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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:

Season PA AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
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:

Season PA AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
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:

PA AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
802 .277 .273 .400 .673 .123 .267 .287 72

Francoeur pulling the ball since 2006:

PA AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
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:

PA AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
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:

PA AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
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:

PA AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
77 .299 .299 .442 .740 .143 .289 .316 96

Francoeur Pulling 2012:

PA AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
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…