As fans, we have more data than ever at our disposal, and one of the most compelling recent innovations is StatCast -- a tracking technology that uses high-res cameras to track the placement and movement of every ball. While we're all still wrapping our heads around the capabilities and implications of StatCast, it's already given us a much better purchase on previously undetectable baseball skills -- a pitcher's release point, for instance, or the spin rate on pitches, or the velocity of a ball off the bat. Another one of those elusive yet necessary skills is the launch angle.
What's a 'launch angle?'
In simple terms, launch angle is the vertical angle at which a ball leaves the bat. Needless to say, there's a wide range outcomes. Hit the ball at a very low angle -- say one or two degrees -- and the batter will put the ball on the ground. Hit it at a very high angle -- say 60 degrees -- and it's going to be a generally harmless pop-up. The batter, obviously, wants to "barrel" the ball or "square it up," depending upon your preferred terminology. "Knock the crap out of the ball" also works. Hitting the ball hard is a combination of launch angle and exit velocity. We tend to focus on exit velocity and are wowed by those balls that leave the bat at 110 mph or whatever. Obviously, hitting the ball hard is optimal for the hitter, but if you hit the ball at, say, 105 mph but at a launch angle of, say, five degrees, you're looking at a likely groundout and maybe even a 6-4-3 double play. Hit triple digits off the bat but do so at a very high angle, and you're looking at towering pop-up or fly ball. Fans who don't know to watch the fielder instead of the ball may think for an instant that you've smote the ball out of the yard, but a fielder's going to settle under that one with relative ease.
What's the ideal launch angle?
This raises the matter of what the ideal launch angle is from the batsman's standpoint. As it turns out, balls that leave the bat at a vertical angle of between 10 and 30 degrees lead to best offensive results. Hit it from 10 to 25 degrees at the proper exit velocity, and you've likely ripped a line drive. Find the 25-30 degree band (again, at proper exit speed), and you're in home run territory.
Who has the best launch angle in MLB?
So which hitter in 2016 has found that sweet spot the most often? Via the most excellent Baseball Savant, here are the 10 hitters with the most batted balls in that desired 10-30 degree range ...
|Rank||Hitter||No. of batted balls with launch angle of 10-30 degrees|
|1.||Jose Altuve, Astros||71|
|2. ||Daniel Murphy, Nationals||64|
|T-3.||Nick Castellanos, Tigers||55|
|T-3.||Matt Carpenter, Cardinals||55|
|T-3. ||Josh Harrison, Pirates||55|
|T-3.||Matt Kemp, Padres||55|
|T-7.||Ian Kinsler, Tigers||54|
|T-7.||Miguel Cabrera, Tigers||54|
|T-9.||Robinson Cano, Mariners||53|
|T-9.||Matt Duffy, Giants||53|
|T-9.||Corey Seager, Dodgers||53|
|T-9.||Mike Trout, Angels||53|
Not surprisingly, a number of baseball's best hitters pepper the list above. Towering over all, though, is Altuve, the Astros' diminutive star. Over the last couple of seasons, Altuve has focused more on hitting for power, and finding that launch angle "sweet spot" is a big part of that. This season, he's slugging a robust .553, which ranks eighth in the AL. He also boasts an Isolated Power of .228, which is good for 20th in the AL. What's particularly impressive about Altuve's excellence in the power department -- and with the bat in general -- is that there's evidence that his 5-foot-6 stature leads to an inordinate number of called strikes. Still and yet, he hits the ball and hits it hard and often.
Now let's have a look at those who find the 10-30 degree range the most often as a percentage of balls in play (minimum 50 balls in play at 10-30 degrees) ...
|Rank||Hitter||% of balls in play w/ launch angle of 10-30 degrees|
|1.||Trevor Story, Rockies||40.48|
|2.||Nick Castellanos, Tigers||40.15|
|3.||Matt Carpenter, Cardinals||39.29|
|4.||Jose Altuve, Astros||37.97|
|5.||Daniel Murphy, Nationals||37.65|
|6.||Josh Harrison, Pirates||37.41|
|7.||Mike Trout, Angels||36.55|
|8.||David Ortiz, Red Sox||36.36|
|9.||Lorenzo Cain, Royals||34.72|
|10.||Kole Calhoun, Angels||34.67|
Again, we see many of the usual suspects. We have Murphy and his Kevin Long-rebuilt swing, breakout young star Castellanos, the age-defying Ortiz, and Cain, who made such impressive progress with the quality of his batted balls last season. And there's Altuve. Another remarkable thing about Altuve is that he achieves such good contact -- solid and at the proper angle -- despite being one of the hardest batters to strike out. He's got power, but it's harnessed power.
Why is launch angle important?
Need more evidence that launch angle is important? This season, 496 batters have hit at least one ball with a launch angle of between 10 and 30 degrees. Of those 496 batters, 481 are slugging at least .500 on those balls with 10-30 degree launch angles. Moreover, 424 are slugging at least .700 on those batted balls, and 325 are slugging at least 1.000 (!). Put the ball in play at that desired angle, and good things almost always happen. Unlikely as it may sound, Jose Altuve demonstrates this probably better than anyone.