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Fly balls, three pointers, and self-evidence

Is the fly ball revolution too self-evident to be revolutionary?

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Chicago White Sox
Yonder Alonso is one of the group of players who has reinvented himself as part of the fly ball revolution.
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The fly-ball revolution, or air-ball revolution, or whatever revolution or non-revolution you want to call it, is already nearing critical mass. First we had talk of the revolution itself. Now we have the backlash. Pretty soon, we’ll have the backlash-to-the-backlash, meaning we will have quickly gone full-circle on the issue.

Painting a trend with the broad “revolution” brush will always result in glossing over the intricacies of what makes a trend rise to this level of broad adoption. There are countless intricacies that factor into whether a player can and should make an effort to lift the ball more often. And there will always be players like Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon who have no business trying to hit the ball in the air more often than they already do.

Yet there’s a simple elegance to the idea that players — not every player but a decent number of them — should aim to hit the ball hard and in the air more often. But perhaps the idea is too simple. Or at the very least, perhaps it’s too simple to be the linchpin of a supposed revolution that has captivated the sabermetric community.

Russell Carlton of Baseball Prospectus wrote an incredibly well-researched piece on why the Fly-Ball Revolution is not all its cracked up to be. The piece takes a deep dive into those intricacies referenced above and asks the question: Is the fly-ball revolution really even a revolution? Or are the underlying truths; that hitting the ball hard is good, that hitting the ball hard in the air is good; so self-evident that to coin their “discovery” as a revolution is tantamount to saying “home runs are good, more home runs are better?”

However, baseball isn’t the only sport going through a purported revolution based upon a seemingly self-evident truth about the game. If you’ve watched NBA basketball over the past decade, you’ve seen how the proliferation of three-point shooting has completely changed how teams play. Teams are shooting more three-pointers than ever before. The Houston Rockets, one of the most analytically driven teams in the league, have completely eschewed the mid-range jumper in favor of shots at the rim or three pointers.

The math here is simple. A three pointer with a 36 percent chance of going in is worth more than a long two with a 45 percent chance of going in. NBA players shooting more three pointers, much like MLB players trying to hit the ball hard in the air, seems so obvious an approach nowadays that it’s hard to pin a league-wide revolution on something so self evident.

But here’s the rub: The NBA instituted the three-point line back in 1979. That means it took roughly three decades for something as simple as shooting more three pointers and fewer long two pointers to take hold in the NBA. We can look back at the transition today and think of how obvious it is, but three decades is a long time to take to figure out something that is seemingly so self-evident.

Now, shooting more three pointers isn’t the right approach for many NBA players, just like hitting more fly balls isn’t the right approach for many MLB players. Some NBA players thrive by driving to the hoop or posting up on the block, just as some MLB players thrive by spraying ground balls and line drives across the field. Some NBA players, regardless of how much they work, will never be able to make three pointers at a high enough rate to make it a good strategy for them, just as some MLB players, regardless of how much they work, will never be able to hit the ball hard enough in the air often enough to make it a good strategy for them.

The point of this is not to tear down the work done by Carlton or any of the other great writers out there who have explored the intricacies of the fly ball revolution and found that it may not be all gumdrops and rainbows.

But the game is changing. Changes in the baseball are likely a factor. So too may be a random cycling of talent that has the game stocked with an incredible array of young sluggers. It’s possible the home run spike is just a random blip that baseball historians will look back on years from now and wonder what the hell was going on.

But despite all those possible explanations, there very much appears to be a fundamental shift in hitting philosophy happening across baseball. The changes, simple and obvious as they may seem, will be fascinating to monitor.


Jeremy Klein is a writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @papabearjere.