by 1.6% didn’t help.
Moving a few opposite field fly balls to center field shouldn’t have had this big an impact.
The Rays pitchers HR/FB rate on pulled fly balls actually fell 2.0% from 34.1% to 32.1% in 2016.
Fly balls to center field cleared the fence at a rate almost double the 2015 rate, 9.9% from 5.2%.
Fly balls to the opposite field went out of the park at a 7.1% rate which was the highest rate of any team the last two seasons. Coming off their 2015 rate of 2.0% which was sixth lowest during the last two seasons.
How does this affect the 2017 Rays Pitchers?
The fact that the damage wasn’t from pulled fly balls really surprised me. Just as the Rays pitchers were probably due for some regression after posting really low HR rates to center and opposite field after last year the same is true this year after posting some of the worst numbers in the league.
It appears the Rays pitchers manipulate their pitch selection to some degree and allow fewer fly balls on the road when fly balls are more damaging.
The Rays have traded Drew Smyly and Matt Moore who were two of the highest fly ball rate starters in the league. Drew Smyly’s 49.3% fly ball rate was second in the league among qualified starters behind only Hector Santiago’s 50.0% rate. Matt Moore’s 42.1% fly ball rate was eleventh highest among qualified starters.
The Rays still have a fly ball pitcher in Jake Odorizzi, but they should see a decrease in fly balls from the starting rotation. They acquired Jose De Leon who along with their other top pitching prospect Brent Honeywell have shown fly ball tendencies in the minors.
The Rays aren’t likely to shy away from fly ball pitchers and Tropicana Field should shield them from a lot of the damage. When they venture outside the friendly confines in St. Petersburg they will have to perform better than they did in 2016.