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Pulled Fly Balls: An Area For Growth

3 Cardinals sluggers have an obvious area of improvement

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Zach Dalin-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals jumped right into the offseason, inking Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson, and Sonny Gray to deals before December but it seems they’ve now decided to let some other teams get in on the action. How nice of them.

So with Cardinals news slowing down I decided to take a look at some of the guys already on the roster. Instead of getting an offseason article today, you’re getting more of an analysis article about 3 hitters who I find interesting - Willson Contreras, Lars Nootbaar, and Jordan Walker.

Now, I find these 3 hitters interesting because they are struggled with the same skill — pulling fly balls — and yet still managed to be among the top hitters on the team. That’s what I want to dive into today.

Pulled Fly Balls Are Good

Pulled fly balls are good. You likely already knew that but if you didn’t, here’s your introduction.

In the 2023 season, fly balls accounted for 37.5% of all batted balls. Looking at the results of those fly balls based on batted ball location supports my initial statement. When hitters pulled their fly balls, they had a wRC+ of 395. That’s crazy good.

When they hit their fly balls to center field, that figure dropped to just 85 and when those fly balls were hit to the opposite field, hitters had a wRC+ of 11.

So, yeah, pulled fly balls are good.

The problem is that it’s hard for a hitter to pull their fly balls. The league average rate of pulled fly balls (pulled fly balls divided by total number of fly balls) was just 24.9%. So basically a quarter of all fly balls are hit to the pull side with just over 75% of all fly balls getting hit in a much less productive direction.

Hitting is hard.

It’s the hitters who can consistently pull the ball in the air that tend to have a lot of success and hit for a lot of power. There are certainly other ways to do that but hitters like Nolan Arenado, Kyle Schwarber, Joey Gallo, Isaac Paredes and many others are example of this principle.

In fact these guys have made a career out of being able to pull their fly balls over the fence.

The interesting thing is that hitters don’t even need to hit the ball all that hard to have success in this way. It certainly helps but Nolan Arenado, for instance, has only finished 1 season with an average exit velocity above 90 mph and that was back when he was 24 years old. Despite that, the 2023 season was the first time since 2014 that Arenado didn’t finish the season with 30 or more home runs (excluding 2020).

Power helps but pulling the ball in the air in a valuable skill.

That’s what I want to discuss today because 3 of the Cardinals best hitters were downright bad at pulling the ball in the air in 2023.

We’re talking about Willson Contreras, Lars Nootbaar, and Jordan Walker.

The Cardinals Trio

None of these guys were bad hitters this season. In fact, all 3 were quite good. Contreras led the team in wRC+ at 127, Nootbaar was third at 118 (min 150 PAs), and Walker was sixth at 116.

All 3 players were impressive this year but all 3 can still improve a lot.

Fly Ball and EV Profile vs MLB Average

Player Pulled Fly Ball Rate Oppo Fly Ball Rate Average EV (mph)
Player Pulled Fly Ball Rate Oppo Fly Ball Rate Average EV (mph)
Willson Contreras 15.2% 46.7% 91.3
Lars Nootbaar 17.5% 41.7% 89.1
Jordan Walker 18.8% 42.0% 89.4
MLB Average 24.9% 38.3% 88.4

Not only are these 3 players pulling fewer fly balls than the average hitter, they’re doing so by a lot. And they pair that with more opposite field fly balls than average, and, as we learned above, opposite field fly balls tend to not be productive.

So we’re looking at 3 above average offensive players with downright bad fly ball profiles. I look at that as 3 good hitters with the potential to be even better.

Production By Fly Ball Direction

Player wRC+ on Pulled FBs wRC+ on Center FBs wRC+ on Oppo FBs
Player wRC+ on Pulled FBs wRC+ on Center FBs wRC+ on Oppo FBs
Willson Contreras 527 181 101
Lars Nootbaar 531 68 98
Jordan Walker 671 40 45
MLB Average 395 85 11

Imagine what this trio could do if they pulled a higher rate of their fly balls.

The good news is that 2 of them - Contreras and Nootbaar - have already shown an ability to pull their fly balls at a better rate. In fact, Contreras pulled 25.5% of his fly balls in 2021 and 26.9% of his fly balls in 2022 while Nootbaar was over 30% in both 2021 (32.3%) and 2022 (35.3%).

