Red Sox manager Alex Cora had time for this one. Eight minutes and 44 seconds, to be exact.
The subject was Sam Travis and how he’s produced in a lineup full of heavy hitters. His impact on this Sox offense is connected to launch angle, but not in the way you would think.
The same on-plane bat path that has turned Christian Vazquez into a solid major league hitter; the same launch point that helped shape J.D. Martinez into one of the league’s most feared in the box over the last six years; the same launch position that has helped produce more than 5,000 home runs in the majors this season, it just doesn’t work for Travis.
When Cora was asked about his thoughts on launch angle beyond Travis, he saw it as his time to sink his teeth into one of baseball’s biggest trends.
“I think a lot of players are taking that to the extreme, to be honest with you, to hit the ball in the air,” Cora said last week. “In certain situations a ground ball the other way would benefit us. Sometimes [launch] works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes we get too caught up in the hit-the-ball-in-the-air stuff.”
Logic suggests an increase in fly balls will lead to an increase in homers. Entering Thursday, the majors had a 15.3 percent home run to fly ball rate. Certainly, that’s getting the job done. But Cora said that might be a feast-or-famine approach.
“Obviously, there’s a reward when you hit the ball in the air, but how often does it happen?” Cora said. “We live in an industry that seems like hitting below .200 and hitting 40 [homers is good]. Yeah, I get it, OPS and all that, but there’s been a lot of guys throughout the history of the game that hit 30 [homers] and drove in 100 [runs]. But when do you hit 30? When do you drive in the runs? I might get criticized because of the comment, but it’s the truth. What do you do with a man on third with less than two outs? You’ve got to be careful.”
Cora then reminded everyone of an MLB Network clip he saw during spring training in 2018 when the Reds’ Joey Votto touched on launch angle.
“There’s a lot of great stories about [launch angle],” said Cora, paraphrasing Votto, “and people don’t talk about the other stories that haven’t worked.”
Which brings us back to Travis. The Red Sox tried to get him in more of a launch position last season. In short, it’s not as easy as it looks.
“It’s something as needed,” Martinez said. “Certain guys create [launch angle] naturally. They don’t have to think about it and just go out there and hit.”
The on-plane method threw Travis for a loop. He hit just .258 with Triple A Pawtucket in 2018 in 361 at-bats. He added eight homers and struck out 89 times, a high for him in the minors. In his 36 at-bats in the majors last season, he hit .222 with a homer.
“I noticed a big difference on the high heaters,” Travis said. “I’ve hammered high heaters my whole life. Even balls that are up in my eyes I’ve been able to get to or foul off or sometimes hit. I would just be swinging through them. There would be times where a guy would throw me three heaters at my chest and I’d miss every single one of them.”
The Sox initially thought that revamping Travis’s swing would help him combat low pitches. Hitting coach Tim Hyers said recently that Travis’s swing was too vertical, allowing pitchers to exploit the low part of the strike zone. But for every counter, there’s another counter.
“Going back to 2015-16, it was about the splitter. It was about the cutter,” Red Sox pitcher Nathan Eovaldi said. “Pitchers just have to stay one step ahead of the hitters, find out what their weaknesses are.”
Now, pitchers are taught to pound the top of the zone. The general thought is that hitters, because of the upward swinging motion, will swing over those pitches.
“When I’m preparing, I’m looking for guys who have that swing path,” Eovaldi continued. “I feel like I can get away with my velocity up in the zone, so I do try to use that to my advantage.”
Great hitters can make an adjustment, of course. But in Travis’s case, he’s a fringe major leaguer. Taking away a strength — heaters at the top of the zone — might run him out the league.
“If I’m going to struggle, I’m going to struggle with what got me here,” Travis said. “I’m not going to change here to something I didn’t do my whole life.”
So, the Sox and Travis decided to ditch the whole thing in June of last year. Though Travis said it wasn’t that much of a chore, he and Hyers had to rekindle his old swing then find a happy medium. If he wanted to go back, the swing couldn’t be at a downward angle.
“A couple of years ago, his swing was so steep,” Hyers said. “I really think he’s flattened out the right way. The ball down, he could stay on plane with that pitch. Now, when they throw him the changeups, fastballs down, he’s been able to get on plane and hit a line drive or a one-hopper through the infield. Where in the past [pitchers] would bury that because his [swing] was so steep.”
Travis is now hitting .269 with five homers in 93 at-bats this season with the big-league club. When the Sox recalled Travis July 15, he was hitting .275 with seven homers in Pawtucket.
He’s been a key piece off the bench in Boston because he can neutralize the high-spin-rate pitchers who throw up in the zone. The launch-angle approach had too many elements, Travis acknowledged, that he would take from the batting cage to the actual game.
“In the game you have to focus on the ball,” he said. “You think about how many guys go up there and take an off-balance swing and they get a hit. It’s because they’re hitting, not swinging.”
In Cora’s case, he isn’t against the launch-angle revolution, adding that it has an upside for those who can do it. But it’s a copycat league, and Cora did add this note: “There’s teams that are going the other way. They’re flatter and going straight to the ball. And those were the teams everyone is trying to follow.”
He might be talking about his former team, the Astros, who have made a shift away from launch angle. They strike out the least in baseball and put the ball in play. They rank top 10 in ground ball percentage, yet still came into Thursday ranked fourth in the major in homers (204). Cora’s getting at something here: There’s a way you can do both.
In the case of Travis, a flatter swing probably won’t turn him into an everyday player. However, it might give him a chance to stick around in the big leagues. He just had to zig when everyone else zagged.
“I really like where he’s at,” Hyers said. “I really like the way he battles. He’s one of the best competitors we have on the team.”