May 15, 2017 by jessepell
Written by Jesse Pelletier
The game of baseball is one of the most dynamic sports of this age. While it’s always been changing, the influx of advanced statistics is now making us question even the most basic philosophies of the sport. This blog is the first in a series projecting the future of baseball. We start our discussion with the future of the home run.
Few moments in baseball are as awe-inspiring as a mammoth moon-shot. It’s the perfect combination of power, precision, and grace. If you’re like me, you’ve watched Marcell Ozuna peg the Rays’ 2011 Wild Card banner upwards of two dozen times by now. And now, thanks to advanced stat-tracking tools, we know more about every home run than we ever knew before.
Translation: the home run just got even more awesome.
Ozuna reminds us that the Rays won a Wild Card berth six years ago.
The stat we’ve always wanted is home run distance. It’s really a spectator stat, but it’s fun data to have. I’m sure batters are bragging about their home run distances in the dugout, but they aren’t changing their approach under the mindset that their home runs need to be longer. It’s two other stats, exit velocity and launch angle, that are making players and managers rethink the most basic philosophies of hitting.
Every coach I ever had taught me to have a level swing through the strike zone. Assuming the pitcher throws a straight fastball, a level swing creates the largest overlap between the paths of the bat and ball. This maximizes the odds of creating contact, ideally in the form of a line drive. Most MLB players have said they were also taught this way. Some were even taught to swing down on the ball to generate more backspin.
For years, the line drive and level-swing philosophy reigned supreme. It was Hitting 101: chapter 1. Now, with the feedback of exit velocity and launch angle, batters are changing their swings to lift the ball. It defies everything we thought we knew.
The new logic is straight-forward: higher exit velocity on a line drive means the defense can’t cover as much ground before the ball leaves the infield. Thus, higher velocity is good. How does a ball lose velocity? By hitting the ground. Hence, ground balls lead to outs while elevated balls can find the gaps or leave the yard. Even outs can produce runs in the form of sacrifice flies.
And how does one elevate the ball? With an upper-cut swing.
This new mindset is taking the league by storm. One of its most prominent success stories is with Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman grounded into the most double plays in the National League in 2012 and has continued to hit a high number of ground balls since. Teammate Daniel Murphy took notice and worked with Zimmerman over the offseason to change his swing.
The results are in and they’re ridiculous. Zimmerman is slashing .385/.430/.792 36 games into the season and leads the majors in batting average, slugging percentage and hits. He also leads the NL in doubles and home runs. This is a guy who is 32 years old and hit just .218 last season.
Interestingly enough, Zimmerman’s ground out to fly out ratio is tied for a career high at 1.46. With his new swing, he’s likely hitting fewer ground balls with a higher percentage of them resulting in outs. His BABIP is .400, so he can’t be hitting many ground balls.
Daniel Murphy (left) spent the offseason helping teammate Ryan Zimmerman (right) change his swing to cut down on ground balls. (Courtesy of
The introduction of exit velocity and launch angle coincided with the shift towards the elevated-ball theory, but the reasons don’t add up. The logic behind the elevated-ball theory makes sense whether you have the raw data to quantify it or not. Ted Williams, one of the best hitters of all time, promoted this theory back in his prime and it never caught on.
So now we have the data and suddenly the theory makes sense? Why didn’t we just listen to the best hitter of that generation and start doing this years ago?
As an analogy, let’s look at Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw is known as one of the most deceptive pitchers in the game. When we talk about how great Kershaw is we mention his ability to hide the ball from a batter until it is out of his hand and we praise his command and his off-speed pitches even more. But we know that deception has to be a big factor in his success, right? Why don’t we highlight this?
Let’s imagine there’s a new statistic that measures a pitcher’s deception. We’ll call this fictional stat the pitch deception index, or PDI for short. Now that this is quantifiable, scouts will likely look at Kershaw’s PDI and say ‘Wow, this guy has a PDI three standard deviations above average! That’s unheard of!’ So then what happens? Coaches teach deception and scouts hunt deception.
Suddenly, everyone focuses on being deceptive. Strikeout numbers are off the charts. Everything we thought we knew about pitching is second-guessed. Strikeouts used to come as a result of fastball velocity and good breaking pitches. Now, it’s deception. Guys with 89-91-MPH fastballs get scouted more heavily because it’s not just about velocity anymore. The landscape of pitching is changed for the foreseeable future.
In today’s game we don’t have PDI. But we can still make the argument that deception is important and not enough guys are utilizing it in their game. Even with Hall of Fame talent like Williams and Kershaw showing how well their philosophies work, people seem to need quantifiable data before they buy in. As much as I love data, I don’t think we always need it.
Home runs are here to stay. So are strikeouts, but as long as guys like Zimmerman are having career years over the age of 30, the trend won’t die. Too many pitchers today throw a changeup as their third or fourth pitch and I expect that to change in the future. Pitchers are more willing to walk batters in today’s game, but keeping the ball out of the strike zone hasn’t decreased the number of home runs enough. Something else has to come along.
The changeup and sinker will have to make a surging comeback if we’re going to put a damper on the long ball phenomenon. Pitchers don’t just develop good sinkers in a matter of weeks when they’ve never thrown it before, so it will take a few years before pitchers’ repertoires adapt to kill the long ball. Until then, the home run rules as king.