I have been fortunate throughout my life in baseball to learn from a number of well respected coaches at various levels, collegiately and professionally. I have also been lucky enough to have coached at those levels myself. Over the last number of years, launch angle has been a hot topic. I believe that it is still misunderstood by players (current and former), parents, and coaches today. In my opinion, this concept is here to stay and is not as counter intuitive as people may think.
First off, let us start with one ‘old school’ train of thought about hitting, which does have some merit: your hands/knob of the bat take a direct path to/inside the ball in order to create a short, compact stroke. This promotes downhill contact, with the objective being to produce hard ground balls and line drives. As you get older and stronger, line drives evolve and carry father.
I believe that people misunderstand the launch angle concept and think it’s a strictly ‘pull happy’ approach. Getting the ball in the air to the pull side can be a good thing, but an approach centered solely around this objective can result in bad habits. I tell my players to look at the results in the cage, and to have targets in mind- from about midway up the back half of the cage (around a zero degree launch angle) to about a quarter of the way from the back wall of the cage (or whatever results in a 35 degree launch angle).
Teaching a ‘downhill’ swing can be misleading for players and is not vocalized properly. If you swing down, the knob of the bat also stays down, and your bat path inevitably – hopefully – intersects the path of the ball at a completely different angle. So unless you’re perfect, the physics of that impact will cause you to pound the ball into the ground or clip the bottom of the ball for a sand-wedge pop up.
The ideal path for me? A slightly upward angle, similar to the standard Nike swoosh logo. Remember – launch angle simply means the angle of which the ball comes off the bat. It’s not necessarily a type of swing or even an offensive approach. That is where the primary disconnection with “old school” and “new school” occurs, in my experience.
The key to hitting is to create a good bat path, plain and simple. Coaches should evaluate and evolve their vocabulary, because in my experience, the old way of thinking can get young hitters in trouble. Let us never forget that if you put a good swing on a good pitch, it will carry! How far will depend on how strong you are, your ability to create bat speed, pitch location, timing of contact and so forth. As a young player, I remember being told, “try to hit the upper half of the L-screen and above,” which was basically using external reinforcement to optimize my swing. That is launch angle- the result of a really good swing!
Remind your player's that it's important to know a hitter’s strengths AND weaknesses. As they grow in the game, they will get bigger, faster and stronger and the ability to create carry will come. However, they have to work at creating mechanically sound swings, which I believe will result in an optimal launch angle for each player!
Nolan Cherniwchan played at Williston State College and has coached 15U-18U baseball, along with a stint as an assistant in independent professional baseball. He is the owner of Cherniwchan Baseball and oversees the Cherniwchan Baseball/ATHX Performance baseball program.