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Why Giants fans should have an open mind when it comes to launch angle

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The Giants are still ruled by previous century thinking and that appears to have been their undoing.

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San Francisco Giants v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

I know, I know. Real Giants fans don’t care about things like launch angle and on base percentage and scoring runs because the Giants won three World Series in five years without ever once considering those little things and all the teams that did haven’t won anything since the new stats craze began.

However! The Giants are not setup to win for the rest of the decade nor even part of the next one. Organizationally, they’re behind the times, and whenever that next great Giants team comes around, it’ll have incorporated some or even all of the newfangled numbers the fan base has been conditioned to resist, even hate.

Tim Flannery might not represent the team anymore, but he works for the media face that has an ownership stake in the team, so even if his word isn’t gospel, it still reflects a level of thinking that permeates the organization.

I’ve been told by the analytics people that a 27 percent launch angle with exit velocity at a certain speed is a home run [...]. So how do you get that launch angle if the pitcher is throwing a 95-mph power sinker down and away?

[...]

I hate to be a buzz-kill, [...] but I need these questions answered before I can buy in. I love a lot of the new metrics, like WAR and BABIP, but after playing and coaching in the big leagues 26 years, I’m not sure you can calculate all this information and hit a Madison Bumgarner slider with teeth headed to bite your back foot.

[...]

“Don’t try to describe the ocean if you’ve never seen it.”

This isn’t to pick on Flan, it’s to pick on the idea he embodies — NEVER CHANGE. The thinking that got him the “new stats” he likes is the same one that got him the one he seems to hate, and all the one he seems to hate does is measure angles. He hates geometry.

Look, Tim Flannery, I hate geometry, too. What the hell is a proof and why could I never complete one? At the same time, there’s something very comforting about knowing what a barreled ball is.

For example: A ball traveling 99 mph always earns ‘Barreled’ status when struck between 25-31 degrees. Add one more mph -- to reach 100 -- and the range grows another three degrees, to 24-33.

Every additional mph over 100 increases the range another two to three degrees until an exit velocity of 116 mph is reached. At that threshold, the Barreled designation is assigned to any ball with a launch angle between eight and 50 degrees.

How is a player supposed to know how to do that? Well, Coach, I think that’s where people like you come in. Is there a problem with the new approach to launch angle when it comes to putting the ball in play/causing strikeout rates to skyrocket? Absolutely. The Giants can probably build a team that conforms to their comfort zone by acquiring undervalued high contact hitters this offseason, but the fact remains that hitters have been selling out to hit the ball in the air, and they’ve been successful for their teams in doing so.

Let’s go down the list and look at the records for each of these teams. Certainly, there are some outliers here, but:

#1 Oakland: 90-60
#2 Minnesota: 68-81
#3 Toronto: 67-82
#4 Los Angeheim: 74-76
#5 Los Angeles: 82-67
#6 Cleveland: 83-66
#7 Kansas City: 52-97
#8 New York Mets: 69-80
#9 Detroit: 61-88
#10 Houston: 94-55
#11 New York Yankees: 91-58
#12 Cincinnati: 64-86
#13 Philadelphia: 76-72
#14 Boston: 103-47
#15 Pittsburgh: 74-74
#16 Atlanta: 83-66
#17 Baltimore: 43-106
#18 White Sox: 59-90
#19 St. Louis: 81-68
#20 San Francisco: 70-80
#21 Texas: 64-85
#22 Washington: 76-74
#23 Arizona: 78-72
#24 Seattle: 82-67
#25 Chicago Cubs: 87-62
#26 Colorado: 82-67
#27 Tampa Bay: 82-66
#28 Milwaukee: 85-65
#29 Marlins: 58-91
#30 Padres: 60-90

Just eyeballing it, there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between good teams and high average launch angles. Then again, the bottom 10 teams have a higher winning percentage (.512) than the top 10 teams (.496), so eyeballing it in this case was insufficient. So, we see that only losers sell out for launch angle — or, that the A’s are an extreme outlier.

And just to belabor that point:

Maybe that’s a point in Flannery’s favor, then. The Giants don’t need to worry about launch angle. Okay, fair enough. But maybe there’s still something to learn from that graph. As Owen Poindexter noted on The Athletic earlier today (subscription required):

The A’s not only have the largest average launch angle of any team, the jump between them and the second-place Twins is the biggest gap on the graph. They also have the highest fly ball percentage in baseball. Their big launchers are, not coincidentally, their top-five home run hitters: Matt Olson, Davis, Matt Chapman, Jed Lowrie and Mark Canha. The A’s are showing you can have a home run-based offense in a pitcher’s park as long as you really commit to it.

I’m not sure that’s a conclusion fully supported by the facts in evidence, but Owen’s point comes in an article examining how the 2018 A’s are still sticking mostly to the plan laid out in Moneyball (the book, not the hit feature film). The Flan Man could still be right and win the battle regarding launch angle, but lose the war that is the bigger picture.

The A’s need to innovate, so they innovate. The Giants, by virtue of their resources, don’t need to innovate, so they haven’t. The A’s boom and bust cycles have been the result of trying and failing, the Giants have cycled through success and failure because of players simply aging out.

You know what every team on that graph but the Marlins does better than the Giants? Score runs. You know what all but three teams (Tigers, Orioles, Padres) do better than the Giants? Get on base.

Over the past three seasons (so, since the start of 2016), the Giants are sixth-worst in team on base percentage at .314. The teams ahead of them? White Sox, Phillies, Royals, Orioles, Padres. All of those teams are in the midst of “rebuild” cycles (the Phillies being closest to coming out of theirs).

Well, Bryan, you worthless idiot, the Giants went to the playoffs in 2016, so nuts to that! You know what team was just ahead of the Giants in team OBP? The A’s at .315. The 2016 team lost 93 games. What happens if I hack off 2016 and just go back to the start of last season? The Giants drop from sixth-worst to third-worst and the A’s rise from seventh-worst to seventeenth-best and a commensurate record of 75-87.

The A’s are only 11th in OBP this season (.323), but when they hit the ball, they hit it hard (.327 wOBA is good for 6th). The Giants are 4th-worst (.303) at getting on base, and when they hit the ball, it’s the equivalent of an excuse me swing (.293 wOBA). The A’s might be selling out, but they’re making hard contact. Coupled with their desire to get on base, it’s a formula that has worked out well in a successful season.

The Giants thumbed their noses at on base percentage because they boiled it down to the most basic idea behind it: “draw walks”. This, of course, goes against the Giants’ organizational principle of “just put the ball in play”, but in an era where every team is trying to hit the ball hard when they do make contact and every pitcher is trying to compensate by inducing weak contact, the Giants are playing right into a losing strategy while thinking they can abstain from another “market trend” and still compete.

Giants fans maybe don’t need to embrace launch angles, specifically, but having an open mind can help the team find new ways to compete. If the organization won’t push the positive aspect of changing with the times, then it’ll have to come from us, the forward-thinkers, the open-mind-havers. Let’s be willing to learn and demonstrate why it’s okay for them to step into the 21st century.

The world changes all the time. Cars didn’t have windshields originally. When they were finally added, was there a group of people who simply decided they were an unnecessary overreaction by the market or did they accept that not getting whacked in the face every time they drove was preferable to getting whacked in the face every time they drove?