While Andre Ethier has always been a good player, he's never been great. His average fWAR has been 2.24, meaning that he's been justified as an everyday starting player, but not one that should be counted on to lead the charge. He's flashed enormous potential, as he hit 31 home runs in 2009, and posted an fWAR of 3.4 the season before that, but was never able to take it to the next level. Before the 2013 season began, he signed a five-year contract worth $85 million, but was removed from the starting lineup in 2014 as the Dodgers tried to mix and match their outfield.
Ethier wound up coming to the plate just 380 times in 2014, the lowest total of his major league career. Whether it was a coincidence, or a direct result of not playing regularly, Ethier simply didn't produce, and was a below-average MLB hitter in almost every regard, suffering his worst season ever. His fWAR was anemic, and placed him in in the category of what FanGraphs likes to call "a scrub".
His power was gone, he was no longer driving in runs, and combined with his subpar defense, it seemed that Ethier had simply reached his decline phase. In 2015, however, he has proved that to be wrong.
This season, Ethier's power is back, he's driving in runs again (although his defense is still awful), and it no longer seems that he's destined for an early end to his career. He's on pace for his highest ISO in five years, his best wOBA in seven years, and his best wRC+ and fWAR ever.
Ethier has shown a clear improvement in these statistics, but the question is how has he done that? That answer comes via his batted ball data.
Ethier's struggles in 2014 stemmed directly from his ground ball and hard-hit percentages. Last season, his ground ball rates increased by 33.07 percent, while his hard hit rate decreased by 31.21 percent. On its own, one of those changes would be enough to cause Ethier's overall offense output to crater, but unfortunately for him there were two factors at play. Logically, and statistically proven, players who make harder contact with pitches have better power figures; the same is true for those who hit a higher percentage of fly balls. While these were the reasons that Ethier was struggling mightily in 2014, they're now the reason that he's experiencing a resurgence.
With his hard hit rate increasing, so too has the average distance on his home runs and fly balls. According to Baseball Heat Maps, the distance on those batted balls have increased by 18.10 feet, or 6.65 percent. It's difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for this turnaround, as the mechanics to his swing don't seem to have changed that much, which you can see below. The first video is from 2014, while the second is from this season.
If anything, it looks like Ethier may have a slightly more closed stance, but if so it's just by an inch or two. It also appears as if there's less movement in his hands before the pitch is delivered. However, his leg kick is the same, and he finishes high after connecting with the pitch.
The changes in his mechanics are minute, if there at all; regardless of what the exact change has been, the results are indisputable. He's already eclipsed his RE24 from the 2014 season, and is once again a productive major league hitter that deserves to be in the everyday lineup. Before the year began, there were rumors that the Dodgers were desperately trying to find a team to take Ethier, and even willing to eat half of his remaining contract. That's no longer the case, though, and at least for the time being, Ethier is once again a major factor for the team.
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Matt Goldman is a Featured Writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.