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Article: Game Thread: Twins@Rangers 4/24/17 7:05PM

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Our Twins travel to Texas for a brand new series and this is good because the old series stunk. Yesterday was a horrible performance and...
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Max Kepler Looks To Bonds For Hitting Inspiration

When Minnesota Twins outfielder Max Kepler breaks down his swing, the description veers away from the game’s growing infatuation of making contact under the ball.

“I try and stay on top, get the bat head to stay through the zone as long as possible,” Kepler described. “Whenever I’m in doubt, I try to hit long ground balls to level my swing back out. I’m the complete opposite of what I hear people saying now days.”

What are people saying now days? The increasing cage wisdom is to lift the ball, get underneath the pitch, elevate and celebrate, right? Shouldn’t he be working on getting that ball up and out of the park? Asked about that, Kepler just shakes his head.

“Complete bogus,” he says. “I believe in what Barry Bonds says, that’s just stay on top and through the ball. Look what he did. That just proves everyone wrong.”
Image courtesy of John Rieger - USA Today
Just 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.

Attached Image: output_o0yEaG.gif

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 throw 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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50 Comments

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HitInAPinch
Mar 08 2017 02:49 AM

 “Bonds told me just try to hit hard ground balls, hit the ball through the pitcher’s forehead,”

 

To do that, aren't you actually applying the "lift" theory?If Kepler hit's like he's projected too, he'll be pretty OK. 

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The Wise One
Mar 08 2017 03:06 AM

You know, I would really love to say something intelligent about this subject, but my physics classes were long ago. http://baseball.phys...u/AJP-Nov03.pdfIf somebody could translate, it would be appreciated

 

 

    • ToddlerHarmon likes this
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tarheeltwinsfan
Mar 08 2017 07:37 AM

Fascinating article. Thanks Parker.

I'll never fault anyone for following the hitting advice of Barry Bonds, who clearly knows a thing or two about hitting. 

 

I find it a bit curious though, some of the game's best hitters are 'zigging' as Kepler wants to 'zag'. Just reinforces the fact that there's no universal "right" way to go about hitting. Do what makes you comfortable - and try to hit the ball through the pitcher's forehead.* 

 

 

*But don't actually hit the pitcher, because that's terrifying. 

    • Seth Stohs, ScrapTheNickname, Mike Frasier Law and 1 other like this

Sure :)

 

But there is another huge variable that makes the difference between HRs and FOs:  batted ball speed.  You can uppercut it, swing through it as much as you want, but if you have Ben Revere's batted ball speed... 

    • Mike Frasier Law likes this
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nicksaviking
Mar 08 2017 08:07 AM

 

“Complete bogus,” he says. “I believe in what Barry Bonds says, that’s just stay on top and through the ball. Look what he did. That just proves everyone wrong.”

 

Max knows more about hitting than I do (but less than Parker!) so at this point I'll judge his swing by his results.

 

But in my view this is a completely unacceptable attitude. With how often players and teams change their swings, approach at the plate and in-game strategy, a guy can't be this resolute in what he wants to do.

 

It 100% does not prove everyone else wrong and thinking so and saying it on record to a reporter is just going to make him want to commit to that swing even if it ends up needing to be revamped.
 

    • d-mac likes this
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Parker Hageman
Mar 08 2017 08:08 AM

 

Sure :)

 

But there is another huge variable that makes the difference between HRs and FOs:  batted ball speed.  You can uppercut it, swing through it as much as you want, but if you have Ben Revere's batted ball speed... 

 

Exactly, which, you know, I said...

 

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.

 

 

 

    • birdwatcher likes this
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Parker Hageman
Mar 08 2017 08:16 AM

 

 “Bonds told me just try to hit hard ground balls, hit the ball through the pitcher’s forehead,”

 

To do that, aren't you actually applying the "lift" theory?If Kepler hit's like he's projected too, he'll be pretty OK. 

 

To be clear, Kepler isn't trying to hit ground balls in his at bats. He's trying to hit line drives which is lifting the ball. It is hitting the ball in the air.

