Vertical bat angle: A new way to view batter vs. pitcher matchups
By Eric Cressey on October 28, 2022 at 5:12 am
Today’s guest post comes from Cressy Sports Performance – Florida’s Associate Hitting Coordinator, Tyler Wolff.
In the 8th inning of a recent NLDS game between the Dodgers and Padres, the Padres went to their left-hander, Josh Hader, who has one of the best fastballs in the game. The second batter he faced was a left-handed hitter, Cody Bellinger, but Dodgers manager Dave Roberts chose to pinch hit for Bellinger. He was deciding between his two possible options, right-handed batsmen Chris Taylor and Austin Burns. Taylor would be the clear choice to most because he is more of an offensive threat than Barnes. Roberts decided to go with Barnes, but unfortunately the move didn’t work as Barnes flew out to center field to end the inning. Roberts was questioned about this unusual decision after the game and had to say: “Hader is tough for anybody but I felt that Austin’s short swing, flat path…Hader throws a 4-seam rise fastball, City pitches uphill and Austin succeeded. against Hadar.”
The old school method when playing matchups from an offensive standpoint is to place a hitter who hits from the opposite side of the pitcher’s throwing arm. This has long been the standard go-to matchup maker in baseball, and it makes perfect sense because it’s much more comfortable at bat for most because breaking balls tend to move toward and away from them instead of starting toward or behind them. Today, I’m going to go a little deeper into playing matchups to play with power hitters rather than a righty hitter because it’s a lefty pitcher.
So back to the Dodgers story, what exactly is Roberts referring to when he says this? My guess is that he is referring to vertical bat angle (VBA). It may also have to do with attack angle, but VBA is what I want to discuss today. What exactly is vertical bat angle you might be wondering if you haven’t heard of it before? The Bat Sensor company gives a good definition of what Blast Motion VBA is:
“Vertical bat angle is the angle of the bat relative to the horizontal at the moment of impact. The vertical bat angle is measured in degrees and gives the position of the barrel of the bat relative to the knot of the bat. The vertical bat angle will be zero if the barrel of the bat and the knuckle are parallel to the ground. The vertical bat angle will be negative when the barrel of the bat is below the butt of the bat at impact.”
Here’s an example of two very good hitters with very different VBAs on the exact same pitch: high school hitter Whitey Ossenfort in left (average VBA of -47.1 degrees) and Blue Jays minor leaguer Carl Ellison in right (average VBA of -28.7 degrees).
Chris Taylor has a very steep average vertical bat angle of -39 degrees. Austin Burns’ average vertical bat angle is -27.6 degrees. These two differ greatly in their swing paths and this leads to very different results. In my opinion, neither is right or wrong, but as Dave Roberts’ quote suggests, they can help a hitter understand what pitches and positions each guy can hit better than others.
I wanted to dive deeper into VBA to see if it can better predict what types of pitches and positions certain hitters can handle better than others. This can go for both college and pro level because VBA is something that is very easy to measure. You can do that with just a camera if you need to, but a Blast Motion or Diamond Kinetics sensor is probably the easiest and both are relatively inexpensive options that give you real time data in both training and games.
The two examples I want to look at are two of the best hitters in baseball: Mike Trout and Juan Soto. They are perfect examples of VBA to watch because they are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to VBA, but both are very successful hitters. The average VBA in Major League Baseball over the last 4 years (2019-2022) is -32.2 degrees according to the swinggraph (subscription required, but $5 gets you the full VBA from the last 4-5 seasons).
• Trout had an average VBA of -37.1 degrees during that four-year period
• Soto’s average VBA was -27.4 degrees during the same four-year period
With that in mind, let’s look at some Baseball Savant images for both Soto and Trout so we can get a better idea of what parts of the zone they handle best and what their approach might be.
The first row of the chart below is the K% for each person in each category in the zone.
-Second is the launch angle for each guy in each category
-Third row is wOBA
– The last chart is the batting average, for the old school guys in the crowd
Baseball Savant: Trout – K Rate Baseball Savant: Soto K-Rate
Baseball Savant: Trout – LA Baseball Savant: Soto – LA
BaseballSavant: Trout – wOBA BaseballSavant: Soto – wOBA
Baseball Savant: Trout – BA Baseball Savant: Soto – BA
These four charts show very different results for both of these two elite hitters. Trout do much better in the bottom 2/3 of the zone than in the top 1/3 on all four charts. Soto, on the other hand, is best in the top 2/3 of the zone. That’s not to say they can’t handle that part of the zone, but they have much less success in that one section of the plate and probably because of the path their bats take to pitch at that height/position.
