Could Ichiro Have Been a Power Hitter?

When asked recently about his post-retirement plans, the fabulous Ichiro Suzuki provided a response as memorable as his career: “I think I’ll just die,” he told Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald. It’s possible that he might just play forever. So it’s premature to call this remarkable at-bat in Seattle on April 19th his last in Seattle, as many did when it occurred.

But it does remind us of another great response Ichiro provided — one that gave life to the idea that he would be a great Home Run Derby entrant. “If I’m allowed to hit .220, I could probably hit 40 [homers],” he told Bob Nightengale back in 2007. “But nobody wants that.”

Ben Lindbergh once looked at the hypothetical shift in Ichiro’s outcomes if the player had attempted to hit for power, but now that we have even better batted-ball data, we can maybe take a look and see if he could have even been that 40-homer hitter at all.

Take a look at Ichiro’s batted balls last year, plotted by exit velocity and launch angle. See how his best contact clusters near zero to 10 degrees?

Last year, Ichiro hit two ground balls for every fly ball, good for top 30 among those batters who stepped to the plate at least 350 times. To get a sense of what that means in context, let’s compare his batted balls to someone on the other end of the spectrum. Here’s Ryan Schimpf, among one of the most extreme fly-ball hitters of all time.

Now we see a peak exit velocity around 30 degrees. This reflects the reality that Schimpf has fashioned a swing that produces the best contact in the higher angles. He’s a power-hitting, going-for-homers type, and the best angles for home runs are between 20 and 30 degrees. It looks like his approach fits his desired outcome and his own unique peak angles.

But as much as it describes him as a very different batter than Ichiro, it doesn’t answer the question completely. Given the fact that Schimpf is younger, it’s not crazy to think his elder had even better exit velocities during his own peak. If true, does that mean Ichiro could he have simply forced his peak exit-velo curve to the right, to look more like Schimpf’s? If he were hitting 105 mph regularly, Ichiro could have compiled a lot of home runs just by getting the ball in the air more.

In other words: is a player’s ideal swing an innate, fixed thing? Or could almost any hitter benefit from the push to elevate and hit more fly balls? Joey Votto seemed to suggest this weekend that batters should focus on finding their own best swing and not chase trends when he talked to Zach Buchanan about the fly-ball movement.

“Where I get concerned is the guys that make this attempt and burn out too much of their time and don’t get a chance to be their best selves, and either don’t make it to the big leagues or don’t perform their best in the big leagues because they’re always attempting this new style of hitting,” Votto said. “I see it with a lot of guys. Everyone tells the good stories, but there’s a lot of s—ty stories of guys who are wasting their time trying things.”

Maybe there’s a way to answer this question with year-to-year correlations. We could see if the angle at which a batter produces his peak exit velocities is “sticky” from year to year. That would probably be better done with more years than the mere two on our ledger, though.

In the absence of more complete data, however, we can at least look at a couple hitters who have shifted their launch angles and discovered more power. If they simply shifted the amount of balls hit in a specific angle range, but their peak exit velocities were still achieved in the same ranges, then there’s an argument that they perhaps shifted the distribution of balls to better fit their own unique swing.

We’re in the midst of watching Yonder Alonso attempt to join Team Elevate. We won’t have a ton of data for this year, but let’s look at this anyway. First comes 2016, and then this year.

This chart looks like a lot like Ichiro’s above. It has that peak near zero, but it doesn’t fall off as quickly when you follow the angles away from that peak. Still, it looks like a ground-ball hitter — and it belonged to a guy that hit 1.3 ground balls per fly ball. This year, however, he’s hitting 0.6 ground balls per fly ball.

So, there are obviously fewer data points here — and let’s not put too much weight on that peak dot out by the 30-degree-angle mark. It’s clear that Alonso has shifted the distribution, but we don’t know that much about his peak-exit-velocity launch angles right now.

So let’s instead look at another player who’s elevating and showing more power for it. Jeff Sullivan just looked at Elvis Andrus, so let’s ask his data if he changed his swing plane completely, or just changed his batted-ball distribution to fit his natural power angles better.

This is Andrus in 2015, when he was in the process of adding a leg kick that added power. There’s a peak range between zero and 10 degrees, and really mostly zero to five. Let’s compare to his 2016, when he was employing that kick to great results.

Seems clear that the peak velocity range for Andrus is still in that zero- to five-degree band. It looks like he’s still got the same peak-exit-velo range, but that he’s just moved the distribution of his batted balls so that he’s hitting fewer ground balls with poor outcomes. His average launch angle didn’t even change that much, from 8.1 degrees in 2015 to 8.6 in 2016, but it’s clear the distribution changed a bit.

If this is true — and it requires more research to know if it is indeed true — there might be ramifications for players in the midst of joining Team Elevate. Alonso should perhaps take note. If his peak-exit-velocity range is still zero to 10 degrees, and he’s just switched his average launch angle from 10 degrees to 20 degrees, he may be shooting himself in the foot a bit. He’ll be hitting fewer balls in his ideal range, at least. His change may be too radical.

Baseball seems to have assumed that ideal launch angle had something to do with desired outcomes. You hit a ground ball and hit it softly if you’re Billy Hamilton and you want infield singles. You elevate if you’re Jose Bautista, looking for home runs. Somewhere in between there’s an ideal angle for line drives and home runs that has something to do with your size and weight and speed.

But this look suggests that players may have their own ideal launch angles based on where their own exit velocity peaks. Maybe Ichiro was right never to try lifting the ball more.

Thanks to Andrew Perpetua for the data collection.

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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5 years ago

“Chicks who dig home runs aren’t the ones who appeal to me. I think there’s sexiness in infield hits because they require technique. I’d rather impress the chicks with my technique than with my brute strength. Then, every now and then, just to show I can do that, too, I might flirt a little by hitting one out.”

– Ichiro

5 years ago
Reply to  JS7

Technique vs size, most men think the latter is more important:)

5 years ago
Reply to  Dominikk85

Actually, men think it’s more the former; women think it’s more the latter.

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
5 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Better to just be safe and have both.