One of the best tools available to programs around the country is HitTrax. With HitTrax, batters hit off a pitching machine or live pitcher and get feedback from the system that includes batted ball outcome (hit, ground out, fly out, etc.) and metrics like exit speed, launch angle, and even point of contact from home plate, a metric that has been unique to HitTrax. Enter Yakkertech. This camera-based, ball-tracking system tracks everything Trackman does plus several other metrics, including point of contact. Thanks to this new system, we can now see how point of contact plays against live pitching, not just against a computer.
Point of contact is simply the spot where a bat collides with an incoming pitch. Irrespective of plate discipline, hitting is essentially the art and science of putting the barrel of a bat on an incoming pitch, so point of contact is an important component of hitting well. If a batter knows where he makes the best contact, not only in terms of the strike zone but also in terms of how far out in front, can open doors for understanding how to train better to increase his likelihood of success at the plate. (Note: This article will not focus on the vertical aspect of point of contact.)
Using Yakkertech data available to BaseballCloud, let’s first look at where batters tend to make contact on balls put into play, excluding bunts. For reference, the back tip of home plate is located at zero on the x-axis. The points of the graph have also been manipulated so that the batter is assumed to be standing in the third-base batter’s box, as is the case for all graphs in this article.
It’s hard to make a lot of sense from this graph. The primary issue we run into when looking at this graph—and this data in general—is that hitters don’t stand in the same spot in the batter’s box, so we can’t truly gauge how far out in front (or behind) a batter makes contact with a pitch relative to his body. What we can deduce from Graph 1 is that most balls put into play are contacted in front of home plate (72%). Other than the fact that some hitters seem to have a bizarre ability to put balls into play that are even behind home plate, there is not much else this graph has to offer.
Let’s simplify the data. Let’s look at what we actually care about—balls that do damage. To see this, we’ll leave only the balls in play with an exit velocity of at least 90mph and launch angle of at least 10 degrees (damage balls).
Once again, we see a tendency for balls to be contacted in front of home plate. For damage balls, 78% are hit before the pitch ever reaches the plate. For this dataset, 35% of balls in play are damage balls. Of pitches contacted in front of home plate, 38% of them are damage balls compared to only 27% if the ball is contacted anywhere behind the front of the plate. In other words, if a hitter makes contact with a ball in front of home plate, he is more likely to send the ball flying on an optimal trajectory. Therefore, a batter should look to hit the ball out in front.
If this concept is not quite clicking in your head, consider the sport of golf. Personally, I have never seen a PGA Tour golfer pull out a driver and place the tee in the middle of his stance. A golfer who pulls out his driver is looking to do damage, so when Bryson DeChambeau steps up to the tee box to drive a ball 480 yards, he is going to place the ball at the front of his stance to maximize his rotational movement and give his driver more time to accelerate as it makes contact with the ball.
For Graph 3, we will add a line of best fit to see if there is a general trend for hitting pitches on the inner half versus the outer half of the plate. If you are unfamiliar with a line of best fit, it is essentially a mathematical approximation of how points trend. In this case, we are using it to determine the trend of how far out in front batters hit balls that do damage in terms of a pitch’s horizontal location.
The line of best fit (the blue line) slopes from the outer half of the plate to the inner half. (Remember, the batter is assumed to be right-handed.) This tells us that damage balls on the inside part of the plate tend to be hit farther out in front than damage balls on the outside. For a batter to make contact with an inside pitch, the barrel must be farther along the bat path, and therefore farther away from the batter, or else the pitch is liable to get on the hands of the batter, leading to weak contact. The opposite is true for outside pitches, where swinging too early leads to a hitter overextending his swing and rolling over his hands too early. Basically, your childhood hitting coach who put the tee at different distances from you based on the horizontal location of the pitch was correct in doing so.
Before we wrap this up, let’s look at how the point of contact plays in games. Before we get into our final graphs, it should be noted that the sample we are using for this research is relatively small. As you will see, the lines on the graphs tend to be rocky. Though they can go up and down seemingly at random, we can still draw some general conclusions about batted balls in terms of point of contact.
Second, the opposite is true of hitting the ball in the air. There is a positive correlation between the forward distance of a contacted pitch and fly ball rate (line drives included, pop-ups excluded), so if you’re looking to put a ball into flight, hit the ball out in front.
This leads us to our third and final observation of point of contact. That is, if you want to hit home runs, hit the ball out in front. However, as the up-and-down nature of Graph 6 shows us, hitting a pitch farther from the back of home plate is still no guarantee that the ball will be sent flying over the fence.
Understanding the point of contact of a bat to a baseball opens doors to better, more efficient hitting development at any level. Knowing that it is better to hit an inside pitch farther out in front than an outside pitch informs us on how to do something as simple as setting up a hitting tee for ourselves or our players. The reality is the ideal point of contact is probably subjective to each player due to factors like position in the batter’s box, unique swing characteristics, and individual strengths and weaknesses. Though this article is far from conclusive on all the questions of point of contact, it is a start, a door to more research to be conducted and conversations to be had in batting cages everywhere.