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The Hitting Revolution Will Be Computerized

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Ryan Mountcastle has always been able to hit.

Going back to high school, the Orioles 2015 first-round pick always made plenty of contact. He always hit the ball hard.

But a lot of Mountcastle’s hits were well-struck singles. As a 19-year-old at low Class A Delmarva in 2016, he hit .281/.319/.426 with 10 home runs as one of the better hitters in the South Atlantic League.

While there’s nothing wrong with hitting singles, Mountcastle knew he could do better.

So that offseason he started working with Baseball Rebellion’s trainers. In the his first turn in the batting cage, Mountcastle showed again that he hit the ball hard. In a batting practice session measured by a HitTrax radar, he showed an average exit velocity of 95 mph and a max exit velocity of 100.5. His average launch angle for his swings was measured at nine degrees. That meant that the ball was leaving his bat on a very slight upward trajectory.

What the measurements showed were that Mountcastle hit a lot of stinging line drives, generally right up the middle. When he didn’t connect as cleanly, he was as likely to drive the ball into the ground as he was to hit it in the air.

For the first century and a half of baseball history, Mountcastle would have been patted on the back, told to keep it up and sent on his way.

Nowadays, he was told that he had plenty of work to do. In sessions in the cage, Mountcastle and the Baseball Rebellion crew began tweaking his swing. With the ability to measure swing after swing and to tweak from pitch to pitch, Mountcastle began to hit the ball in the air more often. He didn’t hit the ball much harder, but the launch angle at which he hit changed from an average of nine degrees to 29 degrees.

"It changed my mindset about everything,” Mountcastle said on the Baseball Rebellion podcast. "I’m trying to launch balls in the air and hit it over people’s heads instead of thinking, ‘Oh, I need to try to get a hit here.’ ”

Mountcastle pulls the ball more now and hits more fly balls. And because of that, he does much more damage. In 2017, Mountcastle hit .287/.312/.489 between high Class A and Double-A. He hit for nearly an identical batting average and on-base percentage as he did in 2016. But he did so while hitting a lot more doubles (48) and home runs (18) while striking out less.

By turning some ground balls and line drives into fly balls, Mountcastle has gone from being a good hitter to one that pitchers have to fear without giving up the ability to hit.

There are a lot of stories like Mountcastle’s these days. Colin Moran underwent a similar transformation and went from Triple-A depth piece for the Astros to a key part of the offseason Gerrit Cole trade. He’s expected to be the Pirates everyday third baseman this year. There have been a long list of success stories at the big league level as well.

This hitting revolution is changing the game at every level. It’s changing the way hitters are taught and even the parameters of what is considered success. But at it core, it’s a story of how the development of technology and teaching methods have to work side by side.

For much of this young century, hitting training methods have struggled to catch up to the work pitchers are doing in their training. A number of top hitting coaches agree that a decade ago, the state of hitting coaching and training was at least a decade behind pitcher training.

It’s possible that hitters will always be playing catch up. Pitching is an isolated event that can be worked and developed on its own. A pitcher standing on a mound can work on everything he needs to do without anyone else. A pitcher aims to execute his pitch perfectly, irrespective of what the hitter wants to do.

A hitter’s first step when hitting is to react and adjust. And that immediately makes training hitters much more complex. There are a multitude of areas of study and development in hitting that are just getting going. Scientists are trying to figure out the most effective ways to measure and improve the ways hitters see the ball. Others are studying the mental pathways to better understand what happens during those few milliseconds from the point where a hitter sees a pitch to the point where he swings the bat.

But when it comes to what a hitter is trying to do when he does connect, technology is speeding a change. Pitching training had it easy because the technology has long existed to measure improvement. Radar guns showed that long toss, weighted balls and other training techniques increased velocity. Pitch f/x and its descendants showed the value of spin rate and allowed pitchers to begin to design their pitches to be more effective.

On the hitting side, for the longest time the tools were missing to tell what was working and what wasn’t. While a radar gun could consistently measure a pitcher’s velocity, the same radar gun struggles to effectively and consistently pick up exit velocities off the bat unless the ball is headed directly towards the gun, which is nearly impossible to replicate on hit after hit.

Without that data, coaches understandably were somewhat in the dark. For the longest time, hitting instruction was much like medicine in the age of the industrial revolution. Some hitting coaches were outstanding. Some were killing their patients. But it was very hard to know whether a coach was a menace or a miracle worker.

In the past decade, hitting instruction has been transforming from an art into a science. Once baseball started to be able to measure the ball coming off the bat, it started to measure, refine and teach in a way that wasn’t possible just a decade ago.

"The tools and the technology to measure things takes the guessing out of an assessment,” Driveline Baseball director of hitting Jason Ochart said. "When I was in college, and I’m only 27, all we had was video cameras. I still remember getting my first phone with a camera. I thought that was a game changer. Where we are now in terms of training, it’s funny to think the video camera was considered groundbreaking. I think that’s the key is tightening that feedback loop to measure the adjustment you’re trying to make.”

