Olney: Is the obsession with launch angle helping or hurting hitters?

Josh Donaldson added extra power to his stroke by aiming to get more balls airborne. But will that approach work for every hitter? Frank Gunn/Associated Press

It wasn’t long after the National Basketball Association introduced the 3-point shot during the 1979-80 season that front offices and coaches determined that there could be a statistical advantage gleaned from taking shots from long range. The San Diego Clippers led the league in 3-point attempts that first year, with 543; in the most recently completed season, the Houston Rockets took 3,306 3-pointers.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you want every player firing up 3s.

Which brings us to the advent of launch angle in baseball. A generation of players is seemingly obsessed with the idea of altering their swings and getting the ball in the air more. For some hitters, like Josh Donaldson, this really works, as it does for Kris Bryant.

But there is an army of major league evaluators and staffers who believe that there are a lot of hitters who should be focused merely on hitting the ball hard, rather than lifting the ball, because they don’t have the same strength as the Donaldsons and Bryants. There is a large school of thought in the sport that not everybody should try to launch the ball any more than you’d want Shaquille O’Neal jacking up 3-pointers. The theoretical advantage that a lot of hitters are focused on may simply be out of reach for their particular skill set.

The home run rate has climbed dramatically the past two seasons, from 1.01 per game per team in 2015, to 1.22 in 2017 -- a 42 percent increase over the number of homers launched in 2014. There were more long home runs hit on Friday than any day this season, six of 440 feet or longer.

But while there are more home runs, there has not been the same seismic shift in run production -- an 8 percent increase in runs per game over 2015, from 4.24 to 4.57. In 2008, there were 1.01 home runs and 4.65 runs per game.

Strikeouts have been climbing over the past decade, as pitchers have focused on building velocity, and managers (and their front offices) have used more short relievers and hunted for the best matchups. And strikeouts have increased by 7 percent over 2016 and 2017. Note that on-base percentage, the primary source of run production, has remained relatively steady over the past decade.

As home runs have climbed this year, batting average has dipped slightly, falling from .255 in 2015-2016 to .251 so far this season.

Some longtime evaluators and staffers offered some thoughts on the focus on launch angle -- and there is a lot of skepticism about whether this is actually a good thing.

“Changing every hitter's swing to produce a better launch angle is a mistake,” said one AL staffer. “It may work with hitters who have enough power to drive the ball out of the park to all fields, but most hitters will find themselves flying out to the track. And there is no question that strikeouts will go up because hitters will be swinging under the ball.”

One AL evaluator observed, “I have been around a lot of good hitters over the years, and the one thing I am sure about is there isn't one approach for all hitters. To ask a contact-oriented, singles-slash-gap hitter to swing up or a big strong guy that backspins it out of the park to change what has made him successful? That makes no sense and hurts the player and the team.

“I say that because you take away what he does best, and he has little chance to get to the big leagues or stay in the big leagues. There are organizations using a blanket approach, and it's unfair to cruel to experiment with players’ careers. Josh Donaldson is a freak and has figured something out that works for him, but that isn't a swing to copy or emulate for the masses.”

“I don't think a whole lot has actually changed [in what works],” said a National League evaluator. “The goal has always been to hit the ball hard; we now just have a way to measure how hard we hit it. On the whole, line drives have always been the most desirable outcome over both fly balls and ground balls and the results of those outcomes should speak for themselves. Major league hitters had a higher average on ground balls than they did fly balls last year.”

That’s true: Batters hit .205 on fly balls last year with a .712 slugging percentage, and .245 on ground balls, with a .266 slugging percentage. But on line drives, they hit .682 and slugged .989.

The NL evaluator continued, “I think too much is being made of fly balls and launch angle in general … No, you can't hit a ground ball out of the park, but a lot of fly balls don't give you a chance to get on base either. And don't let your attempts to hit the ball in the air compromise your ability to make good decisions and control the strike zone -- that's where perhaps some of the performance decline in some of those guys may be coming from.”

“Don't get me started on this subject. It is a joke,” a longtime AL staffer scoffed.

Some of the hitters who have implemented the most significant alterations in their launch angle have done better this year, but others have really struggled. Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information dug out these numbers for hitters who put at least 100 balls in play in 2016 and 50 balls in play in 2017:

Among others in the top 25 for increased launch angles, you can find Matt Carpenter and his OPS drop of 119 points, Luis Valbuena’s drop of 254 points and Alcides Escobar clocking in with a decline of 193 points. In the positive column, Francisco Lindor has increased his launch angle by 4.9 degrees, and his OPS by 78 points.

A high-ranking NL executive was more supportive of the idea, saying, “I think there’s something to the launch angle thing, because you have pitchers working the bottom of the zone and so it makes sense that you would try to lift the ball. But I don’t think the so-called launch angle revolution will last; it’s just another adjustment in a sport that is constantly evolving, and you’re seeing pitchers beat hitters who are trying to get the ball in the air with fastballs up in the zone. The Dodgers and the Rays are like that.

