Charlie Blackmon Revisits Launch Angle

Charlie Blackmon
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Charlie Blackmon is heading down the home stretch of what has been a productive career with the Colorado Rockies. A little more than a week away from his 37th birthday and in his 13th season with the club that drafted him out of Georgia Tech in 2008, the left-handed-hitting outfielder has stroked 1,646 hits, 572 of which have gone for extra bases. Boasting a .296 career batting average — Coors Field has certainly benefitted him — he topped the Senior Circuit in that department in 2017, when he hit .331. Only Todd Helton has played more games in a Rockies uniform.

Blackmon, who is currently on the injured list with a fractured hand, sat down to talk hitting when Colorado visited Boston earlier this month.

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David Laurila: Prior to the 2017 season, I talked to you and one of your then-teammates for a piece titled “Charlie Blackmon and Chris Denorfia on Launch Angles.” What are your thoughts on that subject six years later?

Charlie Blackmon: ”Yeah, so launch angle is something people were really excited about a little while ago. I think that’s a way to reverse engineer a really good hit or a home run, right? It’s taking a dataset and saying, ‘Guys have a higher slugging percentage when they hit the ball in the air,’ and then basically find out that 31 degrees is their optimal angle. I mean, it’s like taking something you already knew was good and saying, ‘Well, now I’m going to try to hit it 31 degrees.’

“Adding lift to your swing is going to put the ball in the air, but I didn’t really like how people were going about it. Now I’m seeing that change. I think where the game is from a pitching perspective, even compared to five years ago, is very different. If you look across the league, I would bet that the amount of strikes thrown in the upper third of the zone has more than doubled. I would say that 70% of the pitchers in the league consistently throw high fastballs, whereas it wasn’t long ago that everybody was trying to throw down and away. There has been a big shift in pitching philosophy and fastball-location philosophy in the past few years.”

Laurila: Have you not seen things starting to trend away from that a little?

Blackmon: “No.”

Laurila: A few guys have told me they have.

Blackmon: “Well, I think what we’re seeing is that everyone understands that it’s very effective to throw high fastballs, to where it’s now almost average. For that reason, some teams are looking for guys that do something really far away from average. A sinker down is still a great pitch, and it’s probably even a little better now, because most guys are throwing high fastballs, right? It’s more contrasting to a high fastball.”

Laurila: How does your swing play into that equation?

Blackmon: “My swing was naturally kind of dialed to hitting balls down in the zone. That’s where most pitches were thrown 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Like, when I pitched in high school and college and as a kid, you always practiced throwing pitches at the bottom of the zone. And I think that’s just wrong now. Right? You’re not seeing much of that.

“Out of sheer number of swings, I think I’ve taken more swing on pitches down than up. I’m just better at swinging at the ball down in the zone. But now, having almost all fastballs being up, you’ve got to adjust. You’ve got to change your swing. Hitting a fastball up in the zone takes a flatter swing. There’s less launch angle; there’s less lift in your swing. It’s going to be steeper, and you’re going to hit more balls at a lower launch angle.”

Laurila: What adjustments have you made toward that end?

Blackmon: “Well, you’ve got to practice hitting high fastballs, right? So basically, my swing is steeper with a shallower launch angle than it used to be. My hand path, my bat path… if you start underneath it and work up, it’s really hard to get there because it takes a longer path to get there. It’s much easier to get to a pitch up in the zone by staying up above it and getting to it more directly.

“Fastballs up in the zone have a faster perceived velocity, so you have to get there the shortest way, which is a direct path, which is usually a very steep or direct angle. You don’t have time to get down under, come up, and beat it out front to lift the high pitch.”

Laurila: When we talked six years ago, you said that you don’t want to hit the ball on the ground.

Blackmon: “Correct. Hitting the ball on the ground is still an out, by and large.”

Laurila: Your ground-ball rate has always been a little on the high side (40.7% for his career). Why is that?

Blackmon: “Well, I think big league pitchers are trying to get me to hit ground balls, because ground balls don’t go over the fence, and ground balls usually aren’t extra-base hits. I mean, I’m not trying to hit the ball in the ground.”

Laurila: Pitchers are also looking to get above your bat with elevated fastballs.

Blackmon: “Right. I’d rather hit the ball in the air than on the ground, but I’d also rather hit a hard one-hopper than a straight fly ball. I’m trying to cover as much x-axis as I can in a short amount of time, right?”

