Column: Mike Schmidt says 'freelancing' hitters on upswing
By MIKE SCHMIDT
Mar. 30, 2018
A new season is upon us and for those who enjoy the inner game, there's a revolution going on. Serious fans are familiar with analytics, the use of statistical information to support baseball theory.
No longer are scouts, eye tests and gut feelings the only way. From removing starters, to shifting infielders to trading players, analytics are used.
Can you imagine the information available to the modern manager as he makes out his lineup? Gone are the days that eight guys knew they were the regulars no matter who was pitching. If a player's record against a certain pitcher is not good, he doesn't play.
Success rate of the sacrifice bunt, success rate of the stolen base, swinging in certain counts, everything is now swayed by statistical analysis. Imagine knowing the exact percentage of times a pitcher throws a certain pitch in a given count. It's available! Baseball, just like society, has entered the Information Age.
Earl Weaver will be turning over in his grave as Alexa will soon be able to run a game.
For hitters, exit velocity and launch angle and distant traveled are available on a screen in the batting cage. In golf, there is the widely used TrackMan. Now baseball has it.
From the standpoint of being useful, this information can help a hitter feel different dynamics of the swing. But searching for the optimum launch or exit velocity is useless for most hitters. Where is the line drawn for needing this information?
This spring I learned that a slight upward swing plane is the optimum for creating productive contact. More simply put, hitters now want the ball in the air, not on the ground.
Here's the first thing you need to know to support this theory. The average major league fastball arrives at home plate at 85.2 mph on a 6-degree angle of decline. Players today are now coached that a zero-degree plane creates what the pitcher wants, groundballs. Apparently the numbers support that.
To be on a level plane with the pitch, the swing would be slightly up. To be on a home run plane, the ideal would be 10 to 20 degrees up through the equator of the ball.
This data has convinced several of today's hitters to buy in. Wouldn't this open your eyes to the possibility of trying an upward swing? Why not go over the top of the shift?
It's easier. It's natural, it's what you did in Little League or your backyard when dad tossed you a Wiffle ball. You tried to launch it in the air. You didn't have any responsibility like getting on base, advancing runners or protecting the plate. You had no accountability then.
As a pro you do, albeit not enough.
What percentage of balls in the air are safe hits vs. balls on the ground? Remove line drives and compare groundballs to flyballs, what then? Add in offspeed pitches, the great equalizers.
And what about hitting a ball with backspin? My experience tells me that can only be done with a descending swing plane. An upward plane creates topspin. Tennis shows us that — swing up to curl the ball, down to cut or backspin the ball.
I call this new approach to hitting "freelancing."
It's hitters having fun, more of an all-or-nothing approach with little accountability. Home runs and runs scored have gone up over the last five years, as have strikeouts. Hitters are facing shifting defenses and high fastballs that increase their chance of making an out.
Isn't a hitter's goal to not make an out? Maybe that's old school. Today an out is an out — why not take the risk of a home run and live with the strikeouts?
I spent 20 years studying and experimenting with different approaches to hitting. I wrote a book, "The Mike Schmidt Study," with many hitting coaches, studying the differences in hitting mechanics.
One, for sure, what the optimum swing plane should be. But I didn't have analytics at my disposal.
Would I have changed with this new information? I don't know.
All I do know is Henry Aaron, Barry Bonds, Dave Winfield, Gary Sheffield, Al Oliver, Dick Allen and myself, to name a few, swung down to the ball. I became a complete hitter and had my finest days when I eliminated the uppercut. It increased my ability to win the battle with the pitcher, which is the heart of the game.
So with small ballparks, loaded bats and the lure of millions for home runs, why not groove the uppercut? Sounds like fun. Fans in the outfield, bring your gloves.
Editor's Note: Mike Schmidt hit 548 home runs and was a three-time NL MVP with the Philadelphia Phillies.