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Could launch angle be the culprit for the Reds’ offensive futility?

A once-solid team-wide approach at the plate has eroded into catastrophe to start the 2019 season

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Cincinnati Reds v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Ever since David Bell’s hiring as manager began an organizational overhaul of large segments of the coaching staff, the Cincinnati Reds have been discussed as a team that is finally getting in tune with advanced analytics. The approach the team had previously been using in virtually every aspect of the game was outdated, and there was now a group of people in place to take them by the hand and usher them into the new generation of how teams score, prevent, and value runs. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote about David Bell’s desire to surround himself with players and coaches who were open to analytics, wrote about how assistant pitching coach Caleb Cotham would bring a data-centric focus to the team, and just this past weekend, Tucker Barnhart confirmed to Fangraphs that the newest management regime was introducing lots of new information to the team that it wasn’t previously working with.

Many fans were and are excited at the possibilities that could be unlocked by fresher, more analytical minds being in charge of the Reds, and how those new ways of thinking might reveal themselves on the field. In some ways, the early returns have been promising — in a small 21-game sample under new leadership, the pitching staff has taken tremendous steps forward, going from near-worst to first in home run prevention, and making a similar jump in strikeouts. But for as much progress as the Reds have made on the pitching side, its offense has regressed just as much. And one possible reason for that could be something that is understandably popular in analytics circles: Launch angle.

Last year, Cincinnati finished 13th in the majors in launch angle. This year, it ranks ninth. That doesn’t seem like an enormous jump, and this early in the season, such a figure can fluctuate somewhat from day to day. (When I began doing research for this post during the Reds’ game on Sunday, they ranked fourth.) But the devil, as they say, is in the details. Here are the 10 Cincinnati position players who have logged at least 40 plate appearances in 2019, ranked by their increases/decreases in launch angle.


Name 2019 2018 Diff.
Name 2019 2018 Diff.
Derek Dietrich 27 15.7 11.3
Joey Votto 20.3 13.3 7
Jose Peraza 19.5 13.4 6.1
Yasiel Puig 17.1 12.4 4.7
Jesse Winker 14.5 13.2 1.3
Scott Schebler 8.6 8.6 0
Tucker Barnhart 10.2 11.9 -1.5
Matt Kemp 14.1 15.8 -1.7
Jose Iglesias 9 11.9 -2.9
Eugenio Suarez 11.2 14.7 -3.5

Five of those 10 have increased their launch angles in 2019, while four have decreased and one has remained unchanged. Three of the hitters who have seen the steepest increases — Joey Votto, Jose Peraza, and Yasiel Puig — have been three of the more disappointing pieces of a lineup that has been the worst in baseball over the first three weeks of the season. If we single out those five who have increased their launch angles, and matched them up with their other batted ball figures, the results aren’t pretty.


Name 2019 xwOBA 2018 xwOBA Difference
Name 2019 xwOBA 2018 xwOBA Difference
Derek Dietrich 0.344 0.303 0.031
Joey Votto 0.273 0.295 -0.122
Jose Peraza 0.203 0.309 -0.106
Yasiel Puig 0.25 0.349 -0.099
Jesse Winker 0.342 0.367 -0.025

Now, let me be clear: This is not meant to be some crusade against focusing on launch angle. It is one of the most significant ongoing revolutions in the way players all over professional baseball are approaching hitting, and there is a long list of players that have turned their careers around in one form or another because of a tweak they made to their swing that allowed them to hit the ball in the air a lot more than they previously were. I’m also not saying this is certainly the direct result of instruction from the Reds’ new coaching staff. Puig is on a new team in a contract year, and could be forgiven for wanting to maximize his chances for a home run in every at-bat early in the season. The same could be said for Peraza, who might like to double down on his power surge in 2018, and Votto, who has spoken openly about the frustration he felt when his power disappeared last year. All of those guys might be individually focusing on hitting the ball in the air more than they ever have before, and will take it upon themselves to either figure their swings back out or flounder for the remainder of the season.

On the other hand, there is more evidence that suggests that the Reds, as a team, are swinging the bats in a different way than they did just one year ago. For example, in 2018, Cincinnati led the majors in line drive percentage at 24.6 percent. The distance between it and the second-place Braves — 1.6 percent — was the same as the distance between the Braves and the 14th-place team. The Reds could center the ball up, and that led to them having the third-lowest soft contact rate in the majors. They hit ground balls at the fifth-lowest rate in the majors, they hit fly balls at the 12th-lowest rate, and their batting average on balls in play was the fourth best mark in the big leagues at .307.

Just one year later, those figures could not look more different. The Reds now have the second-lowest rate of line drives, at 18.1 percent, and the seventh-highest rate of soft contact. They hit the 14th-most grounders of any team in baseball, and the sixth-highest rate of fly balls. Those facts seem to be indicative of a team that has a completely different plan at the plate than it did a year ago, and the results have been disastrous. The team’s BABIP is an MLB-worst .225, 28 points lower than the next closest team — a sign of some bad luck, yes, but also a sign of a team that just isn’t making solid contact when the ball is put in play. A Cincinnati team that was 10th in the big leagues in batting average, ninth in on-base percentage and 17th in wRC+ a year ago now owns the majors’ worst batting average and on-base percentage and the third-worst wRC+. And in case you’re holding out hope that it’s simply a case of the Reds getting extremely unlucky, Statcast also pegs as the worst team in the league in xwOBA, xSLG, xBA and hard hit percentage.

There is no way to know whether these early results are those of a team whose individual parts are just scrambling to turn things around all at once or if they are the result of poor information/leadership from the new regime, but frankly, the idea that we could even be having this conversation at this moment in the organization’s rebuilding timeline is terrifying. Nick Senzel, the Reds’ top prospect, is going to be in the major leagues whenever the team is satisfied with the amount of money it has stolen from him, and the arrival of outfielder Taylor Trammell could be less than a year away as well. The effectiveness with which the Reds are able to develop those young hitters at the major league level is going to have enormous consequences for the future of the organization, and if a lineup with this many proven big league hitters has bottomed out so catastrophically to start the season, it is genuinely difficult to expect a rookie hitter to have immediate success with this team.

The way each hitter approaches his launch angle is different, and the results can have just as much to do with the execution of a plan as they do with the plan itself. We can’t know what the Reds’ plan is at this juncture, but what we do know is that the results have been a lot more balls in the air, and much weaker contact. Perhaps those two are related, and perhaps they aren’t. But regardless of what or who is to blame, Cincinnati’s offense seems quite broken. It’s up to new management and coaches to figure out a way to fix it.