The Pros and Cons of Pulling the Baseball

The advantages of pulling the baseball have been an increasingly popular analytical topic in the fairly recent past – wildly productive slash lines on pulled batted balls, especially those hit in the air, can be readily trotted out for almost any hitter. Is it really that simple? Should hitters just stride to the plate and look to pull for distance at all costs, and then expect to enjoy the riches that ensue? Doing so, upon further review, appears to have some unintended consequences.

First, let’s take a look at the frequencies with which hitters the ball to various sectors of the field, by batted ball trajectory and batter handedness.

POP 33.7% 22.7% 13.5% 15.6% 14.6% 0.53
FLY 14.2% 23.9% 18.5% 25.3% 18.2% 1.14
LD 11.8% 19.9% 16.2% 24.7% 27.3% 1.64
GB 8.4% 12.4% 12.7% 25.8% 40.7% 3.19
TOT 12.7% 18.2% 15.2% 24.6% 29.3% 1.75
POP 17.4% 16.2% 13.2% 23.3% 30.0% 0.63
FLY 18.5% 26.1% 19.5% 23.1% 12.8% 1.24
LD 26.1% 25.4% 17.0% 19.7% 11.8% 1.63
GB 41.2% 25.9% 12.7% 12.4% 7.8% 3.32
TOT 29.8% 25.0% 15.5% 17.8% 11.8% 1.86

The rightmost column of both tables simply calculates what I will call the Pull Ratio for each hitter – for LHH, (RCF BIP + RF BIP)/(LF BIP + LCF BIP), and for RHH, the exact opposite. It is simply the ratio of pulled BIP to opposite field BIP. You will notice that the higher the batted ball trajectory, the more likely that the ball is hit to the opposite field, and the lower the batted ball trajectory, the more likely it is pulled. The ratios are fairly similar for both left and righthanded batters, and widen quite significantly as the BIP groups trend toward the lowest trajectory group, ground balls.

From a purely mechanical hitting perspective, the reasons for this are simple. A hitter is trained from an early age to stay inside the baseball, and hit it where it is pitched. To hit an outside pitch hard, a hitter must let the ball travel deeper. When the ball travels deeper, it is more likely to be hit in the air, as the hitter is less likely to be out on his front foot. As the pitch location moves closer to the hitter, the ideal contact point moves closer to the pitcher, and the likelihood of front side leakage increases, raising the chances of a pulled, roll-over groundball.

Let’s take a look at a relatively random sampling of 2013 regulars and their pull tendencies as compared to the MLB averages above. Most of these players changed addresses this offseason (excluding the switch-hitters who changed addresses, who are good for a post of their own on this topic). The rest are a sprinkling of the game’s elite hitters, most of them of the young, emerging superstar variety.

Aoki Norichika L 1.21 0.83 1.27 1.15
Cano Robinson L 0.81 1.73 3.18 1.70
Choo Shin-Soo L 0.38 0.94 3.37 1.18
Davis Chris L 0.87 4.06 7.23 2.05
Ellsbury Jacoby L 0.78 1.11 2.55 1.45
Fielder Prince L 1.15 1.88 3.54 1.88
Harper Bryce L 1.00 1.71 3.50 1.79
Ibanez Raul L 2.19 2.38 8.67 2.81
Johnson Kelly L 1.55 5.00 4.67 2.29
Jones Garrett L 2.33 2.88 6.43 2.92
Lough David L 1.77 3.08 4.35 2.48
McCann Brian L 1.90 2.06 10.13 2.68
McLouth Nate L 1.14 2.26 10.75 2.40
Morneau Justin L 0.98 1.19 3.34 1.63
Morrison Logan L 0.96 1.54 4.59 1.87
Murphy David L 0.93 1.29 4.25 1.65
Pierzynski AJ L 1.23 1.92 3.47 1.75
Schumaker Skip L 0.72 0.54 1.60 0.95
Smith Seth L 1.32 2.60 8.55 2.91
Arencibia JP R 2.04 2.67 2.88 2.10
Barnes Brandon R 0.71 1.08 2.48 1.23
Byrd Marlon R 1.34 4.08 7.06 2.58
Cabrera Miguel R 0.83 1.78 5.08 1.71
Davis Rajai R 0.90 2.64 2.24 1.54
Ellis Mark R 1.91 1.63 2.59 2.00
Freese David R 0.44 1.13 2.63 1.39
Holliday Matt R 0.86 1.30 2.64 1.44
Infante Omar R 1.50 6.40 7.50 3.23
Jones Adam R 1.61 2.36 4.51 2.62
Kinsler Ian R 2.26 3.00 4.13 2.58
Peralta Jhonny R 1.00 2.26 5.53 2.01
Ruggiano Justin R 1.08 2.14 5.15 2.20
Stanton Giancarlo R 1.95 4.56 4.10 2.84
Stubbs Drew R 1.32 2.26 4.56 1.96
Trout Mike R 0.60 1.23 3.11 1.34
Trumbo Mark R 1.20 1.47 3.75 1.84
Young Chris R 2.24 4.86 10.60 3.15

