Before the 2017 season began, Royals designated hitter Brandon Moss was being praised for his launch angle.
Just in case you don’t know: a ball that comes straight off the bat has 0 degrees of launch angle, a ball that goes straight up is at 90 degrees and ball hit straight down is at -90 degrees.
Google “Brandon Moss + Launch Angle” and you’ll find one website that says in 2016 Moss had the best launch angle in baseball: 21.7 degrees. You’ll also find another website that said it was too bad Eric Hosmer couldn’t learn from Moss and change his launch angle.
That was written before the season began and in retrospect it doesn’t seem like such hot advice:
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Brandon Moss is currently hitting .188 and slugging .377; Eric Hosmer is currently hitting .314 and slugging .487.
Look at the numbers and a couple of them jump out at you: Hosmer gets more balls in play and when he does, he hits more line drives than Brandon Moss.
Fly balls; more home runs, fewer hits
The best launch angle for a homer might not be the best launch angle for a hit. Big-league outfielders cover an amazing amount of ground and any fly ball that doesn’t leave the yard is likely to be caught.
Coming into Tuesday’s game against the Tigers, the Royals had put 783 fly balls in play and 141 of those fly balls turned into hits: that’s a .180 average.
But 83 of those hits were homers; fly balls in play resulted in home runs 11 percent of the time.
Line drives; fewer home runs, more hits
Over the same time span, the Royals had put 615 line drives in play and 400 of those line drives turned into hits: that’s a .650 average.
But only 26 of those hits were homers; line drives in play resulted in home run only 4 percent of the time.
But line drives were much more likely to produce doubles; 113 of them on line drives, only 20 on fly balls. The Royals actually have a higher slugging percentage when they hit lines drives (.980) than when they hit fly balls (.539).
So before you decide on an approach you have to ask whether the home runs are worth making outs 82 percent of the time and whether getting hits 65 percent of the time is worth hitting fewer home runs.
But whatever approach you decide to take as a team, might be the wrong approach for an individual player.
There is no right answer
ESPN’s Buster Olney makes the point that even if some hitters can adjust their launch angle and get good results, that doesn’t mean you want every hitter doing it.
As Olney points out; shooting three-pointers might be a good approach for some NBA players, but you don’t want Shaquille O’Neal launching balls from beyond the arc.
And the idea that a hitter can simply decide to hit the ball one-eighth of an inch lower has been ridiculed by some very good hitters.
According to ESPN’s Eddie Matz, here’s what Ryan Zimmerman had to say to reporters who wanted to attribute his recent success to an improved launch angle:
“I’m doing it on purpose. All offseason, I worked on hitting the ball one-eighth of an inch lower and it’s totally paying off. I used lasers and computers, and every time I didn’t hit it one-eighth of an inch lower, my bat blew up so I had to get a new one. That’s how I started to hit it one-eighth of an inch lower.”
In reality, Zimmerman has a different theory for this season’s success; he’s finally healthy.
Maybe some hitters can change their swings to hit the ball a faction of an inch lower, but with the best pitchers in the world trying to prevent it, a lot of hitters are happy to make solid contact with any part of the ball.
And what works for a power hitter in New York might not work for a contact hitter in Kansas City.
The ability to measure launch angles might increase our understanding of the game, but it doesn’t mean we’ve finally figured out the right way to swing a bat. Players and parks are different, so when it comes to hitting a baseball, there is no right answer.
And if you play half your games in Kauffman Stadium, when you hit a fly ball, you better hit it out.