The Homerun Surge of 2017 & The Hangin’ Fastball

Occam’s Razor (Ockam alternate spelling) In ‘Science’, there is a concept to help researchers find the best path in reaching a solution to a query.  More of a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule, Occam’s Razor is a concept that advises researchers to start their search with the simplest solution.  With this latest run of homers in MLB, there have been many solutions thrown out there.  The juiced ball, the harder wood bats, the ‘so called’ new upward swing and even the whispers of steroids that are smarter than the testing as well as a few other single element ‘simple’ answers. 

If the answer was one simple thing, especially a juiced ball, juiced hitters or a supercharged bat, wouldn’t we be seeing a sizeable surge in Exit Velocity as well?  Without the evidence of a significant  increase in the single most important metric of power, Exit Velocity, these things seem very unlikely.   While Aaron Judge has been the unchallenged titan in Exit Velocity this season, there are actually mutliple hitters with a higher Exit Velocity than Judge’s 121 MPH bolt in previous years.  Stanton had one at 123 MPH, Avisail Garcia hit one at 125 MPH and even Kevin Kiermier had one at 124 MPH.  After all, if Aaron Judge isn’t surpassing Exit Velocities of the past, the single item theory is a tough sell.

Launch Angle The ‘upward swing’, though not new, is a valid portion of the theory because it is a fact that a slightly upward swing plane will produce more balls off the bat at the right trajectory to be homeruns.  In 2001, we illustrated this concept by introducing the Trajectangle in the Hitting Is A Guess video.  This was the first ‘Launch Angle’ study released on video to the public at that time stating the importance of the right Trajectangle (and how to train it).  The Trajectangle is a combination of Exit Velocity and Launch Angle together to judge hit quality, the obvious predecessor to the ‘Barrel’, Statcast’s definition of a ball hit at 100 MPH at the right trajectory for homers.  The launch angle by itself is one part of the answer, but after all, we are only changing the trajectory slightly and there is no increase in Exit Velocity that comes from that swing alteration.    

Above is a ‘Trajectangle’, introduced in the Hitting Is A Guess Video Series in 2001 with Jay Bell, this was the first metric for Launch Angle.  Exit Velocity could only be done with tee swings and not live pitch contact, so we needed to invent a way to measure trajectory angles or Trajectangles, a quality of contact rating based on known trajectories of tee Exit Velocities and deducing they would be the same or close in live pitch contact…….. and it turns out that was correct. 

The Swing & 100/100 In game at bats, a lot has to come together for hitters to produce their absolute max level of Exit Velocity or close, the recipe for homers.  The hitter has to synch up his body movements perfectly and then time the pitch perfectly on top of that.  This Perfect Storm, called 100/100 or 100% on time contact with 100% swing efficiency,  this combination almost never happens. 

When we get really exact, most hitters in 400 to 600 at bats, have one or two at their absolute max level of Exit Velocity or the perfect 100/100 type contact.  Avisail Garcia hit a league leading 125 MPH bolt (100% of max), but had only one other close at 115 MPH (only 92% of his max) that year.  His average Exit Velocity was very near 90 MPH that season, well below 75% of his max.  Suffice to say, hitting it perfect is quite rare for all but a few, such as Stanton, Trout and Judge.  

Surge of ’17 – The Real Answer(s) The truth, it isn’t just ‘one simple thing’ causing this Perfect Storm.  No, in fact, there are ‘several simple reasons’, all explained by the ‘Science’ of Effective Velocity.   While the hitter has taken steps to improve their level of chess, the pitchers are behind the bulk of the issues causing  this power surge.  While they are throwing harder than ever, their ‘Pitchability’ is the lowest since the introduction of Effective Velocity in 2004.   

