Friday, March 5, 2021

Launch Angles, Spin Rates, and Bucking the Trend

It wasn't all that long ago that I didn't spend any of my time pondering the finer points of pitchers' spin rates or batters' launch angles. I think about them a lot lately. It's not that these are recent innovations in baseball. We've understood for a long time that the ability to impart spin on a baseball caused the ball to move in some combination of the horizontal and verticle axes, dependent on the spin. This, in turn, makes the pitches more difficult for the hitter to square up. We've also known that home run hitters incorporated an uppercut in their swings to hit more balls in the air and, hopefully, out of the park.

It's been a confluence of circumstances that have brought these concepts to the forefront in today's game. The state-of-the-art technology used to track what hitters and pitchers are doing is so much better than years ago when the experienced eye of coaches and some film or video was all that was available. It's a lot easier for pitchers to work on getting more spin on their pitches or batters to fine-tune their swing, thanks to the immediate feedback the new technology provides.

The "launch angle" concept also benefits from the relative ease in hitting home runs in Major League Baseball compared to the "olden times" of my youth. Players are bigger and stronger, the ballparks built over the past three decades have trended smaller and more hitter-friendly, and the baseball itself has been reengineered to fly further. Pitcher velocity is way up from where it was back a few decades, leading to a huge increase in strikeouts. Offense is somewhat down, making it harder to score runs based on stringing hits together, as does the dramatic defensive shifting. It's easier to beat a shift by hitting over it rather than through it.

Home runs have always been fun to watch, at least when your team is hitting them. The top power hitters will always be fan favorites and, because of that, valued higher and paid more. Amateur players who display power will be drafted higher and paid more. Former Met Justin Turner transformed his career from borderline Major Leaguer to highly-paid power hitter by incorporating the latest thinking regarding launch angle into his game.

When baseball swings were more level, pitchers limited home runs by pitching down in the zone. For someone with a level swing, low pitches were far less likely to be elevated out of the ballpark. With the emphasis on launch angle now, that's changed. Low pitches are much more likely to be hit out of the ballpark now, especially if the pitcher misses even slightly up.

On the other hand, launch angle hitters tend to be very vulnerable higher up in the strike zone. Uppercut swings and high fastballs don't lead to solid contact. Nowadays, pitchers are trained to throw 4-seam fastballs up with as much spin as they can impart on them. Even a pitcher like Marcus Stroman, who has built a successful Major League career out of a terrific hard sinking fastball, has worked on making his 4-seamer up in the zone a weapon.

I've been thinking quite a lot in recent years about baseball trends. It's no secret that MLB is concerned that the game has evolved into a somewhat boring mix of strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Many minutes of game time go by without balls put in play. I wait and wait for something to happen. Finally, my team's left-handed power hitter crushes a line drive into right field. My heart rate elevates as I anticipate a baserunner for my team. However, that hope is quickly dashed when the second baseman, stationed in short right field thanks to a defensive shift, easily plays the ball for an out.

The very next inning, my hopes rise once again when my team loads the bases with no outs on a couple of singles and a walk. I'm dreaming for that big hit to break the game open, but I'll settle for a fly ball or grounder to the right side that will at least plate a run. Instead, the next two players strike out, taking all of the air out of the inning. The threat dies when the next batter hits a fly ball that would have been productive had there not already been 2 outs.

Maybe my team manages to launch some home runs and win the game. I'll take the "W," but the lack of situational hitting bothers the lifelong baseball fan in me. Besides, I know the inability to master situational hitting will cost my team in the loss column by the end of the season.

The revolution in the hitting approach has certainly produced more home runs. When I was a kid, hitting 20 home runs was an impressive milestone for a batter. Now it's so common. On the other hand, striking out 100 times was considered a failure back then. These days, even the best hitters do it regularly. Mike Trout won the AL MVP three times in 2014, 2016, and 2019. In those MVP-caliber seasons, he struck out 184, 137, and 120 times. Even the greatest players are willing to accept strikeouts as a part of the game.

MLB has made some changes in the baseball and how game balls are stored. These innovations are supposed to eliminate some of the cheap home runs we've been seeing. It remains to be seen how that works out. What seems obvious to me is that it's quite unlikely that home run numbers will get knocked down enough to change the whole launch angle/high 4-seam fastball equation to the extent that the game of baseball will be altered significantly.

If I was a young ballplayer who had a chance at a Major League career, I would utilize a launch angle swing to give myself a greater chance of succeeding and getting a big paycheck. If I was a pitcher, I would throw high-spin 4-seam fastballs up for the same reasons. And if I worked in a Scouting and Development capacity for a Major League team, I would be drafting and coaching based on what is working.

