Jeff Francoeur and the Opposite Field

Lee Judge’s blog, Judging the Royals is, well, interestimg. I would have titled it Mock Scout with Lee J., but, surprisingly, I was not asked for my thoughts on the matter. I always imagined my first FanGraphs post on Judge would be for NotGraphs, and I suppose there is still time for that. However, if one can look past the Ron Polk Point System (Hey, Alex Gordon finally passed Eric Hosmer this week!), Judge’s “critical” stance, and other things, there is actually some good stuff in his posts about how players and coaches view the game.

However, today I do not want to focus so much on Judge as something from his comments after last night’s Royals versus Orioles match-up regarding our old friend Jeff Francoeur:

Jeff Francoeur doubled to right in the third, continuing his trend of taking the ball the other way since doing extra work with Kevin Seitzer. Last season Jeff did a better job of getting a pitch out over the plate, and he hit .285, 47 doubles, 4 triples, 20 home runs and had 87 RBIs. Getting back to that approach was part of the message he received during his benching, so seeing Francoeur hit balls hard the other way is a good sign that he’s getting back to last year’s approach.

The first thing I thought of was the Mets’ Tony Bernazard-spearheaded experiment a few seasons go with going to the opposite field more often, which Jack Moore analyzed when it was first reported. Judge does not say whether or not Kevin Seitzer ripped off his shirt and challenged Francoeur to a fight during Francoeur’s (miraculous) benching to work on his approach. Is there any fire to go with Judge’s smoke?

While “he needs to start going the other way” is an announcers’ cliche, the numbers are not terribly friendly. Keeping things simple (and acknowledging that this simplicity leaves some things out) by sticking with the opposite field vs. pull approach, here are the league-wide numbers for pulled balls in play versus balls in play to the opposite field since 2006 (Francoeur’s first full season in the majors).

(Remember that these numbers are only on ball that got put into play [including home runs]; on-base percentage being lower than batting average is because of sacrifices. Walks and strikeouts are not included.)

League going to the opposite field since 2006:

2006 35668 .293 .289 .430 .718 .137 .276 .304 78
2007 35717 .291 .287 .423 .710 .132 .276 .303 78
2008 35930 .293 .288 .421 .709 .128 .278 .304 80
2009 34947 .292 .288 .420 .708 .128 .276 .303 79
2010 33514 .287 .283 .409 .692 .122 .273 .298 81
2011 33300 .283 .279 .405 .684 .122 .270 .294 81
2012 22797 .302 .298 .439 .737 .137 .286 .313 94

League pulling the ball since 2006:

2006 55821 .359 .357 .652 1.009 .294 .311 .421 155
2007 55642 .359 .357 .641 .997 .282 .313 .420 155
2008 55361 .353 .352 .637 .989 .284 .308 .419 157
2009 54523 .349 .347 .633 .981 .284 .302 .415 154
2010 52473 .349 .347 .620 .966 .271 .304 .413 159
2011 53330 .343 .341 .611 .952 .268 .299 .407 159
2012 35827 .337 .335 .612 .947 .276 .290 .400 153

That should not be too surprising. To put it in terms of individual 2012 performances (to date), when hitters pull the ball, they are basically 2012 Matt Holliday. When they go the other way, they are 2012 Marco Scutaro. (And, yes, it would be worth looking more closely at the increased success [relatively speaking] going the other way in 2012 at some point.)

A look at the overall population of major league hitters does not make going opposite seem particularly attractive as a strategy. Is Francoeur an exception? Taking a look at his opposite versus pull splits since his first full MLB season in 2006:

Francoeur to opposite field since 2006:

802 .277 .273 .400 .673 .123 .267 .287 72

Francoeur pulling the ball since 2006:

1250 .361 .358 .677 1.035 .316 .305 .435 170

In fact, one can see that for the bulk of his career, Francoeur has done better when pulling the ball than the league average during that time period, and worse when going to the opposite field. However, that includes a lot of data from a number of years ago. Judge was discussing the contrast in approach between Francoeur’s career-best offensive season 2011 and, in terms of wRC+, what is on pace to be his career worst season at the plate in 2012. Was there a difference there?

