The talk of Major League Baseball in 2017 was the record number of home runs. The previous record of 5,693 long balls was set in 2000. Whenever major league hitters go on a home run hitting spree, the discussion usually centers on whether the baseball or the players are “juiced”.
The reality in baseball is there will always be players who violate the league’s policy for performance enhancing drugs, but I don’t believe all the home runs can be attributed to an epidemic of players who cheat. Although, the muscular bodies of the most prolific home run hitters always causes me to at least consider the possibility that their performance wasn’t totally natural.
Others will blame all the home runs on the construction of the baseball. They claim it is either wound too tight or the seams are too flat. Either is a viable explanation for the record number of home runs. A harder baseball jumps out of the park and flat seams can limit the effectiveness of breaking balls. Both have been proven to increase the number of home runs, but I think the explanation is much more simple than how baseballs are manufactured.
Launch angle is the primary reason for the increase in home runs. It is the upward path of the bat before impact with the ball in the hitting zone. This upward path is then maintained by the hitter until the swing is completed. It’s surprising that it has taken the majority major league baseball players so long to identify how to consistently hit more home runs.
I have been teaching and advocating the importance of launch angle in baseball and softball for many years. In my book, Hitting With Torque: For Baseball and Softball Hitters, I describe in detail how to achieve the proper swing angle in order to drive the ball with more power in the gaps and over the wall.
The ideal launch angle for baseball and softball hitters is between 25 and 35 degrees. Studies have confirmed that hitters who adjust their launch angle by 10 to 20 degrees increase their power numbers and batting average dramatically.
Achieving a powerful launch angle requires hitters to do more than just swing up with their arms. Real power comes from a highly leveraged angle of the body at impact with the ball. My hitters set up in a relatively neutral position with 60 percent of their weight on the back foot and 40 percent on the front foot. Setting up this way will naturally result in some angle of the body back toward the catcher.
As the swing is initiated after the powerful independent rotation of the lower body and then the upper body, the back shoulder gradually lowers as the ball approaches the hitting zone. Below is a the swing of Sammy Sosa immediately after he makes contact with the ball. In spite of your opinion whether Sosa used performance enhancing drugs, he had solid hitting mechanics and a powerful launch position at the point of impact with the incoming pitch.
Critics of the new launch angle craze argue that hitters become too predictable. They contend if hitters try to consistently elevate the ball through a more pronounced launch angle, natural “holes in the swing” will become apparent to pitchers. While some hitters may have more problems with pitches up or down in the strike zone, I’m not sure hitters with higher launch angles have more vulnerabilities than contact hitters who have flatter swings.
In addition to the record number of home runs hit in 2017, Major League hitters also set a record for strikeouts for the 10th year in a row. I do think there is a direct relationship between higher launch angles and strikeouts, but I don’t believe it’s due to any flaw in the swings of all these new power hitters. I blame over aggressiveness.
In the “old days”, hitters with a two strike count would choke-up on the bat or shorten their swing with the goal of just putting the ball in play. The majority of the players today are swinging for the fences regardless of the count. Really ugly swings for strikeouts are rampant due to hitters failing to alter their strategies after falling behind in the count. When pitchers know hitters will be swinging out of their shoes with two strikes, a good breaking ball out of the zone or a high fastball will turn into an embarrassment for hitters.
A Simple Launch Angle Strategy
I intentionally chose the picture of the three rockets to illustrate an effective strategy I teach to my hitters. This strategy encourages hitters to match their launch angle to the game situation.
If the game situation calls for a home run, then my hitters have the green light to use a high launch angle to drive the ball powerfully in the air. This is depicted by the rocket on the right that has a higher launch angle and generates optimal thrust.
If a hard line drive or double is warranted by the game situation, then my hitters are more like the rocket in the middle. I ask them to merely adjust the angle of their body slightly toward the pitcher without changing their swing.
The rocket on the left is the one that eludes today’s power hitters who contributed to the record-breaking strikeout totals. When a hard ground ball or a sharp line drive to the right location on the field is critical to start a rally or keep a rally going, I instruct my hitters to merely limit their launch angle to nearly vertical.
In a recent doubleheader in Wisconsin, the college softball team I work with as the hitting coach was faced with a cold wind howling in from all fields. This team leads the conference in almost every hitting category and will break the school records for doubles and home runs this season. Before the game, I merely told them to change their launch angle to hit more line drives and hard ground balls. I didn’t have to tell them to change their power hitting mechanics or even their mental approach with the wind blowing in. They all simply modified the angle of their bodies at impact with the ball. The results for the doubleheader sweep included 20 hits and 12 other hard line drives that were caught. The opposing team must have felt like the wind shifted every time our hitters were batting.
Control the Launch
Adjusting the launch angle to achieve a desired hitting objective may seem like an obvious strategy, but very few hitters understand the benefits of simply altering the angle of the body to hit the ball with the ideal trajectory to the desired location. Hitters who control the launch will still hit bombs, but they will also reduce the number of strikeouts and will hit for a higher average. If you have any doubt, just look at the 2017 statistics for the World Series Champion Houston Astros.
The Houston Astros hit the second most home runs in the major leagues during the 2017 regular season and had the highest team batting average. They also had the fewest strikeouts of any team in the majors. Houston definitely did not have a problem on their way to a world championship. They had all the launch codes!