Death, Taxes & Groundballs

Death, Taxes & Groundballs
Brad Pitt played the character of Joe Black or ‘Death’ in the movie ‘Meet Joe Black’.  Pretty ironic that Death himself was being informed by the greasy villain, that death and taxes were the only certainties in this world.  While trying to eliminate your death and/or taxes sounds like a really good idea on the surface, it is only a matter of time before we have to make the ugly realization that they are both still coming for us all.   For the past several years, very few articles done about MLB hitters fail to include the term ‘Launch Angle’ nor misses the opportunity of adding the famous line “just say no to groundballs.”

Baseball hitters (and softball) have another certainty.  Despite all the technology, the fancy terms, the tee shirts and the pleas of top superstar hitters telling everyone to ‘just say no’…………..groundballs are inevitable.  In fact, in a 13 year study (2002 to 2014) of the distribution of the 3 categories of hit types, groundball percentage was the most likely at about 43-45% of the time, the ‘lion’s share’.  The coveted ‘Flyball’ happened about 34-37% of the time and the ‘Line Drive’ was at 18-22%.  Important to note here that ‘Line Drives’ are determined by trajectory and not necessarily how hard they are hit.  In other words, there is a range of well hit balls in that category with a smaller amount of them anywhere near perfect contact.

With the all the campaigning, the high tech training and all the ‘Super Science’ in the game, one would only imagine that the dreaded ‘Groundball’ would be all but extinct in today’s game.  In 2017, MLB hitters hit groundballs 46.3% of the time, a fairly significant increase from any of the 2002 to 2014 seasons.  What?  Trying to hit more flyballs backfired into more groundballs?  Yes, at least with the overall average, even though a small number of players managed a few more flyballs than grounders…… Not only did the number of groundballs increase, but the ‘quality’ of the ground ball went down as well.

3 Possible Outcomes with a Round Bat/Round Ball Collision
When a round bat makes contact with a round ball, there are only 3 possible outcomes.

  1. Near Perfect Contact where the center of the bat meets the center of the ball, creating some degree of a line drive
  2. Below the center of the ball resulting in some degree of flyball
  3. Above the center of the ball resulting in some degree of groundball

Because of the nature of round objects, the center is elusive and the odds of both round things colliding exactly in the center of each other is very difficult to accomplish.  One of the hitters most notable for Exit Velocity, Aaron Judge, only managed one in an entire season with only 13 balls in play at 95% of his max.  That fact is worthy of its own post but for this one, just realize that perfect contact is rare.  As we have seen through statistics, groundball contact is inevitable.  The only question remaining for hitters is what will be the quality of that groundball that is certain to happen?

Not All Groundballs are Bad & Not All Flyballs are Good
I wanted to test the notion that ‘all flyballs’ are better than all groundballs, as we have been told ad nauseum.  In a recent study using Statcast, 225 MLB hitters hit .400 or higher, with the average about .550.  Since we all know what happens on 100 MPH flyballs………… I looked at 90 MPH flyballs or less, hard enough to be a home run, but also including the ugliest version of the coveted flyball, pop ups.    Guess how many hitters hit .400 on flyballs in this study?  Absolutely 0……………  In fact, only 10 hitters had a batting average of .200.  It would seem, given a choice between flyballs ranging from bad to just enough to leave the yard and hard groundballs, there is no comparison.  Hard groundballs result in hits…………….and flyballs have to be almost 100% to have value, so it is all about the quality of each type.  This is where all the analysts start throwing out all the flyball based stats to prove flyballs are better.  No one is arguing that 100 MPH flyballs are best, only ‘How & Why’ that happens.

All flyballs are not good and all groundballs are not bad.  It was a groundball that tied Game 7 of the magical Cubs’ World Series and also a groundball that won the game and the Championship, breaking the curse.  If we throw out all groundball hits, the Cubs may still be trying to break the curse and the author of ‘Just say not to groundballs’, would have hit only .205 the year of the saying.  If the largest slice of the pie is almost always going to be groundballs, shouldn’t we at least maximize them?

The simple truth is that hitters need to find a Launch Angle that maximizes the results of all 3 types of contact, not just the flyball.  Hint, it is not 30 degrees and it is not the same for every hitter.  This common mistake has lead to hitters breaking every strikeout record and batting averages plunging………. and it is only a matter of time before the ‘certainty of groundballs’ catches up to you.  Groundballs are never going away and only those hitters that understand the value in maximizing GB’s, will maximize their ‘overall’ results.