Francoeur going the opposite way in 2011:

125 .325 .320 .480 .800 .154 .315 .341 113

Those are nice results, maybe there is something to it! Well, not so fast, check out Francoeur’s numbers when he managed to pull the ball in 2011:

191 .378 .366 .773 1.139 .395 .305 .474 204

Francoeur was still was far more successful pulling the ball in 2011 than going the other way. It is more accurate to say he was better across the board than he had more success simply going to the opposite field.

What is happening this year?

Francoeur Opposite Field 2012:

77 .299 .299 .442 .740 .143 .289 .316 96

Francoeur Pulling 2012:

118 .331 .331 .585 .915 .254 .288 .388 146

Just as in 2011, this season Francoeur is doing much better when pulling the ball than when going to the opposite field. It is true that despite numbers being down relative to 2011 when going the other way, he is still going better when going that way than he has for his career. On the other hand, his numbers are pretty much down across the board both on balls to the opposite field and those that are pulled. The numbers do not really indicate a change in the quality of his opposite field hitting (or whatever) specifically from 2011 to 2012. His balls in play are less effective across the board whether he pulls or goes opposite field: they go out of the park less often, they go for fewer bases generally, and they do not result in hits on balls in play less frequently.

Now perhaps the point is not so much the results on opposite field balls versus pulled balls, but the overall “approach” of trying to go the other way that Seitzer (as conveyed by Judge) thinks is the issue. That is more difficult to measure, and I am not going to dismiss that possibility.

However, one more quick look at some numbers at least puts that possibility somewhat into question. Is Francoeur going the opposite way less frequently in 2012 than in 2011? Just looking at his opposite field versus pull ratio, in 2011 he sent a ball to the opposite field .654 times for every pulled ball. In 2012, he sent a ball to the opposite field .653 times for every ball pulled. For practical purposes, that is virtually identical.

Of course, this also leaves out balls up the middle, not to mention attempts to go opposite field (or not) that resulted in strikeouts). Getting a read on something like that just from the numbers is more difficult (and we should also admit that classifying middle/opposite and middle/pull hits is not an exact science, either). Still, to get a general sense, let’s compare balls successfully sent the other way in 2011 versus overall plate appearances to that percentage in 2012. In 2011, about 19 percent (125 of 656) of Jeff Francoeur’s plate appearances ended with balls going to the opposite field. In 2012 to date, about 18 percent (77 of 428) of Francoeur’s plate appearances have ended with balls going the to the opposite field. That is a decrease, but by itself that one percent hardly seems significant — that is not even a difference of five plate appearances so far this year.

This is not a complete analysis of everything that might have gone wrong for Francoeur this season, as he has not only returned to his pre-2011 form, but has actually been worse than that so far. There may be something about his approach that indicates to Seitzer that Francouer needs to be “thinking opposite field” at the plate. However, just judging (ahem) from the numbers, Francoeur’s problems in 2012 have less do to with the frequency and quality of his attempts to go to the opposite field and more to do with his overall hitting approach.

Now, about all those triples opponents magically seem to hit to right field…

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

24 Responses to “Jeff Francoeur and the Opposite Field”

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  1. shred the gnar says:

    interestimg artivle

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  2. Kenny says:

    You probably could have just wrote “Jeff Francoeur sucks” and left it at that

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  3. Cooperstown2009 says:

    I think trying to go the other way is more about going with the pitch. If you try to pull an outside pitch, you likely won’t have as much success as if you go oppo with that pitch. It’s the same with inside pitches (in reverse). Are there any stats on pulling inside vs. outside pitches?

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  4. bradsbeard says:

    Knee jerk, armchair answer to the question why the league is doing better hitting to the opposite field this season: increased use of the defensive shift.

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  5. Pokkit says:

    I’m surprised it has taken this long to get a post about Lee Judge on FanGraphs. Polk Points….wow. I am also suprised that this many words were written about Francoeur without mentioning that he currently has -1.3 fWAR. Only Michael Young has a worse fWAR.

