You could almost be convinced that hitting is easy. Or, at least, you could almost be convinced that getting better at hitting is easy. What can a hitter do to improve in this day and age? Aim up. Try to hit the ball in the air. Elevate and celebrate, and everything. So much contemporary analysis is built around identifying a player or players who are hitting more fly balls than they used to. And, without question, for some players, this has been the key. For some players, aiming up has unlocked potential that could never get out. Especially in the era of aggressive infield shifts, a ball in the air is more valuable than a ball on the ground.
But the important equation isn’t so simple. We went through the opposite of this 10 or 15 years ago. There was a time when we all fell in love with ground-ball pitchers, because, after all, grounders can’t be homers. But there are processes that lead to someone getting grounders, and there are processes that lead to someone getting flies, and fly-ball pitchers have their own upsides. Moving to the present, with hitters, it’s not about whether a fly is better than a grounder. It’s about the swing. What specific kind of swing can allow a hitter to become his best self, overall?
The answer isn’t the same for everyone. The answer could never be the same for everyone. Some hitters, for sure, have gotten better by steepening their swing paths. Kyle Schwarber and Joc Pederson are two hitters attempting the opposite.
Neither Schwarber nor Pederson has been bad, by any means. Last season, Schwarber produced a 102 wRC+, while Pederson clocked in at an even 100. Previously, both hitters had been even better, so the skill levels have been obvious. Yet a certain amount of frustration has mounted. Schwarber only scraped a far higher ceiling. Pederson, too. Both of these guys have been considered works in progress. They are both still just in their mid-20s.
I’ve been playing with launch-angle data lately. Instead of just looking at the overall average, I’ve taken to looking at the average launch angle for balls hit at least 95 miles per hour. This eliminates the bad contact, which is sort of “accidental” contact. What’s left is the good contact, the square contact. By looking at the good-contact launch angles, I think you can get an idea of any given player’s swing path. The best contact should reflect the path. I know that selecting 95 is arbitrary — I could’ve gone with 90 or 100 — but I don’t think it should make that big a difference.
As per usual, I like to compare this year to last year. I’m in the business of hunting for changes. There’s a strong relationship, overall, between 2017 good-contact launch angles and 2018 good-contact launch angles. We’ve got an R2 value of 0.5. There are some notable big increases — Charlie Blackmon is up ten degrees. Gregory Polanco and Mitch Haniger are up more than eight degrees. Mookie Betts is up more than seven degrees. This could reflect more aggressive swinging for flies and liners. That’s the theory, at least.
At the other end, Pederson is down more than ten degrees. Schwarber is down more than nine degrees. They have two of baseball’s three biggest decreases. Compared to the past, Joc Pederson and Kyle Schwarber are trying to hit the ball on more of a level plane. That might seem somewhat counter-intuitive, given how strong the both of them are, but baseball principles don’t apply to everyone the same. Schwarber and Pederson are trying to find their most effective, consistent swings. Schwarber’s wRC+ is way up, and his strikeouts are down. Pederson, too, has improved his wRC+, while eliminating strikeouts. It remains very, very early, but it’s hard to argue with what they’ve accomplished.
Schwarber made a key change this year, a change prompted in part by the emphasis from manager Joe Maddon in spring training to his hitters to worry less about launch angle and more about a level path and using the whole field.
Here’s a screenshot of Schwarber from 2017:
And here’s a screenshot of Schwarber from 2018:
We don’t really have a good way of examining bat paths with the regular TV feeds. Swings just move too quickly, and we don’t have the necessary cameras or resolution. That’s where batted-ball stats and Statcast metrics come in handy. But even here, you can see how Schwarber has adjusted. It’s subtle, but in 2018, Schwarber has raised his hands. He’s trying to start his swing from a higher point, so he doesn’t end up swinging up so much. The idea, as Verducci writes, is so that Schwarber can’t be so easily exploited up in the zone. Coincidentally, Pederson has done something similar. Here’s 2017:
And here’s 2018:
Pederson’s hands are now higher, and not so tucked in to his chest. Additionally, Pederson is less upright, dropping lower on his back leg to get more compact. It’s worth noting that Pederson has also dramatically cut his swing rate — there’s a lot here going on, for a player whose playing time has been threatened. But Corey Seager’s injury has re-opened the door, with Chris Taylor moving to short, and in the early going the Dodgers have liked what they’ve seen from Pederson’s swing.
It’s not that Schwarber and Pederson are definitely better. We don’t know that yet. There’s a whole season to play. It’s also not that Schwarber and Pederson want to hit more ground balls. If they had their way, they’d hit everything at an angle around 25 degrees. But, previously, both Schwarber and Pederson had their weak spots. Their swings could get too big, and out of control. Now they’re looking to be more level, not because they want the extra grounders, but because the benefits could outweigh the costs. It’s possible that, with more level swings, Schwarber and Pederson will both achieve a greater amount of zone coverage. Maybe it won’t work in the end, but it should at least be acknowledged. In this time and place when more and more hitters are thinking about lifting their angles, there are some players who might benefit from doing the opposite. All this is is a game of trial and error.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.