Ryan Howard and the Opposite Field

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been discussing opposite field hitting. One name that has come up both in my head as I considered this issue, as well as in the comments section, is that of Ryan Howard. Howard has earned a living – and the biggest arbitration payout in MLB history – by blasting home runs over the left field fence at Citizens Bank Park.

Howard somehow manages to get fantastic extension on balls on the outer half of the plate, allowing him to unleash the full brunt of his mammoth power on any pitch around the strike zone. When we see a hitter like Howard so consistently showing power to the opposite field, it seems apparent that he is doing something different from other hitters in the league.

In general, the reason that most hitters aren’t very productive when hitting the ball the other way is that despite the high fly-ball rate we see to the opposite field, it’s rare for these balls to leave the yard (3% for LHBs), and many of them don’t even escape the infield (14.5% for LHBs). This makes the fly ball, generally a decent result because of the possibility of home runs and extra bases, a very poor result.

When we look at Howard’s career, we see that when he goes the other way, he actually hits more fly balls than the rest of the league’s left handed batters. For his career, Howard has hit a whopping 71.6% of pushed balls in the air, about 19% more than his southpaw peers. This would signal disaster for a normal hitter, as it would mean more infield flies and softly hit outfield flies.

For Howard, it has historically meant lots of home runs. Over his career, 27% of the fly balls he has hit to left field have left the park. This is partially just a function of his mammoth strength, as his 52% HR/FB rate on pulled balls is just under double the league average. There does appear to be more to it, however, as his 27% rate is 9 times higher than the LH average. Part of it probably has to do with Citizens Bank Park, but likely not enough to consider this kind of power as anything but amazing.

The other thing that makes him particularly successful when utilizing left field is an ability to avoid the infield fly. Last year, Howard didn’t hit a single infield fly to the left side in 76 chances, the third season in which he’s accomplished this feat. This is the key to poor performance to the opposite field, as the average LHB hits 14.5% of his fly balls to the infield. With a 52% overall fly rate, that means that around 8% of an average lefty’s pushed batted balls are basically automatic outs, as the BABIP on infield flies is microscopic. That means that even when Howard isn’t knocking the ball over the left field fence, it still has a chance of falling for a hit, and in the outfield, where there’s also a significant chance of extra bases.

This ridiculous fly ball split actually makes Howard a much more productive hitter going to the left side and up the middle, where he has similar numbers, as opposed to when he pulls the ball. His .626 wOBA to LF and .565 wOBA to CF eclipse a still stellar .451 wOBA to RF (these numbers are so far above his career wOBA of .396 because it excludes strikeouts). All the ground balls that Howard hits to the right side (57% of GBs) nullify his power, making LF and CF his areas of best results.

Perhaps this suggests that it would be better to pitch Howard inside. I’m not so sure, as his HR/FB rate to right field is still insanely high, and allowing him to turn on an inside pitch with regularity would probably just result in more home runs. The truth is that Howard is just a power machine, no matter where he hits it, and that’s what has set him apart from the rest of the league.

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This may or may not be relevant.

I was doing rehab in 2007 and decided to play around with Howard’s swing mechanics. The biggest feature of his swing is that his hips clear very early relative to most hitters which because of his mammoth size creates quite a bit of torque. As a 5′ 11” 180lber, I quickly realized that I simply didn’t have the size for that approach. However, I found my batted ball types in BP to be very similar to Howard’s (despite me being a righty). I hit a ton of fly balls to right field. They had considerably less power than Howard obviously, but they went farther and higher than my usual oppo shots. A large chunk of my contact was hard grounders from the 3b bag to just right of 2b. A good percentage of those contacts were high choppers. When I pulled the ball in the air, my power was much more than normal and when I tried my hardest to hit a hard grounder the other way…I couldn’t.

Being a Phillies fan and having watched Howard very frequently, my personal results closely mirrored his, with me being an obviously weaker hitter to start with. Because of that personal experiment, I’ve always assumed that Howard’s unique batted ball profile was the result of his size and the long separation between his hips and his upper body.