The Worst Opposite-Field Hitter on Record

The Red Sox signed one of the Chris Youngs — the one who can hit. Terms haven’t yet been announced, or at least, terms hadn’t yet been announced when I first heard about this, and I haven’t bothered to check again since. It doesn’t really matter. He’ll get some millions over some years, and it will be neither great nor terrible, and whether Young is a success will probably come down to about five or ten swings per season. If they’re doubles or homers, terrific. If they’re outs, bad investment. So it goes with the role players. So it goes with everybody.

It’s fun that there are multiple Chris Youngs. It’s all the more fun they’re both weird and exceptional, extreme representations of ordinary profiles. The pitcher is unusually tall, and he throws unusually slow, and he generates an unusual amount of fly balls. The outfielder is also strange, and here’s a plot of part of his career profile:


Young hits a ton of balls in the air. A relative ton of those remain close to the infield. Young pulls the majority of his balls in play. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Young is sitting on a pretty low career BABIP, despite having a good amount of footspeed. Young isn’t the most difficult hitter to defend. You tend to know where the ball’s going, and then it’s a matter of covering as much of that limited ground as possible.

So, yeah, both Chris Youngs are fly-ball machines. They both get pop-ups and run low BABIPs. These are neat and coincidental fun facts. But let’s focus on that pull rate. Also, on the inversely-related opposite-field rate. Young does his damage hitting to left and left-center. He’s the worst opposite-field hitter we have on record.

Let’s start with 2015, shall we? Here’s our Chris Young 2015 spray chart:


This is just one year, sure. We’ll get to that. But look at that plot. Typically, the field is split into thirds, not halves. There are balls hit to the pull side, balls hit up the middle, and balls hit the other way. Young just showed very little going the other way. Some pop to center, some pop to right-center, but almost nothing to dead right. Here’s the deepest opposite-field ball in play of Young’s season:


Almost a cheap Yankee Stadium home run. Nothing wrong with that! But, that’s the deepest, and here’s the second-deepest:


It’s good to hit doubles, and this was a double. Delmon Young is not a good corner outfielder, and no corner outfielder is good when he’s playing the hitter to pull, and the hitter doesn’t do that. So this was a solid hit, but that ball is on the grass. Second-deepest opposite-field ball in play of the whole year. You can see where the pop isn’t, and this is mostly because of Young’s swing. It tends to come down to the swing path.

Moving beyond just 2015, here’s what we have available on the site, which goes back to 2012. Here is where Young has knocked his extra-base hits:


You see a little activity to right, but it’s limited to five doubles or so, one of which is pictured above, in Baltimore. You don’t see any opposite-field home runs. And, well, FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference have slightly different definitions of what counts as opposite field. But they both agree that this is Chris Young’s most recent opposite-field home run. It was hit in Arizona, on August 7th, of the year 2010, and San Diego’s shortstop was Miguel Tejada:

We have batted-ball splits going back to 2002. Since then, 784 players have pulled at least 250 batted balls. By pull wRC+, Chris Young ranks 51st. Solidly in the upper tenth. Young knows where his strength is, and it has yet to let him down. He’s a pull hitter. There are lots of pull hitters.

Meanwhile, 614 players have hit at least 250 batted balls the other way. By opposite-field wRC+, Chris Young ranks 614th. Dead last, at -18, which is four points worse than Frank Thomas‘ -14. There’s Henry Blanco at -10, and Richard Hidalgo at -5, and Brian Dozier at -1, and that’s it for the negatives. No one’s done worse over there than Young. It’s not like this is some easy thing to exploit — after all, Young remains in the league, getting millions of dollars. But seldom is a player’s limitation so obvious. You can make the majors as a pull hitter, but you better be a damn good pull hitter, or a pitcher.

Young has a 229-point difference between his pull wRC+ and his opposite-field wRC+. Again, going back 14 years, 613 players have hit at least 250 batted balls in each direction. Young’s difference is the fourth-greatest in the sample, behind Thomas, Chris Heisey, and Jonny Gomes. He’s just ahead of Hidalgo.

Before leaving this, I want to make use of the Baseball-Reference Play Index, because they have data that goes back further. Their split data goes back to 1988, and looking at that, let’s consider right-handed hitters who’ve hit at least 250 batted balls the other way. Young shows up dead last with a .356 OPS. Second-worst: Josh Willingham, all the way up at .429. And among left-handed hitters, Scott Spiezio is last, with an opposite-field OPS of .455. (Spiezio was a switch-hitter, but Baseball-Reference breaks the splits up.) Now, of course, there are pitchers who hit worse. And there are some cup-of-coffee players who hit worse. But among the players with big enough samples, Chris Young is the worst opposite-field hitter we see. The data sample covers nearly three full decades.

That’s interesting. There are pull hitters, and there are extreme pull hitters, and then there’s Chris Young, who’s awful good to left, and just awful to right, and he knows it, and everyone else knows it. You better believe pitchers know it, and catchers know it, but still Young gets pitches he can hit every now and then, because you can’t just eliminate a whole part of the plate, and sometimes pitchers miss. Actually, very often, pitchers miss. If they miss in, Young might go deep. There’s nothing complicated about his approach, but he can do it and survive, just like Brian Dozier does. Step one is figuring the hitter out, but step two is executing, and pitchers just don’t consistently execute.

Now the Red Sox get to take a chance on Young in Fenway Park. It seems like a great fit. Young can rip balls off the big giant wall, and intuitively, that should help him more than most ballparks. Of note, over Young’s career, he has his best numbers in Houston. He has his second-best numbers in Boston. Might not be a coincidence. But nothing should be taken for granted, here. Jonny Gomes has a lot in common with Young at the plate, and when he was with the Red Sox in 2013, he actually hit better on the road. Baseball players are only so predictable, and good fits don’t always lead to good results.

But the probability is there. And Young should just be a role player anyway, so this shouldn’t make or break anything. The Red Sox now have some extra depth and some extra options. And they have one of the most extreme position players in the game. That doesn’t make Young the most interesting player to watch on the field, but he is profoundly interesting on paper.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Andrew Patrick
8 years ago

So you’re telling me it was a fluke that Josh Willingham singled down the first base line in the 2014 Wild Card game?!

In all seriousness, this was a very enjoyable read. It’s always remarkable to me that Chris Young has stayed employed as long as he has. You’d think somebody would employ an extreme outfield shift against him, and have the second baseman line up behind the shortstop in shallow left, like in softball.

wily momember
8 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Patrick

it’s a lot of work to walk all the way over there and then all the way back just for one chris young plate appearance

milton bradley
8 years ago
Reply to  wily mo

and then what if you walk all the way over there and he just strikes out or walks?