Launch Engel to the Rescue

Baseball is a game of adjustments; from pitch to pitch, game to game, season to season and generation to generation. As time passes, the rules and objective of the game remain relatively unchanged but the strategies and pathways to success vary greatly. From the dead ball era to the steroid era to the wild card era, to the spitball era, the sinker era and the launch angle revolution. Baseball has gone from a game where batters try and keep it down and pitchers try to keep it up, to batters and pitchers both trying to keep it down, to now both trying to elevate the baseball. In the latest of players who have changed their swing to generate more loft is White Sox Legend, Adam Engel.

Engel has always been an athlete playing baseball; an incredible outfielder, with elite speed that ranks in the 100% percentile, who has changed his swing more than an amateur golfer trying to find that sweet spot. He’s had his runs of success before, frequently following swing “tweaks.” First was in 2016, Engel had just “Engeled” his way through a season, recording 65 stolen bases accompanied with a weak 704 OPS as a 23 year old at Winston Salem (A+ ball), but before the Arizona Fall League – a league notorious for it’s top prospects and deep talent pool – Engel made some swing changes. Those tweaks to Engel's pre-bat load, as Steverson and Engel discuss in the linked article, resulted in less noise in his swing which allowed him to develop a better rhythm and more direct path to the ball. Engel was able to tap into more power and went on to hit .403 in 19 games earning himself the AFL MVP. Engel’s swing carried over into the regular season, but not to the same level – the bad habits creeped back on occasion, but he did carry a 750 OPS between 3 levels. That first tweak to Engel’s swing put him on the prospect and White Sox radar. In 2017 and 2018 the offensive holes in Engel’s game were exposed at the major league level. Although Engel was never an excellent hitter at the minor league level, he never looked completely overmatched as he had in his big league stints. He struck out nearly 30% of his at bats, walked in less than 5% and when he made contact it was weak contact typically on the ground. As you’ll see below, Engel’s swing had some issues:

First, you’ll notice that Engel is relatively closed, with his front foot slightly in front of his back. As you watch Engel’s bat in still 1 and 2, you’ll notice the wasted movement. He starts his bat in a good position, but immediately drops his hands and straightens his bat when the pitcher is at the top of his motion. If Engel were to drive through the baseball from that position, it would be OK but instead he dips the bat head and drops his hands as the pitch is halfway to home plate – the bat is nearly parallel to the ground. This leads to a very flat swing plane for Engel, and it limits the amount of time his bat spends in the zone. As Engel makes contact, his hands stay low at his waste level (image 6) on the follow through. While the above is an image of a home run, you notice that Engel never generates the lift with his hands, and his shoulder and hands dropping lead to a flat swing.

For those wondering why I am using a clip from 2018 to evaluate Engel’s swing before, and not 2019, it’s because Engel began to make the swing and hand changes last year but it was disrupted by his addition of a big leg kick:

As you see above, Engel has his hands back towards his ear when the pitcher is at the top of his motion – not out over the plate below his chin as he did in 2018 – but he also added a leg kick. Engel couldn’t manage the change to his hands and learning the leg kick at the same time, so in turn he was demoted due to his struggles. When Engel returned in September, he had kept the changes he made to his hand but ditched the leg kick:

Although difficult to see here, Engel’s hands are higher and less out over the plate. He’s still a bit closed off, but the noise in his hands and his path to the ball were less flat. Engel had a 778 OPS in September following his call up back to the Majors but still, this was the third change he made to his swing in 12 months; this was going to take time.

In 2020, Adam Engel isn’t crushing the baseball - he is in the 3rd percentile in exit velocity – and he’s not hitting balls harder consistently, he’s in the 22nd percentile in hard hit %. Despite that he is above average (59% percentile) in xwOBA, which means Adam Engel is… an above average hitter now? What gives? Well, Engel has made some changes to his swing path to maximize the skill set he does have:

As you see above, the first change Engel has made is he opened his stance. As the pitcher comes to the top of his release, Engel’s hands move very little; staying high and tight, but most importantly as the pitch is halfway home his bat does not dip parallel to the ground, nor does his shoulder drop. The bat remains pointed towards the sky as Engle drives his hands down through the ball. As you look in the 5th image, the end of Engel’s bat is pointing towards the ground on impact; unlike in 2018 where his bat is so flat through the zone, it’s almost parallel to the ground when he contacts the ball. As Engel makes contact, you’ll notice his hands lift towards the sky and are almost even with his shoulder, as opposed to in 2018 where his hands ended around his waste line.

What have these changes meant for Engel? Well, quite a lot. Engel will never be an elite bat-to-ball hitter and expecting a high average or elite contact skills is unreasonable, but the improvements he has made have helped him maximize his profile. Engel's launch angle is up 6 degrees from last year - to 17.1 - and 3 degrees over his career average. In addition, Engel has a career low GB rate of 30.4% which is 11% below his career average. Compared to years past he's also pulling the ball with greater frequency - 54% vs 44% in career – assisted likely by him opening his stance allowing him more access to the inside pitch. By eliminating the leg kick and opening his stance, Engel has found a way to make more contact in general, up 3% over last year, but especially in the zone where he’s made contact a whopping 91% of the time, which is 10% above his career average. That has led to a dramatic decline in Engel's strike out rate which is down to 21% from a career average which hovered around 30. What that has done for Engel is it has given him more opportunities to do damage; so while he is not hitting it harder, he is hitting it more often. In addition, Engel can get to his power on the pull side with more ease meaning he maximizes his power output by opening his stance and elevating the baseball. While he has had some luck - his expected slash line based on his batted ball profile is 285/343/463 - he's still a better than league average hitter following this possible regression; in addition to being an elite defender and base runner.

Every rebuild has a surprise, and with the recent changes to Engel’s approach and swing he may have finally found something he’s comfortable with enough to become that surprise. Sox fans have watched Engel rob home run after home run, but his defense and base running were never enough to make up for an offensive game that was literally offensive to anyone who knew anything about baseball. Engel’s OPS sits today at a hefty 977, and when you add in the stats from the time he was recalled last year he has a 126 wRC+ in his last 115 plate appearances. If Engel is 26% better than the league offensively going forward, he can put that S back on his chest without Sox fans wondering if it stands for “Shitty” when he bats or “Superman” when he does everything else. For years Engel’s kryptonite has been his swing, and after years and years of tweaks and changes it looks like that weakness may finally have been launched at an Engel just right enough to spell success.