Explaining Cheat Codes Of Launch Angles

Special To Collegiate Baseball

PALMDALE, Calif. — New ways to measure virtually every aspect of hitting is in full force, yet there is more confusion than ever.

There are certain things that will never change. 

We’ll cut through the confusion to get to the essence of what all the data is actually telling us. 

Data, after all, is simply the measurements of what happened. Data doesn’t tell us how it happened, only that it happened. The rest is up to interpretation. 

Launch angle is a great place to start. Ball flight is crucial to truly getting the most out of your swing. 

Batting averages are typically well over .600 on line drives, around .240 on ground balls and just over .200 for fly balls. So the trajectory of a ball off a bat is a big deal. 

Analysts speak of launch angle as though it’s a verb — like we can turn it on and off or simply “just say no to ground balls.”

Yet this is a long way from the truth. Hitters can’t really control how the ball comes off the bat.

Hitting a round ball with a round bat only has three possible outcomes. 

  • Near Perfect Contact (20%) – the ball is hit exactly on the same line as the pitch.
  • Below Center Contact (40%) – the ball is hit below center resulting in some type of fly ball.
  • Above Center Contact (40%) – the ball is hit above center resulting in some type of ground ball.

Perfect contact is where the sweet spot of the bat hits the ball exactly in the center, propelling the ball forward in the exact line it came in on. This almost never happens. 

Most hitters hit the ball at their absolute maximum exit velocity less than five times in 500-plus at-bats. 

Several years ago Avisail Garcia hit the highest exit velocity that year at 126 mph. 

He hit only one other ball that year at 115 mph or more (only about 91 percent of his max) and averaged less than 80 percent of his 126 mph.

Top MLB hitters hover around 20-25 percent line drives, with the average about 20 percent, although only about 1-2 percent are actually hit perfectly. The rest are all miss hits.    

Below center contact is when the bat is underneath the center of the ball, causing anywhere from a high line drive to a pop up in the infield (when fair) and this miss hit happens roughly 40 percent of the time. 

Above center contact is when the bat is above the center of the ball, causing a low line drive to a topped dribbler or something in between. 

This also happens about 40 percent of the time, despite baseball trying to “just say no to ground balls.” 

MLB, with their efforts to hit the ball in the air, has only managed to change the average from 48 percent ground balls to 45 percent. 

A great improvement, but yet still a very long ways away from zero ground balls, which is virtually impossible.

The indisputable fact is that ball-bat collisions have a set of laws that will produce contact at about 40 percent fly balls, 40 percent ground balls and about 20 percent line drives. 

That 40/40/20 breakdown will always be the standard. 

The question is what does that mean? 

Hitters can’t control launch angle — only the things that cause it. 

In short, creating a bat path that matches the pitch path is the bottom line. 

When the bat is in line with the pitch, the hitter has the best chance to produce the most solid contact. 

When hitters just swing up, swing down on the ball, or any other swing path choice, they alter the natural ball flight laws.

Say No To Ground Balls
Warning, this idea gets a bit technical, but we will return to simple afterwards. 

Also, this is not in any way critical of Josh Donaldson. He is truly one of the elite. It is just a great example of how hard controlling launch angle is. 

In three years of fastballs in the center of the zone:

  • Josh was thrown 394 fastballs in the middle box of the strike zone.
  • He swung at 317 of them with the intent of hitting them all at 25 degrees .
  • 37 percent ground balls.
  • 6 percent barrels or balls hit in a launch angle range of 25 to 30 degrees at 100 mph.
  • His average exit velocity was 99 mph.
  • Batting average just north of .400.
  • 36 percent of those middle pitches were fouled off.
  • Swing and miss rate was just over 11 percent.

These stats are impressive.

But to really understand launch angle, you must get precise because perfect contact requires perfect timing in a perfect line, and it is quite rare. 

We must have a single point to measure all contact from if we are to be exact. 

Only one degree line is exact for this middle pitch (assuming they are on the same pitch line which they will not be but will be close), every other one is slightly miss hit. 

Within a range of 10 degree misses, above or below the exact center, the exit velocity will remain close to maximum. 

Data shows 20 degree miss hits start to lose exit velocity, a discovery made in the mid-1990’s with my early exit velocity testing off the tee. 

Above is the launch angle graphic for Josh Donaldson with these 394 middle zone fastballs. 

