Wherever you sit along the spectrum of baseball observers, from newcomer through casual fan, diehard, junkie, nerd and professional, you are by no means obligated to care about Statcast. Publicly available numbers quantifying three-dimensional coordinates, velocity, spin rate, and more are now attached to everything this side of how often the third baseman adjusts his cup between pitches, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessary for you even to acknowledge their existence in order to enjoy what you’re watching. Nevertheless, some of us do get a kick out of the occasional peek at those numbers, not for their own sake but because they increase our understanding of the game — and of ourselves.
Somewhere along the way — in fact, even before Statcast itself arrived — I realized that I have a particular appreciation for what I have termed “launch angle porn.”
I’ll allow you that nervous giggle before you get your mind out of the gutter. This is, after all, a family site, and while others have gone down the road of documenting bodily functions within the national pastime, that’s not where I’m heading. The trajectories to which I refer concern the flight of baseballs, and more specifically, the visceral thrill of watching the beginning of a towering home run even amid the unending barrage of such hits and their resultant highlights. In that instant of contact between ball and bat, particularly when viewed on a two-dimensional screen of whatever size, we have no idea of the final distance that struck sphere will travel, and we can only infer its exit velocity in the roughest sense. After the sight and sound of contact — and particularly, the mellifluous melody of a ball hitting the sweet spot of a wooden bat — launch angle is the first feedback we get, quickly followed by a very excited play-by-play announcer and a slugger admiring his own handiwork. Consider these three examples, classics from the late 20th century by three of the most prolific home run hitters ever.
Here’s Reggie Jackson at the 1971 All-Star Game, hitting one off the Tiger Stadium transformer on the roof:
Here’s Ken Griffey Jr.’s career home run number 350, at the Kingdome, in 1998:
— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) September 25, 2019
And here’s Barry Bonds at Yankee Stadium in 2002:
You don’t even need an official estimate of distance to be impressed, because you can see how quickly that thing got up and away, right? Sometimes, even the cameras can’t contain these blasts.
Like “Moneyball” before it, the phrase “launch angle” has become a shorthand and something of a pejorative amid the seemingly endless and generally tedious battle between old-school baseball thought and new. Never mind the fact that Ted Williams himself was preaching the gospel of launch angle in his 1971 book The Science of Hitting when he emphasized that “the slight upswing is best.” While adjusting swing planes isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription to improvement as a hitter, we’ve seen enough journeymen turn themselves into above-average or even star-level players — generally at the next stop in their careers, after being carelessly discarded by their previous teams — by doing so, among them J.D. Martinez, Justin Turner, Chris Taylor, and Tommy La Stella.
It’s no secret that Max Muncy belongs on that short list, and by now you are almost certainly familiar with his basic arc as a former A’s prospect who, after being released by Oakland and spending a year and change woodshedding in Oklahoma City, emerged as one of the game’s most potent sluggers. Muncy’s total of 69 home runs since the start of the 2018 season is tied for 11th in the majors, while his 6.59% rate of homers per plate appearance ranks seventh among those with at least 300 plate appearances, and third if you raise the bar to 1,000 PA, a cutoff that feels somewhat uncharitable towards a couple more recent arrivals on the big league scene.
|15||Edwin Encarnación||3 Teams||1065||66||6.197%|
Speaking of arcs, on Tuesday night against the Padres in San Diego, Muncy did this against a rookie pitcher named Gerardo Reyes — did it with the bases loaded, no less:
One pitch, GRAND SLAM. pic.twitter.com/jMC8iG5XEz
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) September 25, 2019
“A majestic fly back to right, Renfroe’s out of room! GRAND SLAM that brings rain from Mad Max!” says a very excited Joe Davis in describing the shot. From the slightly off-center camera angle, the ball’s trajectory as it streaks out of the frame is almost exactly parallel to Muncy’s bat from the moment just before he plants his right foot and prepares to do damage:
Things do not always work out that way, of course, but when they do, that instant — one-fifth of a second, according to my Zapruder-like analysis — yields an aesthetically satisfying baseball equivalent of the golden ratio. We could stop there without even looking at the Statcast numbers and call it a day.
But being an, um, aficionado of launch angles and a happily employed baseball writer (as well as ex-graphic designer, if you’re wondering about that reference to the golden ratio), I did look at the numbers, which revealed that Muncy’s home run had a launch angle of 43 degrees. That’s not a record, but it is extraordinary. Of the 28,799 home runs hit from the start of the Statcast era 2015 through the close of play on Tuesday (er, early Wednesday), just 166 of them (0.5764%) had a launch angle of 43 degrees or more. An alarmingly similar percentage (0.5766%) — just 38 of this year’s record-setting total of 6,590 homers to that point — have been that steep.
