The Angle of Attack

Could Daniel Bernoulli hit a curveball?

There isn’t a lot of Vlad Guerrero Jr news these days, aside from tracking his offseason through the lens of social media. We see him exercising on one IG feed, we see former teammates shouting out his dedication to exercise and we see the rookie being excluded from teammate’s holiday celebration, which we hate to see.

Going into 2020, there seems to be a prevailing opinion that increased fitness will fix what ailed Vlad Jr in 2019*. But what if just shedding a few excess pounds isn’t enough?

Aside from how he stands up to the grind of a long season, the biggest question for Guerrero is figuring out what went wrong during his multiple, prolonged rookie slumps. One culprit for his lack of productivity was his inability to hit the ball in the air.

Earlier this month, Devan Fink dove into the numbers for Fangraphs, pointing a crooked finger towards Vlad Jr’s groundballing ways as a reason he didn’t perform better in the big leagues. It’s a good piece, digging into how his launch angle compares with his contemporaries and, crucially, comparing his launch angle with the ideal hitting model.

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That he hit too many ground balls isn’t a revolutionary concept. Ground balls don’t became home runs, no matter how hard you hit them. But in the comments of this story came a new (to me, at least) piece of interesting information. Vlad Jr hits so many ground balls because of the function of his swing as currently constructed.

“Attack angle” in a baseball context describes “the vertical angle that the barrel of the bat travels through impact with the baseball,” according to Driveline Baseball. Driveline is in the business of selling Driveline products and services, and the person behind the twitter account below works for Driveline, but we’d be foolish to dismiss their prominence in the game right now and ability to extract actionable insights that make baseball players better using technology.

Launch angle is a byproduct of attack angle. You want to hit the ball in the air? Your swing better generate some loft or else you’re working against the prevailing physics of our world. By that measure, Vlad Jr has a lot of ground to make up.

Despite what that one little league coach told us that one time, we should not, in fact, hit down on the baseball. Chop wood my eye, Mr. Phinnemore. Depending on your view (or what you’re selling), the ideal attack angle is between 6 - 14 degrees. It’s a real WWMTD situation, as seen above.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

At the home run derby, we saw exactly what Vlad Jr can do when “hit a home run” was his sole motivation. An idea worth revisiting, perhaps. Guerrero does a lot of things well but apparently his “game” swing means his bat travels through the hitting zone at a suboptimal angle, striking the ball on a slight downward plane. It could be the key factor working against all the amazing things he’s capable of at the plate.

Some of the criticisms of Vlad Jr at the plate this year included a perceived lack of timing, inopportune aggression (falling behind too often) and an eagerness to guess (leaving him exposed to breaking balls) all might contributed to Vlad Jr’s relative underperformance in 2019. While we can’t dismiss any of those criticism out of hand, the sheer fact that his swing is potentially, profoundly, flawed in this regard could have made hitting big league pitching even more challenging for the Jays phenom his first trip around the league.

The good news is it’s fixable! Well, that’s among the good news. One key aspect of this good news was pointed out by Dan in the tweet above: he still spent a lot of time raking in the big leagues with swing not optimized to do so. In a reply, Aucoin points to Christian Yelich as a guy who unlocked his power and became among the top players in baseball by fixing his attack angle and hitting the damn ball in the air more often.

All the three-minute FRANs in the world won’t change the fact that swinging down on the baseball results in more ground balls than home runs. Better fitness will make it easier to keep getting the bat head where it needs to be. It will make it easier to continue putting in the work required to optimize a swing that, while full of vulgar violence and immeasurable torque, still is a work in progress - it’s a baseball swing, it always will be. But with a specific goal in mind, there’s a lot more hope that his swing will produce results more in line with the franchise cornerstone we all hope/believe him to be.

* As has been mentioned countless times in this space and others, his rookie season was only a disappointment relative to the expectations his track record and obvious skills created.

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