Modern Hitting: Explained
The objective of a game of baseball is to score more runs than the other team. This objective gives us two distinct sub-sections of baseball: scoring as many runs as possible and preventing as many runs as possible. For more on the latter, read the previous entry of this “Explained” series where we cover Modern Pitching. This article will attempt to cover the philosophies of the modern hitter.
Unlike any other major American sport, baseball teams begin each game knowing exactly how many possessions the offense is going to receive that day in regulation (9 for the visitor, at least 8 for the home team). Because each team knows there are only 27 outs to work with each game, each out inches them closer to no longer being able to put runs on the board as there are no turnovers in this sport.
Provided this information, hitters need to make sure that each plate appearance gets them closer to scoring a run than they were before they stepped up to the plate. Now, which event within a hitter’s capabilities is the only event that is GUARANTEED to score a run?
To many traditionalists’ dismay, that event is called a home run.
(The only exception to this rule is one that poor Ke’Bryan Hayes had to learn the hard way, but for the purposes of this article we will assume that each round-tripper remembers to touch all the bases.)
Because we know exactly how many chances we have to score runs, wouldn’t it make sense to try to produce as many events that are guaranteed to score runs as possible before running out of puts?
Obviously, you can’t hit a home run every single plate appearance, so what’s the next best thing?
You need to go four bases to score a run, so the answer would be a triple, then a double after that. Those, along with home runs, are called extra-base hits (XBH), and they are quite telling over the course of a game who has had the most success on offense.
Traditionalists will point to the betrayal of batting average as the root cause for "bad hitting." However, the problem with that stat is the object of baseball is to move four bases, not one.
A single is valuable, don’t get me wrong, but stringing three singles together (usually what it takes to score a singular run) is a lot harder to do in today’s game than it is to hit one home run.
Since XBH are more valuable, how does one engineer a swing to get them as often as possible?
Despite what traditionalists may have you believe about Ivy League nerds taking over the game of baseball with their fancy analytics, this illustration was created by none other than Ted Williams. Yes, you read that right, a top-5 hitter of all time whose career took place from 1939-1960 revolutionized the thought process behind the swing. This is not a new concept.
What this swing is trying to do (in an exaggerated way) is to drive the ball in the air, which is the best way to create XBH. “Hit the ball hard, and in the air,” is the modern slogan for hitters, and for good reason. With defenses being as athletic and well-positioned as they ever have been before, hitting the ball on the ground has turned into an ill-fated proposition:
Since hitting the ball on the ground is a bad idea, how do we measure which players are best at hitting the ball in the air?
The answer to that question is a measurement called “launch angle.” Somehow, those two words have become the traditionalist rally cry for what’s wrong with the modern game and have been morphed into a “style” of hitting that modern players aim to achieve, when in reality, it’s just a simple measurement of the angle that the ball comes off the bat. Every single batted ball has a launch angle, even grounders (depicted by a negative launch angle).
Studies have shown that balls with a launch angle in the 20-30 degree range are the most successful, as they are the most likely to turn into a home run or a double.
An issue with swinging for the fences is the trade-off: swings-and-misses.
As you may have heard, strikeouts are at an all-time high, which can lead to some baseball that is pretty monotonous unless you are a Pitching Ninja superfan.
The reason this trade-off exists is because hitting the ball hard in the air requires you to swing hard and with a slight uppercut.
Pitchers have noticed this trend, and have started throwing fastballs up in the zone to counter this strategy.
So where do the hitters go now? The answer is not clear to this writer. From the previous entry of this series on pitching:
Baseball is difficult, and for those who say “well why not just revert back to the “level” swing that worked for so long for so many hitters?,” it’s because the opposite is true as well. If you are working a “straight to the ball” swing (i.e. high-to-low, “The Level Stroke” from the Williams diagram) then you are vulnerable to low pitches and pounding balls right into the infield grass where uber-talented infielders get you out at first base.
With pitchers being so dominant in today’s game, striking out as a hitter has lost the negative connotations that once was associated with the feat; it’s just another out.
Whether or not this philosophy is the most optimal from an entertainment perspective is up to one’s own preferences. This writer enjoys seeing balls hit far just as much as everyone else, but would not complain about more balls in play to give us a chance to see the best athletes we’ve ever had in the game make some great defensive plays.
The last change modern hitters have made is one that I think was for the best: the dismissal of the sacrifice bunt. Bunts are at an all-time low, and it’s easy to see why. As we covered earlier in the piece, there are only a finite number of outs in a game, why would you waste one on a play virtually guaranteed to get the batter out?
Especially now with pitchers being able to coerce swing-and-misses with nasty stuff at will, it does not make much sense to play for one run when it is likely that the next hitter is going to strike out.
This is not to say that there are no situations at all where a bunt doesn’t make sense. If it’s a low-scoring game in the late innings and you’re not likely to get a rally going, playing for a singular run by bunting makes sense because the value of that run is much higher than in a normal run environment.
Another good opportunity to bunt, if you can successfully do it, is the bunt against the shift. This task is really much harder than it looks, but if done successfully is a free base (and sometimes two!).
Generally, the modern philosophy associated with bunting is “If you are playing for one run, that’s all you’re going to get.”
While lamenting the Joey Gallo’s of the world certainly can be defensible, it’s not hard to see the logic behind that strategy of hitting. After all, the goal of hitting is to go four bases, not one.
Whether this is at all conducive to the aesthetics of the game is up to one's own discretion. This writer is of the opinion that these types of things will eventually sway with time. Sooner or later the mound will be moved back or be lowered, or teams will discover some competitive advantage that incentivizes more balls to be put in play.
As of right now though, pitchers are producing the nastiest stuff we've ever seen, and hitters are doing their best to keep up. But just because someone isn't slapping singles all the time doesn't mean they're not valuable and can't be fun to watch. After all, we should thank our lucky stars to be able to watch guys like Juan Soto make pitchers lives a living hell: