Max Kepler Looks To Bonds For Hitting Inspiration
Image courtesy of John Rieger - USA TodayJust down the line in the Twins’ clubhouse sat new acquisition Jason Castro. Castro, somewhat unknowingly, helped launch a revolution in the way professionals view hitting. It was watching Castro transform his swing from the bench that inspired teammate J.D. Martinez to look closer at a swing’s components.
“I used to always think, ‘Hit down on the baseball.’ But then I realized that’s not what everyone else is doing,” Martinez told Fangraphs.com’s Eno Sarris. Martinez was injured with the Astros when he saw video of Castro’s revamped swing plane. That begat the search for video of other players’ swings. Ryan Braun, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera. All of the game’s top hitters were swinging (among other things) with a slight uppercut.
“I received a little bit of instruction prior to that point of my career,” Castro said about the time he made his adjustments as an Astro. “Really having someone breaking down the swing and how the swing is supposed to work, from just a conceptual point on what you are trying to accomplish, I started to understand that a little more on a fundamental level.”
For Castro, that fundamental understanding involved creating more lift.
Creating lift and hitting the ball in the air is not new - dating back to instruction supplied by Ted Williams in his seminal book, “The Science of Hitting” -- but with the advanced studies involving StatCast data, baseball has a better understanding of the value created by optimal launch angles and exit velocity. With video, you can marry what that swing looks like and the results.
The 2016 National League MVP Kris Bryant said that his father would install targets around the top of the batting cage in order to encourage young Kris to elevate the ball. The practice has certainly paid off for Bryant, who has one of the highest average launch angle in the game. It is the reason he has hit 39 home runs in 2016.
On the American League side, Donaldson took to the MLB Network studios to spread his gospel of hitting. “If you are a 10 year old and your coach tells you to get on top of the ball,” the Blue Jays third baseman said, “tell him no.” Donaldson also recently tweeted a video of him taking short toss swings in the cage and trying to rifle the ball through the netting near the top. His caption? “Just say NO...to ground balls.”
Kepler stresses that with his swing he is not trying to hit ground balls -- he’s going for line drives.
“I’m not trying to hit ground balls. I’m trying to backspin the ball, trying to chop it,” he says as he demonstrates, firing his bottom hand in a diagonal line from his shoulder down at an imaginary pitch. “And the ball goes. It’s harder to catch a ball that’s back-spinning when you lift it. It just goes.”
The chop part of his statement is the line that can make some hitting instructors cringe. Fangraphs.com’s Travis Sawchik recently profiled hitting coach Doug Latta and the players he has worked with, such as Marlon Byrd and Justin Turner, who reinvented their approach and careers by moving away from chopping wood. Other players have followed suit.
Kepler’s process is interesting because, according to StatCast data, he hasn’t been producing a high-level launch angle rate -- at least not like the classic power hitting profiles like Bryant (19.8), Chris Carter (18.8), or even Josh Donaldson (12.9). His launch angle numbers fall behind even teammate Byron Buxton (14.3). Baseball Savant said that Kepler had an average launch angle of 8.7 degrees.
Baseball Savant launch angle GIF show the difference in contact put in play between Max Kepler, Miguel Sano and Wil Myers. Note the amount of contact by Kepler that falls below 0 degrees. That equals ground balls.
What is also interesting is the hitter one place ahead of him on the launch angle rankings is the Padres’ Wil Myers (8.8). Why is that interesting? Myers seems to share the same affinity of staying on top of the ball as Kepler.
“I try not to be one when I hit it but a lot of players will get up under the ball so they don’t hit into the ground,” Myers told MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds. “I feel like that creates bad habits and I like to stay off the tee and stay down through the ball.”
The lackluster launch angle numbers notwithstanding, both Kepler (17) and Myers (28) have showed plenty of pop in their bats, thanks to solid exit velocity figures. Or, in simple ball guy terms, they hit the ball on the screws. In short, while Myers and Kepler might not share the same hitting philosophy as guys like Bryant or Donaldson, their process has led to decent results at a young age.
Kepler says the mindset -- staying on top and through the ball -- helps put him in the best position for him to make what he believes is optimal contact: a line drive that carries up and into the overhang at Target Field.
All players have different cues and feels that help them create their swings. What they tell themselves and what actually happens can be two totally different events. Brian Dozier says he tries to drive the ball through the center field wall. Dozier, of course, pounds more balls about five feet inside the left field foul pole than anyone in the game. Byron Buxton says he tries to drive the ball to second base during batting practice but as September showed, Buxton is completely capable of turning on the ball and driving it into the air.
For Kepler, trying to get himself to hit ground balls only is useful to him when he feels when he is out of whack and struggling. The results he wants to see are pearly white baseballs disappearing into the right field stands.
“Bonds told me just try to hit hard ground balls, hit the ball through the pitcher’s forehead,” he says. “Try to find your bat path because once it is level and you’re comfortable with it, you are going to square balls up and they are going to go where you want it.”
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