Letting and Not Letting Them Pull

Sam Miller wrote recently about how almost everything he writes serves to lead to a fun fact (or a “factoid”). Sam is one of my favorite writers, and one of my biggest ongoing influences, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m much the same way. Most of the time, I write about fun facts, and the words just dress the facts up. Sometimes they make the facts look nicer, and sometimes they just get in the way. Right now, they’re getting in the way. I just have some facts for you, and then I’ll shut up.

Not all balls in play are created equal. Of course, there are bunts, grounders, liners, and flies, and fliners too if you want to be obnoxious about it. But if you want to bucket balls in play differently, there are pulled balls, balls up the middle, and balls to the opposite field. These categorizations get less attention, but they can be pretty significant. How a guy’s balls in play are distributed can tell you something about how he’d fit in a certain park. And pulled balls tend to do a lot more damage than not-pulled balls. Intuitively, we know this to be true; looking at the numbers, we also know this to be true.

Think about it in terms of bat speed, since that’s what matters here. A pulled ball in play will be struck later in the swing than a not-pulled ball in play, and later in the swing, the bat has more speed. So the ball will come off the bat faster, and while ball-in-play success isn’t all about batted-ball speed, it’s kind of a big deal. Harder-hit balls will go for more singles and doubles and triples and dingers. Most hitters should want to pull the baseball. Most pitchers should want to not let the hitters do that.

I just want to provide some tables with Pull% information for pitchers. Here at FanGraphs, ball-in-play distribution data is available for hitters. But it isn’t available for pitchers, at least not anywhere that I’ve looked. And it isn’t random — pitchers have some control over where the baseball goes in the field. So I turned to Baseball-Reference for most of my data mining. Note that B-R splits the field differently than FanGraphs does; while FanGraphs divides the field in even thirds, B-R does something else, such that here, 39% of balls in play are pulled, and there, 27% of balls in play are pulled. I don’t know why that is the way it is, but we’ll work with it.

I have for you four tables. The first two deal with active pitchers with at least 400 career innings pitched. Below, the top 10 in highest pull rate:

Player Pull%
Freddy Garcia 33.7%
J.P. Howell 33.4%
Carlos Villanueva 32.9%
Luis Vizcaino 32.0%
Jeremy Hellickson 31.5%
Jaime Garcia 31.2%
Sean Marshall 31.2%
Trevor Cahill 31.1%
Jon Lester 31.0%
Kameron Loe 31.0%

Remember, our league average is about 27%. All of the names here are interesting, but perhaps most interesting is Jeremy Hellickson, who everybody knows to be a defier of DIPS theory. You’d think that maybe Hellickson gets by because he forces the hitters to go to the opposite field, or something. Turns out he lets them pull the ball a lot, and still he doesn’t get burned. Hellickson doesn’t do anything to prevent pulled balls in play, but he still does something to prevent hits. Hellickson’s a weird one.

Now for the top 10 in lowest pull rate:

Player Pull%
Heath Bell 18.4%
Jonathan Broxton 18.6%
Grant Balfour 20.4%
J.J. Putz 20.4%
Brian Duensing 21.5%
Gio Gonzalez 22.0%
Jason Frasor 22.3%
Matt Belisle 22.3%
Mike Pelfrey 22.4%
Homer Bailey 22.4%

Reliever, reliever, reliever, reliever, part-time reliever. Gio Gonzalez is our first full-time starter to show up on the list, and for his career he’s posted better-than-average BABIPs and home-run rates. Other starters include Mike Pelfrey and Homer Bailey. You might wonder: do relievers allow a lower pull rate than starters do? Indeed, relievers come out around 25%, while starters come out around 27%. Some of this might have to do with relievers throwing with greater velocity, on average. Some of this might have to do with relievers more often having the platoon advantage. This, presumably, is one small reason why relievers post better numbers than starters do.

Now for our final two tables, looking at just 2012. Setting a minimum of 150 balls in play, here are the top 10 in highest pull rate:

Player Pull%
Freddy Garcia 38.6%
Steve Delabar 37.1%
Mike Adams 36.2%
Cristhian Martinez 35.8%
Eric O’Flaherty 35.6%
Dylan Axelrod 35.5%
Trevor Cahill 34.8%
Ted Lilly 34.7%
Roy Halladay 34.5%
Daisuke Matsuzaka 34.4%

There’s Garcia, on top again. Perhaps not coincidentally, Garcia was recently dropped by the Padres. Then we see Steve Delabar, who had 92 strikeouts and a dozen home runs allowed in 66 innings. Mike Adams struggled with hits for the first time in forever. Don’t let the hitters pull the baseball. And here’s the top 10 in lowest pull rate:

Player Pull%
John Axford 13.6%
Dale Thayer 15.4%
Juan Nicasio 15.6%
Bobby Parnell 17.5%
David Phelps 17.9%
Brad Brach 18.2%
Greg Holland 18.3%
Manny Parra 18.4%
Wade Davis 18.5%
Brandon Beachy 19.0%

Interesting to see John Axford, given his struggles and the struggles of the Milwaukee bullpen as a whole. Only one of the ten homers Axford allowed was pulled. He got hurt to all fields. Anyhow, here are relievers, mostly. I haven’t yet decided what to make of this list. I might never.

