Whether you’ve played Tee Ball, Pony League, college baseball, or even played baseball professionally, you will always hear baseball coaches teach the same fundamental concept: hit the ball hard.
With the recent addition of Statcast to every major league stadium, discussion regarding exit velocity and launch angles has reached an all time high. Like I said, hitting the ball hard is not a new groundbreaking concept. It’s common sense. Hit ball hard, ball go far. However, being able to track launch angles has given hitters more information to work with.
Despite the Statcast data being new, the information isn’t. Ted Williams wrote in his book “The Science of Hitting” that having a slight uppercut in your swing is ideal. Now, Ted’s teachings from 1971 are finally starting to take over Major League Baseball.
As you can see below, last year the HR rate record was broken. This year, it is being broken once again.
What is causing the dramatic increase in HR%? Well, nobody knows for sure. Some of the theories are:
- Juiced baseballs (Debunked already, if you believe MLB)
- Hitters are actively trying to hit more home runs
- Sit fastball & swing hard approach
- Temperature increase
I have no idea if steroids or juiced baseballs are having an impact. They may be. However, I think it’s very likely that hitters changing their approach at the plate, their swings, and a rise in the game time temperature are all at least having some sort of impact on the recent home run surge.
While the league as a whole has seen a bump in the amount of HR, have the Pirates?
Compared to 2015, the Pirates have seen an increase in their HR%. But it’s nothing extraordinary, as they’ve just managed to get back to 2013-2014 levels. Also, over each of the last two seasons, the Pirates have been below league average in HR%. The Pirates are certainly not a big home run hitting team, and haven’t been for years.
However, that does not mean that the Pirates are not aware of the importance of launch angles and exit velocity. With the help of sabermetrics, teams now value good hitting over one dimensional power hitters. For example, take a look at Chris Carter. This man hit over 40 home runs last year, but didn’t sign with a team until February. He is making only 3.5 million for the Yankees. Twenty years ago, I’m almost certain Chris Carter would be looked at much differently than he is today. Power is important, but it’s only one piece of a complicated puzzle.
I have listed the Pirates hitters ‘optimal’ launch angles for exit velocity, and the launch angles they hit at most often below. What I mean by this is, at what launch angle does a player generate the largest exit velocity. That does not necessarily mean that this is a players ‘optimal’ launch angle . It simply means it’s the players ‘optimal’ launch angle for generating the largest exit velocity. Hitting the ball hard is good, but hitting the ball hard in the air is better than hitting it hard on the ground. A player should adjust their launch angles according to how hard they can hit the ball. In the end, the true ‘optimal’ swing, is the swing that generates the highest wOBA. The first player listed, Adam Frazier, is a good example of this.
When reading, remember:
Ground balls are under 10°
Line drives are between 10°-25°
Fly balls are between 25°-50°
Pop ups are anything above 50°
Most often: 3°-10°
Adam Frazier’s ‘optimal’ launch angle for exit velocity is between -8° and 0°. Frazier is a unique hitter, and as you’ve probably noticed, doesn’t hit the ball very hard. But what he does do, is hit line drives. Since 2016, Frazier has a 28% line drive rate. That line drive rate allows him to get away with not tearing the cover off the ball. It’s obvious why Frazier could make a run at a batting title at some point in his career.
If you look closely at the graph, you can see there is a slight bump between -10°-0°. That shows perfectly that -10°-0° is his optimal launch angle for maximizing his exit velocity. But, you can also see the graph peaks around 5°-10°. And that is exactly where Frazier is hitting the majority of his balls.
Most often: 5°-15°
Josh’s graph is fairly flat. No worries though, because xwOBA only factors in exit velocity and launch angle, it does not factor in speed. Josh has outperformed his xwOBA every year because of his ability to run the bases, and so far, hasn’t lost that ability. When he loses a step, things could get ugly. But until then, Josh should continue doing more of what he’s doing right now.
Most often: 3-11
Gregory Polanco’s ‘optimal’ launch angle and the range he hits at most often are nearly identical. However, this season his average launch angle has fallen to 7.8°. Last year his average launch angle was 13.5°. With his 13.5° average launch angle last year, he was able to put up a career high 22 home runs. This year, he is on pace for around 10 home runs.
