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Should He Pull Fly Balls? Juan Soto, Nolan Jones and more Potential Power Gainers in 2024

Rutschman could be MVP, not just top fantasy C
Eric Samulski and Scott Pianowski lay out why Adley Rutschman is not only the undisputed top catcher in baseball, but also one of the best players in the bigs.

As you can probably tell if you read any fantasy baseball articles or follow any fantasy baseball writers on Twitter, we are now firmly in the pulled fly ball revolution. Really smart players and analysts have been studying pulled fly ball data when looking for fantasy sleepers, and Alex Chamberlain’s recent article on FanGraphs broke down the data to show that the average rate of pulled fly balls in Major League Baseball has increased each year since 2018.

Not that this should come as a surprise to us. We know that teams have long valued getting the most out of each at bat and not “wasting outs,” and we also know that the hardest hit balls and ones that do the most damage (read: go for home runs) are pulled fly balls. As a result, it makes sense for teams to try to maximize pulled fly balls in order to maximize runs scored in each game.

However, while teams overall may be pulling the ball more, that doesn’t mean every single player should be. Much like when we were obsessed with launch angle, the common narrative is now that most hitters should try to pull more often, but that isn’t always the best path for each hitter. Depending on a hitter’s exit velocities, swing plane, or foot speed, some hitters are not suited to have a pull fly ball approach. Some hitters who try to pull are unable to maintain launch angles or sustain high batting averages. Hitters that are faster can often benefit from hitting the ball on the ground more often, while hitters with poor exit velocity just turn pulled fly balls into more outs.

For example, in the first 52 games of 2023, Cavan Biggio pulled the ball 52% of the time and hit it in the air 48% of the time. He also slashed .197/.265/.380 with a 31% strikeout rate. That approach might work for some, but not a middle infielder with a 7.4% barrel rate in a park that ranked 21st for left-handed pull power. In the second half of the season, Biggio dropped his pull rate to 38% and his fly ball rate to 36% and wound up slashing .272/.404/.361 the rest of the way. Pulled fly balls were not the way to go for him.

So I thought we’d play a little game I’m calling “Should He Join the Pulled Fly Ball Party?” The premise is simple: we’ll look at a few key hitters who were below league average in terms of pulled fly ball rate and ask the simple question of whether they would benefit from pulling the ball in the air more. Armed with that knowledge, we can then keep an eye out in Spring Training to see if any of the hitters we mentioned are making the changes we wanted to see or perhaps the changes we didn’t want to see. Then we can adjust our projections/opinions of them accordingly.

Just so we all understand what we’re looking for, according to Alex Chamberlain’s Pitch Leaderboard, the MLB average pulled fly ball rate is 7%, the average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives was 93 mph, and the average home run to batted ball event rate (HR/BBE) was 4.7.

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Shohei Ohtani - Dodgers


We’ll start with a fun one. Yes, Ohtani was below the league average pulled fly ball rate, but he also hit way more home runs per batted ball events than league average, primarily because he hits the ball so hard in the air that it doesn’t really matter where he hits in. Angels Stadium ranks fourth in Statcast park factors for left-handed HR and Dodger Stadium ranks sixth, so he’s in a very similar situation. No, he doesn’t need to pull more. He’s just fine.

Juan Soto - Yankees


This has been one of the bigger questions of the offseason. Soto is moving to Yankee Stadium, which ranks third in Statcast park factors for left-handed HR, and that short porch in right field would seem to provide a logical case that Soto SHOULD pull the ball more. However, he has never seemed to adjust his approach for his park. He’s never pulled the ball over 40% of the time and never posted a fly ball rate over 37%. It’s easy for us to say that he should sell out for more pull power, but he clearly believes his patient, all-fields approach allows him to make the best possible contact. So far, he’s been right, so why should we doubt him? Perhaps looking to pull the ball more would hurt his batting average. Whether he should pull the ball more or not, I don’t think we’ll see a drastically different approach from Soto in 2024, especially since he can drive the ball out to any part of the park.

Alex Verdugo - Yankees


Now, Verdugo is another story. His average exit velocity on pulled flies and line drives (FBLD) was below league average and his 2.8 HR/BBE was also well below league average in 2023. As a result, Verdugo really needs to pull the ball in order to get to his power. The move to Yankee Stadium is a big-time park upgrade for the left-handed Verdugo...but only for home runs. Boston’s huge right-center gap actually makes it a better park for average, doubles, and triples. As a result, Verdugo is actually getting a park DOWNGRADE unless he drives the ball out of the yard, so, yes, he should start pulling the ball in the air more and use that short porch to his advantage or we could see that batting average dip more than we expect.

Jordan Westburg - Orioles


I covered Westburg in a previous article where I tried to find the 2024 Josh Lowe, and said, “Westburg bats right-handed in a park that isn’t conducive to power, and despite pulling the ball 46.5% of the time in 2023, he only pulled nine fly balls with an average exit velocity of just 91.6 mph and none of them resulted in home runs.” So while Westburg’s overall exit velocity on FBLD is solid, he didn’t get to much pull power in the majors last year and might be better off, especially given his park, trying to spray the ball around more to trade power for batting average. Given that he already pulled the ball so much last year, no, I don’t think Westburg needs to pull the ball in the air more.

