Tigers’ McClendon: Launch angle works, but not for all

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon works with Leonys Martin, right, during batting practice.

Tampa, Fla. – Detroit Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon equates teaching hitters the pros and cons of launch angle to being an airplane mechanic.

“A mechanic can work on a plane, but that doesn’t mean he can fly it,” he said Friday before the Tigers opened their Grapefruit League season against the Yankees. “If you are going to teach launch angle, you have to teach it the right way.”

McClendon believes in the virtues of launch angle, but he’s quick to point out, it’s not for everybody.

“As an instructor, you have to know the strengths and weaknesses of each of your players and what’s going to work best,” he said. “I try to operate off that – past history, past success, what can make them better and what might make them worse.

“When you talk about launch angle, for every five players that it works for, there’s another five it doesn’t work for. You have to be really careful about that and go about it the right way.”

McClendon is working with two hitters this spring who had their careers damaged by trying to increase launch angle and get more of a upper-cut swing: center fielders Leonys Martin and catcher Derek Norris.

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Martin hit 15 home runs for the Mariners in 2016 and thought if he could increase his launch angle he could hit 25 home runs. The result: He hit a career-low .172 with a .232 on-base percentage and a 25 percent strikeout rate.

“It’s a shame,” he said. “I got confused because I showed up in spring training last year with one plan and then in the middle of spring training, I changed. My mind got confused and I never found myself.

“I hit 15 homers the year before, but that's not my game, man. I always try to hit the ball to the gaps and I change it. And it doesn't work like that. If you work on something, you have to keep believing, believing in what you do. That’s what I did wrong.”

These metric readings tell the tale for Martin:

Average launch angle (via Statcast):

2015: 6.4 degrees

2016: 11 degrees

2017: 9.2 degrees

Ground-ball and fly-ball rates (via Fangraphs):

2013: 50.9% / 28.1%

2014: 50.3% / 27.8%

2015: 51.7% / 33.0%

2016: 43.2% / 36.8%

2017: 46.1% / 39.3%

Strikeout percentage (via Fangraphs):

2014: 19.6

2015: 22.3

2016: 26

2017: 25

McClendon has convinced Martin to figuratively wipe the slate clean and start over.

“Leonys is a young man full of talent who is still trying to find himself this spring,” McClendon said. “That’s what it’s all about. We are trying to find him, who he is and what he’s all about as a hitter.”

As for Norris, he was a line-drive gap hitter and an American League All-Star with the A’s in 2014. He hit .270, just 10 home runs but a lot of doubles. His slugging percentage was a solid .403. But he hit 14 home runs in each of the next two seasons and was convinced to change the angle of his swing to try and get more lift.

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The idea was, the more balls launched in the air, the more home runs he’d hit.

The result was, the home runs didn’t come, but the strikeouts did. His strikeout percentage went from 19.5 percent in 2014, to 23.5 in 2015, to 30.4 in 2016. His average plummeted to a career low .186 in 2016.

“Just baseball,” Norris said. “I tried out a couple of things with my swing, with the whole launch angle thing and it just wasn’t for me. It was a learning experience. It could’ve gone a different way, the opposite way where I became a 20-30 home run guy.

“Unfortunately, it brought up my power but it brought up my strikeout numbers, as well. For me, I’ve always been a low-line drive, doubles hitter and that’s what I am getting back to.”

McClendon is still a believer in launch angle, in principal.

“It’s not new and it hasn’t changed,” he said. “The point of contact is an upper cut. If you ever look at the pictures of all the great hitters through time, at the point of contact the palm is up and there is a slight upper cut. That swing has been around the game forever.

“Somebody just got smart and put a number on it.”

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There is no vagary about the analytics involved in launch angle. The percentages show more good things than bad things happen when hitters can put the ball in the air, as the likes of J.D. Martinez, Cody Bellanger and Corey Seager will attest.

But baseball isn’t a video game and players aren’t robots.

Which is why McClendon is careful about how he teaches it and who he teaches it to.

“There are several guys I am working with to get more lift,” he said. “And there are several guys I am working with to get less lift.”