Each player’s Pull Ratio, as defined above, is listed for fly balls, line drives, ground balls and overall BIP. For 33 of these 37 players, the pull ratio increases as the batted ball trajectory decreases. This then, is a fairly universal phenomena within the MLB player population. Of the other four, two (Norichika Aoki and Skip Schumaker) arguably impact the ball the least, and have the lowest pull rates among the group. A third, Mark Ellis, has an unusually high pull ratio on fly balls that is quite likely targeted and intentional (more on that later). The fourth, Rajai Davis, isn’t notable at all.

A couple of interesting points here – Shin-Soo Choo has by far the lowest fly ball Pull Ratio. His ability to hit for solid power with such a small pulled fly component is quite unique, and bodes well for his decline phase. Ditto David Freese, to a somewhat lesser extent. Freese’s ability to drive the ball the opposite way in the air should not be a surprise to Texas Rangers fans, at the very least. Chris Davis‘ ratios are just plain weird – his line drive and ground ball Pull Ratios are off-the-charts high, but he drives the ball well, and relatively often to the opposite field in the air. He is a true outlier in many ways. Mike Trout, believe it or not, has room to grow. His pull ratio in the air is quite low – in fact, he hit only six fly balls to the LF region in 2013. Wait til he figures that one out. We’ll get to what we’ll call the “Excessive Pullers” later.

While it might seem advantageous at first glance for a hitter to focus on pulling the ball in the air, the above information tells us that this will result in a dramatically higher percentage of that hitter’s ground balls being hit to the pull side. (Line drives too, but let’s not spend much time on them, as they tend to be hits, pulled or not.) What happens to those extra pulled ground balls? Let’s take a look at the hitters above whose ground ball Pull Ratios were over one standard deviation above the MLB average, and their actual production on ground balls.

Last First GB AVG GB SLG
Davis Chris L 0.155 0.172
Ibanez Raul L 0.170 0.181
Jones Garrett L 0.191 0.209
McCann Brian L 0.175 0.186
McLouth Nate L 0.201 0.220
Smith Seth L 0.226 0.261
Byrd Marlon R 0.331 0.366
Infante Omar R 0.302 0.329
Young Chris R 0.150 0.167

The MLB AVG-SLG on grounders in 2013 was .237-.257. As you see, the vast majority of the extreme pull grounder guys performed well worse than that. The lefties were worse than the righties, for obvious reasons – their pulled grounders often went right to the first baseman, near the bag, while a long throw, often on a slowly hit ball was necessary to retire the righties. Based on their hard/soft ground ball rates, however, the two exceptions – Byrd and Infante – were quite lucky on ground balls last season. One significant reason for this group’s overall underperformance on grounders was defensive overshifting. Teams know who these extreme ground ball pullers are, and they position their fielders accordingly. An overemphasis on pulling the ball in the air has the accompanying unintended consequence of lowering production on ground balls.

Take another look at the largest table above, and find the names of the game’s best “pure” hitters, like Robinson Cano and Miguel Cabrera, and its preeminent emerging stars, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. Those guys all hit as many or more fly balls to the opposite field than to pull, and all have line drive and ground ball Pull Ratios within hailing distance of the MLB average. If Joey Votto or Joe Mauer were listed above, they would fit the same mold. These guys do not force the issue, but they pounce when afforded the opportunity. With the exception of Cabrera, who is perfect, each has something they could do better.