Tyler O’Neill - Red Sox


Let’s stay in the AL East for another one. O’Neill is moving to Boston after playing all of his career in St. Louis, and, as a right-handed hitter, that means the Green Monster. Now, Fenway Park is actually pretty deep in left center and the Monster does rob some home runs that are hit on more line drive trajectories, so Fenway Park actually ranks just 16th for right-handed power. However, it’s a great park for right-handed hits and extra base hits because of the wall, which was covered in detail when people analyzed the likely batting average dip Xander Bogaerts would experience when leaving Fenway. Since O’Neill has above average exit velocity on his FBLD, he would absolutely benefit from pulling the ball in the air more. He may not see a crazy home run boom because the Monster could steal some, but it would likely benefit his batting average and get O’Neill back to those early seasons where he looked like a .260-.270 hitter.

Nolan Jones - Rockies


There are many people out there who feel that Jones is being drafted too early and that his 2023 season was a bit of a fluke, but it’s important to remember that he was a pretty well regarded prospect in Cleveland before they soured on him without ever really giving him a chance to play at the big league level. He then went to Colorado and produced a 20/20 season, and, if we believe the numbers above, left a little meat on the bone. Jones hits the ball hard in the air, and his exit velocity gets even better when you factor in just pulled fly balls, which he hits at 99.5 mph, which was basically the same as Pete Alonso, Rafael Devers, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. last year. Not bad company to be in. Except, Jones only hit 5.4% pulled fly balls last year, below league average. Jones could absolutely benefit from pulling the ball more in the air, but here’s the thing: the months when he pulled the ball the most in 2023 were also the months that he had the highest groundball rate, which suggests he was rolling over. Perhaps getting pull-centric for him led to him flying off the ball; however, if he can learn to pull more and keep his similar fly ball rate, we could see another level here.

Ian Happ - Cubs


Why doesn’t Ian Happ get more respect? After building the reputation as a talented player who struck out too much, Happ has cut his strikeout rate in each of the last two seasons and posted a 22.1% rate last year to go along with a career-best 14.3% walk rate. His swinging strike rates are now better than league average, and he makes far more contact in the zone as well. His exit velocities on FBLD aren’t great, but when he pulls the ball, he hits it an average of 99.1 mph, so he can certainly get to power when he’s able to turn on a pitch. He just did that well below league average last year, which is why he had essentially a league average HR/BBE. Also, Happ’s worst months in 2023 happened to be the months where his groundball rate was highest (June/July), so there is certainly an argument to be made that, given his power potential and his results when he hits the ball on the ground, Happ should be hitting the ball in the air to the pull side more often. There’s a chance he’s a 25/15 guy next year (or close to it), and I’m not sure he’s being drafted as such.

Brett Baty - Mets


Brett Baty disappointed in his first taste of the big leagues, but many people are optimistic about him getting another run with the Mets. Given that his pulled fly ball rate and HR/BBE were both well below league average but he had decent exit velocity on FBLD, maybe he should pull the ball more often? Well, maybe not. He had a max exit velocity of 113.7 mph in the big leagues last year, a 7.6% barrel rate, and posted an absurd 48.7% hard-hit rate in his 104 Triple-A at-bats after being demoted. Yet, his profile is not one of a power hitter despite those metrics. He’s never run high pull rates or fly ball rates, with just a 37% pull rate and 27.3% fly ball rate in the big leagues last year and jus a 31.6% fly ball rate in the minors. Also, his average exit velocity on pulled fly balls was 94.2 mph in 2023, which isn’t bad but also is well below the range of hitters who can drive the ball out of the park with regularity (98 mph was average for players who hit HR on over 50% of pulled fly balls). As a result, Baty’s hardest contact seems to come on line drives, and he may benefit from spraying the ball into the gaps rather than selling out for power. I’m not sure looking to increased his pulled fly balls is the way to go here.

Ryan Mountcastle - Orioles


Mountcastle is another instance where pulled fly balls might not be ideal. One of the primary reasons is his ballpark, which last year ranked 29th for right-handed power thanks to the new dimensions and higher wall. Mountcastle also has enough power to drive the ball out of the park to all fields, so he doesn’t really need to pull in order to hit taters. I think a big reason that his HR/BBE is low is because he battled vertigo last year was struggled in the weeks before and after he was placed on the IL with the issue. In 54 games in the second half, Mountcastle hit .322/.404/.489 with seven home runs, 30 runs scored, and 28 RBI. That’s with a cold month of September mixed in. Even with those struggles, Mountcastle registered the lowest strikeout and swinging strike rates of his career, while posting a 12.1% barrel rate. We should see those home run totals rise, even without a major shift in approach.

