Photo Credit: Gerry Angus-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Maile’s key to success this year? Hitting the ball in the air

The Blue Jays are 40% of their way through the 2018 schedule. If you had to take a guess at which position player had the second-highest WAR total on the club through 65 games, would you figure it’s someone who’s played in less than half those games?

It’s the man who delivered the game-winning hit (or walk) in three of the Blue Jays’ five walk-off victories this season. It’s Luke Maile. There are guys on the roster who have played twice as many games as him and still, his production in 32 games surpasses most of them.

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Somehow, Maile sits just behind Kevin Pillar on the Blue Jays WAR leaderboard with 1.1 WAR, while Pillar has 1.2 WAR. Pillar put up that production in 65 games played, Maile did it in only 31 games. So, how on earth does the Blue Jays backup catcher who couldn’t hit a lick last year suddenly become one of the team’s most productive hitters this season?

It’s simple; he’s hitting the ball in the air.

Looking at his numbers and by his very own testimony, the Blue Jays’ backup catcher is making a conscious effort this year to drive the ball in the air. So far, it’s working.

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Not only has Maile cut down on his ground ball rate, he’s hitting the ball harder, he’s making better contact and launching the ball higher. Nearly every metric is on the rise for Maile compared to last season:

Metric 2017 2018 Difference
AVG Launch Angle 12.4° 15.6° ↑ 3.2°
AVG Exit Velocity 83.3 90.2 ↑ 6.9 MPH
Line Drive Rate 9.5% 25.8% ↑ 16.3%
Ground Ball Rate 50.5% 40.3% ↓ 10.2%

The most dramatic numbers from that set; Maile’s average exit velocity bumped up to 90.2 miles per hour this year compared to 83.3 miles per hour last season. He gained nearly seven miles per hour on his bat speed year-over-year.

Since he’s attacking the ball with more ferocity this year, Maile’s line drive rate has nearly tripled from 9.5% to 25.8%. That sits top five among position players for the Blue Jays, behind Curtis Granderson, Kevin Pillar, and Steve Pearce.

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Comparing his swing from this year to last, there aren’t any drastic changes. If anything, his stance might be a little more open this year, but for the most part, it’s the same basic swing. It just boils down to the fact that he’s being more aggressive at the plate and attacking the ball with regularity.

Maile’s struggles at the plate last year were abundantly clear, but the bulk of his value came with his defense and game-calling. He’s having a solid year behind the plate in 2018 as well, but he’s behaving like a completely different hitter.

Maile has a completely different mindset this season, as he told J.P. Arencibia and Nick Ashbourne on Yahoo Canada’s Digging In Podcast. The Blue Jays’ backup catcher revealed his key to success in 2018:

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I’m trying to get the ball in the air. I was always the guy when I wanted to think about using my legs, I would crouch down. When I wanted to hit the ball in the air, I became more aggressive. For whatever reason, I would start swinging harder when I wanted to hit the ball in the air.

That methodology is working wonders for Maile this year. A more aggressive approach at the plate has increased his bat speed, all the while, he’s getting the ball into the air and reducing soft contact. It’s as if Maile graduated from Josh Donaldson’s anti-ground ball curriculum this past offseason.

Donaldson famously said this during that groundbreaking hitting segment on MLB Network: “they don’t pay you for ground balls. They pay you for doubles. They pay you for homers.” Judging by Maile’s 25.3% line drive rate, he understands the value of getting the ball off the ground.

It totally makes sense why this different mindset would translate into better contact for Maile. Him simply telling himself to get the ball in the air is what’s made the difference; not a stance change or a rebuilt swing. The “get the ball in the air” approach allows him to attack pitches in the zone rather than sit back with a passive approach at the plate.

Now that Maile is hitting better than his catching counterpart, Russell Martin (and most of the Jays roster, for that matter), it’s somewhat quelled the Blue Jays’ concerns about having a legitimate backup catcher. Maile has been all that and more this year, which allows the Jays to keep Danny Jansen, Maile’s heir apparent, in the minors to develop that much further.

Fast-forward to the end of the season and chances are his 115 wRC+ comes back down to earth. But it’s already miles ahead of Maile’s wRC+ from last year, which was zero. Yes, zero. Again, he was a plus defender last year, but was one of the 25th worst hitters in baseball in 2017.

Maile’s resurgence at the plate is further proof that when you hit the ball in the air, good things happen.

Oh yeah, and write in Luke Maile to the All-Star Game and #DelivertheMaile

  • Magicaleigh

    While all those things are true, every metric that tracks contact % is well below average and he’s striking out in a third of abs. He’s been regressing hard since the middle of May because he strikes out a ton and his babip is regressing hard. I wouldn’t be shocked if his and Martin’s final batting line is similar at the end of the season.