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Austin Meadows has been trying to hit the catwalks

An alarming trend for the Rays slugger

Austin Meadows put together a 2021 season that had many ups and downs. Overall, it was a decent year for the Rays slugger as he hit .234/.315/.458 (113 wRC+) with 27 homeruns and 106 RBIs over 142 games. His season was certainly an improvement from his forgettable 2020 campaign (88 wRC+) but a step down compared to his great 2019 season (144 wRC+).

There has been quite a bit of variability in Meadows’ offensive production to this point in his career. What is most interesting to me though is the recent trend of how Meadows has been hitting the ball. He has quickly become a much different hitter than he was when he first joined the league.

What did Meadows change?

I’ll cut right to the chase, Meadows has been hitting a ton of flyballs lately. According to FanGraphs, 53% of his batted balls in 2021 were classified as flyballs which was the highest rate in baseball. We can break this down to a more granular level as well. The chart below shows a rolling average of Meadows’ launch angle over his career:

Source: Baseball Savant

We can see that right around the start of 2020 is when this adjustment happened. This line of demarcation is convenient because it splits his career up into two very distinct halves so far.

In the first half of his career (2018-2019), Meadows hit 47 of his 539 batted balls (8.7%) at a 45 degree launch angle or higher. In his past two years, he hit 104 of his 488 batted balls (21.4%) at a 45 degree launch angle or higher. That is an enormous difference.

I used 45 degrees as a an arbitrary cut-off point, but you could basically use any high launch angle value and get similar results. If you’re wondering what a launch angle of 45 degrees looks like on a batted ball, it’s essentially a pop-up:

If you’re curious about what kind of pitches Meadows has been popping up, we can look into that as well. Below you’ll find two location maps of the pitches that Meadows has hit at 45 degrees or higher in the two halves of his career so far:

Keep in mind, Meadows actually put more total balls in play in 2018-2019 than he did in 2020-2021. This makes the difference in popups from the two plots potentially even more alarming. Another observation that sticks out is that Meadows now seems to be hitting low strikes for popups, which he did not used to do.

These graphs led me to a question: has Meadows just been completely selling out for power lately? I did some investigating and interestingly, in 2021 he actually sprayed the ball around the field quite well, as he posted his highest Oppo% and lowest Pull% in three years, which suggests he wasn’t just trying to hit everything into the right-field seats.

Instead, it just seemed like everything that came off of his bat ended up in the sky, no matter which lateral direction it was aimed at. We can even look at video and compare his swings from both 2019 and 2021. I tried to pick out two nearly identical pitches for consistency purposes, low-90’s middle-middle fastballs:

Pop-up from 2021:

Homerun from 2019:

I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert on swing mechanics or anything, but overall, I don’t see any glaring differences in those two swings, which makes this development even more of a mystery. Feel free to scrub through these videos and leave any observations in the comments.

The negative impact of this change

There’s no doubt that Meadows has been a different hitter in his last two seasons compared to his first two years. The next question is, how did this change affect him as a player? The first comparison we can make is by looking at his overall results from those two timeframes. See his cumulative stats below:

  • 2018-2019: 782 PA, .290/.354/.534 (135 wRC+)
  • 2020-2021: 743 PA, .228/.311/.440 (108 wRC+)

These eye-opening numbers seem as if they are describing two completely different hitters, and in a way, they are. Using FanGraphs batted ball data, we can compare the results of Meadows’ batted balls over his four big league seasons:

Austin Meadows Batted Ball Stats

Season Batted Balls Linedrive% Groundball% Flyball% BABIP
Season Batted Balls Linedrive% Groundball% Flyball% BABIP
2018 140 21.4% 41.4% 37.1% 0.336
2019 399 23.1% 34.1% 42.9% 0.331
2020 84 20.2% 26.2% 53.6% 0.288
2021 404 18.3% 28.7% 53.0% 0.249
Source: FanGraphs

The trend here is fairly obvious, the flyballs have increased significantly over the years for Meadows. While there has been plenty of buzz in the baseball world in recent years about hitting more flyballs (the launch angle revolution), this doesn’t appear to be a great development for Meadows.

Alongside this increase in flyballs you’ll notice a corresponding decrease in Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) for Meadows. This trend is also very apparent if we plot these two variables on a 75-game rolling graph:

Source: FanGraphs

When flyballs increase, base hits decrease. This can be attributed to the basic logic that flyballs are generally the easiest type of batted ball to turn into outs from a fielding perspective. This logic is also true for most hitters, not just Meadows.

Using FanGraphs’ leaderboards, I plotted every 2021 qualified hitter’s BABIP versus their Flyball%. The idea that more flyballs leads to less base hits is also supported here:

Source: FanGraphs

Obviously, this decline in BABIP is not an encouraging trend for Meadows; however, I will note that he did have an impressive 2021 season considering the low .249 BABIP that he posted. In the past ten big league seasons, there have only been 10 other hitters who have hit as well as Meadows did in 2021 (113 wRC+) who also had a BABIP below .250 (min. 575 plate appearances).

To no surprise, you’ll find three-true-outcomes sluggers like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Dunn, and others on the list.

Its good to see Meadows still getting value out of his profile despite this new perceivable weakness, but it also makes you wonder how good he could be with fewer flyballs in the mix, and if it’s possible to blend the two approaches. Personally, in 2019, I would argue that we saw a nearly perfect distribution of flyballs, line drives, and groundballs from him and his season’s results support that.

In addition (and also likely related) to his decline in BABIP, Meadows seems to have lost some of his ability to impact the baseball. In 2019 he produced a 42.9% hard-hit rate and a 115.4 mph max exit velocity. In 2021 he was only able to muster a 37.9% hard-hit rate and a 110.3 mph max exit velocity. That is quite a drop off in just two years, and not something you want to see from a player who is putting more balls in the air than anyone in baseball.

Future Outlook

If you couldn’t tell already, I believe the key to Meadows’ success moving forward lies in his flyball rate. This new launch angle explosion for him makes it awfully tough to project his production moving forward.

While Meadows overall production has diminished, he hasn’t seen his strikeouts, walks, or even power output falter too much if at all. The reason for his decline can be explained largely by the increase in his flyball rate.

If Meadows sticks with this flyball heavy mindset, his best years may already be behind him. On the other hand, if he’s able to bring more line drives back into his game, I think there’s reason for optimism. Let’s all hope for the latter.

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