Laurila: Have you ever tried to hit for power?

Blackmon: “Yes, but I’ve tried to do it selectively. There are times to aggressively push for extra bases and slug, pitch to pitch, count to count, pitcher to pitcher. There are some guys where if I go out there and try to hit a homer, I’m going to strike out; I need to just put the ball in play and maybe get a single. And then there are some guys or some counts where I’m going to try to juice this ball. Having a good feel for when is the right time to be aggressive and when is the right time to maybe back off a little bit is a big part of hitting.”

Laurila: Thinking back to your formative days, how did you “learn to hit”?

Blackmon: “As a kid growing up, hand-eye coordination… ultimately it’s a hand-eye-coordination game, right? You have good hand-eye coordination and then you practice your swing. So it’s hand-eye coordination initially, and then it becomes repeatability of your swing, like muscle memory. But anybody can do that. The third and most difficult part is the mindset, the mental process and mental development.

“There are a lot of guys who can practice something and have a good swing, and they also have pretty good hand-eye coordination, and you develop that by taking more swings. But I think the hard part is making your decisions, performing under pressure, making adjustments to different things you see, like a cutter rather than a slider. That’s what makes baseball so hard.”

Laurila: Which of your stats do you most care about?

Blackmon: “I’m a big OPS guy. That’s a perfect blend of on-base skills and slugging skills. Make no mistake, on-base is really cool, and it’s a very hard skill, but the slug is what scores points. Slugging and RBIs are usually tied together. That’s what makes the world go around. That’s what gets you paid.”

Laurila: Any final thoughts on hitting?

Blackmon: “Where is hitting going in the future? We have all these pitch labs, and there is a lot of data that can help quantify what’s good, what’s hard to hit, from a pitching standpoint. Conversely, the only thing we really have right now from a hitting standpoint is exit velocity and launch angles. There is some stuff I’d like to see, such as the time from when a bat starts moving forward to the time it makes contact.”

Laurila: How does that differ from bat speed?

Blackmon: “It’s very different than bat speed. It’s like a 747 racing a Porsche over 100 yards. The 747 is ultimately going to go way faster, but the Porsche is going to get there just like that. I mean, the bat speed will help determine how far the ball will go, but the most important thing is to be a good hitter first. Efficiency to the ball and being able to make your decisions a little bit later… I would bet that Luis Arraez has a very fast time to impact from when he starts moving his bat toward the ball. I’d bet that time, if you can quantify it, is way shorter than it is for Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton is going to hit the ball way farther, but Arraez is going to hit .400 and likely be the more productive player. Which one would you rather have?”

Laurila: You said earlier that you value slugging over on-base.

Blackmon: “You want both, right?”

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Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Jo Adell, Jeff Albert, Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Alex Bregman, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, JJ Bleday, Bobby Bradley, Will Brennan, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Gavin Cross, Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Josh Donaldson, Brendan Donovan, Donnie Ecker, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Justin Foscue, Michael Fransoso, Ryan Fuller, Joey Gallo, Paul Goldschmidt, Devlin Granberg, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Robert Hassell III, Nico Hoerner, Rhys Hoskins, Eric Hosmer, Tim Hyers, Connor Joe, Josh Jung, Jimmy Kerr, Heston Kjerstad, Steven Kwan, Trevor Larnach, Doug Latta, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Dave Magadan, Trey Mancini, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Hunter Mense, Owen Miller, Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Daniel Murphy, Lars Nootbaar, Logan O’Hoppe, Vinnie Pasquantino, Luke Raley, Brent Rooker, Drew Saylor, Giancarlo Stanton, Spencer Steer, Trevor Story, Fernando Tatis Jr., Spencer Torkelson, Mark Trumbo, Justin Turner, Trea Turner, Josh VanMeter, Robert Van Scoyoc, Chris Valaika, Zac Veen, Alex Verdugo, Mark Vientos, Matt Vierling, Luke Voit, Anthony Volpe, Joey Votto, Christian Walker, Jared Walsh, Jordan Westburg, Jesse Winker, Mike Yastrzemski, Nick Yorke, Kevin Youkilis





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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DLHughey
9 months ago

This was a great sequel to the original interview, I really appreciated you getting him to articulate that 747/Porche analogy.