Has the fly-ball revolution reached college softball?

Has the fly-ball revolution reached college softball?

Professional baseball is undergoing a power surge that has left pundits and players speculating as to the cause. The leading culprit is a juiced baseball, although that hasn’t been proven beyond a doubt yet. One theory coming from players such as J.D. Martinez of the Detroit Tigers is an increased emphasis by hitters trying to hit the ball in the air.

“In the cage, I talk about it all the time,” Martinez told Fangraphs. “I’m not trying to hit a ‘effing’ line drive or a freaking ground ball. I’m trying to hit the ball in the air. I feel like the ball in the air is my strength and has a chance to go anywhere in the park. So why am I trying to hit a ground ball? That’s what I believe in.”

There has been some pushback against this approach by sabermetricians who point out that line drives are still the ideal outcome of an at bat because line drives are converted into outs at a much lower rate than ground balls or fly balls.

To show the length that baseball researchers will go to understand this issue, check out the following graphic created by physicist Dr. Alan Nathan. This graph looks at exit speed off the bat and the launch angle of the ball in relation to batting average for balls in play plus home runs in professional baseball.

This can be a tough graphic to understand until you look at vertical launch angle. That slice of red in the middle of the graph would be line drives. Another takeaway is that if you’re going to have success hitting fly balls, they will need to be hit hard or flared in for a hit as a duck snort.

I wanted to look at this further from a baseball perspective before getting into softball data. In looking at the line drive rate for over 3,000 MLB hitters who had at least 100 at-bats in a season over a five-year period (baseball has a wealth of data!), one can see in the following graph that line drives don’t correlate especially well to home runs.

No big surprise there, since line drive hitters aren’t typically home runs hitters. Let’s next take a look at the home run rate for fly balls in professional baseball.

Here we’re seeing some correlation between the percentage of fly balls that hitters hit and the rate at which they hit home runs. Again not surprising that the more fly balls you hit, the more home runs you might accrue.

So what about softball?

Getting data from the NCAA often requires work. The NCAA provides the top home run hitters per games appeared, but appearing in a game could be as little as appearing for a pinch hit or playing defense for an inning. Not the ideal metric to measure the best power hitters in the game. However, I used that as my starting point for identifying the games top 30 home run hitters this season and then looked up the number of at-bats this season for each of these hitters. One good thing is that the NCAA collects ground out and fly out data (no record of line drives), so we can attempt to see if fly outs correlate to home runs in women’s D-I college softball for 30 of the game’s top home run hitters.

To back up a bit, the coefficient of determination of .2055 in the upper right of the scatter plot represents the proportion of variance (20.55%) that is accounted for between these two variables (fly out rate and home runs per at-bat). You can see that fly out percentage isn’t highly reliable in determining home runs per at-bat since many of the data points aren’t close to the trendline. However, those two data points out on the far right intrigue me. Those two points represent the two top home run hitters in D-I softball: DJ Sanders from Louisiana-Lafayette (far right) and Katiyana Mauga from Arizona. Here were their corresponding stats this season:

Player HR/AB FO%
DJ Sanders .185 75%
Katiyana Mauga .166 75%

Sanders (29 home runs) and Mauga (24 home runs) are the top two home run hitters in D-I softball this season, with Mauga climbing up the game’s all-time home run chart. They also happen to fly out a lot.

One other data point on that graph interests me.

The only top home run hitter flying out at a slightly higher rate (76%) than Sanders and Mauga this season is New Mexico State sophomore Kelsey Horton. Does this bode well for Horton and encourage other fly ball hitters? At the moment that’s still up in the air.