Contact Quality: Excessive Ground-Ball Pullers, 2014 AL

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve discussed many of the various aspects of the emerging granular batted-ball velocity/exit angle data that is becoming more pervasive in the game today. We’ve already covered both the overall hitting and pitching contact-quality leaders and laggards in both leagues, and are now ready to dig deeper into some of the nuances that make it less than advisable to simply accept raw contact-authority at face value. Let’s investigate the impact of pulling the ball on the ground at an excessive rate; today’s we’ll look at the 2014 AL extreme ground ball pullers, and next week, we’ll check out the NL.

With the advent of StatCast, batted-ball exit speed/angle data has finally begun to wend its way into the public domain. Though it is very valuable information, one must resist the temptation to rank offensive players solely by their ability to hit the ball hard, as there is a whole lot else to take into consideration. While hitters’ BABIPs are largely driven by batted-ball authority, there are other significant factors at play. Excessive ground-ball pulling, and the infield overshifts it brings, is one of those factors that can suppress BABIP despite seemingly authoritative contact.

At the core of today’s analysis is a very simple statistic called “pull ratio.” I don’t apply it to a hitter’s overall BIP portfolio, but instead do so individually for each BIP type. For a lefty hitter, it is simply (Balls hit to RF + RCF)/(LF + LCF), and for righties, (LF + LCF)/(RF + RCF). The AL average grounder pull ratio for a lefty hitter was 4.56 in 2014; for a righty, it was 4.46. Once it creeps over 5.00 for any hitter, it would behoove opposing clubs at least to consider an infield overshift, based on batter handedness, game situation and the individual hitter/pitcher matchup.

Below is a list of the ten most extreme ground-ball pullers in the AL (among the 77 batting title qualifiers) last season:

GB PULL ACT GB ADJ GB ACT BIP ADJ BIP ACT ALL ADJ ALL
B.Moss 12.00 84 125 134 141 114 119
D.Ortiz 9.92 49 116 125 143 143 164
Pujols 9.90 73 167 98 123 117 146
C.Carter 7.78 124 144 161 162 110 115
Seager 7.71 101 116 117 118 116 121
Cespedes 7.44 98 132 116 121 105 112
C.Davis 7.27 27 102 128 151 91 107
Encarnacion 7.19 73 159 136 157 152 177
De Aza 7.00 60 78 106 109 94 100
Plouffe 6.94 91 132 107 115 109 118
AVG 78 127 123 134 115 128

The first column lists each player’s ground-ball pull ratio. The next two columns list their actual and context-adjusted ground-ball “contact scores,” with 100 representing league average. The next two columns list their actual and context-adjusted (for grounders only) contact scores for all BIP. The last two columns list their actual and context-adjusted (for grounders only) production relative to the league; this runs closely in line with OPS+. Context-adjusted grounder performance is calculated by essentially placing each batted ball into a neutral environment, and crediting it with MLB average performance based on its exit speed and vertical and horizontal exit angle. The bottom line of the table compiles the average contact scores/production data for the 10 extreme ground-ball pullers, showing how many basis points their excessive ground ball-pulling cost them, on average.

That last point is key; the point of this exercise is to attempt to isolate the true cost of their excessive pulling on the ground. For these 10 players combined, it cost them 49 basis points of ground-ball contact score, 11 basis points of overall contact score, and 13 basis points of production/OPS+. That’s a very real cost. It varies somewhat significantly from player to player, based on variables such as their grounder rate, actual performance when hitting into shifts, etc.. It should be noted, however, that all 10 of these players performed worse on grounders than they “should have,” based on comparison of their actual to context-adjusted performance on ground balls.

Let’s take a brief glimpse of each individual player on this list and assess the impact of their excessive ground-ball pulling on their respective overall offensive games:

1 – Brandon Moss – Despite the fact that he is the most extreme ground-ball puller of the group, the total cost of his pulling was quite low compared to his peers on this list. Moss had a very low grounder rate in 2014 (5th percentile), and therefore lost only five basis points of overall contact score and seven basis points of overall production to his extreme ground-ball-pulling ways. Moving forward, his unsustainably high fly-ball rate is likely a larger threat to his overall offensive game than his ground-ball pulling.

2 – David Ortiz – Ortiz’ ground-ball pull tendency became much more pronounced in 2014, and it cut his offensive value measurably. He produced a .179 AVG and .179 SLG on the ground, though he “should have” recorded a .265 AVG/.292 SLG based on exit speed/angle. Ortiz’ average grounder authority was over a full standard deviation harder than league average, but it didn’t help much with all of those bodies stationed on the right-field side of the infield. Overshifting cost him 67 basis points of grounder contact score, 18 basis points of overall contact score, and 21 basis points of production/OPS+ last season.

3 – Albert Pujols – Excessive ground-ball pulling cost Pujols more offensive production than any player on this list, including Ortiz, last season. Why? Frequency and authority. Pujols is the only player on this list who had an above league-average grounder rate last season, all the way up in the 74th percentile. He also had the most to lose, authority-wise, as he hit his grounders harder than anyone else in the top ten, well over a full standard deviation higher than the AL mean, on average. His lack of foot speed didn’t help, either, as he lost 94 basis points of grounder contact score due to his excessive pulling. This excised 25 basis points of overall contact score and 29 points of production/OPS+ from his context-adjusted numbers as well. If it were only about contact authority, Albert Pujols would still be Albert Pujols.

