The introduction of launch angle and exit velocity metrics via MLB’s Statcast has been a boon to the understanding and evaluation of players by professionals and amateurs alike in recent years. Unfortunately, it’s also led to a lot of mis-leading babble by lesser analysts on broadcasts around the league. The term “launch angle hitter” is actually being regularly used now, despite it having zero literal meaning to anything regarding baseball. Calling someone a flyball hitter apparently isn’t fancy enough any more.
Of course, every ball that ever left a bat had a launch angle. Even a chopper off home plate had an initial launch angle. What has changed, of course, is that J.D. Martinez’s complete re-tooling of his swing, and incredible success, produced an understandable storm of copy-catting. Suddenly everyone was trying to hit more fly balls, despite often disregarding the fact that Martinez’s changes went far deeper than just trying to hit fly balls. That is the result. The process is the point, and there is a lot more to it than just trying to catch balls on the upswing.
We’ve already seen hitters like Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner reach incredible success by adjusting to try to put the ball in the air more. We’ve also seen lesser hitters with good raw power learn to maximize their modest production by putting it in service of a higher fly ball rate. Guys like Yonder Alonso, and even the Tigers’ own James McCann to an extent, have overcome their strikeouts and inconsistent hard contact but making sure it counts as a four-bagger more often when they do hit the ball hard. In the end, maximizing one’s launch angle may prove to have been more valuable to lesser hitters than to the greats.
Miguel Cabrera would tend to agree. In a recent segment with Harold Reynolds on MLB Network, Cabrera dismissed launch angle as an active goal. In his eyes, hard fly balls are the result of good mechanics. Not something to artificially try to force. In his view, many guys are screwing up their contact ability by chasing fly balls instead of letting them happen as the result of good process. You can quickly devolve into a hitter who drops his right shoulder and can’t keep the bat in the hitting zone long enough to make consistent contact.
Cabrera is from a different school of thought. The concept of palm-up hitting, which dovetails with top-hand hitting philosophy, is simply and clearly explained by the Tigers’ big man. Cabrera articulates the flaws of a serious uppercut swing, and illustrates his approach to delivering the barrel to the ball along the shortest path. As Tigers fans have seen over a decade of brilliance, few in the game have ever delivered barrel to ball as consistently, and forcefully, as Cabrera.
Home runs are great, and we’d like to see many, many more from him during the rest of his Tigers career. But plate coverage and consistent hard contact remain his focus. When done well, with good timing, you’ll catch plenty of balls out in front a bit and hammer them with backspin for all the power required to leave any park in the game. At least, if you’re Miguel Cabrera, you will. Now, about that 19.5 percent fly ball rate, Miguel.