Another Way to Lift the Ball Better

We’ve talked (a lot, maybe) about lifting the ball more here, and so far the discussion has revolved around hands, legs, and intent — the mechanics of the swing, more or less. There’s another way to lift the ball better, though, one that hasn’t been addressed here: swinging at better pitches. That’s what Kevin Pillar has focused on, and his story offers another look into the effort to hit the ball over the shift.

The idea first occurred to me while reading Jane Lee’s excellent discussion with Oakland hitting coach Darren Bush about the breakout of Yonder Alonso. Here’s something Bush said that caught my eye:

“Making a physical adjustment against the best pitchers in the world is difficult to do, but there’s only a couple of things you can control, and one of them is the pitch you swing at… Trust who you are, trust your swing and swing at pitches you can handle.”

Pillar came to the same realization while reading this very site. “To be honest, you’ll talk to other people in here and they’ll make a conscious effort to think about their launch angle. I’m just trying to hit the ball hard,” he said. “FanGraphs is the reason I wanted to make a lot of changes.”

“I went on and did some homework on myself, and I realized that I was in the top 20 or whatever last year for hard-hit balls, but I was also fourth in the league in soft contact,” Pillar continued. “That led me to think. A lot of that had to do with swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone.”

Considering that Pillar is focusing on hitting it hard, he’s right to focus on hitting balls within the strike zone. Here is how balls in play fared off the bats of the league’s righties, binned by location in the strike zone.

But while Pillar is hitting the ball harder, he’s also lifting the ball more this year.

Kevin Pillar’s Balls in Play
Year Exit Velo % Barrels Average Launch Angle
2016 86.1 3.0% 10.4
2017 86.8 5.9% 12.2
SOURCE: Statcast
Barrels defined here.

Again, he can thank his pitch selection. “You have to go up there with a plan, you have to try to hit the ball hard,” said Pillar. “The soft hits are going to come, the bloopers off the end of the bat, that’s not something you go up there looking for.” That means narrowing the strike zone to pitches you can drive.

And conventional wisdom was right: those pitches are near the top of the zone. Here is this year’s launch angle off right-handers’ bats, binned by location in the strike zone. If you’d like to poke around with an interactive version, it’s over at Tableau Public. You’ll notice that dark orange is where it goes from ideal launch angles into the 40-plus-degree angles that are mostly outs. In general, the best place to lift the ball is the third of the plate from right under the belt to right over it.

The higher angles come from pitches higher in the zone. This might be somewhat obscured by the fact that we are representing a three-dimensional space (the strike zone) in a two-dimensional way. When Andy Haines, the roving instructor for the Cubs, told me this spring that “we know that most of the damage is done out in front of the plate,” he might be pointing out that the red exit-velo and launch-angle combos that look like they are on top of the plate in this map are actually high and out in front of the plate.

The lesson is still there to be learned: as much as mechanics matter, approach does as well. You can see that, in 2017 (right), Pillar has swung less often at fastballs low and in, but also in off the plate. He’s swung four percentage points less often at pitches outside the zone. These are pitches that don’t usually produce good exit velo or launch angle.

When Pillar was talking about his influence on a young Ryon Healy, he did point out that he has adjusted some of his mechanics due to the people around him. “I got here quicker and have been able to sit in the big-league clubhouse and talk to big-league hitters about what they think about hitting,” the Blue Jay pointed out. “I’m not going to be one to sit here and talk about launch angles and preach that, but I did try to get him to swing and see the swing a little differently, because a slight uppercut is actually flat because the ball is coming down — even the fastball, because you’re throwing from the mound, and obviously any breaking ball has some depth to it. You want to match the plane of the ball.”

But for Pillar, personal growth was going to come from selectivity. He spent as much of his offseason as he could working on it (“I can set up a pitch machine, but everything changes in the game when the ball starts spinning and moving”), but this spring training was huge. Not only because he got the chance to be selective against live pitching, but because his team affirmed his decision. “They came to me and told me we don’t care about what you hit or how much you hit, you’re going to tell us every time, this is what I’m looking for, and if I don’t get it, I don’t swing,” Pillar said of his team staff. “I found some comfort in that.”

He also found comfort in knowing that he will play every day, which is the secret ingredient behind the fact that players swing less as they age. “You know you’re a little bit more secure, you’re going to get your 600 at-bats,” agreed Pillar. “I go up there and face a reliever and I’m feeling good and confident and he makes pitches, I’m not going to just try to put that ball in play because I need a hit.”

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Francis C.
6 years ago

If you do a side by side 2016/2017 swing% for Justin Smoak, you will see a similar tightening of the swing zone. Though the goal was not to create more flyballs, but to reduce the strikeouts and make more contact.

6 years ago
Reply to  Francis C.

It’s interesting that when players cut down their strikeout rate, their overall production usually goes up as a result of more contact. At the same time, strikeouts are being less and less seen as a detriment to a hitter’s value. I wonder if we’ll soon see a swing back in the other direction where teams value low K hitters more than they currently do.

Travis Lmember
6 years ago
Reply to  bampton

Higher Ks are alright because they come with power. High K players without power are weeded out and don’t make the higher levels of MiLB.

If a player can cut his K rate and keep power, then eventually they become peak Pujols.

Lowering your K rate but sacrificing power is a fine line before a player loses too much value to have a roster spot.

What teams should value: value. That’s why we normalize with wRC+, WAR, etc. If they think the market is undervaluing a specific skillset that contributes to a generalized WAR framework because their model is different, or they believe the WAR model systematically undervalues a component statistic, or because new data comes online, that’s Moneyball.

6 years ago
Reply to  Francis C.