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Nine Innings: The Cubs' Issue With Launch Angle, Reimagining Bullpen Roles and Jonny Venters's Painful Journey

In this week's Nine Innings, Tom Verducci explains how the Launch Angle Revolution is not a one-size-fits-all method, Craig Counsell explains his reimagined bullpen and the staff dishes their favorite Albert Pujols moments.

KYLE SCHWARBER ADJUSTS SWING TO OPPOSE THE LAUNCH ANGLE REVOLUTION

By Tom Verducci

Here’s the kind of story you might be reading more about in the months to come: when the launch angle revolution goes too far.

We all are familiar with the many players who changed their swing to get more balls in the air and found new success, including Justin Turner, Yonder Alonso, J.D. Martinez, Chris Taylor, Daniel Murphy, et al. But too much launch angle? Yes, we will start hearing more about players who took the theory too far and adjusted back toward a more level path to the baseball.

This is the story of Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber. It may surprise you—and it certainly surprised Chicago executives, who upon drafting him, foresaw him putting up “Big Papi” numbers—to know that last year Schwarber was the worst fastball hitter in baseball.

The worst.

Schwarber hit .212 against four-seam and two-seam fastballs and sinkers, the worst batting average among any player with 200 such results.

Here is the list:

Worst Fastball Hitters in 2017

1. Kyle Schwarber, Cubs

.212

T2. Mike Napoli, Rangers

.214

T2. Darwin Barney, Blue Jays

.214

T4. Chris Davis, Orioles

.218

T4. Logan Forsythe, Dodgers

.218

What happened? Pitchers exploited the low hand position Schwarber used to hit. As the pitcher pulled the ball back to throw, Schwarber held his hands slightly above the waist. He couldn’t catch up to velocity above his hands. He exacerbated the issue by swinging with even more of an upward path than he used in 2015.

Schwarber made a key change this year, a change prompted in part by the emphasis from manager Joe Maddon in spring training to his hitters to worry less about launch angle and more about a level path and using the whole field. Now as the pitcher loads, Schwarber keeps his hands nearly shoulder level. As the pitch is released, he raises his hands before taking them down to the ball. His goal: don’t try to lift the baseball; be more direct to the ball.

How’s it working? Here is Schwarber last year and this year vs. fastballs:

 

Batting Average

Slugging Percentage

2017

.212

.469

2018

.281

.531

And now consider how far he has reduced his launch angle (2016, an injury-shortened season, is omitted) while putting more balls in play:

Schwarber Average Launch Angle and Strikeout Rate

 

Degrees

Strikeout Percentage

2015

16.0

28.2%

2017

17.8

30.9%

2018

8.0

22.9%

Travis Shaw of Milwaukee is another hitter who has been tamping down his launch angle (since 2016: 16.1, 14.6, 11.9). This follows a familiar pattern with new ideas in baseball (defensive shifts, batting the pitcher eighth, accepting strikeouts on offense, etc.): people overdo it with the new toy.

Nobody wants to hit a groundball, but the quest to get the ball airborne does have its limits. Maddon, for one, made it clear he is no fan of using launch angle as a point of emphasis.

“The launch angle thing to me, it sounds sexy,” he said. “Some guys just do it naturally. But guys should almost have to wash out before they embrace it, almost like a lefty pitcher who has to learn to drop down [sidearm]. I think it’s more of an acquired taste, something for somebody who is in need of a different method. If you’re a corner player who may be hitting the ball hard but not showing power, maybe it’s something to try. But for the regular player, no. Taking a good, level pass at the ball still plays.”

BEST THING I SAW THIS WEEK: THE PADRES POWERFUL DUO YOU PROBABLY HAVEN'T HEARD OF

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By Jack Dickey

Only a fool would claim that the 2018 Padres, in the aggregate, have been a surprise. The club won 71 games last year and 68 the year before that; at 10-19 through Sunday, San Diego is on pace to win all of 56 games this time around. They may not be fully that bad, but they boast the game’s second-lowest team OPS and lead the sport in strikeouts. With Freddy Galvis and Austin Hedges taking at-bats every day, Padres games aren't exactly appointment TV.

