Launch Angle, Matt Duffy, and Potential Power Surges

We have launch angle for all batted balls last year! We’re still in the infancy of Statcast, and there have been some wiggles in the wobble so far, but with the new update to Baseball Savant, it looks like we can search all batted balls for launch angle. I’m giddy.

This should give us the chance to all sorts of great things later, but for now I’ll do something relatively simple that’s relevant to the newest big slugger in the game, Matt Duffy. We all knew he’d bust out like this, and now we know why.

Turn back to Alan Nathan’s excellent post on the long ball yesterday at The Hardball Times. It’s full of nerdy goodness, but there’s also a fun little factoid that runs through most of his analysis: the ideal launch angle for a home run is between 25 and 30 degrees. Given a certain exit velocity, that range is where distance on a batted ball peaks:


We can search for all balls that were hit between those degrees last year, now. Let’s set the exit velocity floor at 95 in that angle band first, since this chart from Nathan’s piece suggests that 95 mph and 25 degrees is when you start trotting around the bases. The list is full of the guys you would expect. People who hit the ball hard at the right angle get home runs. On the news at eleven.

95+ MPH Balls in Play in Ideal Launch Angle Leaders
Rk. Player Results Total Balls in Play % of BIP
1 J.D. Martinez 32 421 7.6%
2 Brandon Crawford 26 392 6.6%
3 Jose Bautista 28 445 6.3%
4 Paul Goldschmidt 25 422 5.9%
5 David Ortiz 26 441 5.9%
6 Bryce Harper 23 394 5.8%
7 Chris Davis 21 370 5.7%
8 Mike Trout 21 422 5.0%
SOURCE: Statcast
Minimum 20 balls in play in 2015.

It’s interesting to see J.D. Martinez do so well, maybe. He famously saw that other sluggers hit the ball in the air more and changed his swing to add more loft to it. And then after that famous case, you’ve got a bunch of sluggers and a breakout shortstop. This is how you power.

But let’s consider the guys who don’t hit it quite as hard. Let’s look at the batters last year who hit the most balls at that angle, no matter the velocity. The idea is that they — if only they added just a little more oomph, a little more velocity to their bat — they would cash in on their current ideal-for-power launch angle. This, like above, is percentage of balls in play in the ideal launch angle.

Percent of Balls in Play in Ideal Launch Angle Leaders
Rk. Player Results Total Balls in Play % of BIP
1 J.D. Martinez 48 421 11.4%
2 Brandon Belt 33 349 9.5%
3 Paul Goldschmidt 39 422 9.2%
4 Brandon Crawford 36 392 9.2%
5 Bryce Harper 35 394 8.9%
6 Jose Bautista 38 445 8.5%
7 Kyle Seager 45 529 8.5%
8 Matt Carpenter 35 427 8.2%
9 Jay Bruce 36 440 8.2%
10 Matt Duffy 39 480 8.1%
11 Chase Headley 36 448 8.0%
12 Ian Kinsler 44 549 8.0%
13 Angel Pagan 34 425 8.0%
14 Adrian Gonzalez 37 464 8.0%
15 David Ortiz 35 441 7.9%
16 Mike Trout 33 422 7.8%
17 Joey Votto 32 411 7.8%
18 Evan Longoria 37 481 7.7%
19 Josh Donaldson 38 499 7.6%
20 Logan Forsythe 33 435 7.6%
21 Ender Inciarte 35 473 7.4%
22 Brian Dozier 36 488 7.4%
23 Daniel Murphy 34 466 7.3%
24 Neil Walker 32 441 7.3%
25 Mookie Betts 38 524 7.3%
26 Curtis Granderson 31 431 7.2%
27 Albert Pujols 38 532 7.1%
28 Adrian Beltre 34 510 6.7%
29 Buster Posey 34 511 6.7%
30 Michael Brantley 32 483 6.6%
SOURCE: Statcast
Minimum 30 balls in play in 2015.

I’ve highlighted some interesting names for you. The non-highlighted names are mostly veterans and mostly power sluggers. But the highlighted ones? They’ve either recently broken out, power-wise, or are young enough that you can believe that they may break out in the future.

Hello Giants! Finding five giants among the top 40 suggests that “Bam-Bam” Hensley Meulens is doing his job as the hitting coach. But while J.D. Martinez averaged 95 mph on balls in this launch angle last season — kinda making him the ideal power hitter — and Brandon Belt (94.45) and Brandon Crawford (94.64) both hit the ball harder, Duffy lagged behind.

Duffy’s 87.56 mph average on balls in this launch angle sits better in a group with Ian Kinsler (88.3), Nick Markakis (87.83), and even Michael Brantley (89.12). At least it’s better than Angel Pagan (84.75) and Ender Inciarte (83.5). There’s a decent range of outcomes here for Duffy, and if he can even push it to Buster Posey (92.32) level, then there’s another 10 homers in that bat.

The point is, Matt Duffy doesn’t need to undergo the transformation that made J.D. Martinez who he is today. He has the swing already. What he needs is to fill out, to get yoked, to add muscle, which is directly related to bat speed. That will give him exit velocity to take better advantage of his good swing plane.

The even better news is that Duffy realized this, planning to add weight going into this season. And the tools exist — Zepp just released a new version of their bat sensor which tracks bat path, bat speed, hand speed, and time to impact. I tried the thing, and even though I had a pitiful 42 mph bat speed, I was happy to discover the training videos that used proven weighted bat protocols to help increase my bat speed.

Hey, if I had a 25-30 degree natural angle on my swing, and all day every day in order to increase bat speed, maybe I, too, could hit 20 home runs in the major leagues some day. Hah. Not bloody likely. I’m no Matt Duffy.

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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8 years ago

Eno – great article. Really enjoyed it. Have you found an actual correlation between strength and bat speed? For instance, Adrian Gonzalez has plus plus strength but averagish bat speed. And Betts has plus plus bat speed with fair strength. If Duffy got stronger in the weight room, while he’d come onto more power, I’m not sure his bat speed would increase.

8 years ago
Reply to  415

It’s really more genetics than anything. Every human is genetically pre-disposed to have a certain ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch fibers in their muscle mass. With the correct training you could maximize the use of all of your fast-twitch to have more explosive speed.

Obviously having a larger muscle mass would allow for more power to be applied with the same amount of speed.

Likewise, Adrian Gonzalez may be genetically pre-disposed to maintain more muscle mass than Betts, so no matter how much Betts trains he might not ever reach the raw strength totals of Gonzalez, but his bat speed could make up for it and allow him to hit just as many HRs in a season.