The Washington Post has an article with some interesting graphics about how home run hitting in baseball is up, perhaps attributable to the introduction of technology in 2015 recording the launch angle and exit velocity of batted balls. In 2016 a number of hitters, such as Daniel Murphy of the Washington Nationals, switched to trying to hit more fly balls than ground balls, with good results. This year the trend toward fly balls and homers seems to be increasing.
The graph above, with launch angle on the vertical scale and how hard the ball is hit on the left to right scale shows that quite a few hits in baseball are flukes, such as all the Texas Leaguer bloops that fall in for singles in front of outfielders, bunts, slow dribblers, and hard Baltimore Chops that take so long to come down that the batter beats out the hit. (Does anybody still use terms like Texas Leaguer and Baltimore Chops? I have all this Branch Rickey era baseball vocabulary, like Merkle’s Boner, from the used baseball books my mom would bring home from the thrift shop where she worked in 1967, but I can’t tell whether anybody knows those terms anymore.)
Due to better data, about a half decade ago, teams started shifting infielders around radically for each batter, whereas back in the 1940s only Ted Williams had been greeted with a personalized shift. So batters are now using launch angle data to respond to the declining chance of hitting a grounder between infielders by hitting more balls in the air.
On the other hand, some hitters have had seasons wrecked by trying to alter their swings to put the ball in the air more, such as Jason Heyward who had an embarrassing year in 2016 with the otherwise sterling Chicago Cubs. This year they told him to just go back to swinging the way he had been and he’s doing somewhat better.
The problem with baseball is that the home run is really so much more valuable than other kinds of hits that baseball has a logical tendency to turn into home run hitting contest.
A problem with that is that not many men much below 200 pounds, and only very strong ones above 200 pounds, can regularly hit balls over major league fences. Yet baseball is a more interesting game when it has a role for interesting non-sluggers like Ichiro Suzuki, Ozzie Smith, Pete Rose, Derek Jeter, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs, Mark Belanger, Eddie Collins, Willie Wilson, Maury Wills, Juan Pierre, and David Eckstein.
Baseball hierarchs should be thinking about how to reward line drive hitters. The ability to hit a 90+ mph pitch squarely is pretty interesting even if you can’t consistently hit it over the fence.
I wrote a post in 2014 about how they could greenskeep the outfields so that the ball would roll faster on the grass so that line drives would be more likely to roll between the outfielders to the fence for a triple, the most entertaining kind of hit (other than the rare inside-the-park homer).
For example, today they usually mow the outfield so that the nap of the grass is back and forth, making those attractive geometric designs. But they could mow the grass so the the blades lay down away from home plate, thus cutting resistance.
The most radical change would be to dig up the outfield and resod them, sloping the outfields downward away from home plate, kind of like at the Lord’s Cricket Club in London.