This is the third in a series of articles on the emergence of batted-ball data into the baseball mainstream. Today, we’re going to focus much less on the exit velocity of batted balls, and more upon the direction in which they are hit. While a pulled baseball offers the ultimate potential upside, it also carries with it risk, of the potentially career-swallowing variety.
I would venture to say that the vast majority of those reading this article — along with the person writing it — have not played baseball professionally, or even at a particularly high amateur level. We have played at some level, however, and many of us may have experienced some sort of success with the bat somewhere along the line, if only in Little League, perhaps. If we did, then we remember the sweet feeling of “getting hold of one”. Chances are that if we did, it was to our pull side. There aren’t very many of us who have experienced the feel of true opposite-field power.
At some developmental level, the game got too fast for us physically, or too complex for us mentally, and our power went away. For some, that happened at age 12 or even sooner, for others, it happened in high school, or college. What happened to us then, happens to major league players somewhere along the line. A significant number of major league players, including many very successful ones, never displayed opposite-field power at the game’s top level. They learn to tap into their pull power, but their reservoir is only so deep, and eventually empties.
Central to today’s analysis will be a very simple statistic, the pull ratio. For each of the three main batted-ball categories (fly balls, line drives, grounders), it is calculated by: 1) for lefties (balls hit to RCF +RF)/(LCF +LF), and 2) for righties (balls hit to LCF + LF)/(RCF + RF). Why separate the three batted-ball categories? Well, merging the three together yields a single, and as it turns out, relatively meaningless number. Almost every hitter pulls more often than not, and even a very high overall pull ratio doesn’t necessarily mean a hitter should be overshifted in the infield. And overshifting is, more than anything else, why a club wants/needs to know the extent of a hitter’s pull tendency.
I have calculated the fly ball, line drive and ground ball pull ratio for each 2014 MLB batting title qualifier. Below are the average figures for lefty and righty hitters in each league. (The switch-hitters have been omitted; in truth, they’re probably worth a post of their own.)
Pretty consistent from league to league, and going back, from year to year. One might not notice it watching games from day to day, but hitters are much more likely to pull a ball on the ground than they would in their air. As the ball’s vertical angle descends, it becomes much more likely for a hitter to pull the baseball.
In fact, almost all hitters fall into the same pattern; their ground ball pull ratio is higher than their liner pull ratio, which is higher than their fly ball pull ratio. 47 of 52 2014 MLB lefthanded batting title qualifiers and 64 of 75 righties meet those criteria, and those who miss just barely do so. Interestingly enough, 3 of the 16 qualifiers not meeting those criteria ranked among the 10 most prolific home run hitters in the game last season.
Nelson Cruz, Jose Abreu and Edwin Encarnacion have mastered the art of selectively pulling the baseball in the air. Cruz’ 2.35 fly ball pull ratio was higher than his 2.22 line drive pull ratio. In previous articles on this topic, I have referred to “contact scores”, which are generated by placing each batted ball into a league average park, in a league average context based solely and exit speed and angle. Cruz’ 2014 contact score of 241 ranked 10th in the AL last season. Abreu had a 1.70 fly ball pull ratio, compared to a 1.42 liner pull ratio. His fly ball contact score of 301 ranked 3rd in the AL last season. Encarnacion’s fly ball pull ratio was an insane 3.62, highest among all MLB qualifiers last season, and just higher than his liner pull ratio of 3.38. His fly ball contact score of 278 ranked 5th in the AL last season.
Those three players swim against the tide by pulling the ball in the air more so than they do on a line, squeezing out more home run power in the process. That payoff can come at a cost. Obviously, most power hitters concede some contact in exchange for more power, often striking out at a much higher rate than their peers. Power hitters also tend to pop up at a higher than league average rate. The largest single sacrifice they often make, however, is a sneaky one. More power generally means more pulling in the air, which as the table above tells us, means more pulling on the ground.
Once a hitter’s ground ball pull ratio gets above 5.00, opposing clubs have to least start considering an infield overshift. What can an overshift do to a player’s offensive performance? In 2014, there were 17 lefthanded hitters and 27 righties who had a ground pull ratio of 5.00 or higher. Below you will see their cumulative actual and standard (based solely on exit speed and angle, in a neutral environment) ground ball contact scores, with 100 representing MLB average:
That’s a very significant difference; 29 basis points for the lefties, 17 for the righties. That’s not taking into the fairly extreme foot speed of some of the righties, like Mike Trout, Carlos Gomez and Josh Harrison; adjustment for speed would bring the difference closer into line with the lefties. Bottom line, these excessive pullers are less productive on the ground because of the overshifting created by their tendencies.
The most extreme among them? How about David Ortiz, actual grounder contact score of 49 versus standard score of 116. Or Chris Davis (27 vs. 102), Ryan Howard (30 vs. 78), Lucas Duda (67 vs. 120). Chase Utley (60 vs. 99) or Seth Smith (59 vs. 97) among the lefties. Or Albert Pujols (73 vs. 167), Encarnacion (73 vs. 159), Nick Castellanos (47 vs. 110), Yan Gomes (73 vs. 128), Matt Kemp (60 vs. 140), Jhonny Peralta (52 vs. 115) and Khris Davis (55 vs. 134) among the righties.
