FORT MYERS, Fla. — Ted Williams wrote “The Science of Hitting” with John Underwood in 1970. Almost 50 years later, concepts articulated in that tome are getting a new audience that is embracing ever-more scientific demonstrations of its tenets.
The Red Sox great believed that players should have a slight upper cut at the point of contact with the intention of launching the ball to the nether regions of the field. As ideas such as exit velocity and launch angle spread throughout the game, some players, hitting coaches, and even teams are starting to embrace some of Williams’s views as gospel.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle recently proclaimed, “Your OPS is in the air.” The Cubs — whose hitting coach, John Mallee, espouses the view that “there is no slug on the ground” — encourage their players to hit with loft. Josh Donaldson has become an outspoken enemy of trying to do anything but hit the ball in the air.
For now, the Red Sox are exercising caution about such a sweeping philosophical shift. The team believes in taking an individual approach rather than emphasizing a one-size-fits-all mantra, while some coaches are leery of asking players to alter their swings according to physics blueprints.
“To start to get into angles, lift, and launch — I mean, we’ve got some smart guys, but they might not be going to Harvard,” Sox manager John Farrell said.
Yet the case of Daniel Murphy, drafted in 2006 by the Mets out of Jacksonville University, suggests that at least some players are interested and capable of enjoying a mid-career crash course in physics.
A couple of years ago, Mets officials approached the second baseman with an observation.
“They kind of alluded to, when I pulled the ball in the air, I was much more dangerous than any other time I hit the ball,” Murphy recalled.
Murphy, who to that point in his career had performed at a level fairly characterized as slightly better than league average, worked with Mets hitting coach Kevin Long in 2015 to position his body in a way that allowed him to do just that. Toward the end of that year, he saw the fruits of those efforts with a monster postseason. Murphy carried that forward into his first year with the Nationals in 2016, when he hit .347/.390/.545 with 27 homers and became an MVP candidate.
He changed his thought process as a hitter considerably. After years trying to drive the ball up the middle while sending low liners into the left-center gap, Murphy looked to get the ball into the air with loft. He read articles on Fangraphs that helped to explain more precisely where he might find his sweet spot as a hitter, learning that a launch angle of roughly 27 degrees with an exit velocity of 98 miles per hour or above tended to result in homers. Murphy got to those numbers more regularly by pulling the ball, by looking for a different feel of his ball off his bat than he’d ever before experienced.
“Each time I hit the ball, I’d like to try to eliminate all five people standing in front of me on my batted balls,” Murphy said.. “I just work on driving the ball. If I miss, I prefer my miss to be in the air as opposed to on the ground. . . . The biggest thing for me is feel. If I feel like the ball sticks to my barrel, I don’t care [about the launch angle].”
The transition is not without its challenges.
“It’s difficult because guys in this league throw really hard and they’re really, really good,” Murphy said. “It’s not necessarily the easiest league on the planet to make adjustments. It’s still taking all this information and understanding that it’s an athletic event. Guys are throwing aspirins at us.”
Yet Murphy is one of a growing number of players who are learning to take aspirin in a different way. Other players such as reigning AL home run champ Mark Trumbo, Dodgers All-Star third baseman Justin Turner, and NL MVP Kris Bryant of the Cubs have all embraced the science of driving the ball in the air, forsaking the longtime baseball preference for a level swing and replacing it with a desire to use an uppercut approach to send the ball to distant realms.
The Red Sox typically don’t ask players at either the major league or minor league level to alter their swings or approaches to focus on contact in the air.
“Not everybody has that kind of swing,” hitting coach Chili Davis said. “If you’re asking a guy to hit more fly balls, you better accept that there are going to be a lot of pop-ups and a lot of swings and misses. I’ve got to look at the hitter himself and say, ‘If I suggest this to him, is it going to help him or will it be a huge adjustment?’ There are guys that have natural arc to their swing who are going to hit more fly balls, but not everyone has that. . . . That worked for [Murphy], but is it going to work for someone else? I don’t know. To me, there’s no one philosophy that’s going to work for every player. I just focus on making good contact, getting through the ball, and keeping it as simple as possible.”
In 2012-14, Davis was the hitting coach for an A’s team that was viewed as one of the most dramatic examples of the success that could be achieved by focusing on fly ball contact. Players like Donaldson, Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss, and Coco Crisp became power-hitting forces.
Davis, however, says that the development was not a result of a commitment to a philosophy but rather working with those hitters to hone the swings they already had, and to attack the pitches against which they could do the most damage.
Nonetheless, others such as Murphy have enacted a more purposeful overhaul. And some in the Red Sox system are intrigued by the possibility of following suit.
Nick Longhi, for instance, is one of the team’s best pure hitting prospects. But over 124 games in High A Salem in 2016, his .282/.349/.393 line included 40 doubles but just two homers — power numbers that created questions about whether he had the offensive profile to be a potential everyday corner bat.
This offseason Longhi worked with Florida International University hitting coach Jered Goodwin to lower his hands and to lengthen his stride slightly (by about 3 inches, he estimated) at the point of contact to create a slight upward plane in his swing. During the winter, the fruits of his approach were tracked with technology that identified the launch angle and exit velocity with which he was hitting the ball.
So far this spring, Longhi said, he’s seen the slightly altered approach result in more balls driven in the air. In two at-bats in the Sox’ first minor league games of the spring on Wednesday, he crushed a ball to the track in right-center (likely a homer but for a wind blowing in) and drilled a grand slam down the left field line.
It remains to be seen what kinds of results arise from Longhi’s work. Moreover, it might be something of an oversimplification to suggest that the 21-year-old Longhi needed baseball’s physics revolution to make the alterations, as plenty of players have grown into power as they matured physically.
Nonetheless, it will be intriguing to monitor players like Longhi to see if a trip to baseball’s growing physics lab unlocks the sort of results that would make Ted Williams proud.