Low and Away Crushes Lefties. Mostly, at Least. by Ben Clemens December 2, 2020 Sabermetrics has had all kinds of effects on the baseball world. One of the big ones, for me at least, is that it’s changed the way I listen to announcers almost completely. When I was younger, they were my only gateway to understanding the game, so I treated every pearl of analyst wisdom like a fundamental truth of the game. That’s simply not the case anymore. Obviously so, in my case: It would be pretty embarrassing for me if I wrote about baseball five days a week for years and still used announcers as my only source of knowledge. Even before I was a writer, however, I was a consumer of baseball writing and analysis, and the sheer deluge of data and thinking has long weaned me from needing to get my learning exclusively in the form of pronouncements from on high. One thing that gets missed in the rush to overthrow the old order and install new quantifiable gods and goddesses of baseball truth, though, is that a lot of the things announcers taught me when I was a kid are true! It really is important to hit the cutoff man, and some fastballs do really look like they’re rising as they cross the plate. I’ve been looking into another such piece of received wisdom recently, and it’s absolutely real: lefty batters struggle to hit pitches on the low and away corner. You know the pitch I’m talking about, because you can picture Cody Bellinger taking a defensive swing in your mind’s eye: Or Juan Soto taking a borderline pitch and grimacing or shuffling appropriately: Instinctively, I was sure that this was true, but I couldn’t exactly explain why. What is it about lefties that makes their swing look awkward in that location? I simply couldn’t tell you, and so I began to doubt myself. Is it really an unhittable spot, or was I falling victim to the same old thing from my youth, over-relying on something I’d been told without proving it myself? I came up with a quick check to get at least a rough idea what was happening. I took every pitch thrown to lefties in 2019 and ’20 and looked at each one that crossed the plate in an eight-inch-tall, six-inch-wide rectangle centered on the lower outside corner of the strike zone. This is roughly equivalent to Baseball Savant’s Attack Zones, if you’re familiar with those — it’s the “shadow zone,” the place where batters have to decide between swinging at a borderline strike and accepting the whims of an umpire’s call. Pitches in that zone destroyed left-handed batters in 2019 and ’20. To measure the effect, I used the same logic that drives our pitch values from there. Foul off a 1–1 pitch? You just went to a 1–2 count, and since we know how well batters do after 1–1 counts and how well they do after 1–2 counts, we can assign the difference in value between those two states to the batter. Put a ball in play, strike out, or walk? We know the value of those events, and we know the previous state, so again, we can credit or debit the batter with the difference. In 10,251 pitches, batters cost themselves a whopping 345 runs. Now, those units sound like gibberish, and they are! 345 runs in 10,000 pitches? No one in the entire world thinks about baseball in those terms. Let’s convert them into something a little more reasonable: points of wOBA. Each time a batter saw a pitch in that low/away area, their expected wOBA declined by 40 points. The average wOBA based on the count after the pitch (or the result if it ended the plate appearance) was 40 points lower than the count-based expectation before the pitch. That’s quite the drop. Wait, that one’s not intuitive either? Okay, fine, think of it like this: 40 points of wOBA is the difference between Manny Machado’s 2020 (148 wRC+, MVP candidate) and Trent Grisham’s (121 wRC+, solidly above average). It’s the difference between Grisham’s 2020 and Ramón Laureano’s (102 wRC+, average). It’s the difference between Laureano’s 2020 and Jose Altuve’s (77 wRC+, roughly replacement level in a huge down year). When a pitcher throws a pitch to that spot, it’s like getting to face a batter one tier worse. Hey, you might say. Aren’t pitches on the corners just good in general? Why is the away corner so special? You’re right, but you’re also wrong. Take the low inside corner, for example. Over the same 2019–20 stretch, batters faced 7,458 pitches to that corner and cost themselves 71 runs. That works out to 11 points of wOBA, a quarter of the effect. Swing? Don’t swing? It hardly mattered. When batters swung, they cost themselves 50 points of wOBA per pitch. When they took, they cost themselves 28 points. Some of that taking cost comes down to guessing wrong, thinking ball when it was a strike. Some of it, though, comes down to deciding discretion is the better part of valor and simply taking a good pitch, even if it’s in the strike zone. The pitcher can’t hit that spot every time, so waiting for a better pitch to hit can pay off. That’s not to say that no hitter is immune to this attack, but it’s not far from that. One hundred and fifty lefties faced at least 25 pitches to this quadrant between 2019 and ’20. Only 19 of them accrued positive value. There’s no shame in being bad there: Soto, Bellinger, and Christian Yelich, the three best left-handed batters in the game by my approximation, all finished below zero value in the region. Freddie Freeman did, too, if you’d put him in that group. Still on Bryce Harper? You guessed it, negative value. That’s not to say that no one can handle that corner, though, and the list of batters who did well there has an interesting pattern. The best lefty hitter, in all of baseball, against low and away pitches was Tommy Edman. He saw 30 pitches there when batting left-handed (he’s a switch hitter) and added 44 points of wOBA on average. He went up a tier rather than down one. Harold Castro, who like Edman is more singles than doubles and more doubles than homers, finished second. Kolten Wong was fourth, Freddy Galvis fifth, and Luis Arraez sixth. Leury García, Luis Rengifo, and Alex Gordon all made the list. Another true announcer trope: These guys know how to go the other way! That’s simply their swing — the more you’re trying to punch the ball, the easier it is to get to one in that hard-to-reach corner. One quick aside: I’m sure you’re dying to know where Anthony Rizzo falls into this. I know I was. He’s pretty good! He’s marginally below zero — negative 2 points of wOBA, or a tenth of a run over 96 pitches. Leaning out over the plate to protect that corner is working, or at least it appears to be; without a counterfactual look at far-away Rizzo, we can’t say for sure. You could, if you felt like splitting hairs, split swings and takes in half and consider each separately. The sample sizes get smaller, to the point where we’re pretty far into the realm of curiosity rather than data, but hey, there’s nothing wrong with the realm of curiosity once in a while. How many batters accrue positive value on both sides of the ledger? Three: Double Threats Batter Pitches wOBA Swings Swing wOBA Takes Take wOBA Kolten Wong 70 .028 40 .043 30 .006 Alex Avila 29 .018 9 .028 20 .014 Luis Rengifo 25 .015 12 .019 13 .012 Avila and Rengifo are neat, but Wong is the name I’m most interested in. He did it over the most pitches seen, and he’s also a free agent with other things going for him, namely being the best defensive second baseman in the game. It might not be a real offensive statistic — there are other places you can throw pitches, you know — but I also don’t think it’s meaningless. Pitchers learn, from a young age, to attack the low and away corner to lefties. It’s not as easy as throwing somewhere else, because pitchers design their pitch mix to attack that spot. Sliders from southpaws dive down and away. Right-handers’ changeups attack the same spot. Changing the way you pitch is easier said than done, and that plays to Wong’s advantage. Seriously, watch this swing and tell me it doesn’t have an easier time than most poking the ball to left field: None of this means that he’s going to suddenly break out to a new level of offensive production. It helps explain Wong’s offensive output in his career so far, though, and if you look at him and think, “Hey, how does this little guy with no power keep putting up league-average offensive numbers,” look no further than his ability to take a pitcher’s best pitch and use it to his advantage. Well, that and the batting eye.