Being able to measure what happened when the ball was hit in games was the first step. Much like the ability to plot many seasons of hit plots led teams to start shifting their fielders out of their traditional spots, the ability to track many seasons of batted-ball data has started to force a rethink of hitting.

Thanks to the arrival of Major League Baseball’s Statcast at the major league level, exit velocity (the speed of the ball as it leaves the bat) and launch angle (the angle the ball leaves the bat) have become terms that everyone in baseball throws around. And Statcast has quantified what has long been suspected: when hitters hit the ball harder (as measured by exit velocity) better results happen.

Not even every big leaguer hits the ball hard. But for those who do, better results come from hitting the ball in the air.

According to Statcast data in 2017 when big league hitters squared up a ball so that it left the bat with a 100 mph or better exit velocity and with a launch angle of between 25 and 40 degrees, they hit .811/.811/3.142. Square a ball up like that and you’re generally trotting around the bases.

"If you are hitting the ball hard and one is on the ground and one in the air, the value of the outcome is very different,” Astros assistant major league hitting coach Jeff Albert said.

But tools like Statcast and Trackman could only play a minor role in the hitting revolution because they are limited in scope. Statcast measures balls put in play in games in the 30 major league parks.

Trackman and FlightScope, doppler radar systems that have been installed at almost every minor league park and many colleges and top amateur facilities, measures similar hitting data for in-game swings at minor league, college and some showcase games.

They show what worked. The true breakthroughs when it comes to measuring hitting has been to pair the results that analysts have found when analyzing Statcast and Trackman data with the HitTrax and Rapsodo and the Diamond Kinetic and Blast Motion bat sensors that have spread to hitting cages.

While a hitter may put three or four balls in play in a game (which will be measured by Statcast or Trackman), HitTrax, Rapsodo and/or bat sensors can measure every swing that a hitter takes in the cage, whether they are hitting off of a tee, a batting practice pitcher or a pitching machine. That gives a hitter hundreds of data points to measure in just a few sessions rather than half a season.

That instant feedback has led to a revolution in training. At forward-thinking clubs, hitting work has been tweaked in ways that would have been unrecognizable a decade ago. Nowadays some pro teams have hitters compete in a variety of quantifiable competitions. One round will focus on maximum exit velocity, another will be a proper launch angle competition, while another is focused on strike-zone recognition.

Now that every swing can be measured, there is finally the ability to truly understand whether a tweak is helping or hurting. And swings can be tailored and tweaked to try to match a hitter’s abilities.

"Say a player has an attack angle of negative five (meaning their bat comes through the strike zone on a five degree downward path),” Ochart said. "We can say, ‘Look, this is what the best players in the world are doing. We need to get you to 10-12 degrees.’ We can give feedback right after that swing. ‘OK, that was four degrees. That was eight.’ We can do this in an hour session. That’s something we couldn’t do in the past.”

All of this has led to a growing cadre of hitting gurus. There are independent hitting gurus all over the country. They are generally self-described as arrogant. That’s largely a job requirement. An independent hitting coach has to be cocky enough to believe that they can help top amateur and professional hitters who already are getting instruction from a flock of experienced coaches.

Some of them are good. Some are bad. But nowadays the good ones don’t just ask their clients to just trust them. They show them the results.

"I’ve know a guy who bought a HitTrax and it put him out of business,” Baseball Rebellion founder Chas Pippitt said. "You have to know what you are doing or it will out you. You have to have a track record of data.”

The hitting revolution is just getting going. HitTrax and Rapsodo are prolifferating around the game. Bat sensors will continue to get better at measuring time to impact, time in the hitting zone and acceleration. But it’s also true that teams are just scratching the surface when it comes to using the data they have.

"I feel like in my career, if coaches were talking about hitting it in the air, that was seen as a terrible thing,” Albert said. "Now it’s way more common, and there are guys talking about launch angle and exit velo. I do think hitting has made some progress, but it’s still low-hanging fruit. There are several significant areas of improvement out there on the offensive side.”

An MLB team with HitTrax for every minor league batting cage would be able to measure every in-cage swing for every hitter all season. It would be able to measure how hitters get better or worse through the season. It would help spotlight when a player’s average launch angle doesn’t match their strengths. It also would conceivably help spotlight hidden injuries, because a hitter whose exit velocity tails off dramatically would indicate that there is a problem worth investigating.

And as current teenagers advance to college and pro ball, the push for this tech will only grow. HitTrax turns cage work into a sort of video game. On a good swing, the hitter can turn and watch the ball clear the wall at whatever big league stadium they choose.

"The players are going to start wanting it,” Ochart said. "These players who have grown up with this information. When you start having first-rounders who want this data, you’ll see this start to change.”

The revolution is only starting, but it’s already changing the game one hitter at a time.

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