On the other hand, I can't help but question why smart teams aren't going against the grain a bit to combat MLB clubs' tendency to emulate each other. If MLB is likely to be populated by a majority of pitchers featuring high fastballs, shouldn't there at least be room for some players who fall into a more traditional contact hitting role? Now, I wouldn't take a player with 30-40 HR capability and turn him into an opposite-field slap hitter. Imagine, however, that you have a guy with a good eye, superior bat-to-ball skills, and a level swing who lacks home run power. A player such as that might enjoy some success in a game where pitchers have become most comfortable throwing elevated fastballs.

Developing some level-swinging contact hitters and integrating a couple of them into your lineup of launch angle guys would seem to me to make your lineup more diverse and harder to pitch to. Pitchers who have developed a repertoire to attack the launch angle hitting approach would have difficulty with this type of batter. I'm thinking specifically about the type of hitter Keith Hernandez was: .300 hitter every year, a good amount of doubles, solid baserunner. Keith only hit about 10 home runs a season, but I'd rather have him up with a couple of men on base and less than 2 outs than most of those launch angle hitters.

This isn't just a nostalgic longing to return to the game that existed decades ago. Pitcher velocity is so much of a factor today. You're going to have more strikeouts than you did when a higher percentage of soft-tossers were toeing the rubber. Unless a player is blessed with extraordinary speed and great baserunning instincts, it's not enough for him to go up to bat trying to make soft contact. But it's not a given that everyone has to be the same sort of hitter. Bucking the trend by identifying players with the right talents, nurturing them with good coaching, and incorporating them into a lineup along with the big bangers seems to me a recipe for success.

Whether the Mets choose to do something like this or not would be debatable. One thing that shouldn't be would be training every young player in the Mets' system to beat the dramatic defensive shifting featured in today's game. I wish I had a dime for every time I've watched a team line up defensively against a left-handed hitter with every infielder on the right side of second base. Almost invariably, the hitter will pull the ball into the shift. You watch that enough times, and you can't help but wonder why most hitters can't seem to keep the defense more honest by attacking the shift.

The answer is obvious. Hitters have trained themselves to bat a certain way. When they get to the Major League level, it's quite difficult for them to do something different while at the same time facing elite velocity and nasty off-speed pitches. Most hitters would do themselves more harm than good by trying to purposely go the opposite way when that wasn't a part of what they did to get to the majors in the first place.

If I worked in player development for an MLB team, it would be a goal of our system that every player would be taught strategies for defeating shifts, including bunting and situational hitting. These skills would be worked on and emphasized in practices and games throughout the player's minor league journey. Doesn't the old baseball adage instruct a batter to "hit 'em where they ain't?"

There's been talk of outlawing drastic overshifting in order to increase offense in games, but that wouldn't even have to be a consideration if most players actually had the skills to defeat shifts. It used to be that teams only utilized drastic shifts against power hitter, but now they're deploying them against almost everyone. The only reason they can get away with this is that few hitters possess the skills to make them pay for it. Change that, and you won't have to outlaw shifts. It's likely that your team will also improve in situational hitting, resulting in a few more runs (and wins).

Finally, the preference for pitchers throwing fastballs at the top of the zone has led to a preponderance of relievers who attack hitters in a very similar way. Tampa Bay's decision to have a more diverse bullpen and its success in deploying it make a lot of sense. Sure, they have guys who come into a game throwing pure gas, but they also have relievers that offer different looks. The upshot from this type of bullpen construction is that opposing hitters can't get comfortable facing one type of pitcher once the starter leaves the game.

It's a big thing now to try to avoid starting pitchers going through a lineup for the third time. Even if the pitcher isn't tiring significantly, opposing batters are much more comfortable facing them. They've seen the pitcher's whole arsenal at that point. If everyone coming out of the bullpen throws high 4-seam fastballs and sliders, you're allowing an opposing team a level of comfort in late-game at-bats. It would seem much preferable to keep them a little off balance by emulating the Rays' diversity out of the bullpen. Indeed, this was the construction of the 2006 Mets 'pen that got them within a game of the World Series despite execrable starting pitching.

There's a reason that teams copy each other in Major League Baseball. When you see something work well for another team, it's only common sense to try to copy them. On the other hand, when so many clubs are playing follow the leader, there has to be an opportunity for a well-run team to smartly buck some of the trends in a calculated manner.

Right now, the Mets have a lot of catching up to do after years of Wilpon neglect. It only makes sense that much of their efforts would be placed into emulating more successful clubs. Still, I hope they don't overlook opportunities to go off in another direction at times and find some successes that way.

I'm out for today. Thanks for stopping by. Please come back soon. Until then, stay safe, be well, and take care.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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