We recently sat down with Blast Baseball Manager Justin Goltz and Blast Motion Lead Biomechanist/Algorithm Developer Patrick Cherveny to take an illuminating and in-depth look at a valuable and often misunderstood metric – softball and baseball bat swing speed.
As softball and baseball organizations of all levels continue to dive deeper into data analysis, swing speed stands out as one that many organizations and clubs have yet to truly tap into and benefit from.
Swing speed also happens to be a metric that Blast Motion is uniquely qualified to analyze. In addition to our standing as the official swing sensor of Major League Baseball, our top-performing technology was recently used to measure and display swing speed of players in the 2016 MLB All-Star Futures Game. During that game, won 11-3 by the World Futures Team, the swing speed of hitters from both teams was continuously displayed on the state-of-the-art video boards at PETCO Park in downtown San Diego.
THE VALUE OF SWING SPEED
Fans of baseball and attendees at MLB games are no doubt quite familiar with the pitch speed metric, which is frequently and prominently displayed both on stadiums’ video boards and during television broadcasts. Exit velocity (also known as batted ball speed) is also becoming a more commonly cited and displayed metric, especially since these speeds at which baseballs leave the hitters’ bats can exceed 100 miles per hour – always a captivating and almost “magic” number for sports fans.
But what about swing speed? Just how much value does it hold – and how does it correlate with more established “speed metrics” in baseball?
“The baseball world has gone to more relevant metrics,” said Cherveny. “It used to simply be batting average, now it’s more about exit velocity, because it takes some of the randomness out of it. If you hit a ball softly and it’s hit away from a player, you may get a hit. In another at bat you may hit it hard but right at a player resulting in an out. The reality is that the more frequently you hit the ball hard, the higher the probability of a successful outcome.”
In a way, it’s really rather simple. The harder you hit the ball, the more likely your chances of getting on base. And the faster you swing the bat, the quicker the ball will leave the bat upon contact.
“Swing speed’s a very important metric, because it ultimately determines how fast the ball’s going to come off the bat,” said Cherveny. “The faster that you swing, the more likely that you will achieve a higher exit velocity, which will more often result in successful outcomes. Major League Baseball has put an increased emphasis on exit velocity and launch angle as two primary metrics for assessing players, and that’s already filtered down to hitting coaches who work with younger players. There’s a big emphasis on trying to maximize exit velocity and launch angle. If you don’t have a high swing speed, you’re going to limit your ability to have a high exit velocity.”
Unlike exit velocity or pitch speed, swing speeds of elite baseball players don’t approach or exceed triple digits. In fact, truly superior swing speeds don’t even come close to reaching 100 miles per hour – at least not if you’re measuring them the “right” way.
“We can confidently say that in-game swing speeds in the 90s or 100s aren’t really humanly possible,” said Goltz. “With some of the data we collected, we see in-game swing speeds in the 65- to 85-miles-per-hour speeds for some of the top professionals in baseball.”
According to Cherveny, the average swing speed in Major League Baseball games is around 70 miles per hour. That might not sound like a lot, but once you understand more about the dynamics behind the metrics, it starts to become pretty impressive.
“We see some swing speeds where people claim that you get into the 90s,” added Cherveny. “That would make sense if it’s at the end of the bat, but if you hit it at the end of the bat, it’s not going to travel as far because some of the energy is lost in the bat’s vibration. So that kind of a swing speed is essentially ‘false.’ Swing speed it dependent on where you’re measuring on the bat. In order to maximize quality of contact, the best hitters want to hit the ball in the “sweet spot” of the bat.
Just as the casual sports fan may be misled about the nature and rate of swing speed, there is likely a good bit of confusion and illusion when it comes to the exact nature of the infamous “sweet spot” on a softball or baseball bat. Cherveny shared more fascinating and illuminating details regarding this renowned but misunderstood sporting hot spot. You might call it the “sweet science” of the swing.
“As a player swings the bat in a rotational arc, the further that you get down the radial length of the bat, the higher the swing speed,” said Cherveny. “So the speed at the hands will be much slower than the speed at the tip of the bat – and where you’re actually measuring is important in terms of what the measurable swing speed is.
“We measure at what’s called the ‘sweet spot.’ We define this is as a point six inches from the end of the bat. The sweet spot is actually defined as the point where the ball will release with the maximum amount of energy to the ball. Scientifically, this is the region in the bat between the first and second bending modes of vibration, which results in very small vibrational modes on impact in this region.
In truth, said Cherveny, the “sweet spot” on your bat isn’t really a spot at all.
“That’s where the best hitters want to make contact, that “sweet spot,” but in reality, it’s not a spot,” said Cherveny. “It’s actually an area along the bat that’s approximately
two inches in length. You can make contact anywhere along that area, and the ball will rebound and come off as fast as possible.”
Even along that “hit zone,” however, every inch matters. In fact, you might be surprised just how much an inch or two can mean, speed-wise.
