A Revolution Is Only as Good as Its Process

Long-time UCLA baseball coach Gary Adams was nearing the end of his coaching tenure when he made his way to The Ball Yard in 2003 to talk hitting philosophy. The Ball Yard is a spartan hitting facility, containing two batting cages, located in a nondescript building in a business park in Chatsworth, Calif. There, Doug Latta and Craig Wallenbrock, a former major-league scout, worked as private hitting instructors. There was a UCLA connection: Bruins star Chase Utley was a client of Wallenbrock, and other UCLA players had worked at the facility.

Whatever you want to call the effort in the majors to hit balls less often on the ground, much of the grassroots movement — many of the alternatives to traditional and professional hitting philosophy — began at places like The Ball Yard, the hitting equivalent to garage start-ups.

At some point, Adams and Latta engaged in a separate conversation as they walked to exit the facility. After Adams listened to their philosophies on the swing, after hearing Latta’s antipathy for a ground-ball-oriented approach, Adams asked Latta a hypothetical question: what kind of swing would he have recommended Dave Roberts to adopt? Robert was a former UCLA standout under Adams, one who became a useful major-league player, mostly known for his speed. He is, of course, now the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Roberts slashed .266/.342/.366 over parts of 10 major-league seasons.

Even many proponents of the #NoGroundballs club would look at Roberts as an exception, a player who should put the ball on the ground to ensure that his speed is a factor as often as possible. As a layman of hitting mechanics, that concept makes sense to this author.

“I think that’s what Dave did. He made it to the big leagues,” Latta said of hitting ground balls. “But I think Dave Roberts could have had an outstanding career. He had incredible makeup. He’s a phenomenal manager because of his makeup and the way he approached the game. Good outfielder. But what happens if he suddenly hits like a Justin Turner? (Turner is a Latta client.) He could have been one of the great lead-off men of his generation.”

Would Dave Roberts have been a star with a different swing? (Photo: Todd)

Had he worked with Roberts, Latta would have recommended dramatic swing changes. Perhaps today’s Roberts comp is Billy Hamilton: a player with incredible speed but whose swing and whose ability to hit have limited his overall value and the utility of his speed. Hamilton is a player who has probably been coached to hit the ball on the ground since he began playing baseball. With changes to his approach and swing, Latta thinks, the offensively challenged Hamilton could get to some untapped potential. (Hamilton has a 60 wRC+ for the season and 70 for his career.)

While major-league hitters as a group are most productive when hitting the ball in the air compared to the ground, Roberts produced a .162 average on fly balls for his career and a 26 wRC+ — versus a .238 average on grounders and a 32 wRC+ mark (beginning in 2002, the earliest date for which those numbers exist).

Hamilton’s career average is more extreme, including a .295 on ground balls, with a 67 wRC+ mark. He’s hitting .123 with a -2 wRC+ on fly balls. Like all hitters, Hamilton is most productive hitting line drives, on which he’s recorded a .613 average and 293 wRC+.

To many, Hamilton and Roberts are hitters who should avoid fly balls at all cost. Friend of the program Mike Petriello found the air-ball revolution rewards hard contact.

But even in the extreme cases of Roberts and Hamilton, Latta sees untapped potential that could be unlocked through more efficient swings. They are cited as extreme examples, as Latta maintains that some critical hitting philosophies apply to all hitters.

“I imagine Billy Hamilton hitting .325,” Latta said. “I’m not telling him to adopt a swing that results in lazy fly balls, or an overswing to create exit velocity. Billy Hamilton gets more success with a swing that can control the zone, that can better and more effectively handle changes in velocity and to stay on offspeed pitches.

“The idea of swinging down on the ball, it needs to go away forever.”

I have known Latta since 2013, when I wrote about Marlon Byrd’s dramatic swing change and air-ball increase while I was covering the Pirates for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I spoke to Latta again in January about the possibility of an air-ball revolution gaining traction. Latta brought up the extreme profiles of Roberts and Hamilton last week because he was frustrated about some of the talk about the air-ball revolution, specifically who it might and might not fit, and he had wanted to make a point.

Latta believes there’s too much focus on results, too much talk of exit velocity and launch angle, and not enough focus on the actual process, the swing, that leads to results. He said exit-velocity and launch-angle readings are “immaterial” if they are not the products of an efficient swing. And to Latta, there are simply not enough professional and amateur hitters employing efficient swings.

