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How the Rays embraced the ground ball in 2018

As other teams aimed for the grandstands, the Rays keep things on the field

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty Images

The trend in Major League Baseball has been about getting the ball airborne, however the Tampa Bay Rays went the other way in 2018.

The Rays fly ball rate fell from 36.6% to 32.4%. Their line drive rate rose to 22.1% from 20.0% along with a rise in ground ball rate to 45.6% from 43.4%.

Last week Jim Turvey wrote about the correlation between Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) and hitting the ball to the opposite field.

Hitting to the opposite field might help, but the biggest factor in BABIP is batted ball type.

BABIP By Batted Ball Type

Type Pull Center Opposite Overall
Type Pull Center Opposite Overall
Ground Ball 0.186 0.266 0.381 0.236
Fly Ball 0.141 0.127 0.098 0.117
Line Drive 0.690 0.671 0.646 0.672
Overall 0.291 0.304 0.291 0.296

In 2018 the overall BABIP on pulled and opposite field balls in play was the exact same with a slight increase going up the middle.

On ground balls we see the biggest difference between hitting the ball to the opposite field rather than pulling it with an increase of .195 BABIP. This makes sense in an age where it seems more batters see three infielders on one side of the second base bag than the other. Adam Eaton was the only batter that hit the ball to the opposite field on grounders above 30% (34.2%) with 100+ grounders in 2018. Only 7 of 231 batters went to the opposite field on the ground more than 20% of the time.

Fly balls are not what you hit if you want BABIP. It’s where you go for ISO. Pulling the ball is better than hitting it to the opposite field, but most batters hit fly balls the opposite way. 39.1% of fly balls are hit the opposite way compared to only 23.6% pulled.

Line drives are the Holy Grail of BABIP and thus elevating batting average. Roughly two-thirds of line drives land safely for hits. Line drives also don’t discriminate for power as much as fly balls. Hitting line drives harder and to the pull side is preferred, but not to the degree of other batted balls.

Rays 2018 BABIP

The Rays led the league with a .317 BABIP and only one of seven teams to post a .300 or higher BABIP. When you lead the league you generally expect some regression to the mean, but how did the 2018 perform by batted ball type?

Rays BABIP By Batted Ball Type

Type Pull Center Opposite Overall
Type Pull Center Opposite Overall
Ground Ball 0.195 0.298 0.429 0.264
Fly Ball 0.146 0.118 0.115 0.121
Line Drive 0.712 0.664 0.644 0.673
Overall 0.296 0.329 0.330 0.317

Ground balls are where the Rays over-performed the most in 2018.

The Rays performed better than the league on pulled, center, and opposite field grounders, and had the third highest opposite field rate (14.2%) on grounders, so the overall BABIP should be better than average.

The Rays also have one of the fastest teams in baseball. 7 of the 126 players who posted a sprint speed of 28.0 ft/s or higher with at least 50 events played for the Rays (Mallex Smith, Kevin Kiermaier, Austin Meadows, Tommy Pham, Willy Adames, Joey Wendle, and Carlos Gomez). Jake Bauers, Daniel Robertson, Matt Duffy, and Brandon Lowe also posted speeds above the league average of 28.0 ft/s. C.J. Cron, Ji-Man Choi and the catchers were the only below average runners on the team.

Speed can help turn singles into doubles or doubles into triples on liners and fly balls, but with grounders it’s the only place where it will help BABIP either through forcing the defenders to play in limiting their range or being able to beat out more infield hits. The Rays 6.7% infield hit rate was just below the league average 6.8% rate for the league.

Other relevant hit-type results:

  • On fly balls the Rays slightly put up a .004 higher than average BABIP. The only thing that looks out of place is the relative even split in fly balls hit to center and the opposite field. On fly balls sent to center the Rays put up a below average BABIP, but was above average to the opposite field.
  • On line drives the Rays put up an overall BABIP just .001 higher than average.

Posting higher than average BABIP wasn’t an accident.

Over the past two years the Rays traded for Matt Duffy, Joey Wendle, and Mallex Smith. Along with C.J. Cron they were the only Rays batters to get 500 plus plate appearances.

Mallex Smith was the only player who played with the Rays in 2017. Duffy missed the whole season with an injury.

Mallex Smith was gifted a larger role with Kevin Kiermaier going down once again, and Smith’s .366 BABIP was higher than his .349 career BABIP in just over 1,000 plate appearances. The biggest improvement this year was dropping his strikeout rate from 22.0% to 18.0%.

Matt Duffy has the longest track record of the group, and this is what Duffy has always been. This year he hit for less power (specifically in the second half — .096 first half and .031 second half ISO), but his .353 BABIP was a little higher than his .333 career rate. The Rays likely hoped for more ISO, but this is mostly what they had to expect. He’s a good, solid regular that hits for contact more than power.

Joey Wendle was another guy who was brought in with the contact over power profile. Wendle hits the ball harder than Duffy and Smith, but it’s mostly the same. Especially in his second half when he really took off, lowering his strikeout rate from 22.6% to 11.6%. Wendle has the shortest MLB track record of the group, but looks to fit into this type the Rays have gone after.

We should note the Rays haven’t forsaken power completely as they traded for C.J. Cron and Tommy Pham in 2018. Production is production. You don’t need all low batting average, high power hitters — or all higher batting average, limited power hitters for that matter. There’s room for all kinds of production.

Most players have to accept a trade off of power or contact. The Rays are looking to find that right balance and letting players play to their strengths.