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Launch Angles In The Outfield

By now, you are probably sick of hearing the words “launch angle”. I assure you, you are not alone. But there is something we must discuss on this topic so stay with me.

On a recent spring training broadcast Twins radio announcer Dan Gladden noted that more teams are “teaching launch angles”, which is true, but the practice has been out for several years. Some teams have reaped the benefits of elevating for several years. Now, however, the launch angle discussion is a widespread epidemic across the industry and there are, oddly, people taking exception to the movement.
Image courtesy of Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
This is how baseball works: Several teams find an advantage in something different – be it infield shifts, outfield shifts, catchers with superior receiving skills, or having hitters focus on lifting the baseball – and, if that works, other teams quickly saturate that edge until it is simply the norm.

Consider this, infield shifts are now commonplace across the board. This was once a practice that only a handful of forward-thinking teams would use sparingly. Eventually, even Ron Gardenhire started instituting the shift. Think about that. According to Fangraphs, in the 2008 season there were just 2,350 plate appearances where a traditional infield shift was used. This past season, the shift was used in 28,072 plate appearances. Everyone is getting shifted to some degree. If you show a tendency to hit a ground ball to a certain location, odds are a team will choke that space into nothingness. In 2017 hitters who put the ball on the ground had a batting average of .241. Meanwhile, hitters who put the ball in the air as a fly ball hit .251.

Why is a higher launch angle so vital as well as such a wedge topic? In a recent Twin Cities Business article, Minnesota Twins’ Director of Analytics, Daniel Adler, put it succinctly. “The uppercut swing is like the three-point shot in the NBA,” he said. “When they go in, you get 50 percent more points. Fly-ball-based hits become home runs, which justify [a swing that gives up the opportunity for] ground-ball-based hits.”

It is impossible to defend the long ball. More long balls is better. Ipso facto, it is beneficial to have your hitters hit more long balls. (And that’s even before you consider MLB has introduced a juiced ball to the game.)

In short, there’s so much more value to be had by putting the ball in the air versus putting it on the ground – even with the added risk of striking out. Teams are beginning to understand that. Nevertheless, some baseball purists may argue that they don’t care to see contact sacrificed in the name of offense. Some would prefer to see a well-placed grounder through the right side of the infield to move a runner up a base.

While this may hinder some fans viewing experience, the game is clearly trending in the direction of elevation. Given that more teams have observed this value and have more players, like Justin Turner and Josh Donaldson touting its merits to teammates, it’s no surprise to see the concepts are catching on with others. For instance Turner’s teammate catcher Yasmani Grandal spent the offseason trying to gain more lift.

"If I just took 50 ground balls out of the equation, that could give me the opportunity to be great in this game," he told the LA Times. Grandal has already shown some power so why would he risk more strikeouts for more fly balls? “[Y]ou still come to the conclusion that you're still not the best in the game," he said, "so why not try to make a change to hopefully be the best?”

Grandal is not alone. The Braves’ Christian Colon has been working on it. Mets center field Juan Lagares spent the offseason working on increasing his launch angle. The entire Nationals team is jumping on board.

On the other end of the spectrum you have guys like Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis and the Twins’ Max Kepler. Kipnis recently hit a ton of home runs in a spring game and was asked if he changed anything. "If you ever hear me say the words, 'launch angle' or anything like that, I'm lying right to your face," Kipnis told reporters. "That's not anything I've ever worked on or cared about. I work on hitting the ball hard where it's pitched and staying balanced and on time.”

Kepler echoed Kipnis’s thoughts. “For me it’s not about launch angle,” Kepler said. “It’s about getting my bat head in the zone as early as possible. I used to enter straight down. Now I’m just trying to enter more on a level path, but I’ve still got my hands going a similar route.”

While they don’t have to care about launch angle, launch angle is happening whether they care or not. Launch angle is like velocity, it’s always happening (unless, of course, you swing and miss).

