Trickle down? College, prep baseball coaches weigh in on MLB power revolution
Tiffin University baseball coach Joe Wilkins was a four-time letterwinner at Ohio State, and in the early 2000s, played minor league ball for a few years in the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks organizations.
In all that time, did Wilkins ever hear the phrase “launch angle?”
“Not once,” said Wilkins, who just finished his seventh year as the Dragons head coach. “That term started coming around, for me, at least, a couple years ago.”
To some, launch angle merely translates into two things: Home runs and strikeouts. In Major League Baseball, both are prevalent. In 2018 — for the first time in history — MLB hitters had more strikeouts than hits.
In May, MLB set a record for the most home runs in a single month: 1,120.
That’s a lot of trots around the bases.
Maybe it’s analytics, maybe it’s shifts, which are causing players to try to hit home runs instead of risking a ground outs to medium-deep right field.
Is it baseball?
I’m negative about the game right now. As a teenager, I delighted at the speed and stolen bases of Kenny Lofton and the line-drive doubles of Barry Larkin. Once, in a game in early 1988 at old Cleveland Stadium, I saw the Indians win a game by squeezing home a run in the ninth inning against the Orioles.
The hitter? Joe Carter.
Pretty sure that would never happen today.
But instead of going off on the topic — which, let’s face it, I’m more than capable of — I decided to seek out some other voices. I reached out to some area baseball coaches for their thoughts on the big league game, and how it’s affecting the play at the level they coach.
“It’s definitely a different kind of ball that you and me were raised with,” said Columbian coach Curt Mellott. “What I mean by that is, they are so based on the metrics of the situation, based on the analytics, most people, especially at first, it becomes a hard game to watch from time to time.”
But I believed Mellott would be immune from some of the terms in baseball, which have turned the National Pastime into a glorified algebra exam.
I failed algebra. Multiple times. So certainly, the high school game is a refuge from that, right? I bet that Mellott never hears the phrase “launch angle” in the high school game.
“Oh, yes I have,” Mellott said. “I’d say all the terminology…the term ‘velo,’ the term ‘launch angle,’ those terms have seeped into our lexicon, so to speak.”
Mellott’s team’s didn’t hit any homers this past season. And he said a number of good teams may hit no more than five in a year.
But that doesn’t mean some ideas in the high school game aren’t changing.
“I have heard more of the discussion that, ‘We’ve got to get the ball in the air, we’ve got to drive the ball,'” Mellott said. “If you’re a numbers-based person, there’s a lot to be said for that. If you’re a numbers-based person, the numbers do bear out that if you hit the ball in the air (the chances to get hits) definitely increase.”
I’m not, as every high school and college math teacher I ever had can attest, a numbers-person. I didn’t ask Mellott if he was. But Mellott isn’t necessarily behind a fly-ball revolution.
“In general, there’s still a lot to be said for the basics of the game, such has the sacrifice bunt, the hit-and-run, those things are still a staple,” he said. “I’m more from the old-school side. I’m a firm believer that if you hit the ball on the ground, there’s a lot of things that can go wrong in the high school game, defensively. I want them to handle the ball as much as possible. The more you can move it, the better off.”
I wanted to shout, “Amen, Brother!” but stopped short. It was a professional interview, after all.
Still, a bigger concern to me is the strikeouts and walks. It seems as though the idea of putting the ball in play is being de-emphasized.
Matt Palm, Heidelberg’s athletic director and former baseball coach, said he used to talk to players about limiting their punch outs.
“We talked to guys that were more strikeout-prone,” Palm said, “and just talked about, ‘This is what your average is, this is what your production is, in the at bats where you don’t strikeout. So, how do we figure out a way to diminish the number of strikeouts, which, obviously is gonna increase your production?’ I think a lot of times, it’s about the type of pitches you’re swinging at, your plate discipline.”
When he coached in at Heidelberg, Palm was never afraid to have a hitter lay down a bunt, and he frequently started runners. He had some great power hitters — Ricardo Lizcano was a slugger on Heidelberg’s 2010 World Series team and went on to play in the Cardinals organization.
But Palm’s teams were always a mix players with a mix of abilities.
“I definitely think the game has changed, and it’s changed, from my opinion, at all levels,” he said. “Obviously, the most at the major league level, but I think it has changed all the way down through, from college baseball to high school baseball.”
Wilkins said that players use things such as launch angles in college, but don’t quite see the power returns.
“An average big leaguer is like a 6-3, 210-pound, 215-pound guy,” Wilkins said. ” (Reds slugger) Yasiel Puig is 6-2, 240. Those guys, in batting practice when you watch them, they’re launching balls pretty consistently if they want to. So, it trickles down to our level, where we’ve got guys who are 5-10, 5-11, and 140 pounds, 160-170, whatever it is, and they’re trying to do the same thing with the same approach…it just doesn’t work as well.”
But Wilkins said some of his players have been successful using those principles.
“We had a guy who really, it wasn’t so much launch angle, but it was some bat-path stuff for him,” Wilkins said.
That was Zach Campbell, the team’s shortstop, who hit .380 with three of the team’s 24 homers this season.
“He’s 5-9, 5-10, 150 pounds soaking wet, but he was able to generate some success because of that, too,” Wilkins said. “And then we’ve got other guys who are trying to do the same thing as Zach, that it doesn’t work for them.”
When asked if they enjoyed the pro game as much as in the past, Palm and Wilkins said they weren’t.
But that has more to do with a team than with a style of play.
“My watching of Major League Baseball comes and goes with how good the Indians are,” Palm said.
Wilkins, a Columbus native, also said the Indians struggles have limited his enjoyment. But he’s not down on the pro game.
“I don’t think there’s anything in there I don’t like as far as the game goes,” he said.
Mellott is a Yankees fan, so he’s probably enjoying the game more. The Bronx Bombers are having a good year.
As for me, well, I’ll keep watching. At this point, maybe it’s more of an addiction to baseball than a love.
But I’ll never stop hoping for a return to steals, hit-and-runs and singles hitters making the All-Star team.
“Obviously, the home run is exciting,” Palm said, “but I think when a guy takes off from first base, and a somebody rips a ball in the gap and he scores, or he goes first to third and you get a double, there’s just some great things that happen when you have action in the game of baseball.”
This time, I’ll say it.
Zach Baker is the sports editor for The Advertiser-Tribune.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @Zachthewriter