Watching the Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant struggle last season brought to the forefront the argument over launch angle. Fans, sportswriters, and broadcasters have all weighed in on the new approach to hitting. But is it new? And is it misunderstood?
Over the last few years, home runs and strikeouts have skyrocketed. Many have blamed the supposedly all or nothing approach to the launch angle focus of today’s hitters.
Even the Chicago Cubs fell prey to the growing chorus of criticism and hired Chili Davis as their batting coach in an attempt to reorient their hitters’ approach at the plate. One of the biggest hitters to struggle was Kris Bryant.
More contact, less swing-and-miss, more clutch hits. But it didn’t work out, and the Cubs power outage in last September ended the Davis experiment after one year. The Cubs offense “broke” as Theo Epstein noted in his postseason interview.
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Does launch angle mean more fly balls?
But was that slump due to players’ hyperfocus on launch angle? Are we misunderstanding launch angle? Many believe, wrongly, that launch angle means just hit the ball in the air. And the criticism is that it creates more lazy fly ball outs and strikeouts.
But are we getting this all wrong? To find out let’s go to the source.
Boston’s Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams
Ted Williams was the last player to hit .400 in a season. Williams also slugged and launched prodigious bombs. His careers OPS was 1.116. He played 19 years, missing three years to serve in World War Two, and almost all of the 1952 and 1953 seasons to serve in the Korean War. His career slash was .344/.482/.634, and he hit 521 home runs. But he wasn’t some K-king either, amassing 2,021 career walks to 709 strikeouts. In his last season at age 41, he slashed .316/.451/.645. He wasn’t some massive, muscled up ball player. He was 6′-3″, 205 pounds.
So where did all the power and consistent hitting come from? The answer is launch angle. Though perhaps not as we think we understand it today. Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy reported that Ted Williams, in his 1971 book, The Science of Hitting, wrote,
"“The ideal swing is not level and it’s not down. If you get the ball into the air with power, you have the gift to produce the most important hit in baseball — the home run. More important is that you hit consistently with authority. For those purposes I advocate a slight upswing (from level to about 10 degrees), and there is another good reason for this — the biggest reason: Say the average pitcher is 6 foot 2. He’s standing on a mound 10 inches high. He’s pitching overhand, or three-quarter arm. He releases the ball about ear level . . . The flight of the ball is down, about 5 degrees.”“The ideal swing is not level and it’s not down. If you get the ball into the air with power, you have the gift to produce the most important hit in baseball — the home run. More important is that you hit consistently with authority. For those purposes I advocate a slight upswing (from level to about 10 degrees), and there is another good reason for this — the biggest reason: Say the average pitcher is 6 foot 2. He’s standing on a mound 10 inches high. He’s pitching overhand, or three-quarter arm. He releases the ball about ear level . . . The flight of the ball is down, about 5 degrees.”"
And there it is. Get the ball in the air with power; hit consistently with authority. Sabermetricians today call it exit velocity and pitchers call hard contact. Batters love exit velocity, and pitchers conversely hate hard contact. That’s because the harder a batter hits the ball the more likely he is to get a hit. Ted Williams figured out how to do that, and he did it a lot.
What Williams preached was swinging the bat on the same plane that the baseball was traveling. And he noticed pitched balls move down. And it didn’t matter to him where the pitch was thrown as long as the bat barrel was on the same plane as the ball. That’s launch angle. What Williams was not promoting was some massive, uppercut swing. If you see players, at any level, taking huge uppercut swings? Not what Ted Williams preached.
Managers, hitting coaches, and players at every level, as well as Dads and Moms whose kids play baseball, fans, sportswriters, and broadcasters, would do well to revisit the Splendid Splinter’s concept of launch angle. Or does someone else need to write a book?