During the offseason, Ryan Braun made waves when he commented that he would be attempting to change his swing for the first time in his career. Prior to the season, I analyzed the origins of this planned swing change, with the most significant piece of information being that Braun wanted to focus on increasing the average launch angle of his batted balls. “If you want to take luck out of the equation, you hit more balls over the fence,” Braun said at the time.
The “launch angle revolution” is a hot topic in baseball circles at the moment. Many hitters over the past few seasons have bought into the science and statistics that say elevating the baseball gives themselves the best chance to have an at-bat that results in a beneficial outcome. In a 2017 Wall Street Journal article, Josh Donaldson articulated this position best: “No grounders. Ground balls are outs. If you see me hit a ground ball, even if it’s a hit, I can tell you: It was an accident.”
It is true that ground balls offer the worst returns of the three main batted ball possibilities (ground ball, line drive, fly ball). Since the start of the 2010 season, ground balls have an OPS of .491, line drives an OPS of 1.583, and fly balls an OPS of .885. While there are many other factors involved in offensive results, such as quality of contact, getting the ball in the air appears to give a player the best chance of success.
In 2018, the league-wide ground ball rate was 43.2%. Ryan Braun’s was above-average at 48.4%, and he attributed some of his mediocre offensive performance to bad luck with hard hit outs that were often ground balls or non-elevated line drives. Based on expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), Braun had a massive difference in his actual performance (.330) and his expected performance (.370) – one of the largest negative differences in the league.
Braun wanted to bridge this gap by hitting the ball in the air more and decreasing the amount of hard hit balls that became unlucky outs. Has he done that thus far in the 2019 season?
The numbers say no. With his swing change in tow, Braun has actually seen a slight decrease in his average launch angle year-over-year. Last season, his average launch angle was 5.8 degrees, compared to 5.3 degrees this year. In addition, Braun’s result profile has flipped: he now has a higher actual weighted on-base than his expected weighted on-base (.338 vs. .327).
In addition, Braun’s ground ball rate has skyrocketed to the highest rate of his career. It currently sits at 56.6%. While his fly ball rate has increased modestly (up 1%), his line drive rate has decreased by over 8%, dropping to a career-low season rate of 14.7%. This is not a good development given that line drives offer the highest OPS of the three batted ball types.
Some of this may not make too much sense to fans, as Braun just finished a blisteringly hot May that saw him hit .363/.427/.588. While Braun was hitting the ball hard (48.4% of the time), his ground ball rate was much higher than his already high season-average, as he finished the month with 59.7% of his balls in play being ground balls. Braun’s success came in part from performing abnormally well on ground balls, as he posted a .297 batting average on them. With that average bound to fall closer to the league average, Braun’s “hot” May could end up being a fluke.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see if Braun attempts to tinker with his swing any further. If he truly did make adjustments during the offseason, it seems clear that they either are not sticking or are not as effective as Braun would have hoped. If his goal is to hit the ball in the air more often, his results in attempting to achieve that are moving in the completely opposite direction.