    I would like to point out that on his Polk Point system, RBIs are worth 3 points. Home runs are worth 4 points.

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  6. deadpool says:

    The best hitters always seem to be the ones who aim to square up the ball. Balls away square up away and balls inside square up inside. That’s the theory anyway. A good way to prove it would be to check and see if batting averages inside and outside match the numbers in this post.

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  7. Ray says:

    Free Wil Myers!

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  8. david says:

    you should look at data for offensive value on even or favorable counts. i’m guessing most hitters are looking to jump all over the first pitch and pull it into the bleachers rather than trying to smack an oppo-gapper.

    opposite field hitting comes mostly when hitters are down in the count and have to protect and react. it’s more about surviavl as opposed to pulling the ball which is a hitter trying to thrive.

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  9. Jon L. says:

    I agree with your idea that going to the opposite field may be a useful approach, and that the effects of that approach may not be apparent when simply looking at the outcomes of batted balls hit to the opposite field vs. pull field. Going to the opposite field as an approach could aid the hitter by causing him to wait more, rather than lunging, by having him step into the ball, rather than pulling off to the pull side, by helping the batter to make contact on tough outside pitches and force pitchers to come in, and by making a higher percentage of balls hit to the opposite field balls that are driven, as opposed to hit late or fought off.

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    • Quintero says:

      Spot on. It’s not really about “going to the opposite field” as a result but “going to the opposite field” as a mental approach. If he is not trying to pull every ball, he could then make more contacts, or more solid contact in this case. Solid contact might just help him raise his BABIP and consequently overall batting results.

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  10. AJ says:

    The triples thing is, pulling from the old bag of Royal-isms, unfair to Frenchy.

    I’ve seen two in person this year, and Yost was shifting the OF to the opposite field, leaving Francoeur in right center-field rather than in a more traditional RF position.

    The triples are an issue to be taken up with Yost, not Francoeur.

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  11. jim fetterolf says:

    Do the different approaches have anything to do with results from the other 236 PAs this year?

    The theory is that to attempt to pull requires starting the swing sooner, which makes it vulnerable to off-speed and breaking pitches, leading to whiffs and weak grounders on outside pitches. Concentrating on opposite field allows a later start to the swing and more time to see where the ball is going. That’s an approach that not only Frenchy tries to use, but Alex Gordon has used successfully the last two seasons, as does Billy Butler and apparently Sal Perez, judging by his opposite field homers.

    Always appreciate the links and the snark from you folks. Thanks.

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  12. Matt F says:

    We always appreciate you trolling in support of Judge as well. Long live amateur subjective analysis.

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  13. Lan says:

    Going the opposite field intentionally means either you have a partial swing without clearing your hips which leads to little power; or you are awkwardly lunging for the ball again for little power.

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  14. Luke says:

    Where do you get the statistical information necessary to analyze, let alone franceour’s career, but major league baseball’s distribution of balls pulled vs balls taken to the opposite since 2006? Information like this could be useful.

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  15. lester bangs says:

    Pretty mocking tone of someone else’s work. I hope you don’t mind when someone else does that to you.

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  16. lester bangs says:

    And geesh, a typo in sentence one?

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  17. Brian says:

    I would like to see this same analysis split by pitch location between inside and outside of the plate, as it seems that Seitzer’s coaching has been taken a little out of context. I would be amazed if he or any any hitting coach in the game is telling their hitters to take inside pitches to the opposite field.

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  18. ODawg says:

    A really tough subject to tackle, with too many variables to walk away confidently refuting Judge’s claim. But the point still goes to FanGraphs for making an effort to back up theory with facts, in the face of Judge’s brilliant formula: “temporarily relevant quote from coach + one good night = future success.”

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  19. hbar says:

    can you do the pull/opposite field analysis for Tony Gwynn, or do the data not go back that far? I’d like to see how the 5.5 hole is reflected in the results

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  20. WinTwins says:

    If hitting to the opposite field is so important, then why don’t they put it up on the scoreboard?

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