Hall of Fame slugger Mel Ott figured out launch angle, exit velocity 90 years ago
When Hall of Famer Mel Ott retired in 1947, he was third all-time in career home runs in Major League Baseball with 511. He was exceeded only by Babe Ruth (724) and Jimmie Foxx (534) at the time. Ott was the National League leader in home runs until Willie Mays surpassed him in 1966.
Ott, a native of Gretna, Louisiana, held the major-league record for most career home runs by a left-handed batter until Eddie Matthews overtook him in 1968.
One of the remarkable facts about Ott’s propensity for hitting home runs was that he stood only 5-foot-9 and only weighed between 160-170 pounds, not exactly the physique one would typically associate with a record-setting power hitter. For example, Ruth and Foxx were more prototypical home run sluggers at six feet tall or above and tipping the scale at 195 or more pounds. So, what accounted for Ott’s hitting prowess?
Ott’s batting style is legendary for his high leg lift before making contact with the ball. Practically every posed photo of Ott in his batting stance illustrated his novel leg kick.
In his biography about Ott (Mel Ott: The Little Giant of Baseball), author Fred Stein said Ott perfected this technique when he worked with Lefty O’Doul on his hitting in 1928. Ott came to realize that lifting his right leg higher would have the effect of moving his weight more forcefully into the pitch, thereby giving his swing additional power.
Stein further wrote that Branch Rickey, the astute general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, felt Ott’s lifting his front leg was largely responsible for his powerful hitting. Rickey’s assessment of Ott’s batting stance concluded, “You will notice that he lifts that front leg just as the pitcher releases the ball and he puts it down after he sees what sort of pitch is coming and where it is coming from. That’s why he never is caught off balance or out of position.”
Thus, it would seem Ott was using the leg movement to get the necessary lift and power behind the ball to drive it over the fence with regularity. Was Ott just a freak of nature with his strength, or is it possible he intrinsically understood the value of getting good launch angle off the bat and generating enough power and bat speed to create higher exit velocity?
It’s highly unlikely anyone had figured out the physics of hitting baseballs in Ott’s day, especially without the benefit of technology to provide informative data to facilitate such a discovery. And if someone did figure it out 90 years ago, it surely wasn’t being talked about in baseball circles. It’s only been in the last five years or so, with new advancements in technology and data analytics, that the popular hitting approach has been widely discussed and routinely measured.
Nowadays it’s fairly predictable how launch angle and exit velocity factor into a batter’s ability to generate home runs. Home runs have been on the rise, in part because “average” hitters are being coached to adjust their hitting approach to achieve a higher number of home runs. Examples include recent players like Scooter Gennett and Logan Morrison, who improved their home run output after having posted relatively mediocre numbers in prior years.
Gennett (5-foot-8, 180 pounds) is considered small by today’s standard for major-league players. He is more similar in build to Ott than he is with most of his current teammates and opponents.
After hitting a total of 35 homers during his first four major-league seasons, Gennett belted 27 last year and is currently on a pace to exceed that this year. With his current hitting approach, he has proved a player doesn’t have to be a giant like Giancarlo Stanton to put up respectable home run numbers.
If Ott knew something special about his hitting approach, he never let on that he did. In an interview in Baseball Digest in 1944, he said he couldn’t account for his high numbers, “I dunno. Perhaps it’s timing, coordination or something else. I never stopped to figure it out.”
Whether he consciously realized it or not, Ott’s approach at the plate must have incorporated techniques (shifting weight from back foot to front foot, creating power from the hips, and leveraging the ground for power) that produced similar hitting results as current-day sluggers. Those techniques placed him in an elite group of prodigious sluggers in his era despite his relatively small size.
Josh Donaldson of the Toronto Blue Jays utilizes an Ott-like leg kick to generate a lot of his power and bat speed. He was one of the first major-league superstars to espouse the benefits of launch angle in generating extra-base hits and home runs. His former teammate Jose Bautista is another hitter who effectively uses the leg lift for tremendous power.
Unlike most of the home run hitters today, Ott didn’t strike out a lot. Over the course of his 22-year career, his 162-game-average for strikeouts was only 53. By comparison, Aaron Judge struck out 208 times in 2017, while J.D. Martinez whiffed 128 times and Nolan Arenado went down 106 times.
Some pundits of Ott’s era believed that his career home run total benefitted from a short right-field porch at his home stadium Polo Grounds. It’s true that Ott was a prominent right-field pull-hitter, although 37 percent of his homers were hit on the road.
Furthermore, it is noted that many of Ott’s home runs at the Polo Grounds wound up in the upper deck and would have cleared the fences of other parks, too. Hence, that explanation as the primary reason for his mammoth home run output doesn’t entirely hold up.
Of course, there’s no way to exactly determine today what specific aspects of Ott’s hitting approach actually accounted for his impressive career home run total, whether there were elements of launch angle and exit velocity, or just plain old brute strength. But it’s a pretty sure bet if Ott were playing today, he’d be right up there in the home run rankings with today’s sluggers and certainly little Scooter Gennett.
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New Orleans baseball historian
Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.