Pat Caputo – Launch angle all the rage, and debate, within baseball world – The Oakland Press
It sounds like something from NASA. Launch angle. Yet, it is all the rage in Major League Baseball.
Sluggers are clearing fences like never before. There were 1,101 home runs during June, breaking the previous record of 1,069 in May of 2000, which was at the height of the so-called steroid era.
One of the explanations given: Hitters deliberately upper-cutting the ball and trying to lift it in the air.
“No grounders,” Toronto third baseman and perennial MVP candidate Josh Donaldson was quoted in the Washington Post. “Ground balls are out. If you see me a hit a ground ball, even if it’s a hit, I can tell you it was an accident.”
In the same article, the Dodgers’ Justin Turner, who has transformed from journeyman into one of MLB’s best hitters, said: “You can’t slug by hitting balls on the ground. You have to get the ball in the air if you want to slug, and guys who slug, stick around, and guys who don’t slug, don’t.”
One of the first hitters to embrace this approach: Tigers’ outfielder J.D. Martinez.
So hitting instructors, who teach the game at the grass roots level, must be scrambling to change their philosophy, right?
Not necessarily, said Chris Newell, the area’s foremost hitting instructor. The former Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes High School player and Oakland University hitting coach manages the Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers in the independent United Shore Professional Baseball League in Utica. His primary occupation is as a youth hitting instructor. His most famous pupil is former Birmingham Brother Rice High School star D.J. LeMahieu, the Colorado Rockies’ second baseman, who won the 2016 National League batting title.
Newell isn’t teaching launch angles. He avoids them like the plague, he says. “Thinking about hitting the ball in the air only is the worst possible thought for young hitters,” Newell said. “To me, it’s a joke. There are no bad hops on a ball in the air. Fly balls, pop ups, those are easy outs.
“All this hype about trying to hit fly balls and launch angles has done is only confirm to me not to change my philosophy about hitting.”
To Newell, hitting is a process.
“You begin by trying to get on top of the ball, and hitting line drives,” Newell said. “I’ve had parents bring me their kid, who is not big or strong or versed in the fundamentals of getting the barrel of the bat to the ball, and say, ‘Make him hit with power.’ It doesn’t work that way.
“Guys who become power hitters, do so later on. A lot of it has to do with natural ability. Some players have the talent for it, but it’s rare. It’s a bit like trying to get somebody to throw 95 mph when they can only throw 85. The pitching instructors can teach them how to pitch and improve their velocity, but they can’t make ‘em throw 95.”
Newell said most of the top hitters have not changed their natural swing, pointing to Dodgers’ rookie sensation Cody Bellinger as an example.
That includes LeMahieu, who is not a power hitter, but was the 21st most-effective MLB offensive player in ‘16, according to the Baseball-Reference.com version of WAR.
“D.J. doesn’t have the power of Miguel Cabrera, but a similar approach,’’ Newell said. “He made some corrections a couple years ago, working hard to get his front leg down sooner. But his fundamental swing hasn’t changed, and it’s been honed by years of hard practice.
“I know this, D.J. isn’t up there thinking about hitting the ball in the air, his launch angle and that he has to lift the ball.’’
Newell said there are times when hitters need to adjust because they are hitting on top of the ball too much.
“One of my players on the Beavers was hitting too much on the top of the ball, and I told him he needed to get under it more, and he hit a home run off the scoreboard,” Newell said. “But that’s a higher level of player, more advanced, making an adjustment.
“Unless you have gotten to the point where you can get the barrel of the bat to the ball consistently, it makes no sense to try to “launch’’ the ball. Power like these great Major League hitters have is the last thing to develop.’’
It’s a debate that is just beginning within baseball at all levels. Don’t be surprised if it continues for years to come.