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:
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:
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:
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:
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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