Optimizing Launch Angle

Baseball and Fastpitch Softball

 

This Optimizing Launch Angle article is excerpted from our new book, The Ultimate Hitting Fundamentals, Techniques, and Strategy Guide (click for book details).

 

For recommendations on how and when to use various training methods (dry, heavy bag, pylos, tee, toss, live, machine, etc.) and to shop for practical and durable training equipment, click on the link Hitting Training Methods and Aids.

 

Launch Angle Training for the Youth Hitter

Building Rome Series recommends youth hitters under 12 years of age concentrate on building Universal fundamentals, have the intent to swing hard in games, and go from there. Once the hitter’s overall bat speed is at least 50 mph for baseball or 45 mph for fastpitch softball, consider beginning launch angle training. Before reaching high school age, all hitters need to understand the launch angle and exit velocity metrics and how they relate individually, based on the type of hitter and competition level.

 

Variables Affecting Trajectory and Distance

Let’s begin by examining each of the variables which determine the trajectory and distance a hit ball travels:

 

Offset, Centerline, and Descent Angles

(Nathan A. , 2015)

 

Offset is the vertical distance between the centers of the ball and bat at contact. 

The centerline angle is the line connecting the centers of the ball and bat at contact. “Squared-up” collisions are those where the attack angle is just under the centerline angle (as in the image above). Near-optimal energy transfer from bat to ball, with some backspin, maximizes ball travel distance.

Attack angle higher (more upward) than descent angle is typical of power hitters. With a 75+ mph (baseball) or 65+ mph (fastpitch softball) ball exit speed, this is a home run!

 

Attack and Launch Angles

Launch angle is a vital topic for experienced baseball and fastpitch softball hitters. Many coaches, parents, and players remain skeptical of the term, relating it to popping up or flying out. Others think launch angle is only relevant for home run hitters striving to hit for maximum distance. But there are other definitions of “optimum” launch angle besides maximum distance. The chart (below) highlights the tradeoffs between maximizing batting average vs. slugging power depending on launch angle.

(Kennelly, 2016)

All hitters need a basic understanding of launch angle and exit velocity metrics and how they relate individually. For example, let’s look at balls hit with launch angles in the range of 20 to 30 degrees as a function of exit velocity. At low speed, we have bloop singles, at high speed, home runs, and in between, an easy fly ball out.

 

Ball Exit Velocity (EV)

The most productive launch angle for each hitter is highly dependent on their ball exit speed (see The Ultimate Hitting Training Guide, Stone XXIII: Measure and Track Ball Exit Speed). The coaching concept is not to prescribe the exact attack and launch angles for all athletes. Instead, specify ranges based on exit velocity.

 

Timing

When the data from a swing analyzer displays a negative attack angle, it may be the hitter is very late. They may be contacting balls too deep in the zone before the bat has begun the upswing. It’s important to remember that the swing path is a downward and then upward arc.

Attack angle is dependent on the point of contact.

The moral is, be sure not to evaluate attack angle until the hitter has the right timing and is making solid contact towards the middle of the field.

 

Backspin

“Suppose a ball is hit off a tee, so that there is zero pitch speed and spin. Suppose further that the offset and attack angle are adjusted by the batter so that the batter’s attack angle is right along the centerline. Under such conditions, there is no sliding and, therefore, no friction, and the ball will exit along the centerline with zero spin. If the attack angle falls below the centerline, the friction will be down so that the ball will exit the bat with backspin. Similarly, if the attack angle falls above the centerline, the ball will exit with topspin.” (Nathan A. , 2015)

Swinging down (negative attack angle) produces tremendous backspin (see Debate XVIII: Backspin) when contact occurs below the centerline. However, any carry gained from the extra backspin is small compared to the distance the hitter loses by cutting down through the ball, reducing energy transfer and ball exit velocity (see Dome XII: Swing in the Plane of the Pitch).

 

Horizontal Plane (Swing Direction)

There is more to the swing plane than vertical angles. The barrel’s direction through the horizontal plane is also central to ball travel distance and productivity. When the bat is colliding with the ball, the horizontal bat path is either in-to-out, out-to-in, or somewhere in between. When the hitter puts a spin on the hit, causing the ball to curve and lose distance, the barrel has struck a “glancing” blow. To maximize ball exit speed, the swing and extension path is through the pitch’s location.

Hitters should develop the skills and habits to work through the zone in-to-out and drive the ball to the middle of the field (see Dome VIII: Barrel Inside Pitch/Hands Tight for Productivity and Dome IX: Gap Hitting).