And yet, all that aside, two rookie Padres have been responsible for some of April’s most gobsmacking moments. Their names are Christian Villanueva and Franchy Cordero, and together they have combined for 14 home runs, same as the entire remainder of the NL’s rookie class. Villanueva has eight of them; Cordero has six. Is exit velocity your thing? It’s Cordero’s too. He ranks fourth in average exit velocity, according to Statcast, behind only Yoan Moncada, Nelson Cruz, and Aaron Judge. Meanwhile, Villanueva has been nothing short of the best hitter in the National League, by OPS.

On Saturday, facing Mets free-agent signee/future batting-practice pitcher Jason Vargas, Cordero and Villanueva put their stamp on the game together. Villanueva hit a two-run homer in the first inning, and three innings later, with two men on, Cordero did him one better, crushing one to right-center with an estimated distance of 459 feet. (The homer would be something to marvel at, except that Cordero hit one 489 feet a week prior.) The Padres won, 12-2.

Neither was ever much of a prospect—Villanueva, who will turn 27 in June, signed with San Diego after the 2016 season after seven so-so years in the Rangers’ and Cubs’ systems, and Cordero, who is only 23, tended to strike out too much in the minors for scouts’ liking—and indeed both may return to earth before the All-Star break. But for now, all that, like any of those 14 baseballs tattooed by the Padres’ fearsome twosome, is far off in the distance.

NUGGETS AND NOTES FROM THE SEASON'S FIRST MONTH

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By Tom Verducci

Here are some quick takeaways from the first month of the season. Remember the grain of salt to add to these observations: the weather was terrible in most places. Let’s not consider these full-blown trends until we are watching baseball played without ski masks. Entering Sunday:

• Strikeouts continue on what has been an unabated record pace for more than a decade. We now have a game where, for the first time in history, strikeouts outnumber hits.

• There have been more strikeouts in April than in the entire 1924 season.

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• When it comes to getting a hit, baseball has returned to the woes of the 1960s. With a .243 batting average, this month equaled the worst hitting in the first month of the season since the mound was lowered in 1969 (also .243 in 1969). It’s among the 12 worst April marks in history, joining seasons from the Dead Ball Era, the World War II Era and the 1960s—pretty much the nadirs of offense.

•​ Shutouts are up 35% from last year. The number of times a team has been shut out while striking out 10 or more times has nearly doubled in one year—and is five times greater than 1968:

April Shutouts

Year

Shutouts

Shutouts With 10-Plus Strikeouts

2018

50

25

2017

37

13

1998

42

12

1968

36

5

The sacrifice bunt continues to die, dropping to an all-time low rate for the fourth straight year. Toronto and Detroit have played the first month without a sacrifice. It marks the first time two teams went this far into the same season without a sacrifice in any non-strike season.

• Hit by pitches are up by more than 33%. More batters have been hit this month than in any of the past 14 Aprils.

•​ Bullpens are allowing a .241 batting average, the second-lowest mark ever. Only in the abysmal hitting year of 1968 (.237) have relievers been tougher to hit.

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• Relievers average 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, an all-time record. They strike out just about one out of every four batters they face (24%). Once a game is turned over to bullpens, the ball is not put in play in 36% of plate appearances (strikeouts, walks, home runs).

• The Yankees’ bullpen is averaging 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which would blow away the record pace of 10.9—set by the Yankees’ bullpen from last year. The ball is not in play against the New York relievers 46% of the time.

• The pitchers’ duel is dead—killed, like pace of action, offense, balls in play, and comebacks, by bullpen usage. Entering Sunday, 376 games had been played. Not once did both starters complete eight innings.

April Games With Both Starters Throwing Eight Innings

2018

0

2017

3

1998

9

1968

15

The last time two starters lasted eight innings was Sept. 10, 2017, when Stephen Strasburg beat the Phillies’ Ben Lively. There have been 661 consecutive games without a pitchers’ duel of eight innings.

ROUNDTABLE: AS HE NEARS 3,000 HITS, WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE MOMENT OF ALBERT PUJOLS'S CAREER? OR, HOW WILL YOU REFLECT ON HIS CAREER?

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Stephanie Apstein: I found the recent news that Albert Pujols is likely 40 to be strangely comforting. Pujols’s sustained excellence had been such fun to watch, and it has been such a bummer the last few years to listen to the disdain in fans’ voices after he grounds into another double play. If he’s 38, the dropoff has been precipitous and hard to understand. If he’s 40, the timeline makes perfect sense. Maybe then we can just appreciate that we got to watch the greatest hitter of his generation play a decade and a half, even if it’s a different decade and a half than we thought.

