#DongTown

Colorado Rockies Shortstop Trevor Story’s powerful start to his career has had the baseball world buzzing the first week of the season. He became the first player in baseball history to have 6 home runs in the first 4 games of his career, with his two-run dinger on Friday against the Padres. He is in elite power-hitting company, joining Willie Mays, Mark McGwire, Nelson Cruz and the great Chili Davis as the only players have at least 5 homers in the first 4 games of a season.

Story’s incredible dong hitting prowess naturally gets one thinking about exactly what it takes to mash a baseball over the wall. Fortunately, Alan Nathan at Hardball Times has taken the physical and mechanical confusion and masterfully broke it down in his recent piece. What interested me most was his work on launch angles. As you can see in his chart below, batted balls with a vertical launch angle of 20 to 40 degrees and exit velocity of above 91 MPH will travel over 300 feet. At 95 MPH or higher, with the same vertical launch angle range, the batted balls will travel at least 330 feet.

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Since 330 feet is generally the minimum distance to hit a big fly down the foul lines, I have used the awesome Baseball Savant website to compile Statcast data for all instances of batters hitting a ball with a vertical launch angle in the range we mentioned and an exit velocity of above 95 MPH for the 2015 season. The column for home runs includes all home runs hit for each player last season, not just homers that fit this criteria.

Instances Player Balls In Play % of Balls In Play HR
81 J.D. Martinez 421 19.2% 38
80 Chris Davis 370 21.6% 47
74 David Ortiz 442 16.7% 37
71 Josh Donaldson 497 14.3% 41
67 Paul Goldschmidt 423 15.8% 33
66 Matt Carpenter 427 15.5% 28
66 Todd Frazier 489 13.5% 35
66 Adrian Gonzalez 467 14.1% 28
65 Jose Bautista 445 14.6% 40
65 Andrew McCutchen 442 14.7% 23

As you can, this is a list of the biggest mashers in baseball. No surprise they hit the most balls in the home run range. Chris Davis has the highest percentage of balls in play leave his bat above 95 MPH with a launch angle between 20 and 40 degrees, at 21.6% of the time. If only he didn’t strike out so much, you’d see him demolish a baseball about once a game. Somewhat surprisingly, Tigers slugger JD Martinez had the most instances of hitting a ball with this criteria last season.

When looking strictly at percentage of balls in play, Yankees short-lived, 2 month phenom Greg Bird took 25.7% of the balls he put in play to the same range. Bird hit 11 dingers with only 105 balls in play after making his MLB debut in August of last season. He’s unfortunately out for the entire 2016 season.

As you can see, hitting a ball in this range doesn’t guarantee a home run. In Nathan’s chart above, we can see that given an exit velocity, the distance the ball travels peaks with a launch angle between 25 and 30 degrees.  Narrowing the criteria to this, the highest percentage of balls in play that met this mark was Franklin Gutierrez, at 8.5%. Gutierrez had 15 bombs in his 118 balls in play last season with the Mariners.

Instances Player Balls In Play % of Balls In Play HR
10 Franklin Gutierrez 118 8.5% 15
32 J.D. Martinez 421 7.6% 38
26 Brandon Crawford 392 6.6% 21
28 Jose Bautista 445 6.3% 40
25 Paul Goldschmidt 423 5.9% 33
26 David Ortiz 442 5.9% 37
23 Bryce Harper 394 5.8% 42
21 Chris Davis 370 5.7% 47
19 Brandon Belt 349 5.4% 18
17 Freddie Freeman 320 5.3% 18

Its clear that hitting a ball extremely hard, with a very specific range of launch angle is good for home run hitting. Hitting the ball hard in general, regardless of launch angle, is preferable to hitting at the ideal home run launch angle with a slow exit velocity. The harder the ball is hit, the quicker defensive players have to react, making it less likely the hit will be turned into an out. Balls hit with the ideal home run launch angle with under 60 MPH exit velocity are generally classified as weak “liners” which are usually caught by the infielders.

Although Marlins dinger dude Giancarlo Stanton only played in 74 games last season, his notorious power allowed him to lead the league in total number of batted balls with higher than 115 MPH exit velocity regardless of launch angle, with 9 instances. He even topped 120 MPH exit velocity once! Here is a table with these 9 occurrences.

game_date events hit_distance_sc hit_speed hit_angle
6/24/15 Home Run 452.7 115.03 16.01
6/23/15 Home Run 478.61 119.2 21.97
6/18/15 Home Run 419.62 115.29 18.19
5/16/15 Home Run 478.41 115.17 20.93
5/12/15 Single 250.93 120.3 4.9
5/1/15 Groundout 114.15 116.44 -0.57
5/1/15 Double 232.87 119.66 7.16
4/25/15 Double 241.25 116.1 9.32
4/23/15 Home Run 377.46 118.51 13.48

Of the 9 times, 5 of them where homers, 2 doubles, a single, and the hardest hit ground out you’ve ever seen.

Hot corner! That’s a 116 MPH ground out. Stanton averages 98.6 MPH exit velocity on batted balls. This dude hits it hard. Although Stanton is widely know as the hardest hitter in baseball, the man known as the hardest thrower in baseball had the highest average exit velocity in baseball last season.

That’s right. Aroldis Chapman had one at bat last season, and he hit the ball with an exit velocity of 107.68 MPH. That’s the highest average last season. He reached on a error!

Launch angles are interesting to study to determine the ideal range for hitting dongs. But players that hit the ball consistently hard will hit the ball in the best launch angle range more often than the players who hit in than same range but do so weakly.

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