by JP Fasone – Hitting Intern
The concept of “getting on plane” with the pitch is nothing new to baseball.
In 1971, Ted Williams discussed the idea in his book The Science of Hitting, positing, “The flight of the ball is down (see diagram), about 5°. A slight upswing… puts the bat flush in line with the path of the ball.”
In other words, the better we can match the descent angle of the pitch with our attack angle, the better chance we have to make flush contact and increase our smash factor.
As we can see in the graphic, the angle of the incoming pitch, namely the descent angle, dictates what attack angle creates the largest impact zone.
What Is Descent Angle?
Descent Angle, also known as vertical approach angle, describes the vertical angle of the pitch as it crosses the plate. There are a lot of factors that affect descent angle, but in general, an MLB fastball has a descent angle between -5°and -7°, sliders between -6° and -8°, and curveballs between -8° and -12°.
The curveball comes in from above compared to the fastball, creating a steeper descent angle
How Does Descent Angle Affect Training?
We have discussed why hitting plyos are the best tool for training bat path, but the environment (i.e., descent angle) we use them in can drastically affect the feedback that the athlete receives. As coaches, we need to be aware of the descent on our flips for several reasons.
Let’s start with a few examples. Above, the athlete has a relatively flat bat path, and this particular swing produced an attack angle of 7°, which is in a reasonable range. However, because the descent angle of the flip is steep at -16°, he cuts the plyo, seen by the excessive backspin post-contact.
Since the athlete hit the plyo ball with a lot of backspin, the feedback tells the athlete that his attack angle was too low and did not match the plane of the pitch, resulting in poor contact quality.
The attack angle on this swing was fine; it’s the shape of the flip that was not. Since athletes create movement solutions based on feedback from the environment, the disconnect between the feedback and the swing will create unwanted adaptations. This is especially true with plyos since they are designed to make suboptimal contact more pronounced.
In this case, the descent angle is much closer to that of a typical fastball. Because of this more realistic trajectory, the result is flush contact when the athlete strikes this plyo with the same 7° attack angle. Since the plyo was hit flush with little spin, the feedback tells the athlete that his attack angle was within a good range.
The only change between these two swings was the descent angle of the flip.
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What Does a Good Flip Look Like?
In-gym, we use HitTrax to monitor the descent angles of our flips, looking for a descent angle between -5° and -9°. We understand that not everyone has access to tech that gives them this kind of immediate feedback, so how else can we check our descent angle? The descent angle is influenced most by velocity and release height.
The flip on the left comes from a lower release point than the one on the right. The lower release height requires the flipper to toss the ball harder, allowing it to travel upward longer before gravity starts pulling it down, creating a flatter descent angle. The flip on the right comes from a higher release point and requires a slower speed to get the ball into the strike zone.
As a general rule of thumb, the higher the release point (overhand flips, standing flips, etc.), the harder the toss must be to keep the same descent angle. Just make sure to remember that as velocity increases, coaches may have to extend the distance to maintain game-like reaction times.
Recording slow-motion video from the side is an easy way to check if your flips are coming in too steep. For example, above, we can see two tosses that enter the zone at about the same location, but one comes from a much more vertical angle.
Depending on the athlete (think low or high Attack Angle hitters), coaches can manipulate the shape of their flips to drive adaptations. With that being said, most flips have too much arch to them, so the flatter, the better.
The challenge for hitters has always been finding ways to create the most game-like training environments. Often we only address this challenge when doing higher velocity work, like machine work or short boxes. When the velocity is lower, creating a game-like environment often gets overlooked.
The training environment will directly change the feedback that the athlete gets and, as a result, the adaptations created. We can work toward a more game-like environment to give our athletes accurate feedback even at lower velocities.
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