Embracing launch angle at a time of decreased ball drag could be the key to unlocking more power
Despite the fact that Ryan Braun posted a mere 105 wRC+ in 2018, it was not because of how hard he was hitting the ball; in fact, he was in the 93rd percentile for average exit velocity, and his expected slugging percentage was a whopping .520. He chronicled that frustration for The Athletic back in January:
“In early October, Ryan Braun spoke at length of being ‘unlucky,’ citing that his exit velocity, hard-hit percentage and line-drive rates were ‘as good as they’ve ever been and elite among my peers…’ After reviewing his analytics, Braun hired a hitting coach to help improve his launch angle.”
That he has done. Yes, I know he his hitting a paltry .210 with a 72 wRC+, but his strategy has already paid off in the power department, and he has so far outpaced his 2018 home run total by about five, putting up five this month so far. His launch angle has jumped from 5.8 to 9.2 degrees, which has turned into some more dingers despite an exit velocity in the 72nd percentile.
Part of that is the ball, of course. Rob Arthur has detailed how little drag there has been on the ball this year, and that on average is going to result in record exit velocities and home run totals. If you’re a team that wants power, then your best bet is to lean into these trends by hitting more fly balls.
While the Brewers in particular could always hit more fly balls—they’re currently 10th in fly ball percentage—they are generating a great deal more power, as they’ve jumped from a 105 ISO+ to 121 this season. Why? That’s because they have a HR/FB% that is the highest in baseball at 22.5%. So, nearly a quarter of fly balls are turning into home runs. The results in terms of performance have been mixed, but the strategy is clear:
As is known, this strategy is not a once-size-fits-all approach; we also remember just last year when Yelich won the MVP without doing any of this, right?
Yet in regards to home runs and home runs in particular, the results have been staggering. The Brewers have hit 50 home runs thus far—second only to the Mariners—and they are on pace for 324 home runs. The Yankees, who set the major league record last year, hit 267; the Brewers are on pace to break that record by early September.
This also goes to show another odd occurrence that brings me back to one such player profile: Rougned Odor. In 2017 at the then-height of the juiced ball, Odor did something incredible: he hit 30 home runs as a below replacement level player and hitting at a 58 wRC+. One would never expect bad hitters to hit a lot of home runs, yet here we are.
The Brewers are’t bad by any stretch—if anything, Yelich cements them as a top team in the league—yet otherwise perfectly pedestrian offenses like the Brewers, who have a team wRC+ of 105—are good enough to shatter home run records completely.
This just goes to show that there’s more than one way to build an offense. The Brewers seem to be leaning into hitting more and more home runs by lifting, and while that certainly will buoy their otherworldly HR/FB%, its link to run production vis-a-vis the league and their competitors is still questionable. That said, this ride should be a blast.