Since coming over from the Red Sox in the 2016 offseason as the headliner in the Craig Kimbrel trade, Manny Margot’s on-field performance in the Majors would most be described as… disappointing. It’s not that Margot has been all that bad, really. - 4.7 bWAR in still under 300 career games puts him in that ever-so-slightly above average range of players, but as a universal top 15-25 prospect in baseball at one point, people expect more, fair or not.
Margot improved very little, if at all, from 2017 to 2018, hitting the ball harder while striking out less, but also losing about 50 points in OPS in the process. Margot’s issue, simplified, is his inability to lift the ball. His launch angle is low. His ground ball rates (GB%) are high. The rate at which he gets on top of the ball (Topped%) is high. The rate at which he hits a ball with a negative launch angle is high. I could go on and on.
Margot is seemingly attempting to change that this year. If you look at the [way too early] leaders in fly ball rates (FB%) and ground ball rates (GB%), the name at the top is none other than Manny Margot.
Quick note: I’ve come to learn that some people don’t know this (I didn’t for a long time), but IFFB% (infield fly ball rate) on Fangraphs is not the % of infield fly balls on all balls in play. IFFB% is a certain percentage of FB%. This is why GB%+LD%+FB%+IFFB% doesn’t equal 1.00 - GB%+LD%+FB% does. For this reason, I’m going to be using tFB%, or True FB%. tFB% is FB% with the IFFB removed since IFFB are more or less just weak/poor contact and probably don’t tell us much when investigating who may or may not be lifting the ball more.
Here’s what caught my eye re: Manny Margot.
Stable sample sizes for GB% and FB% are right around 80 batted balls, so, as you can see by Margot’s 44, he’s only just over 50% of the way towards stability. However, a 20%+ increase in LD%+tFB% is a great start to the year for Margot. No one runs a 19% GB% all year, but even if that quickly regresses 15% or so back to 35% in the upcoming weeks, you’re still looking at a noticeable increase of balls in the air.
Margot is making some changes at the plate too, which is why I think these early clear differences in fly balls might be meaningful and not just some extreme variance. First, we’ll examine the setup. Margot is starting with his bat lifted off his shoulder this year, something he hasn’t done in year’s past. Here’s a still from a random July game in 2018 vs. Diamondbacks next to the April 11th game vs. the Diamondbacks this season (Margot homered on this pitch). My exemplary Microsoft Paint skills will be put on full display here.
During his leg kick in 2018 and prior, Margot would lift his bat off his shoulder to just about the same position you see in 2019 still. However, while seemingly small, starting with the bat in this upright position reduces Margot’s hand movements during his load, likely keeping this angle of attack more consistent. It’s a small change, but depending on the player can have a noticeable impact.
The bigger change, though, is in Margot’s stride. Below are 2 more stills of the same exact pitch, just at the point at which Margot begins to swing:
I made sure to grab video clips from the same park to ensure that the observation can’t be attributed to some camera angle trickery. We can see here that there's a noticeable difference in the location in Margot’s front foot once planted. This year, he’s begun striding more directly at the pitcher and not stepping out towards SS. This, ultimately, could be very beneficial for Margot, who has had trouble with outside pitches in the past.
The chart above, which was pulled from Baseball Savant, outlines each zone from the catchers perspective. So with Margot being a righty, he would find himself on the left side of this graphic. From 2017 to 2018, in zones 3, 6, 9, 13, 16, and 19 (more or less, the outside part of the strike zone + the outside edge) Margot had a terrible .246 wOBA. In all other “heart” and “shadow” zones in this time frame, he had a .339 wOBA. A .339 wOBA isn’t anything to write home about, but when the mark is nearly 100 points bigger than that of outside pitches, it’s safe to say Manny’s had troubles outside. Unfortunately for Margot, pitchers were far from oblivious to it, too. Quite the opposite; they attacked him outside frequently:
Striding directly towards the pitcher and not out towards shortstop gives Margot better plate coverage on this outside edge, and it’s likely the reason Margot has closed off more. So far this season, Margot has a .321 wOBA in those outside zones. It’s a grossly small sample size of just 16 balls in play from those zones, but so far, so good!
Margot still doesn’t hit the ball all that hard nor does he walk all that much. He doesn’t figure to be a genuine offensive threat probably ever. However, for back to back years now, Margot has found himself in good standing with all defensive metrics, to the point that we can safely call him a well above average, maybe great, center fielder. If he can continue to lift the ball more and his new, closed off approach can better help him attack outside pitches, it’s easy to envision Margot’s bat developing into league average, which would put him roughly in the Ender Inciarte mold of CF. That is one hell of a player for a young, exciting, up-and-coming Padres team.