Now that the general public better understands spin rate thanks to the foreign substance scandal, I think it’s time we learn about another metric born from the statcast era.
Launch angle is undoubtedly the most misunderstood statistic in baseball. At the beginning of the 2021 season, fans started to quickly pick up on the historic decline in leaguewide offense. In a time of such crisis, numerous outlets used the “launch angle” approach as the scapegoat as to why this was happening.
If you’re familiar with the intricacies of all these analytics, you probably already know that launch angle isn’t the issue. But there are a large number of baseball fans who are not up to date with all this, which is understandable. So, let’s talk launch angle and why it isn’t what you think it is.
With many of the new age stats including, but certainly not limited to, exit velocity, wOBA, and wRC+, it’s pretty clear how they work. The higher all those numbers are, the better you’re performing as a hitter. The most important thing a know about launch angle is that it is NOT a “one size fits all” stat, like all the others. Any type of launch angle can work in baseball.
Let’s look at 2020 for example. Out of the 142 hitters who qualified, Jose Ramirez had the second-highest average launch angle. (23.2 degrees) He also had 72 batted balls with a launch angle of at least 30 degrees, which led the majors. He was clearly more prone to hit the ball high in the air. Ramirez ended the 2020 season slashing .292/.386/.607/.993, earning him the runner-up spot in the AL MVP race, with some arguing he should have won it. Right behind Ramirez in the launch angle rankings was Mike Trout, a man who needs no introduction.
On the opposite end of the launch angle spectrum in 2020, D.J. LeMahieu had the fifth-lowest average launch angle among those same 142 qualifiers. (2.3 degrees) He was also one of five players to have at least 100 batted balls with a launch angle at or below 10 degrees. (Those five players combined for .299/.358/.453/.811 122 wRC+ in 2020) D.J. went on to lead the American League in AVG (.364) OBP (.421) OPS (1.011) and OPS+ (178) in 2020. He finished third in that same AL MVP vote. A few spots next to LeMahieu in launch angle was Juan Soto, who had arguably the best offensive season in the majors with the eighth-lowest average launch angle among qualified hitters.
The point here is that many different launch angles can thrive in the big leagues, it’s just up to hitters to find the kind of launch angle that works for them and run with it. However, changes in hitter performance are often accompanied by a change in launch angle. Look at any hitter going through a tough time at the plate, or a hitter who can’t seem to make an out, and it’s not uncommon to see a change in batted ball tendencies. To further examine this trend, Brandon Belt showed a perfect example of this at the start of the 2020 season.
During the 2020 season, Belt slashed .128/.227/.231/.458 through the end of play on August 15. On August 16, his three-hit game against Oakland was the start of the turnaround. From August 16 through September 2, Belt went off and slashed .500/.571/.938/1.509. He went from being deep into a slump to being one of the best hitters in baseball overnight. Now, consider the difference in zone-based launch angle during his slump and during his hot stretch. The graph on the left is all over the place, while the one on the right is much more balanced out. Belt found his ideal launch angle during this time, and it showed on the field. Belt would finish the 2020 season with his lowest average launch angle since 2015, and the best offensive season of his Major League career.
There are some high numbers on that graph on the left. Five of the 12 possible zones being above 44 degrees isn’t very healthy. Belt’s 40.9% of batted balls that were fly balls or pop-ups was far from the league average of 28.1%. It’s very easy to see that his issue was popping the ball up too much. Now think about this, if you ever played baseball, chances are you have at some point had a coach who told you to “get on top of the ball.” If you’ve ever coached, this is likely advice you’ve given, and advice you would’ve given Brandon Belt during that slump. This advice is useful because it helps to prevent pop-ups and fly balls.
Do you see the connection? In this situation, you are asking to change a launch angle without using the words “launch angle.” If you want someone to hit the ball a certain way, you are indirectly telling them to work on their launch angle. Many fans don’t realize that launch angle has been common teaching in baseball for generations. However, it is still used as a scapegoat by media and fans alike simply because it has worked its way into the public eye over the last few years with the rise of the Statcast era.
A lot of misinformation has been spread regarding launch angle by the disapproving crowd with the idea that it’s “ruining baseball”, and the false narratives don’t stop there. Launch angle has been tracked for seven seasons now, and not much has changed since its inception.
The leaguewide average launch angle has gone through very little change since we started tracking it. Despite minuscule change over time, only very recently, and especially this year, have large amounts of people gone after launch angle for its effect on the game. Nobody was saying this in 2015 when the leaguewide launch angle was only one degree lower, so why did this all happen now? The reality is, fans often don’t adapt well to change, especially in baseball. All you need to do to understand that is watch the scene in Moneyball when Billy Beane explains to the scouting department why they are going after Jeremy Giambi, David Justice, and Scott Hatteberg. Remember how the other scouts reacted? That has always been the way change has been received around the analytical approach to baseball, and that is why launch angle has been the scapegoat, rather than the obvious answer.
At this point, many have gotten the message that the decline in offense is more due to pitching than it is hitting. After the fallout of the foreign substances scandal, it became clear that pitchers were at an unfair advantage. However, the most alarming part of this graph is that the steep rise shown in 2021 has nothing to do with any of that. Since June 3, the day after MiLB suspended four different pitchers 10 games for using foreign substances, the leaguewide percentage of pitches thrown at least 95 MPH is 15.8%, higher than the 14.5% it was at from April 1st to June 2nd. In essence, it’s never been harder to be a hitter, and pitchers no longer using substances might not do a lot about that. Not to mention the league also “deadened” the baseballs at the beginning of this season, adding fuel to this fire for hitters.
It’s clear that pitchers being better than ever has done more damage to hitting than “launch angle.” There are many other myths thrown around regarding the approach to hitting. Often, fans will say things like “opposite-field hitting is a lost art” or “just try to hit line drives.” Contrary to their belief, those things are still very present in today’s game.
While batted balls hit to the opposite field and line drives aren’t quite at their highest points over the last 14 seasons, they certainly aren’t at their lowest points either. Look at 2008-2011 for opposite field percentage and 2008-2012 for line drive percentage and notice that the current rate is higher. That’s funny, were there complaints during those seasons? If not, why are there so many complaints now if line drives and opposite-field batted balls are more common than they were 10 years ago? These arguments only came up when league offense was at a low point, not when it made sense to come up. Even in 2020, a higher percentage of line drives were hit than at any point in the pitch-tracking era. So no, launch angle is not “ruining baseball.” 1980s baseball is not completely extinct, and fundamentals are still a huge part of the game. They haven’t gone away with the change in overall tendencies, and they aren’t going away anytime soon.
The point of this was not to call anyone out in particular. It’s ok to not be up to date with 21st-century baseball. It’s a learning process that doesn’t happen overnight. I also understand not being open to change. It’s natural to continue going by what you already know, and that just isn’t the direction that baseball is going at present. However, don’t let anyone tell you that “launch angle” is causing the decline in offense in baseball. It is a misunderstood statistic where any type of results can work in this game.