It is ridiculous to compare groundballs and flyballs using power numbers, such as isolated power.  That’s the equivalent of judging your car on its abilty to fly.  While it may have a lot of great features that could compare to airplanes or even surpass them in a few, flying is not one of them.  Groundballs are going to happen, make the best of them by understanding how the overall approach uses line drives, flyballs and groundballs to max out each one’s potential.  It’s a package deal………..after all, if hitters could control how the ball comes off the bat, we wouldn’t be talking about outlawing the ‘shift’.

Just Swing Up
The internet gurus have made the amazing discovery that hitting 100 MPH flyballs is a good thing.  Of course 100 MPH flyballs are good, that isn’t groundbreaking.  The process for attaining the highest possible percentage of them, however, is groundbreaking.  Well, it was groundbreaking, circa 2001.  The Hitting Is A Guess video was the first public work to identify that Launch Angle is super important but………out of the control of the hitter, at least to a large degree, because Launch Angle is a ‘guess’.  Don’t believe that?  Why then is the groundball rate increasing when the whole world is trying to eliminate them altogether?  Because Launch Angle is not controllable in that way.  Hitters can control some things that create Launch Angle but no one can control it completely.

Try as they might, hitters simply cannot hit the ball where they want or groundballs would not exist, nor would the ‘shift’.  The higher the Launch Angle attempt, the wider the spectrum of the vertical spray pattern and the uglier the miss hits.  In the Hitting Is A Guess video, we showed how the highest Exit Velocities happen within 10 degrees, either way, measured off of perfect contact.  With a swing line of 10 degrees upward, perfect contact would be 10 degrees up and the hardest miss hits would be at 11-20 degrees and 9 degrees down to 0 degrees, resulting in the dreaded 100 MPH groundball.

Above is a video of Cody Bellinger facing the elevated fastballs of Justin Verlander in the 2017 World Series.  The upward swing line of Bellinger has a tough time squaring up the fastball at the top of the zone at about 2-4 degrees downward.  The upward swing line only crosses the line of the pitch in one place and only with virtually perfect timing.  Perfect timing almost never happens for a typical hitter over a season of 500 at bats or so. The 2017 Exit Velocity leaders, Stanton and Judge, both only managing one each at their absolute max Exit Velocity.  They both had only about 13 balls in play that were at 95% of their max, so perfect timing is not very common.  ‘Perfect Timing’ is exact; all other timing is early or late to one degree or another.  Somehow, this physical fact has escaped many hitting experts that believe the severe uppercut swing line is ideal.  It is ideal for some things, just not maximizing all aspects of hitting.  Very slightly late foul tips for example, is one of things that thrive in that atmosphere.  Swings and misses, weak pop ups and topped groundballs are also abundant when the swing plane is far more up than the pitch line is downward.  Why then has it worked for periods of time?

Below shows a hitter with a swing aimed at hitting 25 to 35 degree Launch Angles.  His swing line produces a whole set of possible contact characteristics that we will look at later in this series but today, notice that the range of both flyballs and goundballs is very wide, up to almost 90 degree pop ups and dribbler groundballs at almost -90 degrees.  Actually it is greater than this by a lot if you look at all pitches swung at versus just the balls in play.  Swings and misses, multiple foul tips and flared fouls off the handle should also be looked at when being ‘precise’.  Precision is a lost art in the world of baseball until now when we can finally measure everything.  One recent study of a superstar hitter showed that when you look at only middle up fastball strikes, most all being from 2-5 degrees downward, this hitter swung and missed or fouled off almost 2/3 of them.  64% of what was said for a century to be the easiest pitch to hit, fastball up, was literally missed or barely touched.  We’ll cover this in another post but realize that when we measure swing effectiveness, shouldn’t the misses count?  Great swings miss less often, just sayin’.

Below is a different picture.  We will explain this in the next post.

When it Stops Working
If your philosophy is ‘just swing up’, you are likely experiencing the same things that MLB hitters are, higher strikeouts and more weak flyballs and topped groundballs.  Perhaps it is time to start training the most important element in hitting, Timing.   Time Training………..

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