“What I am absolutely blown away by is the inability of hitters to take advantage of shifts -- and maybe that’s where this is all coming from. Hitters haven’t been able to deal with shifts, and so this is their new thing: They’re going to try to beat the shift by hitting over it. But if this was college, they’d just hit the ball the other way. I can’t believe more hitters aren’t doing that.”

A National League All-Star mentioned launch angle in talking about baseball’s effort to increase pace of action. “You want to speed up the games -- well, get hitters to focus on taking good swings and putting the ball in play, especially with two strikes,” he said. “That’s like a dying art.”

Another concern that was raised by an AL general manager is that there are probably too few coaches capable of teaching hitters how to alter their launch angle effectively without gutting the rest of their offensive production. It’s only logical that if a hitter tilts the angle of his swing upward, the GM said, the bat will be in the strike zone for a shorter period of time, and the margin for error for the point of contact -- when the bat meets the ball -- will be reduced.

This is not a good thing.

“The concept is so new that I don’t think the process has been fully vetted,” said the GM. “It feels like some of them -- including coaches -- are just making it up as they go along without understanding the mechanics or the collateral damage.

“I know they’re doing it. I just don’t know if it actually helps an offense. It might help some guys, but I think it hurts a lot of hitters, too.”

Around the league

  • Kyle Schwarber’s at-bats against Lance Lynn Friday are a microcosm of his season so far. In the second inning, he got ahead in the count, three balls and no strikes, but eventually struck out, fouling off a 3-1 pitch and missing a 3-2 pitch -- and those last two pitches appeared to be out of the zone. In his next at-bat, he got ahead in the count 3-1, and again, chased two pitches that weren’t strikes, fouling off the first and missing on the other. Opposing pitchers have apparently picked up on this: Only eight hitters in the big leagues have seen fewer pitches in the zone than Schwarber, who started Saturday’s game with 62 strikeouts in 208 plate appearances.

    The Cubs picked Schwarber high in the draft because of his exceptional hitting ability, and he made an impact right away in 2015, and then in 2016 he missed six months after blowing out his knee but still had great at-bats in the World Series. The assumption has been that Schwarber is a hitting savant.

    But he’s also a young player adjusting to the big leagues. His start against the Cardinals on Saturday was his 120th regular-season game for the Cubs. Schwarber had the worst batting average in the NL in May (among all players with at least 75 plate appearances), at .120; teammate Addison Russell had the second worst, .162.

    Schwarber might epitomize what the 2017 Cubs are: A really talented and really young team that will have to grind its way through.

  • Rafael Devers is an incredibly important prospect for the Red Sox, because the team has traded away a lot of other core prospects for All-Stars like Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel, and because Devers has been playing third base -- a problem area for Boston. The Red Sox signed Pablo Sandoval to a five-year, $95 million deal before the 2015 season and he has played only 148 games. Brock Holt, a backup at the position, has been suffering from vertigo. Boston third basemen have combined for a .610 OPS, 28th in the majors, and Devers, playing in Double-A, is projected to be a really good offensive player. In theory, he could be a candidate to be the Red Sox third baseman in 2018 and in years to come. But at least one evaluator who saw him recently walked away convinced that Devers won’t be able to hold down the position in the big leagues because of his size and condition. If this turns out to be true -- and he’s a young player, capable of change -- it could impact Boston’s planning. Years ago, the Yankees had a similar situation with former catching prospect Jesus Montero: Many evaluators with other teams believed that Montero could not play the position effectively in the majors, which altered how he was valued by some rival clubs. The Yankees traded Montero to Seattle for Michael Pineda; he caught just 85 games in the big leagues.

Baseball Tonight Podcast

On the podcast last week:

Friday: Chris Owings of the Diamondbacks joins us to talk about Arizona’s season, Paul Goldschmidt and Zack Greinke; Karl Ravech and Justin Havens play a game of "Embrace Or Reject" about the Cubs’ sluggish start, whether MLB kind of likes brawls like Strickland vs. Harper, and the looming pace-of-action battle; and Boog Sciambi on Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta.

Thursday: Chris Taylor of the Dodgers discusses his swing makeover during the offseason; Keith Law talks about Mr. Met’s obscene gesture, the Astros’ lack of flaws and the Rays’ stealthy sleeper status; Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch digs into the early-season changes of the Cardinals and Michael Wacha’s bounce-back season.

Wednesday: Tim Kurkjian and Aaron Boone evaluate the discipline rendered against Hunter Strickland and Bryce Harper, and Albert Pujols’s pursuit of 600 homers (and maybe 700); and Pirates first baseman Josh Bell has a story about his unusual journey into the 2011 draft, when he told teams not to take him.

Tuesday: Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post checks in with the aftermath of the Harper-Strickland brawl; Jerry Crasnick talks about the impact of Mike Trout’s injury; Todd Radom’s uniform and logo quiz, and he introduces the 18th greatest logo of all time; and Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.

And today will be better than yesterday.