But maybe Polanco lowering his launch angle has allowed allowed him to lower his 20.3 K% to a 15.1 K% this year? What he did last year wasn’t great, but it was better than what he is doing now. His wRC+ is 11 points lower, but you could attribute that to him being unhealthy with a weak shoulder for most of the season. It’s early in the season, but Polanco’s development has been and will continue to be very intriguing to watch.
Most often: (-6°)-2°
If you want to read about David Freese’s swing, click here. That does a far better job of explaining Freese than I could manage.
Most often: (-1°)-4°
Josh Bell’s swing has been bad this year. Not only is his swing bad, so is his plate discipline. He is swinging at pitches out of the zone more, while swinging at pitches in the zone less, and is making less contact. His ‘optimal’ launch angle range is between 4°-12°, but instead he’s most often hitting balls into the ground at -1° and 4°.
Since his debut, he has the 23rd highest GB%, and the 36th lowest LD%. The increased power is nice. But if it comes with the cost of poor plate discipline, maybe it’s best for him to go back to his 2016 approach.
Most often: 7°-14°
McCutchen’s fall has been covered plenty of times, so I won’t add too much. But a quick summary is his start to the season was very bad, but since his drop to the 6th spot in the batting order he has improved his wRC+ from a not so nice 69 to 94. He needs to sustain it for longer than 10 games, but it’s hard to argue with the results so far. His issue wasn’t launch angle though, it was launch direction. He was pulling far too many balls that shouldn’t have been pulled.
However, if he ever wants to try and revamp his swing entirely, it might not be a bad idea to swing for the fences. From 2016-2017, his ‘optimal’ launch angle for maximizing his exit velocity is 0°-8°. But his ‘optimal’ launch angle for maximizing his wOBA is between 19°-29°. Of course it’s a SSS, but since his drop to 6th in the batting order, McCutchen has a 22.4° average launch angle. Like Polanco, I’m very intrigued at what McCutchen can do over the remainder of the season.
Most often: 0°-6°
A fully healthy Cervelli has found new power. Last year, Cervelli managed just 1 home run over 393 PA. This year, he has 3 home runs over 178 PA. Not only has he hit more home runs, he’s nearly matched his 2016 doubles total. Add both of those up, and his ISO is much higher than it was last season. But in the end, Cervelli had a 99 wRC+ last year and just a 102 wRC+ this year.
However, his xwOBA is about 25 points higher than last season. He’s making better contact and at a more ideal launch angle. As long as Cervelli stays healthy, he could be on track to being one of this teams better hitters.
Most often: 1°-9°
Jordy Mercer has an ‘optimal’ launch angle between 12° and 19°. Unfortunately, he instead likes to hit the ball between 1°-9°. Jordy is, at best, a league average hitter. If he could find a way to increase his launch angle, even slightly, it might make a significant difference for him. Next year will be his contract year, so maybe he will experiment with his swing in an attempt to land a nice contract somewhere. Only time will tell, but for now, the Pirates will have to be content with what he offers currently.
Most often: 1°-9°
Jaso’s ‘optimal’ launch angle for maximizing exit velocity is 7°-15°, and that matches exactly with his ‘optimal’ launch angle for maximizing his wOBA. This year, Jaso has increased his average launch angle to 19.8°. Last year, he had an average launch angle of 7.0°. This year is a small sample, but it also seems like Jaso may have made an effort to hit the ball in the air more often. It hasn’t turned into better results yet, but if Jaso can find a way to hit the ball between 7° and 15°, he could have a nice year off the bench.
Most often: 0°-9°
Look at Marte’s xwOBA between 8° and 22°. If he managed to hit the ball there every time, he would be an absolute stud. For now, we will have to keep waiting to see if he made any adjustments to his swing.
Most often: 2°-11°
The Pirates lineup sorely lacks power. Kang certainly produced power, as you can see in his graph. Any time he elevated a baseball, he crushed it just as hard as he crushes a 24 pack.
The ‘Best in the League’ List
The 2017 leader in exit velocity: Miguel Sano
Most often: 10°-18°
Ya, he’s crushing baseballs.
(ALL DATA IS FROM 2016-2017)
This post was heavily inspired by Tango Tiger, or @tangotiger. His blog post here is what gave me the idea to do this. This was also done with the help of @EvilNeal. Give them both a follow on Twitter if you haven’t already, and while you are at it, follow me at @CannonballCrner!