Riley Greene - Tigers


When digging into this, I realized that Riley Greene has way more power than people give him credit for. Greene had an 11.3%-barrel rate last year, and his 114.4 mph max exit velocity is the same as Christian Walker and Jordan Walker. While Greene pulled the ball more in 2023, he didn’t hit it in the air as much, and that’s where we come to an important distinction about his fantasy value. Greene has the raw power to hit more home runs if he sells out for power and lifts the ball, but he also has plus speed and bats left-handed, so hitting the ball hard on the ground will likely lead to a better batting average and he doesn’t need to pull the ball in the air more. Additionally, even though he is fully recovered from offseason Tommy John surgery, we saw it take Bryce Harper half the season to get back to his true power, so we should be fine if Greene doesn’t try to lift the ball as much earlier on but then begins to in the second half of the year.

Ke’Bryan Hayes - Pirates


Hayes is a little bit like Yandy Diaz in that we’ve been waiting for him to make a conscious change to his approach for a few years; however, he started to do it last year but nobody really seems to be talking about it. Hayes missed a month of the season over the summer, but after coming back on August 2nd, he hit .299/.335/.539 with 10 home runs, a 35.4% pull rate and 41.5% fly ball rate in 49 games. Prior to his injury, he had a 27.9% pull rate and 37.3% fly ball rate in 73 games, so those are clear changes, especially when it comes to pull rate. In fact, his 31% pull rate last season was the highest of his career by over 4%, so that 35.4% mark is a pretty monumental shift for him. We just need to see it continue over a full season, but considering that Hayes saw clear power gains when he started to pull the ball more, he should certainly continue to pull the ball in the air more often, just not at an excessive mark. What we saw from August on feels like a good range for him.

Rest of the Interesting Names Who Had a Below-Average Pulled Fly Ball Rate

Dansby SwansonCubs41395.15.6225.3
Bryan De La CruzMarlins44293.85.4194.3
Brandon MarshPhillies26594.95.3124.5
Josh LoweRays34591.95.2205.8
Fernando Tatis Jr.Padres43896.84.8255.7
Bryson StottPhillies49491.34.7153
Jeremy PenaAstros45091.34.7102.2
Tyler StephensonReds33194.74.5133.9
Ronald Acuna Jr.Braves56298.44.4417.3
Matt Chapman34698.14.3174.9
Bo BichetteBlue Jays45793.84.2204.4
Lars NootbaarCardinals33194.74.2144.2
Jarred KelenicBraves24294.64.1114.5
Teoscar HernandezDodgers42197.44266.2
Alec BohmPhillies47092.24204.3

I covered Bo Bichette when I talked about his swing decisions, so you should check that out here. Bryston Stott, Alec Bohm and Jeremy Pena don’t seem to hit the ball hard enough to really need to sell out for power. Surprisingly, the same can be said for Josh Lowe, but he also has a lower exit velocity on pulled fly balls than Bohm and Stott, which surprised me. Tampa loves to pull their home runs, but Lowe doesn’t need to do that much more than he did in 2023. Lars Nootbaar’s average exit velocity on all FBLD is actually HIGHER than his average exit velocity on pulled fly balls, which is odd. Maybe he pops the ball up too much when he tries to pull? Maybe he’s better suited for a line drive approach? Ronald Acuna Jr. can keep doing whatever the heck he wants to do.

Jesus SanchezMarlins255963.5145.5
Alek ThomasDiamondbacks29393.43.493.1
Masataka YoshidaRed Sox45892.93.3153.3
Yandy DiazRays43395.13.2225.1
Nathaniel LoweRangers46193.33.2173.7
Willson ContrerasCardinals32096.43.1206.3
Jordan WalkerCardinals31892.83.1165
Michael Harris IIBraves40894.92.9184.4
Jordan DiazAthletics6595.62.934.6
Mark VientosMets14997.62.796
Maikel GarciaRoyals36095.52.541.1
Christian YelichBrewers41196.72.2194.6
Jarren DuranRed Sox24493.6283.3
Gabriel MorenoDiamondbacks27392.61.572.6
Gabriel AriasGuardians20396.31104.9

Jesus Sanchez and Gabriel Arias hit the ball pretty hard, and we could see power growth from them if they can get full-time at-bats. I’d like to see what they do in the spring. Willson Contreras is such a value for me where he’s going. He hit his pulled fly balls last year at an average of 105.5 mph. That’s the same as Aaron Judge. The power is there if he tries to get to it a bit more. I think Michael Harris II also has more power potential than people give him credit for; the batted ball quality is absolutely there, but I’m less bullish on Alek Thomas, who I wrote about here. I’m also not believing in Yandy Diaz’s power gains since it was the result of a small early season spike when he wasn’t even really lifting the ball much more than usual; however, I still like him for his average and runs. The average exit velocity on Nathaniel Lowe‘s pulled fly balls last year was just 92.5 mph; that’s weaker than Aaron Hicks, Miguel Rojas, and Mauricio Dubon. He’s not a power asset for me, but I do think there is more pop in Maikel Garcia‘s bat than people think. The average exit velocity on his FBLD is really good and when we look at just pulled fly balls, he hit the ball 93.3 mph, which is the same as Lars Nootbaar and Ketel Marte. Garcia is never going to be a power asset, but I believe he has the natural power to hit 15 home runs if there was any kind of approach shift, but perhaps he can’t do that while also maintaining his solid batting average.