4 – Chris Carter – Like Brandon Moss, Carter lost relatively little production (20 basis points of grounder contact score, one basis point of overall contact score, five basis points of production/OPS+) to his extreme ground-ball-pulling ways, as his minuscule grounder rate ranked dead last in the AL. Carter could have lost a bit more, however, as he was the only player on this to record materially above average performance on grounders last season; he recorded a .279 AVG and .291 SLG despite frequent overshifts, offering plenty of room for downward regression, which appears to have kicked in at least somewhat in 2015.

5 – Kyle Seager – Kind of a surprising name to see so high on this list, as Seager just doesn’t seem like such a dead-pull guy. With regard to this analysis he’s very, very similar across the board to Carter; he lost 15 basis points of grounder contact score, one basis point of overall contact score, and five basis points of production/OPS+ to his extreme grounder-pulling ways. He was the only player besides to Carter to have an above-average actual grounder contact score despite some overshifting, leaving him substantial room for negative regression. Seager remains a quality all-around player, but he needs to remember he’s a hit-before-power guy, not a power-before-hit guy; he’s perched right on the precipice between the two at present. He should not be on a list like this.

6 – Yoenis Cespedes – Like Moss and Carter, Cespedes loses relatively little (34 basis points of grounder contact score, five basis points of overall contact score, and five basis points of production/OPS+) due to his excessive grounder-pulling ways because of a very low grounder rate (8th percentile). Like Carter and Seager, however, there is downside, as he managed to post a respectable .247 AVG and .260 SLG (98 contact score) on the grounder despite some overshifting.

7 – Chris Davis – This is a fairly extreme example of what extreme grounder pulling can do to a hitter. Despite basically average grounder authority, Davis produced an incredible .129 AVG and .140 SLG (27 actual contact score) on the ground, thanks to routine overshifting. Thanks to those lost 75 basis points of grounder contact score, Davis lost 23 basis points of overall contact score and 16 basis points of production/OPS+. All of this, despite a very low grounder rate (14th percentile).

8 – Edwin Encarnacion – Taking all batted-ball types into account, Encarnacion was the most extreme puller among AL regulars last season. His low strikeout rate for a power hitter has enabled him to make this approach work over the years, though not so much thus far in 2015. Encarnacion crushed his grounders last season, and “should have” hit .309 AVG/.344 SLG on them; instead, thanks to overshifts and a lack of speed, he batted .210 AVG-.231 SLG. His grounder-pulling losses run closely in tandem with those of Pujols, the only player on this list who hit his grounders even harder; 86 basis points of grounder contact score, 21 basis points of overall contact score, and 25 basis points of production/OPS+.

9 – Alejandro De Aza – We’re dropping quite a bit in hitter class at this point on the list. He’s the only one of the ten who hit his grounders lighter than the AL average, by over one-half standard deviation. Excessive grounder-pulling is pretty low on the list of De Aza’s concerns; it only cost him 18 basis points of grounder contact score, three basis points of overall contact score, and six basis points of production/OPS+. An absurdly high liner rate was the only reason De Aza was a league-average producer in 2014; his recent DFA was not a surprise.

10 – Trevor Plouffe – Another member of the Moss/Carter/Cespedes family; he doesn’t hit many grounders (19th percentile in 2014), so doesn’t lose a ton of production (41 basis points of grounder contact score, eight basis points of overall contact score, nine basis points of production/OPS+) compared to some others on this list. Like Carter/Seager/Cespedes, however, he was fortunate to produce at a near league-average level on the ground (.228 AVG-.269 SLG), so there is some room for downward regression given continued occasional overshifting.

By and large, these extreme ground-ball pullers are pretty good hitters; some are hyper-focused on authority at all costs, and the excessive ground-ball pulling is a cost absorbed in the pursuit of power. It is very difficult, however, to remain in hyper-pull mode indefinitely without pitchers finding and exploiting the rather large holes created by such an offensive approach. Think Raul Ibanez of 2013, and then the 2014 version.

Mike Trout didn’t miss this list by much, but he missed it. The likes of Miguel Cabrera, Jose Abreu, Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz and Jose Bautista came nowhere near qualifying for this list. An overshift against any of them would be downright silly, something unthinkable a couple years ago in Bautista’s case. Being a slugger doesn’t mean you absolutely must pull the ball on the ground at an excessive rate, and making the minor swing/approach tweaks necessary to avoid doing so is well worth it.





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Trev
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Trev

With the Angels Pujols has had two season (2013 & 2015) below his career pull% average and two seasons above (2012 & 2014).

In St. Louis did he lose as much value via the overshift as he did last year? I’m particularly curious about 2009-2011 when his Oppo% dipped below 20% for the first time.

tz
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tz

I dug a little into Pujols’ numbers since it felt odd that a RHB would be suffering the most from an overshift. While I don’t have the batted ball detail that Tony does, the Fangraphs stats show that Pujol’s overall BABIP fell off a cliff right around age 30. Pretty much all of this turns out to be from his BA on ground balls, which is around .250 for his career but has been in the .200 range since age 30.

And yet his year-by-year splits on GB/FB ratio and Pull% tend to bounce around, with no severe trend. He has always had a fair % of pulled GBs even as a young player. What I believe is driving most of his drop in GB batting average is his loss of foot speed, which you can see by looking at his overall speed scores and increasing propensity for GIDPs. This is a lot like the progression for Jim Rice, who had similar chronic knee problems.

So Pujols’ career seems to be playing out like Hank Aaron with Jim Rice’s knees.

And for 2009-2011, it’s possible that he lost value from overshifting, although (1) teams did less shifting back then and (2) the value of overshifting Pujols might have been less apparent when he was able to get down the line quicker.