So, let’s go to an example of a guessing game. Let’s say the same 8th inning situation in the Dodgers/Padres game with runners on first and second, two outs and Josh Header on the mound – and the Dodgers trailing 5-3. You have Josh Hader’s scouting report and know that he throws about 70 percent of his fastballs, and that he stays primarily on the glove side in the upper half of the zone (below is his fastball heatmap over the last four years).
Baseball Savant – Hader FB Heatmap
You’re in Dave Roberts’ shoes and you have Soto and Trout on the bench (for some crazy reason they’re on your team and not playing) and you have to send one of them. Who do you think would have a better chance of success in this situation? The old school theory is to send Trout out because he’s a right-handed batter. If I were in the manager’s shoes and these were my options, I would send Soto every time in that situation because of the type, percentage and location of Josh Hader’s fastball. For reference, Trout never faced Hader and Soto faced him three times and went 2 for 3 with 2 RBIs.
Look at a final example of this. Let’s go with almost the same situation, where we’re down 5-3 with runners on first and second, but let’s say just one out in the 8th inning. You have the same two options for pinch hitters off the bench. This time, though, we’re facing Seattle and Luis Castillo is still throwing. Castillo has a 51% ground ball rate over the last four years and throws both the 4-seam and a sinker. Below is a heatmap of all his pitches over the last four years. Trout has three plate appearances against Castillo. He has one walk, one homer and one single against him in those three plate appearances. Soto has 10 plate appearances against Castillo and has had some success as well, as he has two hits – including a homer and three walks. However, he has a ground ball rate of 67% against him.
Baseball Savant: Castillo – FB Heatmap
Again, the old-school method would call for sending Soto in this situation because he’s a left-handed batter against a right-handed batter. From what we’ve seen so far, if you were to manage, which guy would you go with? For me, it’s Trout every time because he’ll be able to get more balls in the air, especially to a guy who has the power to throw more pitches in the zone. From an offensive standpoint, the worst thing that can happen in this situation is a double play, and Soto has a much harder time elevating balls below the zone, as you can see by his launch angle chart (above). For this reason I would send Trout under these circumstances.
As I close this article, I want to emphasize that VBA is not an absolute statistic to measure the pitches and positions guys handle best because there is so much more that goes into hitting, most notably timing and technique. However, it is a great measurement to better understand what your players swing path looks like and how it can affect their ball flight and contact rate. VBA changes for each heater based on height and location. For pitches up in the zone (especially with fastballs), hitters need a flatter bat path (VBA closer to 0), and for pitches down the zone they need a steeper bat path. As I said, that doesn’t mean they can’t handle pitches opposite their average bat angle, but the direction of their bat path towards the pitch makes it harder to square. Soto has a hard time getting low pitches off the ground and Trout is susceptible to hitting pitches that are too high in the air.
There are many reasons to move to VBA, but we’ll have to save that for another article. Some of these reasons include:
- Pitch height/location
- Striker’s height/posture
- Timing: It will make a difference if a hitter is on time, early or late
- A hitter’s mobility, strength and stability are up the chain
In my opinion the best thing for a player to understand VBA is to develop a good approach for each hitter. Mike Trout probably isn’t going to swing in the zone unless he has two strikes or the situation allows for it. Juan Soto is probably looking for a pith up in the zone. That doesn’t mean they don’t train to work in the positions they struggle with; My guess is that they actually spend a lot of time working on these vulnerabilities. There is video of Trout talking about some high tee work that is trying to stay up and flat and hitting the ball down the middle. This seems like a great drill to help him get a feel for what he needs to do to get in the zone to hit these balls. As any great hitter will agree, having a good approach is probably the most important thing to being a good hitter, but it’s hard to distinguish that approach if you don’t know what pitches/positions a hitter can handle best.
*A big thanks to CSP Associate Pitching Coach Matt Elmyer for the idea to put this on a blog and for helping with some research.
About the author
Tyler Wolfe serves as the associate hitting coordinator at CSP-FL. Prior to joining the CSP staff, he served as a minor league hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. Tyler played baseball at Des Moines Area CC and Kansas State University before being drafted as an infielder by the Houston Astros in 2016. His first coaching role was as assistant hitting coordinator for the Minnesota Blizzard, a premier Midwest youth and high school travel organization. Tyler holds a BS in Psychology from Kansas State and an MS in Sports Management from Indiana State University.
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