Opinion

Is Sandy Leon buying into launch angle?

Sandy Leon’s added launch to his swing and it is working

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Oct. 4, 2017 – Source: Bob Levey/Getty Images North America)

As of this writing, Sandy Leon and Rafael Devers have the same wRC+ at 89. Maybe this says more about Devers’ season than anything else but, somewhat quietly, the switch-hitting catcher has been incredibly hot recently. He has managed to raise his slugging percentage north of .400, which has been aided by four extra-base hits in his last 13 plate appearances.

Leon’s ISO (isolated power) is .158, which is considerably higher than his career .122 ISO. The only season he topped his current ’18 mark was in 2016 (.167 ISO), but that was fueled by an unsustainable and flukey .392 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). This year his BABIP is a much more realistic .321 and he has launched four homeruns in just 123 plate appearances.

His career-high in long balls is seven, which he did in both 2016 and 2017. He has a very good chance of surpassing his season-high homerun total this season. There is a little less than half of the season left and he has earned to start more regularly from here on out over Christian Vazquez.

As mentioned, his 2016 breakout season with Boston was very BABIP-inflated. This year, though, his production seems to be the result of a new swing. Sandy Leon is hitting the ball in the air more frequently and with more launch.

Over at Baseball Savant, Leon’s player page shows that he is boasting a career-best average exit velocity (86.4), launch angle (15.7), barrel percentage (8.6%), hard-hit percentage (38.3%) and xwOBA (.322). All of this is overwhelmingly positive and shows that he has made significant strides swinging the stick.

For reference, the MLB average for those StatCast stats are shown below:

MLB average

  • Average Exit Velocity: 87.3
  • Launch Angle: 10.8
  • Barrel Percentage: 6.1%
  • Hard-Hit Percentage: 34.1%
  • xwOBA: .317

Leon’s 2018 numbers are above the average for every stat besides average exit velocity. He is hitting the ball a lot higher in the air (launch) than the average MLB player and is making ideal contact (barrel percentage) more often than the average hitter. Moreover, by the way he has been hitting the ball, stripping out batted ball randomness, he has been an above-average offensive contributor.

Sandy Leon.

Offensive expectations for him were grim coming into the year. He had accumulated a lowly .644 OPS and 67 wRC+ in a career-high 301 plate appearances in 2017. To boot, he had barreled a baseball just 2.5 percent of the time and his hard-hit rate was 25.4 percent. 2016 was evidently a mirage and, unless he made an overhaul to his swing, the chances he would improve offensively were slim.

Well, Leon has improved and pretty drastically, even if he has been sort of streaky. After a terrible April, he was scorching-hot in the month of May and followed that up with a solid June.

Most Red Sox hitters have improved their approach at the plate under Alex Cora, but Leon really has not. Leon and Holt have the lowest gains in Z-Swing% (percent of pitches swung at in the zone)  on the team and the former has been swinging at more pitches outside the zone this year. His BB% rate has been cut in half (8.3% in ’17 to 4.1% in ’18) and his K% is the highest it has ever been in a Red Sox uniform.

There has not been an improvement with his approach at the plate. He literally has been relying on quality of contact to be successful this season. His FB% (flyball percentage) is 42.5 percent this season, which is decidedly the best of his career, and his GB% is still very low, despite a 1 percent increase from 2017. This has dropped his GB/FB ratio to 0.88, the second consecutive year it has been under 1.00.

To be fair, it seemed Leon started to make the push towards a higher launch angle last season. Obviously, those results were not too favorable for Boston’s backstop. For whatever reason, he has made it work in 2018 and is now hitting the ball harder and farther than ever.

Lastly, I would like to show you two screenshots, courtesy of MLB.com, from Leon in 2016 and 2018 both against the Yankees.

2016:

2018:

I have selected these years because in ’16 Leon featured a below-average 9.7 launch angle and in ’18 it is conspicuously higher at 15.7. Without much expertise in breaking down swings, it appears that Leon’s leg kick is discernibly more pronounced two years ago than now. Both balls were hit hard and to right field, but the 2016 screenshot was a line drive that Aaron Hicks had to make an incredible catch for the out. Meanwhile, the 2018 screenshot was a moonshot to the stands for a two-run jack.

Perhaps the lower leg kick this year has enabled him to get more direct to the ball, with an increased reliance on his bat speed to make solid contact opposed to lower-half strength. There are probably other mechanical differences that I missed but this seems to be the most evident.

Sandy Leon, by quality of contact, is having the best year of his MLB career. This is huge for the Red Sox, which have been crippled by poor catching performance for most of the season. The underlying statistics suggest that Leon is a better hitter. This improvement is real and, consequently, it seems logical to make him the starting catcher indefinitely over Vazquez. He is the superior defensive and (now) offensive player, after all.

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