  • Launch Angle – slightly increased Launch Angle has contributed to the HR total, most certainly a factor contributed by the hitter alone
  • ‘NOT’ Getting The Foot Down Early – With a select few exceptions, this idea has robbed hitters of their power for over a decade – hitters are now ‘leg kicking’ more than ever, which helps max out their rhythm and momentum or hitters taking their ‘A’ swing, which is one of the leading causes of more frequent hard contact – getting the foot down ‘right on time’
  • Better Understanding of Game Plans – hitters are paying more attention to what pitchers are doing and taking advantage – Carlos Pena on MLB Network has given many breakdowns of pitchers and how hitters should approach them (with the EV mindset)
  • Increasingly Faster Pitches = Harder Contact – regardless of the unfounded theory to the contrary, faster pitching absolutely creates harder contactagain, easily tested to prove this point in actual empirical tests. The average MLB fastball is 92.9 MPH, all time high, but being used at an all time low in ‘Effectiveness’
  • The Rule of 13/21 – Low and/or Away ‘Hangin’ Fastballs – 2015 & 2016 MLB pitchers averaged 13% up in strikes with fastballs and 21% down and away strikes with the old ‘number 1’. Pitchers, however, throw Aaron Judge only 12% up in fastball strikes, despite an average Exit Velocity of just below 82 MPH in that location and 24% down away fastball strikes where his Exit Velocity is closer to 110 MPH. 171 hitters averaged 90 MPH on fastballs at the very bottom of the strike zone and below – Low fastballs are 2 times more likely to be hit at 90 MPH than ‘Hangin’ sliders, 3 times more likely than changeups high in the zone and 4 times more likely than the old ‘hangin’ curveballs………… Below is Miguel Cabrera’s Exit Velocity and Homerun breakdown. Miggy hit 24 homers on low pitches to 4 up in the zone (6 to 1 ratio) and his Exit Velocity is much higher down in the zone.  So which pitch is really ‘Hangin’?

    • More Reaction Time on Fastballs Down and/or Away – When you give hitters longer to see the pitch, they react to fastballs and off speed pitches better. Less fear with lower and outside pitches being the main location
    • Slower Speed of Fastball Puts Hitters Closer to Off Speed Reaction Time – with a steady diet of away fastballs, the Ev of the league average fastball is about 90 EvMPH (93 MPH located middle away = 90 EvMPH). The average EvMPH of fastball homeruns = 90 EvMPH – shocker – about 20% of homers are thrown in this Hitters’ Attention Ev Speed Range – the most predictable pitch, at the most predictable speed, in the most predictable location……………..Hmmm?
    • Off Speed Pitches More Easily Identified – with the increase in low fastballs, all off speed strikes ‘Pop’ over the line of the low fastball and hitters see them sooner and more clearly and this accounts for about 20% of the homeruns, pitches without an Ev Tunnel. It is ‘impossible’ to throw all pitch types of different speeds in the same location and have the pitch flights share an Ev Tunnel. Deception is at an all time low and ‘Early Identification’ is an at all time high – not because of computer training, just old fashioned lack of deception
    • Poor Pitch Sequencing – just about 50% of all hard contact happens within 6 EvMPH of the previous pitch. Pitchers that are dominating are keeping bigger Ev speed spreads between pitches. In 2016, a study of the 40 longest homers, all 470 feet or more, 61% happened as a result of this type of poor pitch sequencing. Timing is the most important element in hitting and most especially in homers and throwing back to back pitches close in speed (within 6 EvMPH) is the primary culprit
  • Downward Pitch Angles Meet Upward Swing Line – in 2016 each of the primary pitch types had a down and away epicenter or location that was most used. All of these pitches of different speeds, have a downward pitch line. With hitters focusing on an upward swing plane, the pitch plane and the swing plane are more in line with each other – a ball/bat head on collision is much more likely – Accidental contact happens every night as a result
  • Locating All Pitches in the Same Proximity – with the average epicenter of all pitch types heading down and away, hitters have less of the zone to cover and can more easily depend on getting a pitch down and/or away – super predictable that pitchers will come back to that area because the whole world is advising them to do just that

 

 

To summarize, pitchers are playing a very poor game of chess.  In an errant search for the almighty groundball, MLB pitchers have been lead down a data driven rabbit hole.  They are throwing pitches in the same epicenter, locating all major pitch types in the same down away location.   While this is beguiling the experts, the most obvious question is how is that data driven pitch sequencing working out so far?

Every hard hit ball study to date has resulted in only about 10% of all hard contact, including homeruns, on Ev Efficient pitch sequences.  When hitters are forced to time pitches on their own, they struggle mightily.  90% of hard contact is a function of poor Ev Rated pitches.  The study of the 40 longest homeruns of 2016, all 470 feet or longer,  only 9% happened on Ev Efficient pitch sequences.  This means only 9% was truly ‘Earned’ by the hitters, the rest was about pitchers playing poor chess. 

MLB pitchers are bending over backwards to create more offense, now that might be the conspiracy.  The pitch planners of most teams getting together to help the feeble offense of the past.  Putting out stories that describe how down and away fastballs limit damage and increase GB%, then telling hitters to swing up at outside fastball speed, Ev 90 MPH.  Brilliant………   Offensive dilemma solved without any rule changes.  This may be another moment in history when we have to tell the emperor he’s not wearing any clothes. 

 

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