“Let’s say that at an average Major League Baseball swing is 70 miles per hour, if you hit an inch further towards the hands from that sweet spot, you could lose 2.5
miles per hour,” explained Cherveny. “If you hit an inch further down the bat, it could be an additional 2.5 miles per hour. So you’re looking at around a 5 mile per hour
difference in the sweet spot or sweet zone of the bat, depending on where you hit it.”
It’s one thing for a young MLB star like Carlos Correa or Mike Trout to whip his bat through the hitting zone with a 75- or 80-mile-per-hour swing speed. But what about even younger, lower-level players?
“At the Little League level, the average swing speed is around 45 to 55 miles per hour,” said Goltz. “For senior league, we’re talking high 40s to maybe low 60s. High school, mid-50s to mid 70s. College and pro, mid-60s to maybe mid-80s. Those are the ranges and averages, but there are a few factors, including the bat size and age, that would affect swing speed.”
“There’s a lot of variables, but the biggest one is just the strength of the athlete,” added Cherveny. “With a more rotational swing, you could have a younger player that could actually move up into a higher swing speed class, but that gets down to the efficiency of the swing. Somebody who has a very rotationally efficient swing can generally produce higher swing speeds than somebody who doesn’t. So you can easily see kids in travel or high school baseball, 15 to 18 years old, who have swing speeds approaching the 80s. We see it all the time, especially working with trainers in batting cages where kids are developing the intent to hit the ball as hard as possible. This is especially true in use cases of tee and drill work where players don’t have to worry about pitch speed and movement.”
One might wonder if swing speed is a metric that’s really even that important for a college, high school or youth travel baseball player. According to Cherveny, swing speed is a very important metric in today’s baseball world. It’s also one that stands to become even more vital (and valued) as the game continues to advance.
“There’s a big emphasis on exit velocity,” added Cherveny. “And as you move up the baseball ladder, swing speed will always be important – not only from how far you can ultimately hit it, but to get playing time at the high school level, to getting recognized and identified for scholarships, and to move up through the minor league system. It’s always going to be a swing-speed dependent game.
“The intent to be able to swing fast is something that young hitters need to have, so that the motor skills become ingrained and they can do it repeatedly. So that when they get to the game situation, they have the ability to actually produce a high swing speed.”
Baseball and softball are difficult and challenging sports. They are also games where mere inches frequently mean the difference between success and failure; hits and outs; wins and losses. Just as it’s important for a hitter to constantly practice and fine-tune his or her swing, it’s vital for Goltz, Cherveny and the entire Blast Baseball team to continually test, tinker, experiment, evolve and practice.
Practice makes perfect. Or something close to it.
“We do a lot of work on accuracy testing, because of the importance of it to today’s game,” said Cherveny. “When you’re trying to actually fuse player input data such as swing speed with ball output system technologies, you have to have confidence in the accuracy of the underlying data. So we do a lot of internal accuracy testing.”
Cherveny explained that a lot of that internal work and testing for maximizing accuracy involves motion-capture technology tools – using reflective markers that are placed on the bat, much as the Blast swing sensor itself is.
“We can then compare directly between our sensor and the motion-capture data for a particular swing for any type of swing across different levels,” said Cherveny. “But we go beyond that in our internal testing for checking the accuracy of our algorithms. We not only look at the speed at impact, but we also look at the build-up of speed throughout the swing too.”
It’s not just internal testing and evaluation that helps the Blast Baseball team fine-tune its swing sensor and out-hit the competition. In fact, a recent external, third-party validation test verified the rarified and repeated level of excellence achieved by the Blast swing sensor.
The test compared the swing sensors of Blast with those of competitors Diamond Kinetics and Zepp. It was conducted by the Center of Human Performance in San Diego, and was overseen by the center’s director, Arnel Aguinaldo. Blast came out on top in several categories, including lowest margin of error (a swing speed average deviation of 3 mph, compared to 5 mph for Diamond Kinetics and 7 mph for Zepp).
“They used our sensor, the Zepp sensor and the Diamond Kinetics sensor, and had players swing in the batting cage to compare it to motion-capture data,” explained Cherveny. “And what they found verified what we have found in our internal testing, that we are the most accurate – 95 percent of our swings fall within plus or minus three miles per hour. We’ve heard from other external parties that have done their own testing and they have also validated these results.”
The test not only showed that the Diamond Kinetics app was not as consistent as Blast in detecting swing readings, but setup time for Diamond Kinetics took between five and 10 minutes – compared to an average setup time of just 90 seconds for the Blast swing sensor and companion app. More importantly, Blast implements a dynamic calibration that allows the hitter to just grab the bat and swing away with no laboratory-like static calibrations prior to each swing. Thus, the batter can use their natural swing style to produce the highest swing speeds possible, which is important for both player assessment and development.
“Blast’s accuracy and ability to not disrupt an athlete’s or coach’s natural routine gives us the best swing sensor solution available on the market,” said Goltz. “We take great pride in the accuracy of the information and data we provide to teams and their players – including MLB clubs.”