Switch-Hitting with the Two Jonathan Villars

“I’m a completely different hitter from each side of the plate,” Hank Conger told me one time. He went on to describe how he had more loft in his swing from one side. Switch-hitter Billy Burns said about the same thing, speculating that his relative lack of experience hitting from the left side was the cause for his lack of power on contact from that side. “My muscles aren’t as strong there,” he told me in July of 2015. Even if a player is capable of hitting — even hitting well — from both sides of the plate, that doesn’t mean he’s the same type of hitter from both sides. Subtle differences are bound to be present.

All of this may explain a strange thing that happened to Jonathan Villar last year.

Before we get to Villar, though, let’s talk about pitching inside for a moment. The inside pitch is frequently utilized to neutralize a slugger who murders offerings on the outside corner of the plate. That’s why Joey Votto, Ryan Braun, and Jose Abreu are all in the top 10 when it comes to being pitched inside over the last two years.

Trust me, Votto knows all about the fact that pitchers are trying to crowd him. He’s tried randomly pulling the ball, and squibbing the ball over the shortstop’s head, and then most recently found that “you have to burn them” sometimes in order to get them back over the outside part of the plate.

On the other side of the plate, Paul Konerko once said that he went the other way just enough to get the ball in because that’s where he liked it. That ebb and flow made sense for him, and it’s part of the game of baseball. Villar — as with many switch-hitters — might be in the middle of realizing that he has to play this game differently from each side of the plate.

Let’s get to the query that brings our two topics together. I was checking to see which players saw a huge swing in the number of pitches they saw on the inside part of the plate. There, among righties, you’ll see that Villar was rarely matched when it came to seeing fewer pitches located on the inside in 2016 than he did in 2015.

Righties Who Saw Fewer Pitches Inside in 2016
Player Total Pitches 2015 % Inside 2016% Inside Difference
Jefry Marte 1088 40.0 26.3 -13.7
Jonathan Villar 2831 21.2 11.1 -10.0
Andres Blanco 786 13.9 5.9 -8.0
Giancarlo Stanton 1892 43.2 35.4 -7.8
Jose Reyes 1067 14.3 8.2 -6.2
Javier Baez 1683 40.8 35.0 -5.8
Albert Pujols 2516 35.3 29.6 -5.7
Jose Altuve 2482 36.1 30.7 -5.4
Andrelton Simmons 1584 35.3 30.2 -5.1
Bobby Wilson 937 37.7 32.7 -5.1
Evan Gattis 1901 33.7 28.6 -5.1
Ketel Marte 1766 18.0 13.0 -5.0
David Freese 2062 46.4 41.6 -4.8
Ben Zobrist 2655 13.6 9.3 -4.3
Kendrys Morales 2468 16.2 11.9 -4.3
Minimum 1000 pitches seen in 2016
Inside = third of the zone closest to the batter

Villar is there along with some younger players who may have witnessed the league adjusting to them, and then some older players who may be watching the league figure out their weaknesses. The weird part was when I checked lefties. There’s the breakout Brewers shortstop again, but in a different context.

Lefties Who Saw More Pitches Inside in 2016
Player Total Pitches 2015 % Inside 2016% Inside Difference
Ramon Flores 1208 17.5 33.0 15.4
Jonathan Villar 2831 11.8 24.2 12.4
Andres Blanco 786 12.3 22.9 10.6
Cliff Pennington 760 20.1 29.7 9.6
Leonys Martin 2232 27.3 35.0 7.7
Brett Wallace 1093 26.4 33.9 7.5
Shawn O’Malley 903 11.6 18.7 7.1
Derek Dietrich 1609 25.2 32.1 6.9
Brandon Moss 1826 29.3 36.0 6.7
Daniel Murphy 2079 24.1 30.6 6.6
Chris Davis 2755 32.5 39.0 6.4
Freddie Freeman 2779 28.4 34.6 6.2
John Jaso 1697 24.5 30.6 6.1
Ezequiel Carrera 1245 25.6 31.5 5.9
Christian Yelich 2715 27.7 33.6 5.8
Minimum 1000 pitches seen in 2016
Inside = third of the zone closest to the batter

The same batter who saw way fewer pitches on the inside of the plate as a righty was suddenly being jammed as a lefty. Very strange, except that we know that switch-hitters deal with this sort of thing often. We aim for symmetry in our bodies, but there’s a trick of the brain that leads to one side emerging as more dominant — and therefore creates a weakness on one side of the plate or the other.

As with Conger, Villar has more loft from one side of the plate. Platoon splits this far into a player’s career are dicey, but we can note that he’s hit three grounders per fly ball as a lefty the last few years and his career rate from the right side is half that.

Since he’s two different hitters, we’re seeing pitchers adjust to him in two different ways. As a righty, his power exploded last year, to top 55 among righties seeing lefties. Considering he was able to pull the ball in the air, and had a bottom 25 opposite-field percentage against lefties, pitchers began to avoid throwing it to him inside. Here’s what it looked like in heat map form. First, how the pitchers changed their approach on fastballs (2015 on the left, 2016 on right):

We might have shown these heat maps backwards, because Villar’s production probably necessitated the change in pitch location, but here’s Villar’s isolated slugging heat maps in 2015 and 2016, too:

You’ll notice that pitchers generally tried to hit the bottom and outside edges of the zone more (out of respect), and that Villar still showed great power. That seems to bode well for his work from the right side of the plate.

What about from the left side? Villar has cut his strikeout rate and improved his work on balls in play. But maybe that .366 BABIP in play is unsustainable and masking some future problems? Let’s see how stark the move inside was from the pitchers. (Once again, 2015 is on the left and 2016 on right.)

Ah, that’s funny. It’s not so much that he’s getting a ton of pitches inside, it’s that pitchers pitched to the zone more often, and shifted their heat map slightly more over the plate. Why would a pitcher come over the plate more? Because the hitter has stopped offering at pitches off the plate. So this time, let’s look at how his swing heat map changed from 2015 (left) to 2016 (right).

He definitely swung less at that pitch outside off the plate. Looks like a change in stance may have helped him with that adjustment. Look at him facing a righty in 2014:

And then in 2016:

By the time the ball gets to the plate, Villar has closed up and doesn’t look so different. But before the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, he’s more open. Adam LaRoche once agreed that his unique, both-eyes-on-the-pitcher stance allowed him to see the ball better, and I wonder if that isn’t the case here with Villar. It also looks like he backed off the plate a bit, which would have the function of making the outside pitch look further away and, consequently, less appealing.

A tighter zone against righties should help Villar stay close to league average from that side of the plate, even as pitchers begin to adjust to his new patience by throwing in in the zone more often. Against lefties, Villar has raked no matter what the pitchers try to do to him, but he’ll have to watch to make sure he isn’t trying to pull everything on the outside part of the plate.

Either way, it looks like he’s worth rooting for. Your favorite slugger from one side of the plate has half as much power on the other. He can watch to see if the league is trying to pitch him one way or another. The Jonathan Villars of the world, our switch-hitters trying to improve, they have to compartmentalize. They have remember their different strengths from each side, and remember what pitchers of different handedness are trying to do to them. Twice the fun, or twice the work, really.

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.

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7 years ago

Eno, how you find stuff like this is amazing.