At the annual Brewers’ On Deck event, Ryan Braun announced that he had hired a hitting coach to help him overcome the bad luck he hit into during the 2018 season. When we look at the former MVP’s 2018 slash line (.254/.313/.469), he looks like a decent major leaguer, but not the impactful hitter that we’re accustomed to.
On the other hand, our long time “face of the franchise” demonstrated elite level exit velocity, hard contact percentage, expected slugging percentage, and expected batting average. Very few hit the ball harder than Braun (average exit velocity - 91.9 mph). As his xBA - .296 (Hit probability based on comparable balls hit in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) and xSLG - .515 (Single, double, triple, and home run probability based on results of comparable batted balls in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) suggests, he should have enjoyed greater success. Couple that with a .274 BABIP and we have definitive prove that he was one of the unluckiest hitters in MLB.
Ryan Braun has been working with a private hitting coach this winter and is making changes to his swing for the first time ever. Call it the launch angle revolution or whatever, but he's trying to turn some of those hard outs into home runs.— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) January 27, 2019
Interesting from the postgame: After hitting into hard luck all year, Ryan Braun said he's "trying to join the launch angle revolution." Made some adjustments to elevate the baseball.— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) September 29, 2018
We know that Braun recognized his luck was hindering his performance at the plate in-season. In fact, he began the process of tweaking his swing in September, attempting to lift his launch angle. His numbers in September and October were the best of the season (.265/.375/.588 and 6 home runs). It looks like he is attempting to perfect what he started late in 2018. If he could replicate such results over the course of entire season, he would have a very nice 2019.
Braun is now 35 years old, and tweaks to his swing also may be about the loss of bat speed. Braun once possessed elite bat speed, but age catches up with everyone, and bat speed is one thing older hitters lose as they age. In his age 34 season, he slashed .228/.250/.416 against power pitchers, .223/.299/.446 against average velocity pitchers, and .293/.357/.517 against finesse pitchers. Most MLB hitters have less favorable results against power pitchers, but what suggests a loss in bat speed is a comparison of performance against pitcher types in 2016, his age 32 season. His slash lines against pitcher types that year were: power pitchers - .291/.355/.591, average velocity pitchers - 304/.363/.519, and finesse pitchers - .308/.363/.526.
Older hitters can actually hit velocity as well as younger hitters. They likely do so because of experience and multiple adjustments to their hitting approach. Ryan Braun is in process of making one of those adjustments, and analytics are illustrating that increasing launch angle, ever-so slightly, is the answer, or a least one of the answers.
Entering the “launch angle” revolution certainly makes sense for Braun in another sense. His average launch angle in 2018 was 5.8 degrees. His average launch angle has never been high (career - 6.2 degrees). But the loss of bat speed, bad luck, and improved results with September swing tweaks are leading this once elite hitter to try something different.
Braun indicated that only “people that really understand baseball” will notice the changes to his swings. Whether those of us that aren’t experts in the game notice those changes or not, the likelihood is that the image above will look different in 2019. Braun’s approach, resulting in a lower launch angle than most, certainly worked for most of his career. However it seems that the “sweet spot” in terms of launch angle is between 19-26 degrees. As the image above suggests, Braun put very few balls in play within the launch angle “sweet spot.” In fact, he didn’t get a hit within the “sweet spot.” It might be that Braun’s ideal launch angle is just lower than the average major leaguer, but just a bit higher than it has been in the past. If Braun can find his ideal launch angle and sustain his elite-level exit velocity (exit velocity will go down a bit as launch angle increases, but not significantly with just subtle changes), we might just see a renaissance of Ryan Braun. That renaissance may not come in the form of the all-around hitter he was, but a very dangerous power bat that produces runs and gets on base more than he has in the past couple of years.
Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Savant