In Kepler's case, he has actually increased his launch angle from 2016 to 2017 more than anyone on the Twins' roster (outside of Eduardo Escobar, who not coincidentally, hit a career high home runs in 2017). To Kepler's point, he doesn't have to worry about launch angles or even have the word pass through his earholes if he doesn't want them to. He only needs to keep trending the direction he has -- a higher average launch angle -- and that can be achieved, as he said, by getting the bat in the zone earlier and on plane with the pitch.

Then there is the confused Justin Upton. In a recent interview with Fangraphs, Upton said “I don’t try to hit the ball in the air. To be brutally honest with you, I’ve never in my career tried to hit the ball in the air. I’ve always tried to hit line drives, and if you just miss a line drive it becomes a deep fly ball.”

This is where the misunderstanding comes in. Most people hear about increasing launch angles and fly ball revolution and assume it means taking a home run derby g-hack. Getting the ball in the air is not just about deep fly balls. It’s about keeping it off the ground. Line drives, by the way, are hit in the air. Don’t you want to hit more line drives? Despite his argument to the contrary, Justin Upton is very much trying to hit the ball in the air.

Here’s the dirty secret: You don’t necessarily have to have an uppercut swing in order to increase your launch angle. Yes, long flies equal power but long line drives are just as potent. Getting the ball in the air is about the point of contact, both on the ball and where in relation to the plate. For Turner, who was trying to hit few ground balls, he was focused on where he was hitting the ball.

“If you hit down on the ball and hit the top of the ball, you’re still hitting a ground ball. If you hit the center of the ball, the margin of error is so tiny to create backspin, you have to really, really good to do that. That’s where this new swing plane comes in. This loftier swing plane makes it a lot easier to hit the bottom of the ball,” Turner said.

The second part is about being able to add lift is where the contact in relationship to the plate. Turner said he was trying to attack the ball – catching it out front, in the parlance -- rather than letting it travel deep. When you let it travel too much, the contact point often results in ground balls. Over the last two years, Joe Mauer has had a 4.3 degree launch angle – one of the lowest in the game. Part of that is due to his approach of letting the ball travel in the zone before making late contact. For Mauer, that is by design. He’s trying to shoot the ball the other way or up the middle. He rarely pulls the ball because of this.

Twins’ Derek Falvey recently discussed hitting with the Star Tribune and he brought up a key aspect about training – the notion of internal versus external cueing. External cueing is the practice of telling a hitter to swing with an uppercut to hit the ball in the air more versus internal cueing which sets up various practice methods in order to a hitter to achieve the intended results on their own. For instance, what the Rays recently did by placing screens across the infield is a form of internal cueing. Hitters will have to adjust their swing to achieve the desired results of adding lift. A person has a better chance of success if you provide them with activities that will force the person to accomplish the intended goal – just like how Kris Bryant’s father had him aim for targets up on the top of the batting cage in order to create an uppercut swing path.

These practices lead to more balls in the air and thus a higher launch angle. An uppercut swing will certainly lead to more bottom ball contact but it isn’t a prerequisite. Hitters can be trained without even knowing they are training.

Bottom line: Hit it in the air.

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13 Comments

Your opening caught me - I am one who is tired of launch angle, not because it is bad, but because we are caught up in a trend and seeing one fix all for every batter.You mixed in comments about shifts - which continue to grow because teams refuse to use strategy to beat them.  

​In football if either defense or offense changes, there is a compensatory alteration on the other side of the ball.If batters get more control on their swing they can go to the wide open side of the diamond.If they learn to bunt better they can drive the defense and the pitcher crazy.There needs to be a strategy - for example if I was playing against Jon Lester I would have every fast player bunt and see how his bounce pass to first base plays out inning after inning.Joe Mauer takes pride in his bat control, but he has an amazing amount of DPs in his career.He should adjust launch angle with players on first.

