The Red Sox Join The Launch Angle Revolution!

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The Boston Red Sox finished first in the AL East last season while finishing near the bottom in home runs in MLB. The Sox have hired Tim Hyers as the new hitting coach to help address this situation. Damian Dydyn writes about how this hire could help the Sox go deeper in the playoffs in 2018. Can the Red Sox join the launch angle revolution?

 

It’s no secret that in bringing Tim Hyers on as the new hitting coach, ownership would like to see the Boston Red Sox join the launch angle revolution, at least to some extent. As assistant hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hyers was part of a shift in philosophy that saw the Dodgers raise their FB% from 32.6 in 2016 (26th in the majors per Fangraphs) to 37.0 in 2017 (6th in the majors). This coincided with the team setting a franchise record for HR (221), which was 11th best in the majors in 2017. The Red Sox ranked 27th in HR this past season, hitting just 168.

Hyers also believes in plate discipline, which could mean that the Red Sox will look to continue their long-standing philosophy of “winning the battle for the strike zone,” an artifact of the Theo Epstein era, even while tweaking their hitters’ swings toward more fly balls.

Launch angle is something that has drawn a lot of attention lately, though it’s hardly new. Ted Williams was talking about it back in the 1970’s in The Science of Hitting, describing the optimal swing as having “a slight uppercut.” Of course, our ability to measure launch angle via StatCast (a new technology going back only a few seasons) has been a driving force behind the interest among fans recently.

But launch angle is only one component of driving the ball with authority (out of the park or otherwise), and if all you have is an optimal range of launch angles for run value (19-26 degrees), it’s not going to get you much. Dustin Pedroia, for example, sent 10.7% of his batted balls off the bat in this range, the 4th highest rate among Red Sox starters last year. Unfortunately, he also had the second lowest number of balls hit at 95 MPH or higher, which led to a paltry .392 SLG. With a healthy knee, he may drive the ball more regularly, so there is hope for a bounce back, but his 2017 season illustrates the point about needing more than just launch angle to hit doubles and home runs.

According to Andrew Perpetua’s article linked above, the most productive clump of launch angles is 19-26. 25-39 is where the most home runs come from, but for overall production you want to be in the tier below. The clumpings are available at xstats.org.

With that in mind, here is how the Red Sox starting lineup looks when cross referencing both launch angle and exit velocity (specifically balls hit 95 MPH or more). HD% is a percentage of balls hit between 19 and 26 degrees, and FB% is between 26 and 39 degrees. (HD% is not line drives, which are balls hit at 10-19 degrees.)

Name 95 MPH + 95 MPH + Rank HD% HD% Rank FB% FB% Rank HD+FB% HD+FB Rank Notes
Hanley Ramirez 145 85 (T) 12.4 12 13.9 95 (T) 26.3 44 (T)
Mitch Moreland 143 92 (T) 9.7 87 (T) 16 42 (T) 25.7 54 (T)
Andrew Benintendi 156 60 10.6 54 (T) 14.5 80 (T) 25.1 69
Dustin Pedroia 76 251 10.7 52 (T) 12.1 132 (T) 22.8 107 (T)
Christian Vazquez 59 294 9.6 92 (T) 13 113 (T) 22.6 110 (T) 345 PA
Mookie Betts 209 9 10.8 48 (T) 9.9 164 (T) 20.7 135 (T)
Jackie Bradley Jr. 143 92 (T) 8.6 128 (T) 9.7 168 18.3 164
Xander Bogaerts 145 85 (T) 7.9 148 (T) 9.8 167 17.7 171 (T)
Rafael Devers 74 (185) 260 (28) 9.1 114 (T) 8.5 176 (T) 17.6 173 (T) 240 PA

A few names stand out as potential targets for making an adjustment that could pay off in a significant increase in offensive production, and not all of them are what we might expect. The rankings for these two ranges of launch angels are out of 180 hitters who amassed 450 PAs or more last season, with Vazquez and Devers noted as being below that. The rankings for batted balls hit at 95 MPH or higher are out of 540 hitters. Devers was extrapolated to a full 600 PAs (the numbers in parentheses).

On the pessimistic side, Hanley Ramirez, Mitch Moreland and Andrew Benintendi all rank fairly highly when we rank hitters by combined percentages (HD% and FB%) and likely won’t see much of a boon from Hyers tinkering with their swings. Of course, Hanley ranks very well for HD% and fairly well for balls hit 95 MPH or higher, so there is a reasonable hope that he will bounce back in 2018 if he’s actually healthy following shoulder surgery. Mitch Moreland ranks fairly well in both, and will probably be similar to last season. Additionally, Dustin Pedroia, as noted above, already lives in these ranges pretty consistently, so his production improving will hinge on the health of his knee more than anything else.

