by Rob Ledington, Head Baseball Coach, Lynn Camp (KY) HS
Over the past few years, there’s been a great deal of discussion regarding the value of launch angles and offensive production, particularly as it relates to home runs, extra base hits, and runs batted in. The increased attention most likely contributed to the single-season home run record set by Major League Baseball this past season. However, does this information alone suggest that every hitter should increase their launch angle? The obvious answer is no.
A physical player with power and below average speed would obviously benefit from hitting home runs or balls in the gap for increased offensive productivity. These types of players are those who can most benefit from working on developing a higher launch angle. On the other hand, a smaller player with little power and superior speed would benefit from a lower launch angle, with their goal focused on producing line drives and hard ground balls. Even a ‘swinging bunt’ from smaller ‘speed’ guys is much more beneficial than most anything hit in the air. A buy-in to this approach can greatly increase offensive productivity by providing more opportunities to get on base, utilize their speed and ultimately, score more runs, which is what the offensive game of baseball is all about.
Exit angles, however, have equal value for all hitters regardless of size, speed, and/or desired launch angle. All hitters strive to hit the ball “squarely” thus maximizing exit velocity, and in some instances carry (travel in the air), while guarding against weakly hit fly balls and ground balls. What are exit angles? How do you determine the proper exit angle for each pitch location?
Exit angles are defined as the direction the ball goes after it is put in play. More simply put, the optimal exit angle is dependent on the lead foot, the bat and the ball creating a 90-degree angle at the point of contact. When this occurs, exit velocity is maximized for the ground ball, the line drive, and the fly ball because this contact will not create sidespin. Additionally, a fly ball will travel farther in the air when combined with the proper launch angle and backspin rotation. A high launch angle with a tardy swing (less than square) will create a high fade (in golf terms), or sidespin much like a sinker (in pitching terms), producing less exit velocity and carry. Conversely, an early swing at a high launch angle will create hook spin (in golf terms), or cutter/slider spin (in baseball terms) producing less exit velocity and carry. Therefore, only the ball struck at the optimal launch angle combined with the optimal exit angle will produce maximum exit velocity and distance in the air. It should be noted that is it entirely possible to hit a ball hard without “square contact.”
It is common knowledge that a four-seam fastball (with backspin) has more velocity and carry than a sinker, a cutter, or a slider. Similarly, a drive down the middle of the fairway with backspin will travel farther in the air than a fade or a hook. Thus, to maximize exit velocity and distance in the air, the launch angle and the exit angle must work together, with the exit angle having greater importance of the two. This is especially for the smaller player, unless they enjoy jogging to second base and back to the dugout!
Since the invention of the game, baseball coaches have taught their players to hit the pitch thrown down the middle of the plate back through the middle of the diamond. Ironically when this happens “square contact” occurs as it relates to the lead foot, the bat, and the ball at the point of contact. Once this central contact point has been established, it becomes possible to determine every other point of square contact, both on the inside and outside parts of the plate. For example, if the pitch is outside, coaches will say things like, “let it get deeper” or “let it travel.” When the pitch is inside, you are likely to hear “hit that out in front of the plate” or “get your foot down and swing earlier.” These statements are painfully obvious to everyone, but without an understanding of specifically what needs to happen to yield optimal results, making these adjustments can be a challenge.
The general rule when it comes to handling pitches closer to the edges of the plate is to allow the pitch one ball‘s width outside of center to travel precisely one ball’s width deep of the center pitch location, or behind the lead foot. If the pitch is two balls outside, two balls deep or behind the lead foot, and finally three balls outside, three balls deep or behind the lead foot.
The same concept would apply to pitches inside of the center contact position. One ball’s width in, one ball’s depth in front of the lead foot, two balls in, two balls in front of the lead foot, and finally three balls in, three balls in front of the lead foot. If this occurs, the batter will create “square contact” for each pitch location, resulting in optimal or maximum contact for each pitch.
With this understanding of what ‘square contact’ means as it relates to pitch location, creating a feel for the best exit angle on a pitch-to-pitch basis becomes much easier. It is even possible to practice these angles: for example, if a pitch is one ball’s width inside of center, the optimal exit angle is 10 degrees for a baseball and 13 degrees for a softball (angle variance attributed to the difference in diameter of the balls). Each pitch location inside and outside of center will have precise and varying exit angles that can provide players and coaches with the opportunity to set up precise targets to aim for off the tee, during soft toss, and even during live batting practice.
Providing visual targets can help your team buy in to the concept of becoming a more complete offensive player. It also gives them instant feedback, which is something that this current generation of players is finding more and more desirable.