Failures of Launch:
The Lies the Angles Tell
By John White
“In the big leagues, these things that they call ground balls are outs.” This was the hitting advice that MLB third baseman Josh Donaldson offered to a hypothetical ten-year-old in a 2016 segment of MLBCentral with Mark DeRosa. This is a popular thought process, as the Launch Angle Revolution has a generation of hitters focusing on getting just the right amount of uppercut into their swing to put the ball in the air, where, ideally, the defense is taken out of the equation via the home run or, at least, the long single off the outfield wall. The amount of advanced analysis available to teams, and increased tendency to shift defenses to minimize the efficacy of each hitter’s batted ball tendencies would seem to add validity to this approach. Focus on Launch Angle, goes the theory, and your entire offensive game will improve. However, as with most baseball statistics, a single data point – a batter’s Launch Angle – doesn’t show the whole picture.
As evidence, take a look at the top 10 batters by Launch Angle in 2019 (minimum 300 AB), factoring in Barrels/Plate Appearance % (B/PA%) and Home Runs:
|Player||Launch Angle||B/PA %||HR|
Of these top ten Launch Angle guys, only four were seeing a B/PA% north of 6%. Only one of those four, Mike Trout, hit more than 35 HR, while the man lagging behind at 3.8 B/PA%, Alex Bregman, mashed 41. Before anyone points to ABs as the main factor in homers here, note that Rhys Hoskins had 100 more ABs, and 105 more PA, than Mike Trout (in a better home park for dingers), and didn’t crack 30. Meanwhile, twenty-eight guys cranked 35 HR or more in 2019, of whom only two were leaders in Launch Angle. Pete Alonso and his 14.8° Launch Angle rates way down at 54th in 2019, despite 53 HR. Any Fantasy Baseball player who sought to trade Alonso for Belt straight up in 2019 would either be laughed out, or thrown out, of their league, Launch Angle or not.
At the other end of the spectrum are the batters who led the league in ground ball percentage (GB%). Those who ascribe to the Launch Angle Revolution doctrine would, in all likelihood, advise that these players struggle to compete in the “modern game” as baseball is played now. These players, if judged solely by Launch Angle, must get their playing time through some combination of defense, baserunning, “intangibles,” and limited competition on their respective squads. These are the top 10 in 2019 in GB%, with their 2019 HR included:
Obviously, none of these guys were among the league leaders in HR last year. That said, three of them hit more dingers than Launch Angle studs Brandon Belt of Enrique Hernandez. For Fantasy Baseball players, LaMahieu and his theoretically alarming 74.4% ground ball rate is being drafted around pick 56, just behind Launch Angle guy (and multiple position eligible) Kris Bryant. Tommy Pham’s 73.5 GB% is being drafted around pick 65, almost sixty picks ahead of Rhys Hoskins (thanks in no small part to his Stolen Base upside, to be fair).
None of this is a straight one-for-one comparison, in reality. Team hitting philosophies, swing mechanics, park air vectors, team construction, and more factor into a batter’s success. A hitter has value to his team beyond what his HR total, SLG, or Launch Angle would indicate. New hitting coaches, breakouts, slumps, and injuries could make the 2020 list of Launch Angle leaders look very different than the 2019 version. All that said, emphasis on the Launch Angle piece can put an analyst in danger of failing to see the whole puzzle.