 

The chop method  -- swinging down on the ball -- has been one of those topics discussed ad nausem among hitting guys for quite some time. It has seemed that the trend has shifted away from that line of thinking. Here's a good summary on it from Cole Figueroa, a former Pirates prospect turned Rays analyst (emphasis mine):

 

With a former club, during a spring training not long ago, Cole Figueroa stood behind the cage while one of the more prominent players in the organization took batting practice.

 

Between swings, the hitting coach and star spoke about trying to create backspin through a chopping motion, commonly referred to as a “chopping wood” approach. It was part of traditional hitting orthodoxy: backspin is good, it propels batted balls further. Such a conversation likely has been had thousands of times around thousands of batting cages.

 

But after batting practice, Figueroa, a utility player, showing some courage, pulled his teammate aside. (Figueroa requested his former teammate remain nameless to protect the innocent and the less mathematically inclined.)

 

Figueroa said this idea of backspin was a myth, the swing plane he was using was not optimal. He explained what he really wanted to do is hit the ball as squarely as possible with a slight upper cut. He explained how upon contact with the bat, the ball briefly condenses like flattening a ball of pizza dough. He had the science to prove it: a Dec. 2014 study by University of Illinois professor, Dr. Alan Nathan, showed spin has little effect on batted ball distance.

 

“It's an arc and upper (cut swing) that creates the home run power and trajectory you need to hit the ball out. ... As a power hitter, it is proven that's the plane you want to swing on,” Figueroa said. “When you hear ‘level,' you think the bat is level to the ground when really that is not the case, the bat is actually level to the direction of the ball.”

 

 

Here's another thing: Watching Kepler's swings in action, I don't actually thinks his bat path is a chop. When you see him hit home runs, he gets the barrel behind the ball and launches upward -- similar to the picture used for the cover of this article. 

 

Hitters have all different types of feels for their swings. In Kepler's case, he feels like he is getting in the right path when you tries to chop. 

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Brock Beauchamp
Mar 08 2017 08:33 AM

Huh. This is really interesting. Thanks, Parker.

 

It worries me whenever a player actively goes against current baseball trends but if Kepler can hit like a healthy Wil Myers, I'd be damned happy with that. Myers' batting average has dropped over the past few seasons but initially, he was a pretty contact-heavy rookie.

 

I'd sacrifice a few points of slugging for lots of doubles and a higher batting average on this team. No one else on this team can hit for average anymore. It'd be nice to slot in a guy with a good average, high OBP, and decent slugging into the third spot of the lineup.

    • Mike Frasier Law, Danchat and adorduan like this

Look at the uppercut on this kid.

 

1081434051-1395768241000-Batter-Up-Charl

    • Seth Stohs, Parker Hageman, ScrapTheNickname and 9 others like this
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specialiststeve
Mar 08 2017 09:36 AM

^^^^^

 

 Charlie always had a great launch angle!!

    • ScrapTheNickname, nicksaviking, Oldgoat_MN and 2 others like this

I like your presentation in this article.  I am unable to analyze and critique, but the essay and comments cause me to think about the variations in players natural abilities and I am pleased to see someone finding what is good for them even if it bucks the trend.  Didn't our new batting coach say that he wanted to coach the individuals and not try to find one answer that everyone needs to follow?

    • nicksaviking likes this

I fully agree, there is no "universal fit" when it comes to hitting.As the score, base runners, defense, count, etc. all come together to dictate what the hitter needs to do.

 

A hitter may have a goal in mind of what he wants to do, but anyone who has ever swung a bat knows, when trying to hit a round ball with a round bat being thrown by a person who doesn't want you to hit it correctly (or at all), really funny things can happen.

    • Oldgoat_MN likes this

It's actually pretty clear from the math that trying to hit ground balls is a bad idea. No matter what the situation is. No matter who the hitter is.

 

He's not saying that, I don't think. But some commentors seem to be.

    • Mike Frasier Law and Oldgoat_MN like this

It would be interesting to see some of Giancarlo Stanton's swing before Bonds was the Miami hitting coach compared to during his time there. Bonds didn't last with the Marlins, probably partially due to Stanton's inconsistent year.

