Data-Driven Hitting Instruction

by Adam Newland

First came the data. With the advent of systems like Statcast, Hittrax and Trackman, baseball enthusiasts became immersed in the data surrounding the bat-ball collision. Seemingly overnight, conversations regarding hitting were filled with terms like “exit velocity” and “launch angle”. It was an exciting new way to look at sports’ most difficult task, and coaches began to come up with ways to make this new data a part of their regular instruction.

Then came the backlash. While exit velocity and launch angle have become part of the hitting vernacular, a segment of the coaching population regards the new found emphasis a bit alarming. These coaches are quick to point out that a high exit velocity in the cage doesn’t mean you can square up a quality pitcher who is effectively mixing his stuff. This notion is true of course. However, arguments like these do not diminish the fact that utilizing data in hitting instruction can have a profound effect on a player’s development and overall team success. Instead of coming up with ways to rebuke the data, coaches should actively seek ways to use data to better inform how they instruct their players.

EXIT VELOCITY

The new hitting data point that is referenced most frequently is exit velocity. As stated earlier, detractors of exit velocity point out that a 100 MPH exit velocity doesn’t count for much if you can’t make solid contact. It’s a legitimate point which neglects a larger truth: baseballs hit 100 MPH go for hits far more often than balls hit 70 MPH. Therefore, exit velocity data can provide a coach with a clearer picture of a player’s ability. In addition, measuring a player’s exit velocity can provide a coach with ideas about how to train them going forward. That being said, a focus on exit velocity alone doesn’t yield much unless it is paired with other data sets.

Training Applications

Once exit velocity data is gathered by the coach, a number of different options exist to improve it. For starters, a player with a low exit velocity probably needs to spend as much time as possible getting stronger and more explosive in the weight room. The next area to check is swing mechanics. Occasionally, a few tweaks to a player’s cut can yield pretty substantive gains because of the resulting efficiency and fluidity of their swing. Another option would be to utilize some weighted implement training. If a weighted bat set is not a realistic option financially, a coach can make some cheap weighted bats using athletic tape and coins or washers.

LAUNCH ANGLE

The most important stat to pair exit velocity data with is launch angle. At first glance, launch angle seems like a difficult thing to measure without some sort of motion capture technology (Diamond Kinetics, Zepp, Blast Motion, etc.). However, if you know the height of your cage and can do right triangle math (or find an internet application to do it for you), then you can pretty easily track a player’s launch angle.

 

That said, a coach should not use a low exit velocity as a reason for a player to not elevate the ball. Balls hit 100 MPH on the ground are often outs, but balls hit 70 MPH on the ground are even more often outs. In 2016, MLB players put 13,435 balls in play from 70-79 MPH. If a ball hit at that speed was hit with a launch angle between 16-20 degrees, it was a hit 94% of the time (statistics courtesy of Matt Thompson, Cass High School, White, GA). The lesson, as always, is to elevate the baseball regardless of size, strength, or spot in the lineup.

Training Applications

When the math is done, it’s clear that the “back of the cage” ball coaches have/were taught to hit is, at best, a routine single to center. Given a 12-15 foot tall cage, a line drive hit at 15 degrees will hit the top of the cage somewhere between 35 and 45 feet from where the ball is contacted. (Important note: Research done in multiple places concludes that the ideal launch angles for line drives is between 10 and 30 degrees.) Armed with that knowledge, a coach can help their players gain an understanding of proper launch angles without discussing trigonometry or numbers at all. Measure out your points on the top of the cage, and use tape, spray paint, or rope to mark off those ideal launch angles.

From there, a coach should keep the instruction to a minimum. Tell the players to hit the ball to those spots, and watch what the player does to accomplish the goal. Often times, if a player has a specific goal in mind, their body will organize itself to accomplish that task. Players who have spent years chopping down furiously and fruitlessly at the baseball may see their swing change quickly to a more efficient, effective pattern. As always, a coach’s mileage will vary based on the athletic ability of their players.

Final Thoughts

With data seeping into the game from all directions, the amount of information at a coach’s fingertips has never been higher. Coaches who choose to ignore data can still be effective; provided that they are teaching proper mechanics. However, those coaches will be left behind by those coaches who embrace data, and maximize its usefulness for their players. Embrace the influx of information. Consider it carefully. Use it to make players better.

References

Arthur, R. (2016, April 13). The New Science Of Hitting | FiveThirtyEight.

Lee, R. (2017, January 31). How To Determine Launch Angles in the Batting Cage | Diamond Kinetics.