MLB: Launch angle, exit velocity, and becoming an efficient hitter
How can players make the most of launch angle and exit velocity?
Over the past couple of seasons, launch angle has gracefully entered the lexicon of baseball. More hitters continue to discard the idea of hitting grounders to get on base in favor of lifting the ball to increase the likelihood of hitting a home run. Josh Donaldson posted on Twitter before the 2017 season, “Just say NO…. to ground balls,” and both Logan Morrison and Yonder Alonso also had their most productive years last season after adopting the launch angle revolution. Joey Gallo has become a largely three outcome player because of his focus on hitting home runs.
But for the launch angle revolution to work, a player has to use the changes correctly. And there are lessons to learn from the player who hits not enough fly balls, and the player who hits way too many fly balls.
Diaz debuted in the majors in 2017, and he produced respectable numbers. In 179 plate appearances, he had a 86 wRC+ and produced a .263/.352/.327 slash line with above an average BB% and K% of 11.7% and 19.6%. He also played competent defense and produced a 1.9 UZR in 282 innings at 3B. If he keeps playing the same way and improves, he could become a solid 3-WAR player. If he does not change any of his game, he will more than likely have a decent enough career. He does not need to change to stick around.
But he could become one of the most dangerous third basemen in the league. Last season, he had an average exit velocity of 91.5 mph, good enough for eighth best in the majors, just below Giancarlo Stanton and just above Paul Goldschmidt. Even though he had only roughly a quarter of the batted ball events, he is still keeping superb company, and players cannot fake hitting baseballs really hard. Unlike Stanton and Goldschmidt, however, he hit only 2.2 barrels (contact with roughly an exit velocity above 98 mph and a launch angle between 26-30 degrees) per batted ball event, ranking 363rd in the majors.
So why does a player who has excellent exit velocity make so little dangerous contact? He hits way too many ground balls. Last season, he had an average launch angle of 0.0 degrees, which ranked second to last in the majors among players who at least 100 balls in play. The low launch angle of 59% of his contact resulted in grounders. Dee Gordon did not hit grounders that often, and Gordon’s game relies on hitting grounders to get on base and causing havoc as a baserunner. But Diaz should not play like Dee Gordon when he can match the strength of Giancarlo Stanton and Paul Goldschmidt. Yandy Diaz would benefit from adopting the launch angle revolution and hitting more fly balls. His batting average may decrease slightly, but he walks enough to offset the extra outs, and he certainly has enough power to become an elite power hitter.
The newly acquired infielder for the Atlanta Braves had a fascinating year in 2017. After having a 2.5 WAR season in 2016, he became a replacement level player in 2017, producing a 0.1 WAR. This drop largely happened because his already poor batting average dropped from .217 in 2016 to .158 in 2017. Those are low numbers, but Schimpf walked enough in 2016 to record a .336 OBP, so the low batting average did not really matter. But in 2017, his impressive 13.7% BB% could not save him, as he only had a .284 OBP. Schimpf has also displayed exceptional power, hitting 34 home runs in his 527 plate appearances over the last two seasons.
While his drop in production is interesting, the more intriguing part of his game is his approach. Schimpf tries to take advantage of his power by hitting fly balls as most power hitters do. How often he hits fly balls sets him apart from every other player in the league.
|MLB Leaders in Fly Ball Percentage||FB %|
|Ryan Schimpf||63.9 %|
|Joey Gallo||54.2 %|
|Mike Napoli||52.1 %|
|Kyle Seager||51.6 %|
|Matt Carpenter||50.8 %|
His fly ball hitting is not an accident, either. In 2016, 64.9% of his balls in play resulted in a fly ball. During his two seasons in the majors, he has produced an average launch angle of 30.2 degrees, easily the highest of anybody with at least 200 batted ball events. Joey Gallo, who has the second highest launch angle, only had an average launch angle of 22.7 degrees.
Hitting that many fly balls is effective when a player has Yandy Diaz’s exit velocity. Schimpf had an average exit velocity of 90.3 mph in 2016, and he had a productive season. But his average exit velocity dropped to 86.0 mph in 2017. Even with the drop, he still hit 8.1 barrels/BBE in 2017, well enough for 24th in the majors last season. But hitting so many fly balls has made him a less productive hitter. Schimpf’s poor .158 batting average in 2017 is almost even surprising. Because he hit so many fly balls, he had always had a low BABIP. He had a .260 BABIP in 2016 and a .145 BABIP in 2017. For most players, bad luck with grounders and line drives lowers BABIP. Since Schimpf hits so many fly balls, which generally result in outs more often than grounders, his low BABIP, and his low batting average, are products of his stratospheric fly ball rate. His high fly ball rate worked two seasons ago because when he had the higher exit velocity, more fly balls would carry over the fence. But with the lower exit velocity, those home runs drop into the outfield, usually for outs. Especially if his exit velocity does not return to its 2016 levels, Schimpf would benefit from hitting fewer fly balls. He would have more chances of reaching base and would cause fewer outs. He has power, and his home run numbers prove that, but he does not have so much power he should keep hitting so many fly balls. He might hit fewer home runs, but he will have more opportunities to get on base.
These two launch angle extremists teach us fans some important lessons. Launch angle is a useful tool to get hits more frequently but just like any other tool, the user has to use it properly. Hitting grounders works for players with low exit velocity because it gives them more of a chance to get on base. Hitting fly balls works for players with a high exit velocity because those fly balls turn into home runs. If a player wants to adjust with their swing to change the launch angle, the player must first understand if the change makes him better.