Here is the launch angle leaderboard — launch angles on home runs, because I sure as hell don’t care about the reading if the ball didn’t get out — for this year, which alas Mad Max does not crack:
|Player||Team||Opp||Date||Exit Velo||Dist||Launch Angle||Link|
|Avisail García||Rays||Blue Jays||5/28/19||97.2||287||51||BOOM!|
|Renato Nunez||Orioles||Red Sox||7/20/19||105.8||364||48||BOOM!|
|Ronald Acuña Jr.||Braves||Cubs||6/25/19||110.0||413||46||BOOM!|
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||Padres||Giants||4/8/19||109.0||355||45||BOOM!|
|Franmil Reyes||Indians||Red Sox||8/13/19||103.5||350||45||BOOM!|
I’ve included links to the Baseball Savant video versions of each homer in part so that I don’t have to embed them all here, but a few are noteworthy enough to do so. First, it’s fair to consider Garcia’s 51-degree homer, which was actually an inside-the-park job, to be the product of Tropicana Field shenanigans and cross it off the official list. The shot’s estimated distance was less than 300 feet, and while it apparently didn’t hit either the C-Ring or D-Ring catwalks, which according to the ground rules are an automatic home run, Blue Jays right fielder Randal Grichuk lost track of the ball while gazing at the roof.
Alonso’s homer, for as towering as it was, appeared as though it didn’t even leave the field of play, but upon review, the umpires confirmed that it hit above Citi Field’s orange line:
The estimated distance on that one was just 364 feet, which brings up the larger point: homers with extreme launch angles tend not to go a long distance. Of the 166 with at least a 43-degree launch angle over the past five seasons, six of them did not have distance data, probably because their rapid, steep ascent screwed up Statcast. No matter; of the other 160, the average distance was just 358 feet; for the 37 with data from this year, the average was 362 feet.
That makes Acuña’s June 25 blast, which led off the Braves’ game at Wrigley Field, something special, for it’s rare that any of these soaring shots travels anywhere close to 400 feet:
For the five-year period, just four other homers have had launch angles of at least 43 degrees and distances of at least 400 feet
|Player||Team||Opp||Date||Exit Velo||Dist||Launch Angle|
|Ryan Schimpf||Padres||Red Sox||9/6/16||104.9||419||43|
|Ronald Acuña Jr.||Braves||Cubs||6/25/19||110.0||413||46|
|José Bautista||Blue Jays||Astros||6/5/15||107.8||406||43|
Schimpf you may recall as a slugger of extremes. He hit .217/.336/.533 with 20 homers in just 330 plate appearances as a rookie in 2016, that while striking out 31.8% of the time and averaging 31.5 degrees on his homers, fifth-highest in the majors that year among players with at least 10 homers. The next year, he slumped to .158/.284/.424 with 14 homers and a 35.5% strikeout rate, so his 30.9 degree average launch angle (16th in the majors) suggested more of a pathology than a performance.
Gordon homered a modest 17 times in 2016 but actually led the majors in average launch angle on those homers, at 32.4 degrees. He was 12th in 2015, the year in question, at 30.9 degrees on his 13 homers. I have to admit that this one certainly doesn’t look as though it should have a projected distance of 409 feet given that it’s just getting over the right field wall 330 feet away in Kauffman Stadium, but that’s what Baseball Savant claims.
Jose Bautista, averaged “only” 25.8 degrees on his 40 homers in 2015, but whoa, this one:
Finally here’s Gallo from earlier this year — you know, when he was healthy — and like the Gordon shot above, I’m skeptical, though given that the Kauffman Stadium measurement to left center is 387 feet, perhaps I shouldn’t be.
So, who are this year’s launch angle leaders? Here’s the top 10:
|Rk.||Player||Team||HR||Avg Launch Angle|
|5||Andrew Benintendi||Red Sox||13||31.9|
That’s a pretty random list of players, only one of whom reached 30 homers and only four of whom reached 20, suggesting that extreme launch angle proficiency is a tough act to sustain. Of this group, Hoskins is the only one who had a homer of at least 43 degrees (see above); he also had two of 41 degrees. Seager had two homers of at least 40 degrees, one on August 18 versus the Blue Jays and another on August 7 against the Padres:
Looking at the larger sample size, among players with at least 50 homers across the five-season Statcast period, Belt is the leader at 32.0 degrees, while Muncy is 13th, just below Hoskins, with Blackmon and Gallo joining the party as well:
|Rk||Player||HR||Avg Launch Angle|
Before dissecting this, let’s watch one that’s Belted — 42 degrees and 354 feet off the Reds’ Tyler Mahle on May 12 of this year. Not as steep as this 44-degree, 354-footer off the A’s Trevor Cahill from July 21 of last year, but more visually impressive thanks to the camera work, even if it does fall short of splashing into McCovey Cove.
The above rankings bear a greater resemblance to the overall leaderboard for the period, in that Goldschmidt (ninth overall), Dozier (13th), Blackmon (14th), Freeman (tied for 17th), Davis (20th), and Bryant (21st) all rank among the top 25 in total homers. Nelson Cruz, whose 203 homers lead for the Statcast era, averages “only” 26.6 degrees, and none of the rest of the most prolific sluggers — Nolan Arenado (199 homers, with a 29 degree average and a Coors Field-aided, 42-degree, 444-foot blast from 2015 that just missed my angle/distance cutoff above), Mike Trout (187, 27.7 degrees), Edwin Encarnación (185, 27.9 degrees), Martinez (183, 28.7 degrees), and Khris Davis (183, 27.9 degrees) — is particularly close to the ranks above.
You don’t need the numbers to enjoy all of this, but the spread I’ve laid out for this particular feast of maximum launch angles should illustrate that in conjunction with the plethora of clips available, the quantification is an aid in tracking down these titanic taters. Even as I complain about the oversaturation of home runs, I’ll admit that on this front, there’s never been a better time to be a baseball fan.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.