“I think the biggest component being missed is looking at all these results stats,” Latta said of air-ball revolution talk. “Basically, the proper swing mechanics will always [give] a hitter a longer swing path in the zone through the pitch. What that will allow for is for increase in exit velocity, as a hitter can square up more pitches, and, depending where contact is made, can change launch angle. [The process] is also predicated on a hitter’s setup, making the right move first, and importantly, timing… Poor mechanics and body movements compromise timing.”

I am as guilty as anyone for scouring through Statcast batted-ball data for trends and meaning — and launch angle and exit velocity are useful measures of the present underlying skills of a hitter. But for research purposes, it is difficult, if not impossible, to filter optimal swings out for suboptimal ones.

Latta coaches all types of players, from lower-level amateurs to current major leaguers. He said that focusing on just, say, exit velocity can lead to poor habits and mechanics. He’s troubled by amateur hitting combines that have hitters try to produce maximum exit velocity when hitting off a tee.

“I love the idea of quantifying [the swing],” Latta said. “But if everyone is thinking about exit velocity, guys are going to start overswinging, which is going to create bad body movement and breakdowns, inefficient swings that are not going to be consistent at the major-league level.”

Moreover, hitters might be trying to launch balls into the air but have a mechanical flaw in their swing producing, say, a high rate of infield pop ups.

Latta went deep into technical aspects of his hitting philosophy. If you’re curious to learn more, Latta created the following video:

But for the purposes of this post, to boil it down to its foundation, hitters are best served by adopting a swing that gets on plane with a pitch. We can also refer to that as a slight uppercut, since gravity and the elevation of the pitching mound force pitches to travel on a downward plane. To contact such a pitch squarely, a bat must follow a slightly upward plane.

Everyone likes line drives, and Latta believes an efficient swing produces more of them. There are always going to be ground balls hit, and Latta said an efficient swing will produce ground balls with greater exit velocity. Staying on plane with a pitch allows for a hitter to have greater chance for barrel contact and to adjust to velocity, compared to chopping down or a swing “around the body” that needs to reach a nearly perfect intersection point with a pitch.

Velocity is increasing and pitchers are throwing more spin. Latta says hitters must become more efficient, and he believes every hitter can benefit from these principles: even Roberts and Hamilton.

There are plenty of doubters to the idea of one-swing-fits all. There has been research done at FanGraphs about optimal launch angles for hitters. FiveThirtyEight’s Rob Arthur suggested increasing fly-ball percentage has helped as many batters as it has hurt.

Latta said isolating fly balls from line drives misrepresents the true data generated from the approach.

“When we talk about getting the ball in the air, we are talking about line drives as well as fly balls — anything that does not hit the ground first,” he said.

While he didn’t bring up J.D. Martinez by name, Martinez represents perhaps the best evidence to demonstrating that successfully adopting these swing concepts doesn’t necessarily result in a dramatic change to fly-ball rate. Over his first three major-league seasons with the Astros, Martinez never produced an isolated-slugging mark better than .149. He hit 31 homers over nearly 1,000 plate appearances. He wasn’t regarded as a power hitter. His GB/FB ratios weren’t dramatically different from his time in Detroit.

What is different, since re-thinking (articulated with spicy thoughts) and rebuilding his swing with the assistance of Wallenbrock, is the quality of his contact. He is more squarely connecting with pitches; he’s given his swing more margin for error.

While “Hard” contact is not a perfect performance measurement, Martinez’s rate was between 26.2% and 33.6% in Houston. It’s averaged 43% in Detroit.

Latta is not alone in these swing beliefs. When I covered the Pirates, then utility man Cole Figueroa — who was perhaps baseball’s top nerd, as Dave Cameron noted — characterized the ideal swing plane as a light uppercut back in 2015. He was influenced by Dr. Alan Nathan’s work. Figueroa was not talking about a fly-ball revolution or air-ball revolution; he was talking about how getting on plane with the pitch is optimal for many hitters. He’s now working in Tampa Bay’s front office.

“When you hear ‘level,’ you think the bat is level to the ground when really that is not the case,” Figueroa said. “The bat [should] actually be level to the direction of the ball.”

Latta said he does not want to sound like he has all the answers. He doesn’t — and he knows he doesn’t. But he does believe in an underlying principle of getting on plane with a pitch, and that it is the most efficient path for almost all hitters.

Latta might sound extreme, but maybe he has point. What he is certainly correct about is that, throughout generations, there has been much conformity in the game, and much resistance, in regard to a wide range of topics.

Said Latta: “I want people to think differently about hitting instruction throughout baseball.”

In this post, I am more of a messenger than an opinion generator, but I suspect Latta’s message carries some truth. And at its core it is this: an outcome is only as good as its process.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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He’s (Latta) a first ballot HOfer if he could get Hamilton even near 100 wrc+