It’s very difficult to hit for any sort of average overall if you’re batting .179 AVG-.179 SLG on the ground, like Ortiz did last season. We discussed Encarnacion as a successful selective fly ball puller previously. While his cohorts Cruz and Abreu were able to keep their ground ball pulling rates low enough to fend off overshifts, Encarnacion did not, posting a 7.19 grounder pull ratio. Despite hitting the ball harder in the air than just about anyone in the AL last season, while maintaining exceptional K and BB rates for a slugger, Encarnacion’s batting average was just .268 in 2014, because he’s basically an automatic out on the ground.
This highlights the slipperiness of the slope of his offensive game, and here we are, watching him struggle thus far in 2015. It’s very rare for a pull hitter to reverse course and use the opposite field to a significant extent; extreme pulling often represents the “harvesting” phase of a player’s career, the storm before the calm, the beginning of the end.
And how about Albert Pujols? He still hits the ball very hard, and though his walk rate has dropped precipitously in recent seasons, his K rate remains low for a power hitter. His grounder pull ratio of 9.90 was the highest among AL righties, just a notch behind Matt Kemp for MLB honors, last season. His average grounder exit speed/angle would suggest .317 AVG-.352 SLG performance; he actually batted .206 AVG-.239 SLG on the ground. When the infielders know exactly where to stand, it’s tough to perform on the ground.
We’ve talked about some of the more notable pullers in the game today, and the good and bad it can do to their respective offensive games. How about those on the other pole, the guys who use the entire field.
Joe Mauer pulled exactly nine fly balls in all of 2014, and only two to the dead pull RF sector. He no longer has the power to drive the ball out of the park to the opposite field, so he’ll be little more than a high floor type with a solid OBP going forward unless he learns to selectively pull in the air. He has plenty of slack to do so without having to worry about becoming an excessive puller on the ground.
Howie Kendrick has been this same exact guy for years now. He hits the ball hard enough to occasionally drive it out of the park to the middle of the field, and his new home park is much more forgiving to that part of the yard than his old one. His aging curve should be long and smooth, which should generate more interest in the free agent market than one would typically expect for a 32-year-old middle infielder.
Christian Yelich is an interesting case on many levels. Not only does he rarely pull in the air, he rarely hits the ball in the air, period. When he does elevate, he tends to crush it, but to reach anything resembling his potential, Job #1 is to hit more fly balls. He can worry about selectively pulling them afterward.
Let’s quickly take a look at some hitters with odd sets of pull ratios; guys whose ratios increase at a much higher than usual rate as the vertical exit angle declines.
An interesting array of names there. Ryan Howard is a dead out on the ground, and isn’t quite as strong as he once was, cutting his opposite field power down from historically great to merely good. Toss in an abysmal contact rate, particularly against lefties, and you have a guy being kept on the field solely by his contract. Matt Kemp has moved from a home park that greatly rewards middle-of-the-field power to one at the other extreme, Petco Park, and his performance has suffered greatly in the early going.
Andrew McCutchen has struggled greatly to date, largely because of a depressed line drive rate, actually a continuation of a trend from last year. A 9.00 pull ratio on the ground last season may have been another harbinger of his 2015 struggles. Freddie Freeman is an interesting one. He’s still very young, and squarely in his physical prime, but he is a dead out on the ground; this along with his pitcher-friendly home park might be all that keeps him out of Triple Crown discussions.
The remaining two players, Nick Castellanos and Mike Trout, are two of a small minority of players who hit more fly balls than grounders 2014. As we discussed in last week’s article, such players tend to see their overall performance decline significantly in the following season. Castellanos’ ongoing inability to tap into his pull power, along with his excessive grounder pulling and below average contact rate, puts him in a bind at present. On the other hand, Trout’s physical tools are allowing him to bulldoze through any trouble signs at present. Raw speed allows him to outperform on the ground, and he retains power upside due to his low fly ball pull rate. He only hit 11 dead pull fly balls to LF in all of 2014.
In closing, let’s just throw one other player’s pull data out there.
Pretty much perfect. So let’s see, don’t strike out or pop up, hit the ball really hard, to all fields, almost never roll over a grounder softly to the pull side, and force the fielders to play you honest, both in the outfield and infield. Do all that, and you’re Miguel Cabrera.
Aesthetically, the 2014-15 version of baseball isn’t particularly pleasing to me. Scoring is down, but home runs aren’t, as they continue to create a historically high percentage of runs scored. Strike outs are up, walks are down. One of the many factors causing the recent downturn in run-scoring is the infield overshift, which is a natural response to the pull-oriented hitting prevalent today. The shift isn’t the problem, however; the excessive focus on pulling is.
The natural response of hitters should be to do what the Cardinals do as a club; use the field, and create openings for their hitters to exploit. It’s easier said than done, especially for us non-players reading and writing this article, but learning to selectively pull in the air and hit it the other way on the ground enough to avoid an overshift is the winning ticket for offensive success in today’s game.