Statcast refers to barrels as the balls hit at 25-30 degrees at 100 mph, with some various other possible definition caveats. 

Light gray dots indicates base hits while black dots are outs and the outside ring is 120 mph. So the balls hit close to the ring are 100 mph or greater. 

Of course, almost every ball hit at 100 mph at that trajectory will have great results. 

When hitters focus on trying to create this higher trajectory, the quality of the fly balls and the quality of the ground balls goes down. 

Notice not very many base hits in the fly ball area are above 45 degrees. 

It’s the same thing on ground balls hit at – 45 degrees or below. 

The bulk of the hits are between -10 degrees and +30 degrees. 

Rather than only looking only at the 25 to 30 degree launch single area as good and writing off all groundballs as bad, take a look at the area around +10 degrees (above the 0 line). 

This area is dense with hits, both above and below the 10 degree line. 

Josh Donaldson actually has a swing line that is slightly more geared toward the 10 degree line than the 25 degree line.

The evidence is simply that the center of the most dense hard contact is closer to 10 degrees than 25 degrees. 

In other words, the balls hit at 25 to 30 degrees are actually slight miss hits, with the evidence that the exit velocity goes down slightly. 

Most homeruns tend to have less exit velocity because of that very reason. 

There are homeruns hit at higher exit velocities, but they are also hit lower, closer to line drives. 

Hitters who focus on a higher fly ball launch angle will hit more popups and weak, topped ground balls, as well as more swings and misses. It is always a package deal. 

Hitters who stay focused closer to that 10 degree line have harder fly ball misses and harder ground ball misses, also a package deal. 

Remember, every hitter misses far more than they hit it perfect. 

Hitting is a very imperfect science. But the more you realize the fact that hitters simply cannot control launch angle, the more you can focus on what really matters — bat path and timing. 

We will tackle timing in this series, but for today we’ll focus on the bat path. 

Bat Path
Hitters don’t really know what the pitch path will be, but pitchers have done a really nice service to hitters as of late, at least at the MLB level. 

Pitchers have focused on throwing their fastballs at the bottom of the zone predominately. 

This creates a pitch path or angle downward that is closer to their off speed, and ironically, almost exactly in the upward bat path of most guys trying to hit 25 degree fly balls. 

Pitchers at the highest level have been bending over backwards to help hitters create 25-30 degree damage causing contact.

If you also notice in the graphic above, there are two notes. 

One shows what happens when ground balls are hit at 100 mph, smoked ground balls or more accurately, between the 0 line and down to the -10 degree line. 

The top 10 hitters’ batting averages are between .679 and .847 on 100 mph ground balls and 224 total hitters hit .400 or higher. 

The other note shows batters hitting fly balls that are slightly miss hit at 90 mph or less. 

Zero hitters had a batting average of .400 on fly balls not well hit, and only the top 10 had batting averages over .200. 

This unfair comparison was to show that if you err on the side of trying to hit fly balls, any miss hit will not get the results you are after. 

Conversely, with a focus on lower line drives, the fly balls you miss hit end up in the ‘garden spot’ that is 25-30 degrees at higher exit velocities. 

The bonus is that the ground balls are also hit harder. 

When you miss hit a ball with a bat path conducive to a +10 degree launch angle, your ground balls will be harder, taking full advantage of both types of misses, above and below center. 

This is simple cause and effect. 

Control what you can control and let the rest happen and stop hating on all ground balls.  

This fly ball/ground ball comparison is a bit unfair.

But when you see most fly ball versus ground ball studies, they lean heavily in favor of the fly ball because line drives are included as fly balls. 

Of course fly balls and line drives are going to outperform ground balls. 

This study was simply to show that ground balls need some love, at least those hardest hit. 

The point of it all is simply that when you focus on the right launch angle (hint: not 25-30 degrees), you will produce higher exit velocities for both the fly balls and the ground balls.

To read more of this in-depth article, purchase the Feb. 23, 2018 edition or subscribe by CLICKING HERE. It explains launch angle practice and the value of targets, why backspin is overrated, the truth about spin rate and launch angle data, the grip, hands and launch angles, foot down early load, backside collapse, barrel roll/tilting and more.

More information can also be obtained by going on Perry Husband’s website at www.hittingisaguess.com