Updating the Language of Hitting

We’ve written about a possible sea change in baseball over the last few years here, using phrases like “point of contact” and “attack angle” to better articulate the emergence of a Fly-Ball Revolution, itself another relatively new expression. Add those phrases to all the ones we’ve been compelled to learn for the benefit of Statcast alone — terms like “launch angle,” “exit velocity,” “spin rate,” etc. — and it’s obvious that our baseball dictionaries are getting an update on the fly.

Simply because we’re using a new lexicon, however, doesn’t mean we’re using it correctly — or, at the very least, that some of our assumptions couldn’t benefit from an update, as well.

With that in mind, I decided to examine some of the most notable and commonly used terms in this new language of hitting. With the help of the players themselves, perhaps we can better see what lies beneath each of them and attempt to reach something closer to a common understanding.

Fly-Ball Revolution

“I wish you wouldn’t call it the ‘fly-ball revolution,'” Daniel Murphy told me earlier in the year. “Coaches then think we’re talking about hitting the ball straight into the air. Call it the ‘high-line-drive revolution.'”

I’m not sure that Murphy’s version has the same marketability, but the Nationals second baseman has a point. The average launch angle on a “fly ball” as designated by MLB stringers is 36.6 degrees. The ideal launch angles for home runs are the ones between 22 and 35 degrees. In fact, at 37 degrees, there’s a lurch downward in home-run probability. Take a look at just the probability of a home run by angle, with 37 degrees highlighted in red.

Even Yonder Alonso, who changed his launch angle more than anyone this offseason — and may have even taken it a bit far — prefers not to think of his approach in terms of trying to hit fly balls. When I spoke to him this spring, he suggested he hoped to “get it in the air” and “get it over the second baseman’s head instead of at him.”

Maybe Adam Dunn was right when he said to “hit home runs [and] line drives will follow.

Launch Angle

The idea of launch angle is important — without lift, that 100 mph ball in play can easily find glove. But as a concept that’s actively helpful for baseball players… maybe not so much.

“I don’t think about launch angle,” said recently minted D-back J.D. Martinez to me before a game. “Everyone says I’m a big launch-angle guy. I believe in it, but that’s not what my mindset is. I don’t think I’m going to get my launch angle.”

Khris Davis recently said almost the exact same thing, and it’s a comment I’ve heard echoed by many players. Lifting the ball is important, sure, but thinking of it in terms of launch angle, specifically, seems rare.

And this isn’t just because the latter term belongs to the nerd lexicon while the former is more commonly used by players and coaches. The preference to avoid thinking of launch angle specifically seems to be about the mechanism to getting there.

Talking about launch angle makes the focus on the mechanics of the swing. And surely that’s a way to lift the ball, but there’s an easier way. “The pitch dictates the launch angle,” Martinez says. “Everyone wants to dictate the launch angle. The pitch dictates that. You want the ball up. The balls down are harder to lift.”

We’ve illustrated this before in the form of a heat map, but let’s bin the pitches this time in thirds to show the average launch angle by pitch location.

Launch Angle by Pitch Location
Zone Average Launch Angle
Top Third 19.5
Middle Third 12.7
Bottom Third 6.0
SOURCE: Statcast

So, sometimes, when you’re talking about raising your launch angle, you’re really talking about swinging at better pitches.

Going to Get the Ball

Another way to lift the ball is to move the contact point of the swing further forward. As Justin Turner said in 2015: “Go get the ball.”

But the reason it took me so long to understand what Turner meant is locked into that phrase. “I wouldn’t saying ‘going and getting it’ because I don’t like to use that term,” said Martinez, “I like to say, ‘catch it earlier.'”

It may seem like a distinction without a difference, but this sort of thing is important when it comes to coaching. Going and getting the ball may sound like an aggressive, pull-happy approach. There’s something to that. As A’s exit velocity king Davis told me last week, “I gotta live off of aggression.”

But that’s not the whole story. “When you say ‘going and getting it,’ it sounds like you’re jumping at the ball, attacking the ball. You do want the ball to come to you, but you want to catch it a tick early,” said Martinez. “I always want to hit the ball on my front foot, but if I think about letting it travel a bit, it gives me more of a chance to react.”

Swing Cue

Hidden in that last statement from Martinez is the reason that all of our terms are so important. The way a hitter thinks about his actions affects how he performs those actions.

We’ve gone away from cues like ‘be short to the ball’ because that’s not necessarily what’s best in sum. “If you’re swinging directly to the ball, from hands to ball, then you’re aiming for a small slice, and it’s easy to pop the ball up or miss,” Martinez pointed out. Brandon Moss said in 2015 that “if you don’t hit it right, you clip it. It’s on the ground, or it’s a foul out, or it’s a backspun fly ball which goes nowhere.”

Getting on the plane of the pitch is important, as Bryce Harper also pointed out in 2015 when he said, “If you look at the best swings in baseball, it’s through the baseball as long as you can.”

But just last year, Mark Trumbo had an amazing season, and often his cue to himself is to be quick to the ball. Kevin Youkilis pointed this out to me late last year, as well. “Nobody ever swings out to a specific point in space when they’re told to chop wood or swing down on the ball,” Youkilis said. “What actually happens is that they end up quicker to the ball.”

So there’s a difference between a swing cue and a swing philosophy. “There’s a difference between cues and swing ideas,” is how Martinez explained it to me. “I’ve gotten in arguments with hitting coaches on this. ‘Tell him to hit a line drive, not a fly ball.’ Why? All he does is hit line drives. Why not tell him to hit a fly ball? ‘Because he can’t think that.’ How does he know he can’t think that if he hasn’t tried it? When I think ‘hit fly balls,’ I get under it. But if my cue is to hit line drives so I can hit good fly balls, that’s fine. But that cue is not the same for everyone.”

In other words, you have to fit the language to the player. “I don’t try to lift the ball,” said Martinez. “I believe in lifting the ball, I want to lift the ball, but never in my life do I try to lift the ball. My swing, the one I’ve taught myself, naturally lifts the ball. So when I take a normal swing, my swing is meant to lift the ball. So if I go up there trying to lift the ball, then it’s like double lift, and it’s no good.”

Dodgers rookie Cody Bellinger can relate. “I have an uppercut, so if I work on the uppercut in the cage, it’ll be too big of an uppercut,” he explained earlier this year. “I work in the cage on leveling it and then, in the game, it’s an uppercut but not as big. You don’t want to overdo it.”

Getting the most out of a player is a difficult thing. It’s essential to tailor the advice to the player, of course. Tailor it too strictly, however, and there’s a chance of limiting his upside — something that may have happened to Andrelton Simmons.

While using certain terms to characterize hitting trends across baseball might be necessary for writers at FanGraphs, it might also obscure the truth when attempting to discuss the mechanics of an individual player in particular. Ryan Parker, who works with hitters, may have said it best: “Whatever the players want to call it is correct,” he wrote in an email. “I don’t say that to be lazy. I say that trying to emphasize how important it is that players come up with their own labels.”

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.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

i like this a lot. gives us, readers, an insight into the language of hitting used by the players themselves even when we are talking about the same ideas.