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………..

Joey Votto has cut his strikeouts down but what is the cost?


Joey Votto Has Cut Strikeouts…..But At What Cost?
Every decision a hitter makes about their approach comes with both benefits and costs.  In the past, the thinking was that all power hitters had to get used to high strikeouts and lower batting averages to reap big power.  Conversely, all contact hitters would settle for single digit homers and shoot for a high batting average.  Obviously, things have changed in many ways in today’s game, not just the new stats that are used to judge hitters but also the philosophy.  Hitters like Miggy, Trout and Joey Votto have showed that power and consistency can be obtained together.  Brian Dozier shocked the baseball world hitting over 40 jacks last season as one of the smaller guys in the game showing shocking elite level power and arguably THE smallest guy in baseball, Jose Altuve, has also combined both elements at the same time.

Hitters like Joey Votto have artfully combined a blend of both power and consistency, while leading the charge in On Base Percentage, the analytical equivalent of the fountain of youth.  Votto is certainly impressive on many fronts but let’s take a look at the numbers related to his recent rebellion against striking out.

In the case of Votto’s recent downward spiral in strikeouts, which is being touted as a huge improvement in an already analytic superstar’s arsenal, there are certain negative things that go with that benefit  of less strikeouts.  The first bill to come due is in the form of Exit Velocity, which the analytical world is just now beginning to embrace as a key metric, while it has been at the core of Effective Velocity for a couple of decades.  Votto’s average Exit Velocity, which has gone down from 89.6 (2015) to 87.8 MPH this year, puts more than 160 MLB hitters ahead of him in this stat.

His average Exit Velocity with 2 strikes is at 86.2 MPH (127th in MLB), on the surface, a seemingly insignificant tradeoff, but we’ll dive into that.  Votto’s top Exit Velocity is also much lower than one might expect from an elite level power hitter, even though that has not gone down recently.  There are, however, more than 100 hitters topping Votto’s 110.9 MPH max effort this season.  Top Exit Velocity is a function of mechanical efficiency, philosophy and strength as well as timing, but those are subjects for another day.

In and of itself, the loss in Exit Velocity is not really a big deal, if the production is enough to make the cost worth it.  In other words, if he gives up just a little power to gain a lot more consistent contact, leading to less K’s, it would be more than worth the loss in speed off the bat.  But…… is it really working that way?

Votto, when ahead in the count, puts up some impressive numbers,  .287 BA – .413 OBP – .567 Slugging % and .980 OPS.  However, when he is behind in the count, those numbers slip dramatically to .186 BA – .205 OBP – .256 Slugging % and .460 OPS, becoming virtually half the hitter he is when the count is in his favor.  This is due to employing a completely different approach when he gets to 2 strikes, including choking up on the bat and shortening his physical swing.  Again, there is a lot to explore in that sentence, but the physical aspects are for another article.

The balls in play labeled ‘Barrels’ and ‘Solid Contact’ on Statcast, total only 6 in 2 strike counts out of 47 balls in play, or a makeshift hard hit average of .127 (Barrels + Solid Contact divided by balls in play in those counts) with an average Exit Velocity of 86.2 MPH (over all 2 K counts) and only 1 homer.  When ahead in counts, he is 22 for 99 in those categories, giving him a hard hit ball average of almost double at .222 with 12 homers.


Above – Joey Votto with less than 2 strikes.


Above – Joey Votto in 2 Strike Counts.

While the decrease in strikeouts seems really impressive on the surface, the almost 50% loss in production seems like a steep price to pay, especially when his approach to choke up and completely change his swing is not the only answer to cutting down strikeouts, just his chosen method.  The Time Training hitting program (the hitting side of Effective Velocity) is designed around the understanding of game approaches that address the 2 strike approach issue, among many others.


The Exit Velocity by counts above shows that his 0-2 & 1-2 counts are significantly lower than the other more predictable counts.  This is yet another piece of evidence showing that ALL HITTERS have a measurable ‘Hitters Attention’ (Measurable Reactionary Limitations), but that isn’t the main point of this article.  This is important to note because 0-2 and 1-2 counts are the most ‘Reactionary’ counts, so how hitters are able to perform in these counts more accurately speaks to their ability to identify and react to multiple pitch speeds or a ‘Metric’ for timing, pitch recognition skills and mechanics together.

In these counts, the pitcher becomes more aggressive and the hitter is in a more defensive mindset (at least the reactionary hitter – Votto in this case).  The hitter is trying to wait to see if it’s a strike before swinging so they tend to apply a mechanically compromised swing due to bad timing.  In other words they use their C or D swing rather than the A version because after they wait to see the pitch, there is no time to perform the A swing, so they cheat their mechanics trying to make up for the poor timing.  These counts are a great test of a hitter’s ability to ‘see it and hit it’, assuming they are in a reactionary mindset as we know Votto employs with most of the 2 strike counts.

