December 19, 2018
If you follow baseball at all, you know that the game is extremely analytics based. Technology has changed the way that we play and watch the game, and it can be for better or worse.
I listen to a lot of podcasts and the most recent ones that have caught my attention talk about player development. Here’s a link to a couple of my favorites.
From what I can sense there is a huge disconnect to how we approach the game. Whether we play the game, coach, or watch it as a fan, the talk about Launch Angle and Exit Velocity seems to be frequently misunderstood. For those who don’t know, launch angle is a measurement to find the trajectory of the ball upon a hitter making contact. Exit velocity is as it appears… how fast the ball went out into the field when contact was made.
It is a simple concept, yet its simplicity can be misleading for the average person who follows the game. The term launch angle is relatively new, but the metrics behind it have always been a part of the game. Have you ever watched a Major League batting practice and judge whether or not the ball will go over the fence? Instinctively, you are judging the launch angle and exit velocity of the ball in flight!
When you hear about Major Leaguers that implement data into their training programs, they are not necessarily chasing the “ideal launch angle.” They typically use the data available to make adjustments to their swing mechanics.
Hitters who work on launch angle do so without literally trying to hit the ball in the air. Conflicting statement… I know. But think about a hitter who frequently hits the ball on the ground. Instincts will probably tell you that he’s making contact too far on top of the baseball, possibly a cause of swinging at a negative attack angle. But does that mean that the adjustment will be an uppercut swing just to hit the ball in the air more? It could work, and it also might not.
From my perspective, the focus should be shifted towards what swing characteristics create harder contact that can be also hit at a further distance. Dipping the shoulders to hit a fly ball (A common one that I hear), is a command that likely produces a ball in the air. But is that why Major Leaguers pop up and miss making contact? That’s a fair observation, but I think that there is more to it.
While there has been an alarming rate of strikeouts over recent years, batted balls in play are getting hit harder than ever before. Or maybe that’s because we didn’t have all of this data available decades ago…
Nonetheless, here’s some data from Fangraphs showing how the game has changed over the years in regards to hitters and strike outs.
From what we can see here, it’s difficult to say that the frequency of home runs and strikeouts are as correlated as they appear. One of the potential factors seems to be that the average pitcher velocity has increased greatly in the last two decades. On top of that, pitchers are also utilizing far more off-speed pitches than in the past, and as a student of the game I’d say that the stuff in a pitchers’ arsenal is getting a lot tougher. Harder breaking balls and effective off-speed pitches have become more frequent, making hitting that much harder than it already is.
If you played the game, you know that it’s hard to hit. While the majority of Major Leaguers can hit 100 MPH, the adjustments they make to time the pitch can add more difficulty to hit something that is off-speed. But if you notice here, batters have statistically made greater contact in recent years. So if there are more strike outs going on, is the “Launch Angle” usage as bad as it seems to be? According to Fangraphs’ analytics, pitchers have been throwing outside of the zone more frequently, yet hitters have been increasingly making better contact. So is it possible that strike outs are increasing due to chasing more frequently pitches that are out of the zone?
In my observations, there are multiple variables that are challenging hitters harder than ever before.
When it comes to hitting instruction for amateur hitters, my bias is that it is great to implement data collection to improve performance. The downside is that if you don’t know what these metrics mean, you probably won’t have the intended outcome teaching it.
As a coach of a 14U travel ball team, I’ve heard some coaches and parents talk about launch angle. In some instances, I have seen the instruction of it to drop the shoulders and uppercut when making contact. Now that will definitely get the kid to hit the ball in the air, but was it the right way of teaching it?
It is possible, but what we have to do is understand what’s going on in Johnny’s swing that is keeping him from hitting the ball to the outfield gaps consistently. Is he swinging downward or is he hitting the ball too far on top? Is it an issue of swinging inaccurately or is it his lower half that pulling hips too early and causing him to miss?
If you listen to baseball analysts on T.V, YouTube, blogs, you might hear the debate between swinging up or swinging down. If you look at Chipper Jones and Ken Griffey Jr, are they swinging upward or downward?
If you ask me, the debate gets misinterpreted when we aren’t specific about what part of the swing we are talking about. While the barrel travels downward prior to making contact, the point of contact takes an upward path. In my opinion the question shouldn’t be “either or,” but rather “how does Point A get us to Point B?”
