The Life of Ryan
“If you get the ball in the air with power, you have the gift to produce the most important hit in baseball — the home run. More important is that you hit consistently with authority. For those purposes, I advocate a slight upswing (from level to about 10 degrees).”
— Ted Williams, The Science of Hitting
Daniel Murphy thinks about hitting pretty much every single minute of every single day. There’s a great story about him showing up for his first practice at Jacksonville University, the only college that recruited him, and everybody introduced themselves and the position they played. You know the drill: Aziz Ansari, third base. John Legend, catcher. James Bond, right field. All that.
“I’m Daniel Murphy,” he said. “And I hit third.”
Even among hitters in the Major Leagues, Murphy’s obsession with the particulars of hitting — stance, hands, hips, stride, keeping the barrel in the zone, everything — is unique. It harkens back to guys like Tony Gwynn and Ted Williams, the former known as Captain Video for all the hitting video he watched and the latter known for the countless impromptu lectures he gave on the proper way to hit, a way that (as you can see from the above quote) included a slight upswing to get the ball in the air.
This offseason, Murphy noticed an oddity. Murphy was well aware that teammate Ryan Zimmerman had the worst offensive season of his career in 2016. Zimmerman was all but helpless at the plate last year, hitting just .218 and slugging .370. The scariest part about the season was that these were more than struggles; it was was clearly part of a larger trend. Zimmerman had not had a good offensive season since 2013, when he was 28. He’d had numerous injuries. His days as a productive baseball player seemed over. Zimmerman still had three years left on his contract, and those looked to be unhappy seasons for Zimmerman and the Nationals.
But that oddity: Murphy, among others, saw that while Zimmerman was not hitting the ball effectively he was hitting the ball very hard. By Statcast™ numbers, Zimmerman’s average exit velocity of 93.7 was 12th best in baseball, about the same exit velocity as home run king Mark Trumbo, phenomenon Gary Sanchez or MVP candidate Josh Donaldson.
So if he Zimmerman was still hitting the ball hard, why couldn’t he hit the ball well?
What say thee Ted Williams? Right. He was not hitting the ball in the air.
Our own Mike Petriello wrote about this on numerous occasions: Zimmerman needed to get more lift on the ball. But it’s one thing for one of us writers to make to this hypothetical point (“Oh, if only he had straightened that one out!”). It’s quite another for Daniel Murphy to go to Zimmerman and work with him on hitting the ball in the air.
“If I can take the already elite skill of bat-to-ball and Exit Velocity off the barrel,” Murphy said back during spring training, “but get it at the right angle, now we’re really starting to do some serious damage. So I’m excited to see how he works this year.”
I won’t lie; I was entirely skeptical. Yes, the data lined up and, yes, Murphy had transformed himself from a career .290ish hitter with some power into a force of nature in 2016. But I found it hard to believe that Zimmerman could, even with help from Murphy, fundamentally change his swing (and his launch angle) at age 32, after a dozen years in the big leagues.
It has only been a month or so. But color me convinced:
Here, as Petriello presented, is a radial chart of when Ryan Zimmerman hit the ball 95 mph or harder in 2016:
As you can see, Zimmerman hit a lot of balls hard last year (150 to be exact) but he topped or hit under more than half of them. His big problem was topping the ball — his 8.1 degree launch angle on those hard hit balls ranked 150th out of the 187 who qualified.
Here’s Ryan Zimmerman in 2017, so far.
Um, that’s a a little different, isn’t it? His average launch angle on those hard-hit balls has skyrocketed to 15.9 degrees, a huge jump. Zimmerman has fundamentally changed his launch angle — look at this handy dandy chart I just made:
Fancy, right? The two columns to see are “Barrels” (those absolutely crushed balls that are usually doubles or home runs) and “Topped” (those generally harmless ground balls that are outs).
Almost tripling your Barrels while cutting your Topped balls in half is how you go from .218/.272/.370 to .420/.458/.886. Zimmerman leads the league with 11 homers — just four fewer than he hit all of last year — and on Saturday he hit this monster blast, the absolutely perfect home run (110 mph exit velocity at the ideal home run angle, 28 degrees) something that was all but inconceivable the last three years:
That ball went 470 feet, the longest by far of any Zimmerman homer run in the Statcast™ era. Then, it seems that Zimmerman has entered a whole new era. It’s impossible to say how long this craziness will last. But I think we can say: Hey, maybe Daniel Murphy was right.
And maybe Ted Williams, too.
Teddy Ballgame playing the numbers
Speaking of Ted Williams. I think it’s fun to look at this awesome little chart that he put in his book “The Science of Hitting.”
This is supposed to show how all of his hitters almost magically improved their batting averages in Ted Williams first year of managing in 1969.