    • birdwatcher likes this
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nicksaviking
Mar 08 2017 11:03 AM

 

I like your presentation in this article.  I am unable to analyze and critique, but the essay and comments cause me to think about the variations in players natural abilities and I am pleased to see someone finding what is good for them even if it bucks the trend.  Didn't our new batting coach say that he wanted to coach the individuals and not try to find one answer that everyone needs to follow?

 

Yes, it was a key talking point for the new front office, something that is more than welcoming.

 

I'm great with everyone having a swing that best suits their skills. I just want the players, Kepler included, to have an open mind when it comes to listening to the coaches who may have more insight than him.

    • Oldgoat_MN, mikelink45 and MN_ExPat like this

 

Max knows more about hitting than I do (but less than Parker!) so at this point I'll judge his swing by his results.

 

But in my view this is a completely unacceptable attitude. With how often players and teams change their swings, approach at the plate and in-game strategy, a guy can't be this resolute in what he wants to do.

 

It 100% does not prove everyone else wrong and thinking so and saying it on record to a reporter is just going to make him want to commit to that swing even if it ends up needing to be revamped.
 

I agree. I find Kepler's comments a concern.

 

We are all pleased that Kepler did not fall flat on his face in 2016, but it's not like he tore up the league.

Max Kepler compared to others with >=400 PA
162 of 203 players in WAR, bottom 5% (includes DEF)
154 of 203 in wRC+, bottom 25%
153 of 203 in wOBA, bottom 25%

 

Take out his hot July and Kepler's numbers would be quite poor. This is not an All-Star. He should read and listen. Who knows that Wil Myers wouldn't hit better if he changed his swing?

 

Lots of good articles linked from the comments. Took a long time to read them all. Thanks everyone!

    • nicksaviking likes this
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Brock Beauchamp
Mar 08 2017 11:52 AM

 

Who knows that Wil Myers wouldn't hit better if he changed his swing?

Myers' problem has been health. He finally had his first full season in 2016 and posted a .797 OPS. The last time he was healthy was 2013, when he posted an .831 OPS in a partial rookie season.

 

Again, if Kepler turns into a healthy Wil Myers, I'll be quite happy with that result.

 

Also, 2017 is only Myers' age 26 season.

 

Myers' problem has been health. He finally had his first full season in 2016 and posted a .797 OPS. The last time he was healthy was 2013, when he posted an .831 OPS in a partial rookie season.

 

Again, if Kepler turns into a healthy Wil Myers, I'll be quite happy with that result.

 

Can we add "who can actually play a position" to that requirement, Brock?

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Brock Beauchamp
Mar 08 2017 11:57 AM

 

Can we add "who can actually play a position" to that requirement, Brock?

Hah, fair enough. Actually, Myers causes me a bit of worry about Kepler. Both players are pretty athletic (maybe Kepler a bit more than Myers) and both were considered outfield "tweeners". They're athletic enough to play center in a pinch but aren't great at any outfield position, which shouldn't be the case due to their athleticism.

 

I hope Kepler figures it out in the field where Myers couldn't seem to do it. I mean, Myers swiped 28 bags last season. He's got wheels on him.

    • nicksaviking likes this
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Walter's Whites
Mar 08 2017 01:35 PM

My high school coach never told me to hit down on the ball. He wanted me to hit line drives/fly balls. Probably because I was slow.

 

...

Max Kepler compared to others with >=400 PA
162 of 203 players in WAR, bottom 20%

Sorry. Dumb keyboard.

 

Kepler (and those interested) should read this:

 

http://www.fangraphs...-point-is-near/

 

It freaking quotes this thread....nice job TD!

    • nicksaviking and Willihammer like this
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nicksaviking
Mar 08 2017 02:15 PM

 

Kepler (and those interested) should read this:

 

http://www.fangraphs...-point-is-near/

 

It freaking quotes this thread....nice job TD!

 

Yeah, one of these days fangraphs is just going to up and hire Parker.

    • Mike Sixel and Oldgoat_MN like this
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Parker Hageman
Mar 08 2017 05:29 PM

Yeah, one of these days fangraphs is just going to up and hire Parker.


They couldn't afford me.
    • USAFChief, Mike Sixel, nicksaviking and 4 others like this