Daniel Murphy was the king of the revolution. The launch angle revolution.
By changing his swing in the fall of 2015 … he took his .281 regular season batting average and .168 isolated power statistic and flipped the switch in the postseason. He had a very memorable postseason, hitting a home run in 6 straight postseason games. That postseason, his batting average was .328, including .529 in the NLCS, and his isolated power was all the way up to .397. In doing so, he increased his strikeout rate from 7.1% to 20.3% but that didn’t matter. When your wOBA increases by .139 points, striking out a little bit more doesn’t worry you.
How did Murphy make this seemingly unbelievable flip? Working with hitting coach Kevin Long, he made a conscious effort to lift the ball more, increasing his launch angle, while pulling the ball more. While this data isn’t available for the postseason, we see the difference between his 2015 and 2016 stats. His average launch angle increased from a very low 12.1 degrees in 2015 to a solid 16.9 in 2016. Also, the percentage of ball he hit to the opposite field decreased from 28.1% to 25.7%.
These resulted in a huge, huge boost in performance for Murphy from 2015 to 2016. In 2016, he won his first Silver Slugger award and came in 2nd in the NL MVP voting. He did that with a casual .347 batting average, .995 OPS and career highs in both home runs and RBIs.
This article is named after Matt Carpenter. Why are we talking about Daniel Murphy? I’ll tell you. Daniel Murphy was the poster child for reforming your swing based on the analytics. Dominating on the postseason stage told everybody that they should be trying to pull the ball and hit it over the fence. People also saw it as a solution for beating the shift … just hit the ball over it. It resulted in an obsession with having the perfect launch angle.
So, in 2017, Matt Carpenter was hit with these analytics and he decided to try and incorporate them into his swing. It didn’t work, his batting average fell 30 points and his OPS fell 50 points.
Carpenter was not pleased. He knew it was the fact that he was trying to hit home runs or have one of the three true outcomes that wasted his season. He knew it himself, in an interview with MLB.com he expressed his frustrations. He said:
“What am I doing? I’m selling my soul for home runs, and I’m not going to hit 50. Was it necessary to hit 25? Was it worth it? … I felt like I lost sight of who I am, I’m trying to fix it”
Surely he had questions about what he was doing. In 2015 and 2016, his average launch angle was 17 degrees which was the same as what Daniel Murphy had. So if Daniel Murphy, who had clearly found a magical launch angle was hitting that way, why did Carpenter change in 2017? In 2017 his launch angle was all the way up to 21.4 degrees. It’s because everybody has a different ideal launch angle. This is so much still a question that optimizing launch angle for individual hitters was the topic used for the Diamond Dollars Case Competition at the 2018 SABR conference.
However, after reading articles such as this one by Jeff Sullivan, articles that said launch angle doesn’t work for everybody or doesn’t need to be part of the game, the doubts surely only grew stronger in Carpenter. So, he came into 2018 committed to not trying to lift the ball out of the park.
At first, he did. Through April, Carpenter saw his average launch angle dip down to 19.73 degrees which was still above that original 17 but back down from 21.4 degrees. However, the issue was he still wasn’t hitting for average. He hit .145 in April and just was not getting the job done for the Cardinals. That batting average of his, got as low as .140 on May 15th. It was getting ugly, but then something changed. Personally, I see that switch happen on the 17th of June.
On June 16th, Matt Carpenter had the ugliest stat line in the world … outside of Chris Davis. That day, he went 0-5 and it was just low. That day took his batting average to .231 with a mere 8 home runs. That tied him for 46th in the National League and 101st in the MLB in home runs. At that point, his launch angle for the season had been 20.79 and it had started to creep up.
Everything changed then though. Since June 17th, Carpenter has a .349 batting average and 22 home runs. He is now 4th in the MLB in home runs and 1st in the National League. So yeah, it makes sense that he has 6 more home runs than the next person since that day. It is all starting to pay off for Carpenter. Most importantly, since June 17th that launch angle of his is all the way up to 21.14 degrees.
Matt Carpenter is now playing the best baseball of his career. His .410 wOBA is smashing that of his 2013 season (.381), a year when he finished 4th in the MVP voting.
There is a lesson in what Carpenter has done. He has shown that patience and sticking with what is supposed to work will pay off in the long run. Sure, it took Carpenter a year and a half to finally reap the rewards of his drastic swing change, but he is now better than he has ever been before. A great measure of this are his natural stats.
He is putting up the best hard hit percentage of his career at 46.8%. That means nearly 50% of the time he makes contact, it is coming off hot. That has resulted in a 14.7 barrel percentage which falls in the top 3% of the league. Barrel’s are the best types of hits in baseball … and he is the 12th best at getting those hits in baseball. He’s doing all of that despite having that terrible start to the beginning of the year. All of this accumulates to his expected wOBA. He has the 4th best expected wOBA in all of baseball this year. That puts him just behind Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, and Mike Trout … not bad company.
In fact, expected wOBA could have told him that he was doing something right last year. Last year, he had the 26th best expected wOBA. That put him above players like Kris Bryant, Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado, and yes Daniel Murphy.
Matt Carpenter is the story that most people who work on their swing will have. It is extremely difficult to change one’s swing overnight or have the immediate success that Daniel Murphy had. Those are exceptions. He showed that if you plan on changing your swing, you need to truly commit to it. It could take a long time … even a year and a half perhaps, but hopefully it will pay off in the end.
Notice how close Carpenter’s average launch angle since June 17th is to his from last year when he stuck to the new swing even when it wasn’t working. Just 0.3 degrees separate the two. It will come with time, but this just shows how long it takes to actually change one’s swing. Matt Carpenter demonstrated extreme patience and has proven that patience pays off.