Weren’t we all taught to swing level when we were young? It’s part of a keep it simple principle. There are too many nuanced mechanical dynamics for any single baseball swing that it wouldn’t be possible to capture them all in a series of complicated demands. It would be like a game of Twister. You are stepping, you are swinging, you are rotating your hips while keeping your head as still as possible. It makes sense to take one of the many variables out of the equation. So, you should swing level.
But that’s no longer the conventional advice beyond a beginner, and it is a stark departure from even some recent examples of professional baseball wisdom. How did we get here and where are we going?
“Slaught had always been taught, like most ballplayers at the time, to swing down on the ball—even on inside pitches. Doing so, however, means swinging across the downward trajectory of the pitch and potentially getting jammed or missing it altogether. Instead, a hitter should keep his front elbow above his hands and his hands above the barrel of the bat in order to swing through the same plane as the pitch. This allows for a greater margin of error, meaning the batter has more time to make contact and hit the ball to all fields.”
There are bound to be earlier examples, but baseball in the Modern Era (according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame) introduced new thinking on how to hit. This era coincides with the advent of modern technology – the commoditization of video. It was cheap and, although it had not yet become completely ubiquitous, it was a part of baseball. Don Slaught adhering to the advice of an MVP-caliber player like Don Mattingly (who actually was responding to observations of two Hall of Fame players, Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn) is a single example. Once video came to the fore as a training and reference tool, an entire paradigm shift occurred. Couple that with the “Moneyball” drive to exploit market inefficiencies and baseball was looking to mint a new breed of player.
Recent trends in baseball have correlated BABIP to launch angle and exit velocity. The idea is: if you hit a ball hard and in the air, better things will happen. There are more tangible benefits as well. Going back to the Moneyball example, not only do better things happen, but batters that swing like that typically see more pitches. When a pitcher throws more pitches, they generally lose efficacy. When, say, the starting pitchers lose efficacy (presumably some of your best pitchers), then your batters start to face the relievers – good, but not as good, pitchers.
“Changing every hitter’s swing to produce a better launch angle is a mistake,” said one AL staffer. “It may work with hitters who have enough power to drive the ball out of the park to all fields, but most hitters will find themselves flying out to the track. And there is no question that strikeouts will go up because hitters will be swinging under the ball.”
Not everyone ascribed to this theory. There were doubts and skeptics alike. There had been some thoughts that this wouldn’t work out and was applying a tactic across the board to both athletes who could benefit from the advent of launch angle and athletes who just couldn’t. Careers might have been jeopardized trying to cookie-cut every swing from every baseball player into the new mold and that the game would suffer.
The jury may be out on whether or not the game has suffered. However, while launch angle increased, so too have home runs. It seems that this new tactic proliferates with some measures of increased output. And, despite certain cautionary tales, it is all the rage in baseball. Perhaps the quality of the game is a completely subjective factor. But, beyond the observations of the naked eye, what other technical advances will change the way we think about production in baseball and other sports?
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