Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Guerrero and Shaw: The launch angle outliers

On the surface, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Travis Shaw have little in common. Two hitters at two completely different points in their careers, on opposite sides of the diamond (although Guerrero’s future is arguably at the first base position).

As dissimilar as they are, both Vladdy and Shaw struggled mightily at the plate in 2019, but for two completely different reasons. They were both outliers in launch angles.

Guerrero has one of the most ferocious swings in baseball, but he pummelled balls into the ground with regularity throughout the 2019 season. Conversely, the degree of Shaw’s uppercut swing went too far, which turned line drives into pop-ups and fly outs.

Somehow, these two were on the polar opposite of the launch angle chart in 2019. They also find themselves on the same roster in 2020 with the same issue; they need to get their swing plane back on track.

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Player AVG Launch Angle Ranking
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 6.7 ° 16th lowest
Travis Shaw 24.4 ° 1st highest

Let’s start with Vladdy, whose 6.7 degree average launch angle was the 18th lowest among hitters with 250 or more plate appearances in 2019. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Shaw, who had the highest average launch angle among all MLB hitters (with 250 or more PA’s), with an average launch angle of 24.4 degrees.

To see why that’s a problem, Blue Jays Nation’s Paul Berthelot had a phenomenal breakdown of Shaw’s swing changes from 2018 to 2019 and illustrated why the dramatic increase in launch angle hurt Shaw in 2019.

An ideal launch angle goes hand-in-hand with a decent exit velocity off the bat, but it’s easy to see why MLB hitters want to hit that ideal sweet spot of a 10 to 25 degree launch angle. Here are the numbers across MLB in 2019 for batted balls with various degrees of launch angles.

Launch Angle AVG XBA wOBA xwOBA
< 10 ° .273 .274 .250 .249
10-25 ° .666 .657 .740 .726
> 25 ° .285 .281 .451 .438

Line drives are as good as gold. Most numbers nearly triple when hitters make contact for screaming line drives to the outfield, or even better, over the fence. Some hitters have a natural tendency to put the bat on the ball in that particular sweet spot, while others have altered their mechanics.

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After posting solid seasons in 2017 and 2018 with the Brewers, Shaw admits to altering his swing in 2019, to the point where he was overcompensating by over-swinging on pitches and creating a greater loft on the ball. That could’ve been linked to his wrist injury, which can have adverse effects on hitters long after returning from the injured list.

Shaw told Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi: “I fought my body and fought myself all year, trying to get myself back to where I was the two years prior to that.” The solution with Shaw seems simple; stop uppercutting the ball, work backwards and utilize the swing that made him a 30-plus home run hitter in 2017 and 2018.

It’s easier said than done, but given enough runway and if he makes the proper swing changes, it’s easy to see Shaw reaching that 30 home run plateau on 2020.

Then there’s Vladd; the man who clubbed an eye-popping 91 home runs in the 2019 Home Run Derby. Watching him destroy baseballs at the derby, it’s easy to see why the Blue Jays have so much faith in him. Guerrero’s raw hitting ability is unparalleled in the game.

But something interesting happened to Guerrero early in his rookie debut, and it persisted for most of the 2019 season; he didn’t get a damn pitch to hit. While Shaw’s launch angle woes are tied to his swing adjustment, Guerrero’s lack of launch angle might be associated with reaching for pitches outside of the strike zone.

Would it surprise you if Vladdy saw the 15th highest percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone last year? And would it shock you if he had the 14th lowest percentage of pitches inside the strike zone in 2019? Not to make excuses for the guy, but it’s difficult to make something happen when you rarely see a pitch over the plate.

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It seems bizarre that a hitter of Guerrero’s calibre struggled with hitting balls into the ground, but the book was out on him early; don’t give the kid a pitch to hit. Nobody wanted to be the pitcher who made Vladdy famous in 2019.

Like any half-decent right-handed hitter, Guerrero was guilty of chasing pitches below the strike zone, as well as going for pitches inside and away. Baseball Savant tracked all his swings in 2019, and lo-and-behold, look at where the bulk of them landed: below the strike zone.

Blue Jays hitting coach Guillermo Martinez has his work cut out for him with these two specimens. However, if he can unlock the potential within both these bats, the Blue Jays could have a killer middle of the order in 2020 anchored by Guerrero and Shaw.