If you look at the positional adjustments for Wins Above Replacement on our website, it looks like left and right field are equally valuable, and the second-easiest positions to play on the field. Generally, that seems about right — first base is where you put your slugger, and the corner-outfield spots is where you put your other sluggers.
And yet, if you look for bats that qualified for the batting title (and didn’t play catcher, the most platooned position on the field), you’ll find that there are fewer left fielders than any other position, and significantly so. Only 15 left fielders qualified last year. Even shortstop had 20 guys who reached that threshold. If you look at the Fans Scouting Report, left fielders were better defensively last year (overall and in almost every component) than they had been before in the life of the Report.
It seems that there’s a bit of a difference between left and right field, and in the types of players who are playing those positions. So I thought it made sense to ask the players what the difference actually was. It’s not as easy as putting the better arm in right field because he has a longer throw to third base.
Tim Leiper, Blue Jays first base coach: “The nuances for me… when the ball is hit directly at you, it’s learning how to open up toward the line. If you’re in right field and it’s a right-handed hitter, and he hits it directly at you, he probably stayed inside the ball and it’s going to slice to the line a little bit. Same thing with a left-handed hitter to left field. But I find that left-handed hitters actually have more slice to the ball than right-handed hitters. That’s probably because they’re right-hand dominant. The spin is different. I think the right-handed hitter’s balls have a lot more chance to stay true. I also think some outfielders maybe open up in one direction better than the other.”
Chris Coghlan, Oakland: “The angle of the balls, the cut. If I’m in left field and he hits me the ball, if it’s a right hander, it’s going away from the line, and if it’s a left-hander, it’s always to the line, and opposite in right field. I stand slightly differently for each field. I stand slightly open to the gap, because that’s where the triples are. More balls are going to be hit at me and to the gap then down the line that are caught. If it goes down the line, it’s either going to be hooked or a homer.”
Kole Calhoun, Anaheim: “The biggest difference is that, when balls are hit towards left and right field, they’re both going to break towards the poles. When a lefty hooks a ball or a righty slices a ball towards right, the way the ball moves is towards the poles on either side. Say I’m playing right field, a ball that goes directly over my head is going to end up on my left. Your natural instinct when you’re playing right field is to open up towards the line. In left field, you have to tell yourself to open up the opposite way. It’s completely backwards to what you’re used to doing. A strong arm is a weapon for a right fielder, to stop that runner at third.”
Nolan Reimold, Baltimore: “The cutoffs and relays are thrown to different spots, depending on where the runners are. Outside of that, it’s just adjusting to the other side of the field. I guess the parks are different. In Baltimore, you’ve got the big wall in right, and the sun is more of a factor.”
Chris Coghlan, Oakland: “In right field, third base and everything is in front of you. Everything you’re going to get, the play is in front of you. When I’m in left, it’s harder to see where the runner is at and you have to go at how fast you think he is mentally. You have to guess out of the box, and be a play ahead. If Albert Pujols hits one to my right in left field, I still have a chance to get him, where if Mike Trout does it… People think that’s an automatic double, and you can get to it and cut it off and get people at second. I got a lot of assists doing that. Before I moved to second base last year, I was leading the league in assists, and it has to do with how quick you get to the ball, and your anticipation. That plant and throw is a throw I practice every day. If he hits into left center, I need to anticipate if he’s going to push it and if I need to throw to second or third. If he hits into right-center, he’s going to get to third no matter how good my throw is, so I always need to throw to first.”
Mark Trumbo, Baltimore: “I see the ball better in right field. I think the spin is slightly easier to handle. In left field, for whatever reason, there are a lot of obscure plays that seem to happen. Teams might try to hide someone in left field, maybe their weakest defender, but I find — especially for a right-handed thrower — it can be quite difficult at times. Left-handed throwers might have a little bit easier time going toward the line. Right field just comes a lot easier for me.”
Chris Coghlan, Oakland: “Hard fields — Fenway right field (left is the Monster, and you just need to learn how to play it, just stop ten feet away from the monster on a ball over your head and play the bounce), Wrigley right field (sun is in your eyes, ton of day games, 350 down the line), AT&T right field, Houston.”
Kole Calhoun, Anaheim: “Different ballparks dictate where you’re going to play. If I’m playing left field in Fenway, that’s going to be way different than other spots. Most of the fields play pretty similar. There are some quirky ones — right field in San Francisco plays quirky, the ball can hit anywhere and go all over the place.”
Thanks to David Laurila for help gathering quotes!
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.