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Michael Beller: If you go to Google and type “Albert Pujols homer,” the first autofill it offers is “off Brad Lidge.” And with good reason. This is one of those homers that reflexively forces incredulous laughter out of your mouth. It’s totally involuntary, and it happens without fail. I can’t even estimate how many times I’ve seen this homer, and I still can’t control my reaction to it.

When I read this question, this was the first moment that came to mind. Whenever Pujols is inducted into the Hall of Fame, it’ll be the first memory that pops into my head. Decades from now, when I’m telling my grandkids about the best hitters from when their granddad was young, Pujols and this homer—coupled with Brad Lidge crouching on the mound—will be as accessible in my mind as it is today. And the funny thing is that it doesn’t even count as one of the 3,000-plus hits he’ll finish with in his career.

Jack Dickey: Is everyone gonna say the three-run homer he hit off Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS? Because that’s the right answer. The Cardinals of those days were not a particularly warm and cuddly bunch—Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, the elder statesmen, cut menacing figures, as did the young Yadier Molina—but those Astros may have been worse. Roger Clemens, pumped full of god-knows-what, managed to throw 211 innings of 1.87-ERA ball in 2005 at age 42. I wanted to see those Astros humbled, and Lidge, with his 42-for-46-in-save-chances season, seemed a fitting vector for that humbling.

Man, Pujols smashed that ball. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a right-handed hitter so thoroughly pulverize a hanging slider. The stadium turned so quiet so quickly. Houston still won that series, but Chicago would sweep them in the World Series, with Lidge taking losses in Games 2 and 4. It would take him a couple years, and a trade to Philly, to rediscover his form. And the Astros wouldn’t see the playoffs again until 2015. That’s the damage only a swing as mighty as Pujols’s can do.

Connor Grossman: The "proper" answer may be Pujols's moonshot off Brad Lidge, but we accept answers of all kinds in Nine Innings. That's why my favorite memory of Albert Pujols came in a nondescript extra-inning game against the Giants in 2007 when he was thrown out trying to steal home. Yes, you read that correctly.

Standing on third as the go-ahead run in the 12th inning, Pujols inexplicably tried to steal home against wild lefthander Jonathan Sanchez. He took off for the plate just as Sanchez came set and made it halfway down the line before anyone noticed. Catcher Bengie Molina popped up, furiously waiving his arms for Sanchez to throw home, and just as he did, Pujols stopped running 15 feet from the dish. He stopped. Of course, Molina then bobbled Sanchez's throw, prompting Pujols to continue his steal attempt just as Molina gathered the ball. Pujols was out easily as he half-heartedly slid with one leg into the plate. A completely inexplicable moment by a player who often did inexplicable things, but never in this light. As longtime Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper said on the broadcast: "Just about the time you think you've seen everything, you realize you haven't." Precisely.

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Jon Tayler: The greatest moment of Albert Pujols’s career was Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS, when he ripped Brad Lidge’s soul from his body and ate it alive. You may disagree, particularly if you’re an Astros fan, Brad Lidge, or a member of Brad Lidge’s family. But for the rest of us, this was arguably the most savage home run ever hit—a breathtaking display of violence, like watching a freight train slam into a car on the tracks. It’s a miracle that Lidge wasn’t found wandering around downtown Houston in a daze after that game, glassy-eyed and trembling. It was a home run so brutal that Lidge’s career went flying off the tracks for nearly two years immediately thereafter. It’s the closest the game of baseball has ever come to a posterizing dunk. It was beautiful, and the cruelest thing of it all was that they made the Astros keep playing after that instead of letting everyone go home. At the very least, they should have stopped the game for five minutes so we all could have appreciated what Pujols did, and how utterly titanic that moment was.

Tom Verducci: My favorite moment of Albert Pujols’ career—as long as we’re talking personal memories—is sharing a batting cage with him during one of his offseason workouts near his Missouri home. It was amazing to watch him hit line drive after line drive to almost the same spot in the batting cage—what would have been to the left of where a second baseman might play – and explain what he was doing and why.