It’s no secret that there is an enormous amount of player data coming out of MLB these days. The Statcast system was installed in all 30 Major League ballparks beginning with the 2015 season and the data coming out of this system is already changing how coaches are preparing and working with players. It measures and records pretty much every single play from pitch velo, to exit speed, to hit distance and more. It even calculates the probability that an outfielder will make a specific play at a given distance to the ball. It’s great stuff. But, what does it all mean for baseball players?
For the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on the data specifically related to hitting. The system measures many different hitting metrics, including:
- Exit velocity
- Launch angle
- Vector (direction)
- Hang time
- Hit distance
- Projected HR distance
For a typical Major League baseball game, Statcast generates roughly seven terabytes of information. That’s a lot. Computers parse through the data to extract the most interesting and relevant information. For most folks the raw data is possibly boring and not very interesting. However, if you pay closer attention to what some of the data is telling you, amazing information begins to pop out. It’s already changing how knowledgeable coaches are thinking about training, drafting and recruiting players. So here we go…
A baseball’s trajectory is a function of several things:
- Exit Velocity
- Spin Rate / Magnus Force (direction of spin)
- Launch Angle
- Weather / Air Pressure (function of weather patterns and distance above sea level)
I know most folks have heard of Exit Velocity. It’s rather common to read about it these days. Spin rate is for a later discussion. Gravity and Weather / Air Pressure are in God’s hands. But the one we are hearing more and more about is #3 Launch Angle. It represents the angle at which the ball is leaving the bat vs. the ground (see red arrow below):
Picture (with some enhancements): Courtesy of Daren Willman, MLB Director of Baseball R&D
With all else being equal (shifts, air pressure, etc.), with the amount of data coming out of Statcast, you can pretty much predict batting averages on specific batted balls at given exit velocities and launch angles. What the data tells you is that there are specific launch angles and exit speeds that can do significant damage. You can clearly observe from the table below that batted balls between 5-18 degrees of Launch Angle are very effective and result in very high batting averages (white boxes: .299 and below, purple boxes: .300/.499, brown boxes: .500 and up):
** Source: https://baseballsavant.mlb.com
With Statcast data, you can also basically predict (for any given Exit Speed and Launch Angle) a potential spray chart and get a sense for singles, doubles, triples, homeruns, groundouts, flyouts, and a likely batting average for the specific type of batted ball. Here is a spay chart for batted balls with 90 mph at 15 degree launch angles. For example, a batted ball at 90 mph exit velo, and 15-degree launch angle has a batting average of .866 (wow!!), and it’s a single 73% of the time, a double 11% of the time and a triple 2% of the time.
** Source: https://baseballsavant.mlb.com
Here is another way to look at the Statcast data. You can clearly see what metrics generate more singles, doubles, triples and home runs.
** Source: https://baseballsavant.mlb.com (Detroit Tigers Batters)
Launch Angle can be extremely valuable information. However, the reality is that by the time a player is playing in the major leagues significant changes to his swing, to generate a higher or lower launch angle, can be difficult. Let’s face it a swing is a habitual movement and like all habitual movements it can be somewhat difficult to change (please notice, I didn’t say impossible).
I recognize that this information is 100% MLB data for some of the best players in the world. But I think the information is applicable to all levels of the game. I believe that younger players will have an easier time making adjustments to their swing. Inherently we have all seen it in action, from Little League all the way up. There are always players that just naturally elevate the ball. The data is irrefutable. Elevating the ball between 5-25 degrees (depending on exit velos) is key if you want to do some serious damage as a hitter. If you haven’t started thinking about how to incorporate this data and it’s ramifications into your drill work you might want to start. It’s simply too powerful to ignore.
Until Statcast started keeping track of all the info we didn’t really know which angles generated which types of hits. But now we are starting to understand. Here is a quick summary of all 2016 at-bats for several notable MLB players (Cabrera, Cano, Langoria, Murphy, Ortiz and Trout) and their corresponding statistics:
It’s not surprising that the launch angles for different types of hits are within a relatively tight range. It’s pure physics after all. Basically, the data says when you hit at a certain angle and a certain exit velocity, this happens…. The information is too powerful to ignore and players and coaches are starting to pay attention. Here is a different way to present the data, which might be helpful:
- -5 – -10 degrees → Groundouts (125 ft)
- 7 – 12 degrees → Singles (250 ft)
- 15 – 20 degrees → Doubles (325 ft)
- 25 – 30 degrees → Home Runs (400 ft)
- 35+ degrees → Flyouts / Pop outs (325 / 150 ft.)
Using a mathematical model that accounts for everything from weather, gravity, exit velo, launch angle and a baseball’s aerodynamics, Dr. Alan Nathan’s (from University of Illinois) trajectory model predicts with a high degree of certainty how far a ball travels on a straight line before it lands. Here is a summary of launch angles, exit speeds and distances traveled in feet (numbers in the middle of the table):
** Source: Dr. Alan Nathan, University of Illinois
Since most hitting instruction is done inside a batting cage, having a good understanding of this information is extremely important. It might surprise most coaches, but a line drive to the upper back corner of a typical cage (70 ft. L x 10 ft. H) is a mid- to high single digit launch angle from the batter’s box. With an 85 mph exit velo for a typical high school senior, that ball will travel approximately 100-150 ft. (range marked in blue above) before it touches the ground. So, if you want your players to bounce the ball in the infield, that’s a good spot to aim for. If you want them to do damage, you need to tell them to put the ball higher up at steeper angles (range marked in green).
The big question is can you train players for launch angles. I believe the simple answer is yes. With some understanding of basic trigonometry, exit velos and launch angles, you can train for launch angles. But I also believe that a big part of this is awareness, both for players and coaches.
By Bahram Shirazi (BSEE, MBA, Co-owner RPP)