You thought “runners in scoring position” fancified men on second and third? Welcome to the era of “exit velocity,” “launch angles,” and other locutions you might have thought more appropriate to a space launch than a baseball game.
Somehow it had to come to pass, unfortunately. All those years we obsessed about which pitchers hit three figure speed on the radar guns were bound to send someone off to give the hitters equal time. Continuing hangover from the Year of the Pitcher? Who knows?
So now for every Aroldis Chapman who throws a 100 mph pitch, we have to hear about an Aaron Judge (or we will, again, when he returns from the injured list) who hits one over 100 mph. That was then: the pitcher who threw the lamb chop past the wolf. This is now: The hitter who drives the lamb chop past the wolf.
One of these days the wolves are going to sue for willful starvation. It’ll happen sooner than language mavens sue to stop turning baseball into coverage of the space program, whatever’s left of it. It betrays my age but I never thought of Frank McGee as Vin Scully’s heir apparent. Though it might have been more fascinating to hear Scully report Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight than to hear McGee calling a World Series.
It’s one thing for my newly-minted friend Bill Denehy (former pitcher) to say the bomb Dick Allen hit off him in his first major league start “wasn’t a home run. That was a moon drive.” (It sailed on a rising line up toward the overhang of Connie Mack Stadium’s upper deck, stopped from landing in Delaware, as Denehy described it, only by the Coca-Cola sign on top of that overhang.) It’s something else now to hear and read baseball commentators and reporters discussing launch angles. Not to mention front office analytics departments as concerned about launch angles as astronauts were about re-entry angles.
Lots of players from the advent of the home run as a regular weapon have used uppercut swings. And we called them uppercut swings. Some of us described it a little more colourfully. “Dave Kingman’s like me,” Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle once said. “Swings from his ass.”
Kingman was a 6’6″ galoot with a long, loping uppercut swing and power equal to a nuclear weapon when he connected right and equal to a wind tunnel when he didn’t connect. Mantle himself once saw Kingman connect right and then some. “I know I never saw one like it,” he said.
He spoke of Kingman a brand-new Met facing brand-new Yankee Catfish Hunter in the first spring training 1975 exhibition between the two teams. Kingman caught hold of a Hunter slider and drove it so high and far out of the park that, according to Roger Angell in a piece collected in Five Seasons, it sailed over several palm trees before hitting the ground on the practise field behind it. Almost all the way to that field’s second base.
“A six-base blow,” Angell remarked dryly. In the same piece, he suggested the real impact of Kingman’s moon drive was to welcome Hunter—the first huge-money free agent, after he was made one thanks to Charlie Finley reneging on a contracted-for insurance payment—to his new Yankee mates: “There is nothing like a little public humiliation to make a five-million-dollar executive suddenly seem lovable.”
They didn’t talk about Kingman’s launch angle then or for any of the 442 major league home runs he hit in his career, enough of which homers traveled surrealistic distances. But they didn’t have to talk about his launch angle, either. The blast he sent clean out of Wrigley Field onto a porch three houses down on Waveland Avenue in 1979 may have been only the most obvious evidence. As also one of his nicknames, Sky King.
Today they’d analyse Kingman’s launch angles nigh unto death. Just the way they do with Cody Bellinger, Chris and Khris Davis, Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, and Christian Yelich, to name a few. They shouldn’t be wearing baseball uniforms, they should be wearing NASA space suits. And maybe Houston should recommission the Astrodome, where once upon a time grounds crews in mock space suits manicured the Astroturf with upright vacuum cleaners.
Statcast figured out that balls hit in the air were more likely to become hits than those hit on the ground. So did enough players, with or without a little help from their analytically rounded front offices. “Ground balls are outs,” Josh Donaldson once said. “If you see me hit a ground ball, even if it’s a hit, I can tell you: It was an accident.” So why don’t we just say fly balls anymore?
Vin Scully, calling a monstrous Darryl Strawberry home run in Game Seven of the 1986 World Series: “High drive into deep right field, Evans to the track, at the wall—gone!” Now, try to imagine Scully compelled to toe the launch angle lines: “Thirty degrees into deep right field . . . ” There’d be a degree of madness in that mangle.
When showing television viewers a replay of Strawberry’s bomb, Scully began, “Here’s another look at that skyrocket, a towering drive . . .” Prose poetry. Thirty degrees into deep right field isn’t even “There once was a man from South Central . . .”
As much as I’ve accepted, embraced, and bathed happily in statistics and analytics, as profoundly as I reject the notion that statistics are the blood poisoning of a game whose very life blood is statistics, even I have my limits. Not just because it doesn’t matter how you hit your home runs as long as you hit them, period.
As I’ve written in the recent past, Roger Maris didn’t have launch angles; his homers were somewhat high line drives most of the time. And they were no less home runs than Darryl Strawberry’s skyrockets or Dick Allen’s moon drives or . . . well, who knows what to nickname Babe Ruth’s bombs? In his day transoceanic flight was done mostly by low-altitude flying boats. Or, by airships like the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg, which weren’t that high and weren’t that fast. Man on the moon was science fiction.
One of those flying boats, a Boeing 314 flown by Pan American World Airways, inspired nicknaming Joe DiMaggio the Yankee Clipper. The 314 had a kind of rough beauty on the outside but inside it was a textbook model of beauty and grace. Which is how they thought of DiMaggio—likewise kind of rough looking as a youth (he became legitimately handsome in his retirement), until he swung the bat or ran down a ball in center field.
And who cares how fast a ball sails for a base hit or over the fence? Unless you’re really that obsessed with pace-of-game, of course. The problem is that it doesn’t matter whether a home run reaches the seats faster than a speeding bullet or floats there like the Goodyear blimp. No matter how fast the ball travels, it’ll still land before the bombardier even reaches first base running it out, whether he’s pimping or running full speed.
When the opportunity arises, I argue that analytics divorced from scouting means the kids torn unnecessarily between two contentious parents. Scouting can’t tell you everything about a prospect’s potential deep value, and analytics can’t tell you whether you’re going to get a committed baseball avatar or a first class jerk. (By which I don’t mean players having, God help us, fun playing the game.)
But I know analytics can turn baseball’s lingo into something between poeticide and gobbledegook. Let me go as analytical as I please, but don’t ask me to eliminate the skyrockets, the moon drives, the bullet liners, the frozen ropes, and the seeing-eye grounders. (And don’t go there about “contact hitting” unless you can show me a batter who can breathe a base hit or home run.)
When Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel was doing what he could with the absurdist Original Mets, one of his pitchers was future pitching guru and pennant-winning manager Roger Craig. As Hall of Famer Willie McCovey approached the plate in one game, Stengel went to the mound to talk to Craig. “How do you want to pitch him?” the Ol’ Perfesser asked. “Upper deck or lower deck?”
Stengel might be one of the arguable founding fathers of analytics (Baseball is percentage plus execution), doing the things analytics people adore decades before anyone ever heard of sabermetrics. And he created his own distinctive lingo of triple-talk. (It was known far and wide as Stengelese.) But he knew. He didn’t have to come right out and say it. Even accepting that he couldn’t just come right out and say something if he studied with Henry Higgins himself.
Launch angles and exit velocity matter a lot more for making New York to London in six hours or less than for putting runs on the scoreboard. A homer is a homer is a homer is a homer. Doesn’t matter whether it’s imitating Apollo 11 or the Yankee Clipper. It isn’t rocket science.
Let’s start the counterrevolution. How do you want to pitch Aaron Judge when he comes back from the injured list? Upper deck or lower deck?