Make no mistake about it, pulling fly balls is a skill and not merely luck so 2023 could very well be a one year blip that they recover from.

That would give them the potential to unlock another level in 2024.

I am realistic, though. Willson Contreras will be 32 years old next year. He’s probably not going to unlock another level at the plate. He’s a great hitter but he likely is what he is at this point. Ideally, though, a bounce back in his pulled fly ball rate can help stave off his decline phase a little bit longer.

The interesting ramifications come with Lars Nootbaar because I’m not sure we’ve seen him peak at the plate yet. He followed up a 123 wRC+ in 2022 with a 118 wRC+ in 2023 so it’s certainly possible that he will hover right in that range in 2024.

What I find interesting, though, is that Nootbaar’s 123 wRC+ season, when he pulled a higher rate of his fly balls, came with a .248 BABIP. His wRC+ actually declined this year despite his BABIP rebounding (.307) and I’ll argue that’s because of a 7% decline in fly ball rate and an 18% decline in pulled fly ball rate.

Nootbaar has shown that he can hit the ball in the air more and pull the ball in the air more than he did in 2023. If he can get back to that, we could really see him unlocked at the plate. So maybe Nootbaar is a 120ish wRC+ guy long term. That’s a great outcome for a player. I just think there’s more in the tank if Nootbaar can start to optimize his batted ball profile in the ways that he has already shown in past seasons.

What is interesting to note are the monthly trends that appear when we look deeper. Contreras’ pulled fly ball rate stayed pretty static month over month until the final month of the season in which it jumped to 25%.

Lars Nootbaar followed a similar track, pulling very few of his fly balls until the final two months of the season.

It’s Jordan Walker who showed distinct progress throughout the season.

Jordan Walker Pulled Fly Ball Rate MoM

Month Pulled Fly Ball Rate
Month Pulled Fly Ball Rate
March/April 8.3%
May N/A
June 13.3%
July 26.7%
August 18.2%
September/October 18.2%

Much of the talk surrounding Jordan Walker and his demotion was centered around his inability to hit the ball in the air but it’s worth pointing out that he also struggled to pull the ball in the air.

After returning to the majors, not only did he hit the ball in the air more, but he also pulled more of his fly balls. Both of those changes are significant, especially for a power hitter.

Walker still doesn’t hit enough fly balls or pull enough of his fly balls but the in-season progress that he made is encouraging. At such a young age, I would expect him to continue showing improvement in this area as well.

This is where it’s important to look at the success that he had and realize how much room he still has for growth.

Walker can absolutely crush the ball. We know that. His average exit velocity was only slightly above that of the average MLB hitter but he was also one of just 63 hitters with a batted ball over 114 mph. He can hit the ball consistently harder than he did in 2023.

And then we look at the batted ball profile and notice that Walker’s fly ball rate (35.2%) was below the league average fly ball rate (37.5%) and well below what would be expected of a typical power hitter. Add in the fact that he pulled too few of his fly balls and it’s clear that his batted ball profile has room for growth too.

If he can hit the ball in the air more often and pull more of his fly balls, it’s easy to envision a world in which Walker becomes a true masher. It’s also not hard to see that coming to fruition for a 21-year-old former top prospect who has shown an ability to make in-season adjustments and is coming off of his first MLB exposure.

The thing is that he’s already a good hitter. He had a 116 wRC+ in 2023. The sky is truly the limit for him at the plate.

Conclusion

The Cardinals have rebuilt their pitching staff but, barring a big acquisition, it’s likely going to be mediocre. It’s not something that is going to carry the team through the season.

That means that offensive improvement will be huge for the Cardinals in 2024. Much of that discussion will center on Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado in the next few months, and rightly so, but I think it’s the trio of Willson Contreras, Lars Nootbaar, and Jordan Walker who have the potential to show significant growth next year (or at least maintenance in the case of Contreras).

I don’t think we’ve seen the best versions of Nootbaar and Walker at the plate yet and that’s due to their struggles to consistently hit the ball in the air to their pull side. Between the past performance of Nootbaar and Walker’s youth, natural hitting ability, and ability to make adjustments, there’s reason to believe that both hitters can find another level.

Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Tuesday.