Trout and Harper eventually will learn to pull the ball in the air more often. Cano’s fly ball frequency is and always has been low for a star hitter, and effectively puts a cap on his power. What they all possess is a strong foundation for long-term success. Another young stud, Giancarlo Stanton doesn’t fit the mold of these blue chippers. He simply obliterates the baseball, arguably hitting it harder than anyone in the game. He is pull focused, and gets away with it because of brute force. He will likely continue to put up big power numbers for the foreseeable future. What happens, though, once the flower of his youth begins to fade, and his weaknesses can be more easily exploited?

He and Adam Jones, a less extreme version of Stanton, like older versions of this type like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, lack an easily accessible Plan B. Once the purer hitters’ raw gifts start to fade, and they begin to impact the baseball with less authority, their opposite field production will begin to decline, and they can then feast on the pull side of the field in their respective decline phases. This is a career phase that I like to call “harvesting”. When you get down to it, this excessive pulling is pretty clearly an old player’s skill, or even better put, a late-career skill.

The list of extreme pull ground ball guys above is a combination of older “harvesters”, younger, limited one-tool guys trying to squeeze out every last drop of their longball power, and the weird Chris Davis. The harvesters previously used the entire field much more than they do today, progressively lost their ability to do damage to the opposite field, and now go up to the plate hunting a pitch they can drive for distance. Marlon Byrd drastically changed his swing prior to the 2013 season, and enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. Raul Ibanez broke the record for homers by a forty-something with this approach. It’s often a crafty, late career sustenance move undertaken by a studious, professional long-term performer (Ibanez, McCann, to some extent Byrd).

This targeted, fly ball-specific pulling is what I referenced earlier with regard to Mark Ellis, though he just doesn’t have the oomph to pull it off. Over an extended period, pitchers (and advance scouts) recognize these harvesters, and place the ball where it’s very difficult to pull with authority. These guys are experienced and savvy enough to recognize and cash in their share of mistakes, but that’s it. They no longer control the dialogue.

The guys who effectively cover the field with authority do control the dialogue. One guy who has quietly done so for quite some time is Matt Holliday. His pull ratios for all types of batted balls are below the league average, and he hit more fly balls to the opposite field than he pulled in 2013. He also happens to be in decline, though it’s very difficult to tell from his results. The authority with which he impacts the baseball, while still better than MLB average, is beginning to deteriorate, according to his hard/soft fly/grounder rates, and his ground ball pull ratio did increase a bit in 2013. At age 34 in 2014, however, chances are that he has many productive years ahead. Harvesting hasn’t even crossed his mind yet, but someday it will, and if he keeps his defense at a level where he remains viable in left field, a productive harvesting phase awaits.

Holliday brings this discussion to an interesting closing point. All around baseball, people tend to buzz about the offensive exploits of various power-hitting clubs, but the only ink received by the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals revolved around their success with runners in scoring position. Well, Cardinals’ righthanded hitters had cumulative fly, liner, and grounder Pull Ratios of 0.83, 1.25 and 2.80, respectively, not far off of Holliday’s individual marks, and much less pull-oriented than league norms. One can talk about exploiting inefficiencies in the game ad nauseam, but how about this one……use the entire field, hit the ball where it’s pitched, avoid the allure of “going for the pump” – but know how to go for it when the opportunity presents itself.

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Brian L
10 years ago

I’d argue that basic physics plays a huge role here, especially in the basic fact that “the higher the batted ball trajectory, the more likely that the ball is hit to the opposite field, and the lower the batted ball trajectory, the more likely it is pulled.” A hitter is always going to make contact with a ball with his hands higher vertically than the contact point, i.e. the bat is pointing downwards. So let’s assume he times the swing perfectly and makes contact when the bat is exactly perpendicular to the pitch coming in. If the batter also completely squares up the ball, hits it in the “sweetspot”, it will go directly back in the direction of the pitcher and the height will depend on the batter’s swing plane, but basically it will be a line drive. Now, assume the ball hits the bat slightly above the sweetspot – in this case the batted ball will by definition pop up more, but additionally b/c the bat is pointed downwards, will skew towards the opposite field. On the other hand, if the batter makes contact slightly below squaring it up, its trajectory will be more towards a groundball and it will skew to the pull side. So even before you get into whether the hitter’s swing was out in front or behind the pitch, there’s a natural tendency for fly balls to skew more opposite field and groundballs to skew more to the pull side.