Going Deep: Derek Dietrich and the Magic of Launch Angle

Ben Palmer examines the success Derek Dietrich has had this year and whether it's sustainable.

It’s Derek Dietrich’s world right now and we’re all just living in it.

Since joining the Cincinnati Reds after floundering (I’m sorry) for years with the Miami Marlins, Dietrich has become one of the greatest home run flaunters in the game. Some people hate it—I get it—some people love it (that’s me!), but there is one thing you cannot deny: The man is different this year.

Last season saw Dietrich hit a career-high in home runs with 16. So far this year? He’s got 17 and is on pace for over 40 home runs. That’s a massive jump, especially considering he had only shown fairly modest power in the minors (his best season from a power perspective was with the Tampa Bay Rays‘ Single-A affiliate in 2011 with 22).

In the majors, Dietrich had been fine, if unspectacular. Alongside the 16 home runs last year, Dietrich slashed .265/.330/.421, and the year before, he slashed .249/.334/.424 with 13 home runs. That’s respectable, sure, but not particularly useful for fantasy.

So what is going on this year?


Seriously, What Is Going On?


Dietrich has changed his approach. I know, at this point, if you read an article about a hitter, you probably take a drink every time a fantasy writer says “HE’S CHANGED HIS APPROACH, YOU GUYS,” but I’m serious. He really has.

Take a look at his batting stance last year (on the left) compared to this year:

Here it is in full video form so you can see how different the two stances are.





That’s not a minor adjustment; that’s a brand-new approach. The swing itself isn’t all that different, but everything else is, and I think it’s pretty safe to say that this new approach is working wonders, as he’s seen his fly-ball rate shoot up and his ground-ball rate drop.

And since he’s hitting so many home runs, all those fly balls must be getting hit harder than ever, right? Actually, no, and that’s what’s really interesting about Dietrich.

Dietrich has an average exit velocity of 88.5 mph, a pretty mediocre exit velocity that’s just slightly above last year’s average exit velocity of 87.4 mph. Similarly, his Statcast hard-hit rate (percentage of balls hit at least 95 mph) is sitting at 36%, lower than last year’s rate of 37.8%.

That’s weird, right? You’d expect that a guy who’s on pace for about 40 home runs and is clobbering the ball would be hitting it among the hardest in the league, but he isn’t. Instead, Dietrich has increased his launch angle and is hitting the ball exactly right, so his exit velocity doesn’t matter as much.

Take a look at his launch angle chart from last year (on the left) compared to this year (on the right):

Dietrich’s average launch angle has increased from 15.7 degrees last year to 19.8 degrees this year. And more importantly, his barrel rate has skyrocketed from 6.1% last year to 17% this year, good for 14th-best in baseball.

So Dietrich isn’t hitting the ball super hard—he’s hitting the ball right where it needs to be, and I think that is why this seems more sustainable. We’ve seen other players in their later years increase their launch angle for major success (guys like Justin Turner and Daniel Murphy come to mind), and it looks like Dietrich’s doing the same.

And even better, it’s supported by his expected stats. Take a look at the two compared:

Actual .255 .422 .664
Expected .250 .390 .556

So what does that tell us? It tells us that there is some regression coming, which makes sense. I mean, I don’t actually think Dietrich is going to hit 40-45 home runs, nor do I think he can maintain a HR/FB rate above 30%, (though, I think with the way he’s launching the ball, he can still maintain a pretty high HR/FB rate), but that xwOBA and xSLG are both among the top 7% in all of baseball. Even if Dietrich regresses to his expected stats, that’s still a great player.

Right now, Dietrich is available in 35% of leagues, so for the most part, he’s probably owned. But if you have him and you’re worried that this is all a mirage and that he’s in for a massive slump soon, don’t.

Instead, ride this and enjoy it (and pick him up if he’s available in your league), because I think this power is legit. This is a noticeable skill change that Dietrich has made, and I think it’s mostly sustainable. If he finishes the year with 35-ish home runs and a .250s average, I wouldn’t be shocked in the least, and that’s basically the season Nelson Cruz had last year.

Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Ben Palmer

Senior columnist at Pitcher List. Lifelong Orioles fan, also a Ravens/Wizards/Terps fan. I also listen to way too much music, watch way too many movies, and collect way too many records.

2 responses to “Going Deep: Derek Dietrich and the Magic of Launch Angle”

  1. Dave says:

    I can’t help but wonder if this is starting to look a lot like Zack Cozart’s 2017 season?

    • Ben Palmer says:

      I’d say Dietrich’s season is pretty distinct from Cozart’s.

      First off, Cozart didn’t make the same changes that Dietrich’s made (i.e. Cozart’s launch angle and barrel rate in 2017 were about the same as previous years). Cozart was more just pretty fortunate in 2017, especially if you look at his expected stats (he had a .548 SLG compared to a .406 xSLG, which is a pretty big jump).

      By contrast, Statcast data seems to suggest that, for the most part, what Dietrich is doing is legit. While his expected stats suggest some regression, it’s not nearly the regression that was expected of Cozart by the same measurements.

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