While it is true that Votto can ‘see it and put it in play’ in those counts, with an average Exit Velocity of around 79 MPH (0-2 & 1-2 averaged), he is certainly nowhere near 100%.  It is also certainly NOT proof that he can ‘see it and do damage to it’, in fact, quite the opposite.  This is one of the very core elements of Effective Velocity, which leads pitchers to the ability to control Exit Velocity.  And YES, pitchers that understand and employ EV have the ability to control hitter’s Exit Velocity, when they are ‘REACTING’, which is clearly what Votto does in most 2 strike counts.  Votto’s is one of the most evident cases of a great hitter that obviously morphs into a different more reactionary hitter in 2 strike counts with a measurable loss in production, meaning his Exit Velocity is being controlled by the pitcher and the count.

Zone Awareness
There is one more factor we should look at before deciding if this 2 strike approach trade-off is worthy.  While many Saberminded analysts are pushing for electronic umpires calling balls and strikes, it would appear that if that happened, they might have to alter their view on just how well Votto ‘actually’ controls the zone.  The graph below is all the pitches called balls versus Votto this season.  It would seem he has been awarded quite a large number of gift calls on the inside part of the zone.  So much so that you can’t really make out where the line of the zone box is located.


Pitches vs Votto called balls – the inside zone line is covered from strikes called balls.

In the Braves’ golden era, Tom Glavine was quoted as saying he had ‘Earned’ that strike call that was 6 inches off the plate, when it was questionably even that close at times.  It would seem that Votto has the same honor bestowed to him, only in reverse.  His eye at the plate has been so talked about, umpires tend to give him strikes as far ‘on the plate’ as the inner third of the zone as a called ball, with a few of them bordering on middle middle.  Careful what you ask for, robot umps might paint a different picture, in regards to Votto’s zone control at least.


By my rough count, there are about 6 to 9 (red) strike calls on pitches outside the zone (depending on where you draw the line) to almost 40 (green) ball calls inside the zone, umpire gifts to Votto, a difference of roughly 4 to 1 in Votto’s favor.  What happens if that reverses?

Lastly, what is the ‘Opportunity Cost’ of applying less than his A swing in 2 strike counts?  What is the price for taking a very compromised swing at good/great pitches to hit, especially fastballs in the plus part of the EV strike zone?  These are the pitches that are the hardest to adjust to with an altered swing approach, even though traditional thinking says ‘everyone crushes the ball when left up in the zone’.  Votto has only managed 2 barrels out of the 32 plus fastballs in 2 strike counts.

The video example (above) of a recent at bat with Votto, you can see how compromised his 2 strike swing is, as well as the opportunity lost of the elevated fastballs he didn’t hit.  If you go back to the Exit Velocity by counts graphic, you will see that when he is in 0-2 & 1-2 counts, the Exit Velocity goes down dramatically.  If you don’t think 79 MPH (0-2 & 1-2 count Exit Velocity) is a dramatic decrease, then consider that these counts yield only 71% of his max Exit Velocity, which would be the equivalent of Aroldis Chapman throwing 74.6 MPH in his 2 strike counts, rather than his max of 105 MPH.

Below are the 32 fastballs, sinkers, cutters and 2 seamers that Votto saw in 2 strike counts.

The graphic above shows fastballs thrown in the plus part of the EV zone, as well as dead central, in 2 strike counts.  Of the 32 plus fastballs, he had only 2 barrels and these are all prime pitches to hit.  When hitters are ‘reacting’, these fastballs gaining Effective Velocity have to be hit on time with an A swing to do damage, thus the loss of 21% of his Exit Velocity in 2 strike counts clearly proves neither good timing nor great mechanical efficiency.  Every plan has strengths and weaknesses and waiting to recognize the pitch and ‘reacting’ is death for the Effective Velocity concept of 100/100 (100% on time contact with 100% mechanical efficiency).

All hitters have strengths and weaknesses and Joey Votto’s overall offensive approach has certainly produced incredible results.  This piece is not to say that his 2 strike approach is good or bad, just that if we are to truly measure an approach, we have to look at it objectively from all angles.  We also have to consider the costs before applying the golden seal of approval as ‘the wave of the future’, as it seems to be trending at present.  Statistics are set in stone, but the interpretation of statistics can be far from concrete, as we are beginning to see.

The facts show that when Votto goes into a pure reactionary state, he becomes half the hitter in most statistics that are important, in order to cut down his strikeouts.  This is one of the primary Effective Velocity tenets.  Hitters cannot wait to recognize the pitch and react at 100/100 to EV efficient pitches.  The interpretation of those facts…………..?  Well, just Google it…….  The tendency is to look at his overall performance and assume every aspect of his hitting approach is elite.  Now that you know the cost of his 2 strike approach, you can decide for yourself……………

* Statcast