Launch Angles In The Outfield
Image courtesy of Adam Hunger-USA TODAY SportsThis 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.
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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