In today’s game, there are extremely valuable tools that we can use to extract information that the naked eye cannot see. It is possible if you know what to look for, but then again, hitting is hard. And kudos to all the great hitting instructors out there, because if your eyes are your greatest tool to help a hitter fix his swing, you know a lot about hitting, more than most people can understand. But if we have better scientific tools to fix a swing, why not keep it in your toolbox?
In regards to the products on the market today, Blast Motion, Hit Trax, and Rapsodo are some of the leading tools available. Each piece of technology has its perks and most of them cross paths in terms of what information it can provide a hitter or instructor.
The beauty of this information is that it enables us to get away from “guessing” and gets us into measuring results. Especially when hitting inside a batting cage, how would you know that you truly hit that ball better than the last one? Yes there is a distinct sound to a squared up ball and it’s easy to see a ball that was hit harder. But what variables is this individual hitter repeating that’s producing the desired outcome?
An example is Blast Motion’s ability to measure your attack angle. This provides feedback for what path the barrel of the bat is actually taking prior to making contact. If you are at a negative attack angle, you are likely hitting a ground ball. Does this mean that ground balls are bad? Not really. But if you make the right changes to your swing mechanics and find a more positive angle, then you know you’re getting closer to a line drive.
Rapsodo picks up several things, one of the most important ones being the measurement of spin axis. A ball with more backspin will tend to carry further, but too much of it will result in a pop fly. Too much side spin results in a ball that dives or hooks, depending on where you made contact… PHYSICS!
The point to be taken here is that when you know how much spin you’re putting on the ball, you can now make adjustments to make contact with the ball at a different point.
Reminder, the goal is not to put more or less spin on a batted ball, but it provides you with feedback to know where you might be missing to hit the ball harder and further.
Driveline Baseball is years ahead of the curve with their research and training methods, arguably at the top of the industry. I want to acknowledge that there are many hitting instructors in the world that do not use technology and effectively teach hitting. In regards to those who do utilize it, Kyle Boddy and Jason Ochart are doing things that no one seems to be doing, and that’s what makes them elite instructors. The majority of what they have done with baseball development is that they study it using a data driven approach. There is nothing wrong with the “old school approach,” but if data makes us better, then why not use it?
For as long as the game of baseball has been around, hitters have been exploring the concepts of making better contact. Right here Ted Williams talks about his idea of what angle to swing the bat and what outcome he is looking for.
Was he talking about Attack and Launch Angle? Hmmm…
The game has changed and we have evolve with what is new. If you’re a fan, I can understand why you might dislike the fact that hitters are striking out and popping up for what seems to be every other at bat. You can blame Launch Angle, excess analytics, greedy players who only care about home runs (Although it seems to pay very well).
From a player development standpoint, those who develop are often those who use these awesome tools. Some guys can play on raw talent and that cannot be denied, but there aren’t many Mike Trouts and Derek Jeters in the world. Not everyone is cut to be a Major Leaguer but there are a lot of players who are having successful careers at a collegiate and pro level by working on the right things. The golden question is “What are the right things, specifically for me?”
I was a P.O (Pitcher Only) in college and it was because I wasn’t a very good hitter in High School. During my teenage years, I would spend countless hours every week to work on being a better hitter. Bucket after bucket, swings off the tee and batting practice, I never really knew what I was working on and was always guessing if I was improving. My only measurement of progress was my performance in the game.
If there’s anything that I have learned in my college career, it is that I have always worked harder and not smarter. Had I had a Blast Motion when I started HS ball in 2008, maybe things would have turned out differently in my life as a baseball player.
Nonetheless, these tools are now available for every ballplayer. Should you decide to use them won’t necessarily make or break your chances of playing next level baseball, but if it can make you better why not?
As members of the baseball community, I think that we should all take the time to learn more about analytics and how we can use statistics to evaluate the game. You don’t have to be a current player or someone who competed at an upper level to learn how the game is evolving. You just have to look a little deeper into the concepts.
As a young ballplayer, take the time to learn what great hitters are doing. Ask your coaches and hitting instructors to give you their take on modern day hitting technology. If they don’t, asking them can spark their interest to find new ways to help you.
If you’re a parent reading this, research the topics that interest you in helping your young athlete develop. Ask coaches you know and get their professional opinions. The more you know the better informed you are to find the best coaching for your kid’s needs.
Coaches, let’s continue to evolve and help our athletes get 1% better in every way that we can. You don’t always have to spend money to help your players, but you can invest your time into research by reading books, blogs, YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, and using any other resources that you can learn from. If we grow, we enable our players to be in the greatest position possible to succeed.