Dave Martinez made headlines throughout Nats twitter (and all of baseball twitter for that matter) with his postgame conference on Monday evening. When asked about CJ Abrams’ breakout game, his first 4 hit game of his career, Martinez said “Talked to him about just hitting hard ground balls.” You can watch the full 27 second video below with the quote:
— kenneth 🦆 (@rizzoisbald) September 6, 2022
There were, for a lot of good reasons, strong reactions to this but let’s dive into why. Ground balls are bad. If a player hits a lot of ground balls, then the chances are that they are going to have poor slugging, poorer batting averages, and overall worse offensive production. Below is the list of the top 10 ground ball % leaders this season. Collectively, this group has a .690 OPS (league average OPS is .710).
Christian Yelich went from a plus 1.000 OPS guy to dead weight in a lineup because his ground ball rate became astronomical. You want a player to drive the ball– the philosophy needs to be to hit for line drives up the middle and the other way, not ground balls. This is an alarming quote that can absolutely ruin a young player like CJ Abrams and his potential.
We have seen players all across the league slash their groundball% and lead to breakouts. Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson are huge examples of this (honestly most of the Braves organization is, they have a huge trend of ground ball rates going down, line drive rates going up and random players becoming good).
In 2019, ground balls had a .213 batting average and a .234 slugging. Line drives had a .632 batting average and a .929 slugging. In 2020 we saw ground balls have a batting average of .197 and a .216 slugging. Do you see why telling someone to hit ground balls is concerning?
Davey’s quote inspired me and I wanted to see if this was just bad advice for a young guy or a trend that the franchise is actually embracing in 2022. This season the Nationals have the 3rd highest ground ball rate in the league. They also rank 25th in runs scored, 22nd in OPS, 27th in home runs, 29th in launch angle and they lead the entire league in double plays.
Look at it from a player perspective. Juan Soto, who had a down first half by his standards, had the highest GB% of his career through June. Nelson Cruz is having the worst season of his career which coincides with the highest GB% in his career (this could be because he is old but still interesting). But the trend doesn’t stop with just those two. Cesar Hernandez, we know how bad he has been, has three months with a GB% over 50% and has the second highest GB rate of his career.
I can keep going with players on this team but the point is that this is an alarming trend and actually makes some sense. When you look at the teams where Darnell Coles has served as the hitting coach, there was just one season with a ground ball rate outside the top 10. Now, Coles did inherit a team that led the league last year in ground ball % and was just not making a lot of hard contact. Those numbers have not improved this season so the trend of a lot of weak contact and balls hit directly into the ground is still there.
So, is this a perfect storm of a team that just has a lot of ground ball hitters and a coach that historically has teams with high ground ball rates? Or, is this a franchise approach that is focusing on players creating more ground balls? For the sake of the Nationals and all of their young players we better hope it is a coincidence or we are going to swing and miss on a lot of guys with potential.