 

Optimizing Attack and Launch Angle Concepts

 “There has been a shift in philosophy so dramatic it can safely be called a revolution, with more hitters, armed with better and more extensive data than ever, reaching the conclusion that not only are fly balls on average, better than grounders but that the latter are to be avoided at all costs.” (These days in baseball, every batter is trying to find an angle, 2017)

“There is room for plenty of old school philosophies in baseball, but it is time we quit teaching “swing level” and “put the ball on the ground and make them throw you out.” Players do not get scouted and drafted based on their ability to ground out and move runners the hard way; they get to “the next level” by showing that they can hit for, not only average but also for power.” (Guthrie, 2019)

Here are key concepts and intentions for optimizing attack and launch angles to fit the player:

  • There is a tradeoff between more consistent contact and slugging.
  • Each hitter’s optimal launch angle for maximum productivity is wholly determined by how hard they hit the ball.
  • After Little League, virtually all pitches, including movement pitches, enter the hitting zone between -3 and -21 degrees. By no coincidence, the attack angles of most baseball and fastpitch softball hitters typically fall within this +3 to +21.
  • Over 90% of developing hitters that fall outside of the typical +3 to +21 attack angle range err on the negative side.
  • The average attack angle of MLB hitters is positive (upward) at 9-degrees.
  • A fastpitch softball hitter can hit a ball with 63 mph ball exit speed at a 31-degree launch angle, and it just barely clears a four-foot-high 200-foot fence. Hit the same ball at 63 mph ball exit speed with a 3-degree launch angle, and the ball travels 85 feet in the air and may not get out of the infield.
  • There is a correlation between an increase in attack angle and swing and miss rate. In other words, there is a point of diminishing productivity when increasing attack angle, even for hitters with great exit speed.
  • If the hitter has high exit velocity but an attack angle of +5, balls hit above a 25-degree launch angle have a high spin. Contact so far below the centerline loses a lot of potential exit velocity, reducing travel distance. For experienced hitters with above-average exit velocity, a +5 attack angle is an inefficient and unproductive use of the hitter’s power.
  • Since, on average, only 5% of batted balls are “barrels” (offset of .5” or less), being a successful hitter is, in large part, determined by how well athletes can optimize their mishits. Purposefully adjusting a hitter’s attack angle to achieve their ideal average launch angle improves productivity.
  • The ideal attack angle changes over time as the hitter matures and increases ball exit speed.
  • Regardless of age, the hitter swings as hard as they can within their mechanics.

 

Optimizing Angles by Experience and Type of Hitter

When assessing hitters, learn their bat and ball exit speed, average attack angle, and average launch angle, and then build a program to bring them into sync with the type of hitter they are or want to be. Finding their optimal swing plane should be on the radar of every hitter high school and above.

 

Elementary School Hitters (Baseball and Fastpitch Softball) 

The optimum attack angle, as pertains to youth baseball and fastpitch softball, is problematic.

  • On the one hand, the highest frequency of contact results when the swing’s upward angle matches the pitched ball’s downward trajectory.
  • On the other hand, because the ball is dropping over the plate at -30 degrees or more of a downward angle, a giant uppercut (+30 degrees attack angle) would be required to swing in the plane of the pitch. When bat speeds are lower, extreme upper-cutting produces flyouts. Moreover, striving to swing in-plane with hugely dropping pitches creates the habit of hitching and dipping. These habits can be troublesome to correct later.

Therefore, Building Rome Series recommends beginning hitters not to worry so much about angles. Instead, concentrate on building sound fundamentals, have the intent to swing hard in games, and go from there.

 

Middle School Hitters (Baseball and Fastpitch Softball)

So, what about the preferred attack angle for our developing hitter? Here is one opinion:

 “If you’re 10 years old and your coach says to get on top of the ball tell them no. Because in the big leagues these things that they call groundballs are outs. They don’t pay you for groundballs. They pay you for doubles. They pay you for homers.” (These days in baseball, every batter is trying to find an angle, 2017)

Are ground balls always unproductive? Not necessarily. The harder the hitter drives the ball (ball exit velocity), the more chance they will get on base no matter their attack angle. But as the hitter advances past 12U and the infielders don’t make as many errors, arms get stronger and more reliable, cover more area, and field conditions improve, negative launch angles are usually gobbled up.