 

Think about hit and run against a shift if the player can put the ball on the side of the one infielder.Bring back strategy, create worry about a stolen base.I want more than just pitch and catch.

    • wsnydes and Nine of twelve like this
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ashburyjohn
Mar 10 2018 12:19 PM

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. From the pitcher's perspective, isn't a rising fastball the antidote to the attempt by the batter for a higher launch angle? Wouldn't that, and perhaps a trend toward more 9-3 breaking pitches rather than the 12-6 variety, negate a lot of hitters' success? The short-term result would be more of the Three True Outcomes style of ball, but batters would then respond accordingly.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. From the pitcher's perspective, isn't a rising fastball the antidote to the attempt by the batter for a higher launch angle? Wouldn't that, and perhaps a trend toward more 9-3 breaking pitches rather than the 12-6 variety, negate a lot of hitters' success? The short-term result would be more of the Three True Outcomes style of ball, but batters would then respond accordingly.


Teams that tried that last year...... Had worse pitching results. There is a fangraphs article about this.
    • Twins33 and jimmer like this
Didnt Tom Kelly preach to hit line drives? And as you say launch angle is another way of saying line drives....so brilliant. The statheads repackaged fundamental baseball and are called geniuses for creating a new competetive advantage.
    • mikelink45 likes this
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Parker Hageman
Mar 10 2018 12:27 PM

 

Your opening caught me - I am one who is tired of launch angle, not because it is bad, but because we are caught up in a trend and seeing one fix all for every batter.You mixed in comments about shifts - which continue to grow because teams refuse to use strategy to beat them.  

 

You know one of the best ways to beat the shift? Hit it *over* the infield.

 

But, to your point, I think the game will adapt when teams start placing a fourth outfield in the field when a hitter with extreme air splits comes up. Then you might see hitters adjusting to poking the ball to the open space. 

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Parker Hageman
Mar 10 2018 12:41 PM
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. From the pitcher's perspective, isn't a rising fastball the antidote to the attempt by the batter for a higher launch angle?

 

 

Absolutely. Pitchers have had much more success going upstairs with their fastball over hitting the lower part of the zone. 

 

In 2017, hitters posted a 729 OPS against fastballs in the upper third and a 837 OPS on fastballs in the lower third. 

 

Anthony Rizzo -- one of the best low fastball hitters -- batted .187 on fastballs up.Logan Morrison, big uppercut swing, hit .165. And so on. 

 

It's one of the reasons that Derek Falvey wants to have his pitchers throw the fastball up in the zone more. The Twins went from throwing fastballs up in the zone 28% of the time in 2016 (22nd) to 39% in 2017 (6th) in 2017. There's no question, particularly with the addition of Jake Odorizzi, that they will be throwing more fastballs up this season.

 

 

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ashburyjohn
Mar 10 2018 01:37 PM

You know one of the best ways to beat the shift? Hit it *over* the infield.

Completely off-topic, but for some reason your quip reminds me of this: many years ago a hitting coach gave our youngest son, whose fear of getting hit by pitched balls in Little League had become crippling, this advice on what to do when a pitch is coming right at you: defend yourself by hitting it with the bat.

 

/ it didn't help and my lad didn't sign up for future seasons. :)

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ashburyjohn
Mar 10 2018 01:41 PM

Absolutely. Pitchers have had much more success going upstairs with their fastball over hitting the lower part of the zone.

Okay, but you kind of omitted the other part of my post concerning breaking pitches, which I am more curious about. You can't combat launch angle with just fastballs, so which off-speed pitches should become more prominent?

 

Might the knuckleball be poised for yet another comeback?

"launch angle" is a basic physics problem taught in freshman physics classes. The problems often involve the elevation of artillery in order to hit a target a fixed distance away. I don't remember the elevation for maximum range. Sure, hitting a round ball with a round bat is different than shooting a canon but the final equation is the same.

