This article is put together quickly and is just intended to help tell the story of some of those behind the launch angle fad or fashion. That is, some of those who have helped develop the hitting technique which has been around for quite some time but has only recently come out as not being heretical in its opposition to long standing hitting fundamentals.
“Launch angle” has become the latest buzz word in baseball that so often punctuates the dialogue of MLB telecasts. The concept is not new. That buzz words are and are a bit annoying during telecasts.
Launch angle measures the vertical direction of the ball coming off the bat. A launch angle of zero degrees would be a line drive with positive numbers indicating an upward ball flight and negative ones indicating a ball driven into the ground. Analysts have been able to pinpoint the range of 25-35 degrees as the sweet spot for home runs.
The Dodgers recently hired Robert Van Scoyoc as their new hitting coach replacing Turner Ward who moved on to take up the same position with the Cincinnati Reds. Van Scocyo is not the father of launch angle but he is a staunch disciple.
Perhaps his business partner, Craig Wallenbrock, is one of the founding fathers of a hitting approach that attempts to keep the ball in the air and off the ground. At least he recognized long ago the difference for those hitters who did keep the ball in the air more often. Now 72, he had a short stint with the San Diego State baseball team in the late ’60s. He left to participate more actively in the life and beaches of the 60’s. It was not until several years later when his brother asked for help with hitting that Wallenbrock took the bat to ball thing seriously. He found he was good at it and has worked for many years as a hitting consultant with athletes and teams. He has been labeled, the “Oracle of Santa Clarita” by some.
“Craig is the godfather of the hitting revolution,” his partner Von Scoyoc says.
Outfielder Raúl Ibañez joined the Dodgers as a special assistant in 2016. He had been a student of Wallenbrock’s and persuaded the Dodgers to hire his mentor as a consultant. After the regular season, while Los Angeles was in the playoffs, the club sent Chris Taylor to work with Wallenbrock and Van Scoyoc in Glendale, Arizona so he could be ready if needed in the play-offs. He continued to work with them over the winter and produced his magical season in 2017.
Wallenbrock likens the bat to a Samurai sword when a warrior is attacked by three. He identifies the “three warriors” in baseball as the fastball, slider and changeup. The “warrior” that gets to the hitter first is the fastball.
“We have to be in position to fight him first,” Wallenbrock says, “and yet continue through to get the other two.”
Justin Turner is one of those players whose career was rescued by a new hitting approach. To be fair, the new approach was accompanied by a whole new attitude supported by confidence and takes into consideration much more than just an upswing.
Turner’s transformation started way back in 2013 when he was with the New York Mets and a teammate of outfielder Marlin Byrd. He was impressed by Byrd’s apparent knowledge of hitting and lamented about his own situation in which he felt he had good at bats with poor results.
Byrd invited Turner to spend the winter with him and his hitting guru, Doug Latta, who ran a facility in Chatsworth, California in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles.
Latta suggested an overhaul of his swing that spanned both mechanics and philosophy. Turner had always tried to keep his weight back and slap grounders. Latta encouraged him to lower his hands and transfer his body forward to launch the baseball.
“Before launch angle was a big deal,it was constant talk with Doug about getting the ball in the air,” Turner says. “I don’t think about east and west anymore. I think about north and south. I don’t care where it goes, as long as it goes up.”
When Turner finished his first session, Latta was more than a bit impressed with his hand speed. “Does he know what an impact player he can be?” he asked Byrd. Within a month, Turner started to feel comfortable with the adjustment. He could begin to see himself as a slugger.
“I think the biggest component being missed is looking at all these result stats,” Latta said of air-ball revolution talk. “Basically, the proper swing mechanics will always [give] a hitter a longer swing path in the zone through the pitch. What that will allow for is for increase in exit velocity, as a hitter can square up more pitches, and, depending where contact is made, can change launch angle. [The process] is also predicated on a hitter’s setup, making the right move first, and importantly, timing… Poor mechanics and body movements compromise timing.”
In 2017 Max Muncy spent the entire season with Triple-A Oklahoma City. Shawn Wooten was the hitting coach who worked with Muncy as did hitting consultant Craig Wallenbrock. Together they gave Muncy a better timing mechanism with a small leg kick and a slight upturn to his swing changing his launch angle. The changes not only increased his bat speed but added lift to his swing. For at least one season in MLB Muncy has been the recipient of the launch angle revolution.
Doug Latta warns against falling love with exit velocity.
“I love the idea of quantifying [the swing],” Latta said. “But if everyone is thinking about exit velocity, guys are going to start over swinging, which is going to create bad body movement and breakdowns, inefficient swings that are not going to be consistent at the major-league level.”
Those same analysts that have been able to pinpoint the range of 25-35 degrees as the sweet spot for home runs agree that it must be paired with an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater. The exit velocity is crucial. At lower velocities, those fly balls become warning track or less outs.
Pitchers are not going to simply accept launch angle as a death knell and are already making adjustments to try to neutralize the growing threat. As evidenced in the World Series pitchers are elevating their fastball as a way of forcing hitters to swing down on the ball. So, what can be done to adjust to the pitcher’s adjustments?
“If it’s a four-seam pitcher who throws the ball higher in the strike zone, we’re going to work on hitting the ball a little lower that day because otherwise we’re going to have problems swinging and missing at it,” Van Scoyoc says. “If it’s a guy who sinks the ball, we’re going to work on hitting it higher. The pitcher is always going to dictate it.”
Launch angle – fad or fashion? I expect it is a bit of both, a fad for some and a fashion for others such as Justin Turner, Josh Donaldson, J.D. Martinez and Logan Morrison. One size does not fit all and it is most likely just one more step in the evolution of trying to master the most difficult task in all of professional sports. That is, using a round bat to hit a round ball hurled from 60’6” away and traveling at 90 mph while bending sideways, up or down.
Image compliments ofBaseball Fever