Launch Angle vs. Exit Angle

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?

The Precise Point Hitting Mat is a tool hitters can use to practice optimal exit angle based on 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.

Comments 29

  1. As far an launch angle, I agree that a slight increase in launch angle (the average launch angle in the MLB has increased from 10.5 degrees to 13 degrees) will increase home run potential but only if it is accompanied with exit velocity.

    In 2018, 99% of all home runs were hit with an exit velocity of 90mph or greater.

    Even though HR’s are up…. I have to add the following info:
    Strikeouts and fly balls are up and ground balls are down again 2019. (Strikeouts in the MLB have set a new record high strikeout rate in nine of the last 10 seasons and in 2019 the league is on pace to set another record)
    2018 saw the lowest league batting average (.247) since 1972 (.244).

    (Is this because batters are altering their swings and approaches trying to alter their vertical bat path angle too much? Possibly…)

    In January 2016, Chicago Cubs’ hitting coach John Mallee gave a presentation at the American Baseball Coaches Association convention in Nashville, How Science and Analytics Changed The Swing. It was one considered one of the most important talks in the history of the ABCA which dates back to 1945 according to Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.

    The good stuff:
    • The average exit velocity for a hard-hit ball is 90 mph.
    • The minimum exit velocity to hit a HR is 90mph. (in 2018 99% of HR’s were hit with an exit speed of 90mph or higher)
    • The ideal launch angle for balls exiting greater than 90 mph for a base hit is 7-12 degrees (75% hits).
    • The ideal launch angle for balls exiting less than 90 mph for base hit is 12-15 degrees (90% hits).
    • The ideal launch angle for balls exiting greater than 90 mph for a home run is 23-35 degrees (40% home runs).

    He also looked at the batting average for ground balls and found it was .245. But he looked at ALL ground balls hit, not filtering for exit velocity.

    Perry Husband dug a little deeper and filtered for only ground balls hit at 90mph (minimum HR speed) or higher.
    What he found was that batters hit .400 or better. The mean was .550 and the highest was .750.

    Let’s look at fly balls.

    From, good home run hitters typically have a home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB ratio) anywhere from 15-20%. So what happens the other 80-85% of the time on these fly balls? An excerpt from an article in 2018 by Lee Judge in the Kansas City Star sums it up quite nicely.

    “The problem with hitting a fly ball is what happens when you don’t hit a home run.

    A recent look at Baseball Reference showed that when the Royals hit a ball with what the website refers to as “fly-ball trajectory,” they hit 58 of their 68 home runs … but had a batting average of .159.

    Take out the 58 home runs, and the 58 at-bats that went with them, and the Royals’ batting average on fly balls was .083.

    If you’re thinking, “So what? The Royals offense is bad!,” let’s take a look at what happens when one of the best teams in the National League hits a fly ball.

    At the time this was written, the Atlanta Braves were second in runs scored, second in team batting average, third in on-base percentage and third in slugging percentage.

    When the Braves hit a ball with fly-ball trajectory, they hit 87 of their 97 home runs but had a batting average of .221. Take out the 87 home runs, and 87 at-bats and when the Braves hit a fly ball and it wasn’t a home run, and their batting average was .108.”

    But both the Braves and the Royals excel when they hit a ball with what Baseball Reference describes as “line-drive trajectory”.

    Hitting fly balls are not as productive as people think and not as productive as the baseball “guru’s” will have most believe. If you don’t “smoke ‘em”, they’re outs.

    They also looked at the 50 hardest hit baseballs of 2018.

    Thirty of them were hit with a launch angle between +15 and -15 degrees. The guys who hit those 30 balls made 10 outs and hit only one home run, but they also hit five doubles and had a collective batting average of .667.

    In contrast, only five of the fifty were hit with fly-ball or “home run” trajectory/ launch angle.

    Exit Velocity is much better than Launch Angle overall. All of the data supports the harder you hit the ball, the better chance you have of getting a “hit”. Home run or not.

    In further support, (Hardball Times), Nathan Allen, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Illinois and produces the website The Physics of Baseball, did an analysis on Exit Speed and Home Runs. After doing all the statistical research, comparisons and calculations – in his words: “The overwhelming factor leading to the increase in home runs comes from more hard-hit balls rather than from more balls hit in the desired angular range (launch angle). My conclusion is that higher exit speeds account for most of the increase in home runs…”.

    While it’s true, a higher launch angle increases the chance of a home run, exit velocity is most important and should be the primary emphasis. Home runs are great but even with them being up, a home run in the MLB only occurs approximately 2.7 times in 100 at bats. (2.7% of the time) (source: The Baseball Almanac)

    I’m not “old school” and not a “ground ball Homer” either. It’s just before I drink what someone calls Kool-Aid, I want to check what’s in it first before I drink it.

    Side note:
    Even though this article is about launch angle – there was reference made about back spin.

    A batter really doesn’t have any control hitting a ball with backspin. An approaching pitched baseball is moving and already has spin. The the type of pitch thrown dictates the type of batted ball spin. When the bat makes contact with a ball, the ball obviously goes in the reverse direction toward the field. But, with the change in direction, contact also changes the ball’s spin.

    Mont Hubbard and colleagues at the University of California, Davis modeled all the forces on a batted ball and found:

    • A fastball arrives at the plate with backspin. Once hit, it leaves with topspin.
    • A curve ball arrives at the plate with topspin. Once hit, it leaves with backspin.

    Therefore batted ball spin is actually dictated by the type of pitch thrown.

    But how can a player hit a ball with back spin off a batting tee? Simple physics. The ball isn’t rotating. Therefore, when a batter hits a non-spinning stationary ball off a batting tee just below mid-line of the baseball, the friction of the ball and bat colliding created at that contact point causes the ball to leave with back spin.

    Just like a drive down the middle of the fairway with backspin will travel farther in the air than a fade or a hook. This is true because the golf ball being hit is not moving nor does the stationary golf ball have any before contact spin.

    Whether you’re a high school, college or pro baseball player there is no way a batter can control hitting a baseball with backspin constantly and predictability. Don’t worry or waste your time trying to do it. Not to say back spin won’t help with distance – just that backspin is pretty much out of a batter’s hands. A batter’s focus needs to be seeing the ball early in its flight, intercepting the ball on time and as closes to square relative to pitch location as possible (hopefully at around a +15 degree angle with good exit speed!).

    Coach Helke
    Active coach since 1992,
    Performance Optimization & Mental Game Mentor
    Founder of The Baseball Observer Magazine
    Founder of 360 Peak Performance
    -BS Psychology (Cognition & Perception)
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  2. The next time I read a blog, I hope that it won’t disappoint me just as much as this one. After all, Yes, it was my choice to read through, nonetheless I truly believed you’d have something useful to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could possibly fix if you were not too busy seeking attention.

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