On the optimistic side, there are four hitters who stand to see some significant gains in HD% and FB% and could reap some benefit from that change. The obvious one is Xander Bogaerts, who came up through the Red Sox system with an expectation that he would hit for power at the major league level. But after his promotion, he adopted a line drive approach, perhaps in an attempt to close the hole he displayed down and away against hard breaking pitches in 2014. He also played with an injured wrist in 2017, which likely explains part of the dip from 21 HR in 2016 to 10 last year. If he is healthy and Hyers can help him to find a balance between the high-contact-rate-but-lower-power approach he has had the last three years, and a power-with-more-swing-and-miss technique which should yield more HRs, there is plenty of room for improvement. If he can settle in as a perennial 20-25 HR, .450+ SLG hitter while maintaining an OBP in the .350 range, we might be lumping him in with Mookie Betts at the top of the list for players that Dombrowski can’t let slip away.

Speaking of Mookie, he is one of the more surprising names on the list, and perhaps the most tantalizing. He is tied for 62nd in LD% in the xstats rankings, the highest of any Red Sox hitter, which correlates well with his ranking 9th on the list of most balls hit 95 MPH or higher. He’s only 142nd for most GB hit (between 0 and 10 degrees), which is important as the hardest contact comes from balls hit in this range. From Andrew Perpetua’s article linked above:

Well, think of it this way: you hit the ball harder if the center of the bat is lined up with the center of the ball.  That is obvious enough. Well, if the ball comes in with an angle of 0-10 degrees, then your bat will need to have an angle of 0-10 degrees to achieve maximum exit velocity. So, a launch angle around 0-10 degrees is roughly the default launch angle, give or take.

At 142nd out of 180 batters, Mookie isn’t getting a ton of his hard-hit balls from events in that GB range. Many of them are LD (10-19 degrees). Given that, tweaking his swing plane to generate slightly more loft will increase his output in that sweet spot of balls hit at 95 MPH or higher and a launch angle of 19-35 degrees, which should lead to more doubles and home runs. Mookie’s profile seems to be perfect for Hyers’ touch.

Next up is Jackie Bradley Jr., which I found surprising. From 2016 to 2017, he saw a slight dip in flyball percentage (only a 1.8% change per Fangraphs) while his line drive percentage stayed the same. It was mostly his HR/FB that dropped (3.6%), which coincides with a massive drop in ISO from .219 to .158. He also saw a 2.7% drop in hard contact, so it seems he wasn’t squaring the ball up as well as in previous seasons. He was about middle of the pack for balls hit at 95 MPH or higher, so there appears to be room for improvement with an adjustment to his swing plane.

Bradley was tied for 81st in GB% at xstats.org, so again, middle of the pack. He was tied for 169th in LD%. Looking at his launch angle charts for 2016 and 2017, it’s easy to see that he put a lot more balls in play with launch angles below 10 degrees in the most recent campaign. A bit more loft in his swing might be just what he doctor ordered.

Finally we come to the most surprising name on the list, at least for me; Rafael Devers. Devers displayed some truly exciting power in his 240 plate appearances in 2017, smashing 10 HR and 14 doubles. This was on top of hitting 20 HR in the minors, mostly at AA. You would expect someone who hits the ball for that much power to have plenty of uppercut in his swing already.

As it turns out, Devers has the lowest combined percentage of balls hit between 19 and 39 degrees among Red Sox regulars. He also would have ranked as one of the lowest percentages of balls hit between 10 and 19 degrees among the 180 hitters with 450 PAs or more. His percentage of balls hit between 0 and 10 degrees would, likewise, have been near the bottom of those rankings. So there were plenty of dribblers (below 0 degrees) and popups (above 39 degrees), which may have been due more to his adjusting to major league pitches, especially major league breaking balls, than to his approach. But his FB% (balls between 25 and 39 degrees) was strikingly low compared to his other batted ball types, which means that sweet spot of 20 to 35 degrees could see a significant boost with Hyers as the hitting coach. This should inspire quite a bit of hope that Devers can become the 30 HR threat that fans have been hoping for since he was signed as an international amateur in 2013.

All in all, the Red Sox might be late to the launch-angle party, but it seems they have concluded that adding loft would do them some good on the field. The addition of Tim Hyers offers a great deal of potential improvement from last season’s lackluster power numbers. And that’s before adding a middle of the order bat like J.D. Martinez. The Red Sox aren’t going to go from 27th in the majors in HR and 26th in SLG to leading the way for power next season, but as the Dodgers showed, getting into the top third of MLB in each category is plenty to propel you through to the playoffs.

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Damian grew up smack dab in the middle of Connecticut and was indoctrinated into the culture of Red Sox fandom from the moment he was old enough to start swinging a bat. A number of trips to Fenway park and meeting Ellis Burks at his dad's bar cemented what would become a life long obsession that would pay off in spades in both the recent run of post season success and the extra bit of connection he would have with his father throughout the years. After a brief three year stint living in the Bronx with his wife where he enjoyed leisurely strolls through the neighborhood with a Red Sox t-shirt on to provoke the natives, he settled in Roanoke, Virginia where he can fall out of bed and land at a Salem Red Sox game. Damian is a co-host for Sports & Sorts Shorts with Shane Moore, a baseball podcast covering Red Sox and Yankees topics.

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