I think there are basically two schools of hitting: the Ted Williams Science of Hitting which instructs rotational hitting with a slight uppercut bat path; and a hands first approach that I think was popularized by Charley Lau, but you'd hear Tony Gwynn talk about it, and it's what you hear from Kepler some too. In my opinion, the Ted Williams theory is the correct theory. I used to source a lot of hitting mechanics info from a website called ChrisOleary.com and I think he does a really excellent, thorough job of frame by frame swing analysis that confirms Williams' ideas. He points out, and I agree, that even hitters who say they believe in the hands first theory, don't actually even swing that way when you analyze their swing frame by frame. 

 

Max Kepler might say that he has a hands first approach, but he doesn't. he has a rotational swing with slight uppercut. Sometimes as a hitter you adopt a mental approach to help over compensate for a negative developing trend. If I feel like I'm popping up a lot, I'll start telling myself to come down on the ball and that's what I imagine myself doing. It seems, sometimes, to help straighten things out, but I'm never actually swinging down on top of the ball. I sometimes wonder, if Kepler would be well served by embracing the concept of the slight uppercut. 

 

There were power hitters who believed in the "downward" hands first swing. They thought that putting backspin on the ball helped the ball carry farther. I'm certain this has been physically debunked. The best way to hit the ball the hardest and the farthest is to meet the ball on the same angle that it is coming toward you. The ball is always coming to you at a downward angle from the pitcher's release point, so to meet the ball squarely, you have swing with a slight uppercut. 

 

"Launch angle" is a new term. It's interesting. The uppercut swing is not new. Also the repeated use of "uppercut" makes it sound like guys are taking golf swings up there. If you freeze frame any homerun swing at the point of contact, the uppercut is subtle. Guys' follow throughs will give the appearance of a massive uppercut, with their hands finishing up high, but the follow through is just the result of what's come before (how do you load, rotate, and transfer your weight). 

 

One other thing that's been debunked is the old 'squash the bug' with your back foot. It turns out that in a proper swing, the foot twisting or rolling over is a result of the hips rotating and snapping, and that at the point of contact, most hitters' back foot is actually off the ground for a fraction of a second. If you're focusing on 'squashing the bug' then your actually holding back some of the power you've generated in your hips, you aren't letting all of your weight transfer through. 

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Nine of twelve
Mar 10 2018 02:56 PM

Your opening caught me - I am one who is tired of launch angle, not because it is bad, but because we are caught up in a trend and seeing one fix all for every batter.You mixed in comments about shifts - which continue to grow because teams refuse to use strategy to beat them.  
​In football if either defense or offense changes, there is a compensatory alteration on the other side of the ball.If batters get more control on their swing they can go to the wide open side of the diamond.If they learn to bunt better they can drive the defense and the pitcher crazy.There needs to be a strategy - for example if I was playing against Jon Lester I would have every fast player bunt and see how his bounce pass to first base plays out inning after inning.Joe Mauer takes pride in his bat control, but he has an amazing amount of DPs in his career.He should adjust launch angle with players on first.
 
Think about hit and run against a shift if the player can put the ball on the side of the one infielder.Bring back strategy, create worry about a stolen base.I want more than just pitch and catch.

I mostly agree. I think it's good for most batters to go for a higher launch angle, but it shouldn't be pushed for all players. The bat control experts, like Carew was, can Wee-Willie-Keeler the ball past shifts. There aren't as many players like that as there used to be but a good hitting coach should recognize that and not try to do too much launch angle tinkering.
    • mikelink45 likes this

Didnt Tom Kelly preach to hit line drives? And as you say launch angle is another way of saying line drives....so brilliant. The statheads repackaged fundamental baseball and are called geniuses for creating a new competetive advantage.


So much wrong with this post, it hurts the brain.
    • TheLeviathan and jimmer like this
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Matt Johnson
Mar 11 2018 08:41 AM

Launch angle isn't going to help if Kepler hits it off the end of the bat like in the picture. That can be an expensive habit (speaking from experience). 


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