It’s wonderful for so many reasons, but as readers may know one of my favorite things is seeing how people manipulate numbers to prove a point. I’m sure The Kid gruffly taught the guys a thing or too but, um, you might recall that a few other things happened before the 1969 season. You might recall or know that the lords of baseball were absolutely horrified by the lack of offense in 1968, the year of the pitcher. You might know, they lowered the mound. They adjusted the strike zone. They added expansion baseball teams. The probably made slight alterations to the baseball, though this is always a point of contention.
Anyway: The ENTIRE AMERICAN LEAGUE BATTING AVERAGE jumped from .230 to .246. That’s some job by Ted Williams. Every single team in the American League — every one — had their batting average go up between 1968 and 1969. The Senators’ 27 point jump was not even the biggest in the league — it was actually third behind Baltimore and Minnesota.
It’s just awesome to me that even the great Ted Williams liked to have fun with numbers.
Anthony Rendon’s Day
We’re pretty Nationals heavy on this Monday but, realistically, how can you not be? The Nationals scored 167 runs in their first 25 games — Tom Tango is always on me about doing silly “at that pace” things, but come on, at that pace the Nationals would score 1,082 runs, most in the history of baseball.
The whole team is hitting .295 and slugging .510.
THE WHOLE TEAM IS HITTING .295 AND SLUGGING .510.
I wish I could make those letters bigger. Maybe Daniel Murphy is the greatest hitting instructor in the history of the world.
Anthony Rendon was one of the few guys — heck, maybe even the ONLY guy — who was not hitting. He came into Sunday’s game hitting .226 with two extra base hits all year. You figured he would come out of it because Rendon is a very good hitter. It was unclear, though, that he would come out of it with one of the greatest offensive days in baseball history.
Sunday, Rendon went 6-for-6 with three homers and a double. That’s pretty decent. He even embarrassed the Mets by hitting a three run double (a few feet away from a fourth homer) when they intentionally walked Murphy to get to him.
How does that day rank in baseball history? Well, there are a lot of ways to judge that. You could argue that Shawn Green’s six-for-six day with four homers was better because, as Christopher Guest might say via Spinal Tap, “it’s one home run higher, isn’t it?” Brandon Crawford last year became the fifth player, and first in 40 years, to have a seven-hit day.
But there’s a fun little statistic called Base-Out Runs Added. It essentially measures how much value the hitter added considering the situation when he came up — how many were on base and how many outs were there?
Here are the top games by Base Out Runs Added (RE24) in baseball history:
- Mark Whitten, Sept. 7, 1993, 9.506 RE24
This was Hard Hittin’ Mark Whitten’s four-home run game in Cincinnati. It was the second game of a twilight doubleheader and a good friend of mine, a Cardinals fan, did what he never did: He left early because the first game had been so long. As far as I know, he has never forgiven himself.
2. Anthony Rendon, April 30, 2017, 9.387 RE24
Six hits. Three homers. Five runs. Ten RBIs.
3. Phil Weintraub, April 30, 1944, 9.267 RE24
A war-time game, Weintrab had four hits — two doubles, a triple and a homer — walked twice, scored five runs, drove in 11.
4. Norm Zauchin, May 27, 1955, 9.084 RE24
Zauchin was a rookie for the Red Sox — he mashed 27 homers and finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Herb Score — and this was his big day, four hits, three homers and a double, 10 RBIs.
5. Alex Rodriguez, April 26, 2005, 8.614 RE24
Three homers and 10 RBIs for A-Rod against Bartolo and the Angels.
Not long before the marvelous Tony Gwynn died, I had the privilege of interviewing him for a public event at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He was funny and enlightening and everything else that you could expect him to be.
At one point I asked him: Do you think there’s anyone in baseball who, under the right circumstances, could hit .400?
He did not hesitate. He said: “Well, there’s a guy here that could do it.” And he pointed to someone in the audience. He pointed to Matt Kemp.
It is easy to forget just how good Matt Kemp was in the prime of his career. In 2011, he hit .324, led the league in homers (36) runs (115) and RBIs (126), stole 40 bases (after promising that he would), won his second gold glove (mostly, let’s be honest, for his offense) and finished second in the MVP voting to Ryan Braun in a race he probably should have won.
It has been a struggle since then, with injuries, with the various issues that come with age and bouncing to different teams, with the pressures of big contracts, with the difficulties of being a high strikeout, low walk kind of hitter. Last year he cracked 35 home runs, but had a .304 on-base percentage, lowest of his career and because of his troubles on defense he graded out as basically a replacement level player by WAR.
Well, Kemp hit three home runs on Saturday and is off to a good start for the Braves this year. He’s hitting .321 and slugging better than .700. Kemp was never really the kind of hitter to make a run at .400 — way too many strikeouts to make that happen — but he was really a fantastic player for a stretch and it would be great to see him have a nice year.