With a mighty clout Tuesday night, Alex Gordon pushed MLB’s home run total to 5,694 to break a record set in the heart of a different kind of juiced-ball era 17 years ago. Whether today’s baseballs actually do have lower seams or a more tightly-wound core, the real culprit when it comes to the growing number of dingers is the increased adherence to the principles of launch angle and exit velocity.
Much of that has come from the de-stigmatization of the strikeout and the proselytizing of zealots like the Diamondbacks’ J.D. Martinez.
“People talk to me and I tell them straight up. I don’t bulls***,” Martinez told FanGraphs’ Travis Sawchik back in March. “In the cage, I talk about it all the time. I’m not trying to hit a f***ing line drive or a freaking ground ball. I’m trying to hit the ball in the air. I feel like the ball in the air is my strength and has a chance to go anywhere in the park. So why am I trying to hit a ground ball? That’s what I believe in.”
Josh Donaldson is another card-carrying member of the No Ground Balls Club, the ranks of which are growing by leaps and bounds as we learn more about the value of different batted-ball events. Though slightly less salty than his colleague, Donaldson’s expression of his hitting style is no less clear.
— Josh Donaldson (@BringerOfRain20) March 1, 2017
But are these ideas really new?
Not if you ask a Ted Williams devotee, who will tell you that the Splendid Splinter preached the merits of a slight uppercut seven decades ago. Hit it hard and hit in the air, Williams believed, and you’ll get better results. The first half of that tenet is clearly shown in Statcast’s Hit Probability Breakdown, which reveals that batted balls of 95 mph and greater generate a .529 batting average. Even for those of us who don’t take said stat all that seriously, such a high number is as valuable as a tax-free college savings plan.
I suppose we can test the veracity of the latter portion of Williams’ principle with that same Statcast tool as well. While those record-setting home runs account for only 14.5 percent of all the hits in MLB this season, home runs make up 21.4 percent of all hits of 95 mph and higher in the Statcast era. So that’s still really more about hitting it hard, but you’ve got to elevate the ball to get it over the fence.
It figures, then, that a player who was raised by a Williams disciple and who has become known for mammoth home runs would be all over over the advanced metrics of hitting. Surely Kris Bryant pores over proprietary video and advanced metrics to analyze his swing plane in an effort to generate the optimal combination of launch angle and exit velo. Right?
Nah, not so much.
“When I was growing up, there was no…who cares how hard you hit the ball or whatever,” Bryant told Jason Goff and Anthony Herron Thursday afternoon on 670 The Score. “If you got a hit, you were happy. There was no exit velocity or any of this launch angle or these new stats that they’re coming up with. It’s just making the game — some like it — but it’s just, some of it takes the joy and stuff out of the game and why you started to play. Sometimes that’s frustrating.
“Sometimes that’s frustrating. I do realize that’s kind of where the game is going. It’s up to me if I really want to look at that stuff or not. Sometimes I’ll look at it, just to see exactly what it is. But half the time, I don’t understand it. So that’s a good thing.”
The reigning MVP’s words were scored by record-scratches of cognitive dissonance that reverberated through the echo chamber of Cubs Twitter — or maybe it was just a small section — with speed and rhythm that would have impressed even Grandmaster Flash. Whaddya mean Kris Bryant doesn’t like sabermetrics? I thought he was all into that launch angle stuff.
Well, he is. And he isn’t. But before I explain that a little further, allow me to share with you a short personal anecdote that helped me to better understand the context for Bryant’s words. I’m by no means as elite a writer as KB is a ballplayer, but I see some similarities in the way we view the intricacies of our respective crafts. Which is to say that I don’t know or care about the individual parts of grammar.
Seriously, I flunked a grammar test in college several times before eventually memorizing enough about the test itself and stuff like hanging participles and dangling modifiers to eventually scrape by. But just because I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to properly label those things doesn’t mean I wasn’t acutely aware of the rightness or wrongness of them.
I write pretty much exclusively on feel, without a care for labels or a need to understand and apply rules of grammatical propriety. And that, my friends, is where Bryant’s coming from when he talks about playing baseball. He knows what’s good and what’s not, much like I do when I write [insert pithy jokes about how I probably don’t, in fact, know that].
“I don’t need to look at that to make myself feel better or try to change something,” Bryant said. “I know if I hit the ball hard or if I don’t hit the ball hard or if I put a good swing on it or I didn’t. I don’t need a number to tell me that you’re doing this or that wrong or any of that.”
And that’s all well and good, but what about all the stuff we learned back when Cubs Insider talked with Mike Bryant about the work he and his son did this winter? While it’s true that the elder Bryant — a Massachusetts native who idolized Williams and played in the Red Sox system — is hyper-conscious of the numbers coming off of the Zepp 3D Swing Analyzer, he uses them simply as a guide to help his son better understand what that “perfect” swing should feel like.
“He looks at the numbers and sometimes it felt a lot different than what the numbers would say,” Mike told CI prior to the season. “But we were moving in the direction of feeling it, which is what I was trying to accomplish: More feel. I use the numbers more than he does in my teaching, where he uses his instincts and his feel more than the numbers. So it was a great mix is what I’m trying to tell you.”
It’s obvious that the the Cubs superstar is cognizant of numbers and has leveraged them to improve his swing over the years, so I initially found myself somewhat at odds with what he’d said in that Score interview. Unless…yeah, that makes sense. Kris Bryant doesn’t really care about the growing glut of numbers as they apply to what he’s doing now, but as they reaffirm what he already understands intrinsically.
“The sole purpose of [the numbers] is to identify areas where one needs to improve,” Mike clarified for Cubs Insider. “A good instructor will know exactly what direction to take to implement the necessary thought process. The hitter will know what swing thought to use from the training [because] the brain memorizes swing thoughts.
“I use most of the sabermetric numbers as a guideline, not a benchmark. Benchmarks to attain are Z-Swing percent, O-Swing, K percent, etc. to increase the good results and decrease the bad ones. Which leads to better hard numbers like BA, HR, and RBI; the way to get to those benchmarks is through feel!”
If you didn’t know any better, you might think that sounds like teaching a hitter to pay attention to launch angle and exit velo, or at least something along those lines. But it’s obvious with just a little discernment that we’re talking about distinctly different things here. The idea is to develop a swing that will naturally produce those buzzword-generating — not to mention game-winning — results, not to fabricate a robot who swings with those things in mind.
The training looks forward, it’s predictive. The resultant metrics can only tell us what has already happened and are thus helpful only in hindsight. If Bryant has the proper “swing thoughts,” he’s going to generate launch angles, exit velocities, and eye-popping numbers that lead to rambling articles about the dichotomy between perceived and actual reliance upon advanced metrics by a star baseballer.
If I’m being completely honest, this whole thing has been an act of self-indulgence that allowed me to go in on a few different thoughts I’d been having since seeing the initial tweet about Bryant’s comments. It’s pretty interesting, though, the way we view these things. Numbers give many of us a way to understand the magic of baseball, but when you’re as prestigious a practitioner of that prestidigitation as Kris Bryant, you don’t necessarily need to understand or care about the science behind it.
I can dig that, and not just because the product tells me I have to. Bryant doesn’t care how the sausage is made, he just knows that it tastes damn good.