A downward, or for that matter, even a zero-attack angle swing (level to the ground), dramatically reduces the rate of contact when the pitch is consistently arriving at a downward angle of 15 degrees or more. Conversely, an attack angle level to the pitch (+15) leads to a high rate of squared up contact, but due to the moderate ball exit speeds at this age, these are fly ball outs. So, what attack and launch angles should the developing hitter strive for? A compromise is best:

For the developing hitter averaging between 40 to 55 mph exit velocity, adjust the attack angle to about +8 degrees and average launch angle to +13 degrees. The launch angle generated by this attack angle is most productive, leading to line drives landing in the outfield while at the same time constructing a swing path to dominate at higher levels of competition.

Building Rome Series believes a roadblock to the hitter’s progress occurs when a developing hitter tries to hit ground balls to get on base. Becoming a ground ball hitter does little for their future. Don’t cut corners for expediency, only to have to reprogram the hitter later. Instead, introduce launch angles during the fundamental teaching phase of training. Using launch angle markers in your practice area (see The Ultimate Hitting Training Guide, Stone XXV: Measure and Track Launch Angle) helps your hitters visualize the eventual goal and begin to adjust their intentions.

 

Power Hitters (Baseball and Fastpitch Softball) – High School and Above

For high school and above power hitters, with an average ball exit speed of 75+ mph (baseball) or 65+ mph (softball), the highest home run probability requires swinging with a +15 to +20 attack angle and a 25 to 30-degree launch angle. But there is a penalty for the larger attack angle utilized by homerun type hitters. When the attack angle is high, the batter is no longer swinging level with the pitch’s trajectory. Because the swing path is at more of an upward angle than the ball’s descent angle, when timing or aim is slightly off, a swing and miss, a high fly out, or topped ground ball results – the margin of error is reduced. The rate of hard-hit balls declines, and strikeouts increase. The high school power hitter must be committed to their homerun strategy.

 

Gap Hitters (Baseball and Fastpitch Softball) – High School and Above

The following objectives optimize productivity by increasing the rate of hard-hit balls (QAB%) and maximizing extra-base hits. The hitter still hits home runs when their aim is slightly under the ball.

  • Average ball exit speed of 60+ (softball) and 70+ (baseball).
  • +10 to +15-degree attack angle.
  • 15 to 20-degree launch angle.
  • Gap hitting (see Dome IX: Gap Hitting).
  • Optimal swing path to each pitch location (see Chapter 12 Locations).

 

Contact Hitters (Baseball and Fastpitch Softball) – High School and Above.

The level to the ball, in-plane swing, is one where the attack angle coincides with the descent angle of the ball (see Dome XII: Swing in the Plane of the Pitch).

  • The average baseball fastball at high school and above crosses the plate between 7 to 12 degrees of a downward angle. The baseball hitter needs an attack angle of about 10 degrees to most consistently hit a line drive.
  • The average fastpitch softball crosses the plate between 4 to 7 degrees of a downward angle at high school and above. To most consistently hit a line drive, the fastpitch softball hitter needs an attack angle of about 5 degrees.

Such a swing is very forgiving of errors in timing. If making solid contact at the highest rate is the primary goal, minimizing strikeouts, then swinging level with the pitch plane is the best strategy. When the hitter “barrels up” the ball, low trajectory singles are the typical result. When their aim is a little off, doubles to the fence (contact a bit more towards the bottom of the ball) or hard ground balls (contact a little more towards the top of the ball) are standard. Depending on exit velocity, home runs are typically rare. Striking the ball so far below the centerline (large offset), necessary to produce the higher launch angle to carry over the fence, loses a lot of energy during bat-ball contact. For most hitters, a low attack angle and high launch angle is usually a fly out.

A contact strategy maximizes hard-hit balls (HHB%) and minimizes strikeouts but does not maximize extra-base hits. For more powerful hitters, a contact strategy does not maximize their potential productivity.

 

How to Train Attack and Launch Angles

For training methods demonstrating how to adjust the hitter’s attack angle to achieve the desired launch angle, click for details about our new drills book The Ultimate Hitting Training Guide, Tool XXVII: Universal Quality At-Bat Drills, Drill VI – Optimize Launch Angle Drill.

 

Building Rome Series Books: Building the High-Level Swing Series

step by step hitting fundamentalsClick Building the High-Level Swing Series to learn more about our new two-book hitter series containing a detailed and comprehensive description of 100 hitting fundamentals and 140 step-by-step drills that efficiently construct the batting swing from the ground up.

In the Building Rome Series of books, the construction of skills are in functional order, providing a “roadmap” to becoming a great hitter.

All baseball and fastpitch softball players can “climb the Roman Coliseum steps” to become a powerful and productive hitter.

Enjoy the quest!