Here’s a little thing that steamrolled into a big thing, for just a moment, and then disappeared. I talked to Ender Inciarte many weeks ago, and it set me off on a path that took forever to complete.
Here’s what Inciarte said:
Against lefties, I try to let the ball get deeper and try to hit it the other way. Against righties, I feel like I can use the whole field. I don’t hit a lot of extra base hits against lefties, but I just try to do my job, which is to get on base.
It’s not the craziest thing you’ve ever heard. I’ve heard from many switch-hitters that they are different hitters from each side of the plate, and this is just the non-switch-hitter analog. Against righties, he’s one hitter; against lefties, he’s another.
But two questions immediately came to mind. How extreme is he? And, given his decent platoon splits to date, could he be providing a road map for others to follow?
First, Inciarte is extreme. Check out his walk, strikeout, pull, opposite, ground-ball, and fly-ball splits against lefties and righties for his career. Definitely a different guy in each case.
|vs L as L||5.5%||10.6%||59.1%||20.5%||30.0%||34.4%||35.6%||0.275||68|
|vs R as L||4.2%||12.1%||50.9%||26.4%||36.2%||34.3%||29.5%||0.314||94|
When we first talked, his career platoon split was smaller, and it seemed like a great approach. In any case, it’s an extreme difference depending on the handedness of the pitcher. Since 2002, only Munenori Kawasaki, Josh Thole, Nori Aoki, and Jason Tyner have had at least 100 plate appearances against lefties and been more extreme when it comes to ground-ball and fly-ball rate difference. (Kawasaki is in his own stratosphere, to be fair — he hits 8.9 ground balls per fly ball against lefties, and that drops to 2.7 against righties.)
When it comes to pull split, Inciarte is not as fringe, but he’s still in the 20th percentile. Or, rephrased: 80% of players are more similar against lefties and righties than Ender Inciarte. And it allows him to spray the ball, cover the lefty strike zone (which is bigger on the outside part of the plate), and generally see the ball longer against pitchers releasing from a point which is more difficult for him to see. This seems like it would be a good plan of attack, at least for hitters that have trouble against lefties.
Anecdotally, at least, it seems like it could be a plan. But the numbers aren’t as kind to this idea.
With the help of my esteemed colleague Matt Dennewitz, we ran pull, oppo, and grounder splits against wOBA splits, weighted by plate appearances. There was no relationship — even though the p-value was okay, the r-squared was .0102. And we checked with lefties only, in case this was a left-handed phenomenon. The results were even worse, as there was no significant relationship.
If we limit the pool to just lefties that have played enough to get 100 plate appearances against lefties, and look at the lefties most like Inciarte in terms of ground-ball splits, things don’t change that much. They strike out, on average, 4% more against lefties, and that sits right with the league average, 4%. Inciarte has a reverse strikeout-rate split, and so does Nori Aoki, and Adam Eaton, but the rest of the group is more traditional. The same is true if we sort for pull splits.
It’s too bad that there’s nothing here. Because, conceptually, it makes some sense. In order to handle the lefty strike zone better, and deal with the deception that comes with facing a pitcher of the same handedness, you might think it makes sense to alter your strategy. As a lefty facing a lefty, if you went to to the opposite field more and hit the ball on the ground more, you’d think you’d at least strike out less against lefties.
The problem is that tradeoff. You might strike out less, but you’ll probably also have no power against lefties. And so your platoon split might look just about the same as it would if you hadn’t altered your strategy and showed your regular power with a higher strikeout rate.
Maybe Ender Inciarte should just look to hit the ball hard against lefties after all.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.