The ultimate point: it matters where the ball goes. This information doesn’t get the attention it probably deserves, although you have to imagine teams are looking at it in order to figure out how to shift. You’re not doomed if you give up a lot of pulled baseballs, and you’re not doing great if you don’t. But it’s one factor. There are so many factors.



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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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Voxx
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Voxx
3 years 4 months ago

I generally love your stuff, Jeff, but this was a little… underwhelming.

Based on these charts, pull % doesn’t matter that much – you have people that struggle at both ends of the spectrum. Breaking it down into GB%, LD%, FB% for pull and opposite might shed more light on things.

Or it might not. I dunno. But this article felt like you tried to stick to the initial assertation when the data didn’t really back it up neatly.

It’s still interesting, it just lacks cohesiveness, I guess is the word.

Corey
Guest
Corey
3 years 4 months ago

I wonder if the lack of obvious correlations in this data between success and pull rates stems from something else. Let’s roll with the Hellickson example. Might Hellickson be a “defier of DIPS theory” because Hellickson is able to induce batters to pull balls they should not be pulling? If Hellickson’s effectively peppering the outer part of the plate with pitches batters are nonetheless attempting to pull, he’s doing his job, creating weak ground balls as batters roll over on the pitch. In this context a high pull rate is a good thing. By comparison if you’re throwing curveballs over the inside half of the plate and batters are turning on them, then a high pull rate would be a bad thing. In other words, its not really pull rate, but pulling of pullable pitches rate. Its important you be able to come inside with a fastball, if every time you do so you get ripped, you’re a) not a very good pitcher, and b) will probably stop throwing inside, but by contrast if you’re throwing nasty pitches down and away in the zone that batters are attempting to turn on, more often than not they’re going to ground out and you’ll be a highly successful pitcher.

zenbitz
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zenbitz
3 years 4 months ago

function of velocity? Or fb-offspeed delta?

ecocd
Guest
ecocd
3 years 4 months ago

I’ll echo Corey’s statements. When Axford is dominating, he has a curveball that falls off the table and a high fastball. A hitter will never be able to turn around on Axford’s high heat and his curveball is flat out unhittable. Since that repetoire makes up a lot of his pitches in general, it makes sense to see a very low pull rate. Check out the 2012 FB velocity numbers from fangraphs:

Axford 96.2
Thayer 93.9
Nicasio 93.5
Parnell 95.7
Phelps 90.8
Brach 91.9
Holland 96.1
Parra 92.6
Davis 93.5
Beachy 91.0

Might just be looking for things that aren’t there, but the top 4 have quite a bit of heat on their fastballs. Looking at their PitchF/X pitch location data, Axford does tend to keep his pitches up, Thayer has pronounced bias with pitches away from the hitter, Nicasio has some bias for pitches away from the hitter, but get to Parnell and the only notable trend is that he tends to go outside with his two-seamers.

One thing I’d be curious about is if pull-rate is repeatable. It seems like they would have a lot of control over it. If a career high or low year coincided with a particularly high or low pull rate, it might be another indicator of a bounce back year assuming they can get back to their normal pull rate.

jaysfan
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jaysfan
3 years 4 months ago

If you’re looking at pull% to see how hard pitcher’s are hit, why not just use line drive%?

JayTeam
Guest
JayTeam
3 years 4 months ago

Pulled ground balls may actually be good for pitchers. Defensive shifts bunch fielders for pull-happy hitters and would reduce their BABIP. It’s pulled fly balls that are a concern, no? I can’t remember the article, but I recall reading pulled flies go for HR’s at (to the best of my recollection) 4-5 times the rate of non-pulled.

Dan
Guest
Dan
3 years 4 months ago

One thing to keep in mind with Hellickson is that the Rays shift many hitters to pull on defense and encourage their pitchers to pitch with the shift in mind. If Hellickson is especially good at enticing hitters to pull the ball into the shift it could certainly explain some of his low BABIP results.

Paul Berthelot
Member
Paul Berthelot
3 years 4 months ago

This is exactly what i was thinking, it would be interesting to see a righty lefty spilt for Hellickson. Are leftys pulling more into the shift? Does Hellickson pitch inside or something to make leftys pull it into the shift?

Jake
Guest
Jake
3 years 4 months ago

Good conversation starter Jeff and definitely an overlooked topic.

Looking at those tables though there appears to be some sort of connection to velocity. Gio and Bailey both have high average velocity on their fastballs whereas Hellickson will never rank near the top of the league in average fastball velocity.

reillocity
Guest
reillocity
3 years 4 months ago

The minor league pitcher data that I’ve compiled and examined shows that a batter’s slugging percentage doubles (and their batting average increases by a factor of 1.5) when they hit a flyball or line drive to the pull-third of the outfield versus hitting either of those two batted ball types to the center- or opposite-field third of the outfield (very little difference between the center-field and oppo-field zones).

I suspect that there’s a similar effect going on at the major league level and I’ve started looking at that same factor via retrosheet. Fangraphs doesn’t set up well for this sort of analysis: 1) the leaderboards allow a pull-field,center-field, or opposite-field split on the batters’ tables but doesn’t allow those options for the pitchers’ tables, and 2) there’s no way to eliminate the groundballs and infield popups before applying the pull split for the pitchers even if one could.

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