The Mets’ Opposite Field Strategy

One of the more interesting nuggets to pop up in the blogosphere was this piece from John Harper in the New York Daily News on Monday. Outlined in that article is the recently fired Tony Bernazard‘s strategy for Mets hitters. Simply put, the strategy is to hit the ball to the opposite field.

To put it bluntly, this strategy is downright stupid, and for a multitude of reasons. Our splits data reveal a telling story. Here are the averages among all players for the 2009 season:

Looking at the two “pull” rows (L to Right, R to Left), we see markedly higher power, even though lefties tend to get more hits to center field. Pulling the ball does result in far more ground balls than fly balls, whereas pushing the ball has an opposite effect. Normally, fly ball hitters are better, as fly ball hitters have more power.

That’s not true in this case, as about 10 times as many fly balls leave the park when pulled as opposed to pushed. Add in the fact that more ground balls fall in for hits than in-play fly balls do and it’s clear that pulling the baseball leads to far better offensive results than pushing the ball. According to wOBA, the difference between pulling and pushing comes to about 43 runs for left handed batters and a whopping 73 runs for righties – this is perhaps a result of shifts employed against left handed sluggers, but that is a topic for another time.

Pulling the ball is not going to work every time. Many of the pulled ground balls that we see are easy outs to the shortstop or second baseman on balls on the outer half of the plate that should be hit to the opposite field. Mechanically, however, it just doesn’t make sense to make pushing the ball the other way a general strategy on more than just outside pitches, especially for MLB hitters who already have tremendous plate coverage abilities.

In order to generate the kind of power needed to produce runs in the major leagues, the hips need to be able to open up and “lead the hands to the ball,” creating power through bat speed. Try and swing a bat without moving your hips, and then let your hips rotate as part of the swing – the difference is clear. Removing the hip turn takes away the power of the lower body. The action of rotating the hips drives the bat towards the pull side of the field, resulting in a pulled ball. That’s why pulled balls are generally hit more powerfully. This is particularly true on inside pitches, which allow for more extension of the arms and rotation of the hips prior to contact as they are closer to the batter’s body.

On the other hand, to hit the ball the other way, the rotation of the hips has to come after the point of contact. Since this rotation is coming later, the bat speed won’t be as high. This also results in a deeper optimal point of contact, and thus the ball will be hit to the opposite field. It’s necessary to make this sacrifice on outside pitches, as early rotation would either result in poor contact or a miss, as the ball is farther away from the batter’s body.

Essentially, to focus on hitting the ball the other way is to sacrifice power, both in the sense of home runs and in the sense of speed off the bat. The amount of weak ground balls hit to the pull side may decrease, but we would expect to see more infield fly balls to the push side (as supported in the split data) and fewer home runs overall (again, supported by the split data). Although with certain individuals, this strategy may win out, it will almost certainly lose at the team level, where the hitters as a whole will profile as close to average.

Regardless of your point of view, a scouting or mechanics perspective or a data-oriented perspective, there is simply nothing there to support this strategy. The fact that a team in the most competitive baseball league in the world would consider this strategy not only as a team-level strategy but also as an organizational philosophy is mind-blowing. The fact that Tony Bernazard’s idea became Mets dogma is indicting of the upper management as a whole. With good, smart leadership, this strategy is never even discussed, much less employed.

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24 Responses to “The Mets’ Opposite Field Strategy”

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  1. mrbmc says:

    Hindsight is 20/20.

    There was a lot of ink spilled covering this strategy and the drills to enforce it last spring training and not one peep of dissent.

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    • I strongly disagree with this. Posts and comments at a ton of Mets blogs panned the ridiculous 80 pitch opposite field drill.

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      • Joe R says:

        The reason for using it was stupid, too.
        The Mets had their 2nd best OPS month of 2008 IN SEPTEMBER

        Instead of just accept that the Phillies player better in September overall to take the division title and move on, the Mets ascribed blame and did ridiculous stuff like that.

        In 2007, September was their HIGHEST team OPS month. Their 2007 September ERA was their highest month, and a tie for highest in 2008.

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  2. Tom B says:

    the THT article on this was alot clearer.

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  3. Sky Kalkman says:

    I would seem that teaching hitters how to take the ball the other way so that can do it when the pitcher/at-bat dictates it is a good move. But it would seem that teaching hitters to focus on taking the ball the other way as often as possible is a bad move.

    If that’s true, we need to know what the actual strategy pushed by Bernazard was.

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    • Steven Ellingson says:

      Does it matter what the strategy pushed was? What matters are the results of his coaching. Obviously we can’t just assume this all is his fault, but it is pretty easy to connect the dots: Bernazard pushes hitting ball other way – Mets hit ball other way more often – Mets hit worse when hitting ball other way – Mets hit worse overall.

      To me, hitting the ball the other way is an important skill, and Bernazard should probably be hired as a minor league hitting coach. But trying to change the approach of established hitters that drastically just seems silly.

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  4. Rut says:

    Great article. It was interesting to hear how the data matches up with the mechanical considerations that favor pulling the ball over pushing it.

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  5. TheUnrepentantGunner says:

    Jack, while I agree with your general thesis, the actual supporting data was wretched.

    Specifically, you are looking at data across the board. How many of those balls hit opposite field were hit by weaker hitters trying to pull the ball but couldn’t catch up to a Soriano fastball?

    More importantly, how do you even measure what percentage of the time someone is trying to hit it the other way. What if you hit it the other way only against devastating pitchers, in which case your average would be lower anyway just because, well, alot of strategies don’t exactly work wonders against Doc Halladay.

    I think the only ethical way to use data to support your claims (which i agree with in principle!), would be to look at people who had publicly stated their strategy was to revert from either trying to pull it every time to using all fields, or someone specifically saying, “I am going to adopt a Tony Gwynn outside-in approach).

    So yeah, this is probably your worst article in the last month or two, even if the premise is sound.

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  6. Glen says:

    Fangraphs: dispelling long-established myths. I <3 Fangraphs!

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  7. Temo says:

    It’s a bit more complicated than your conclusion suggests, I think.

    When a batter picks his spot and chooses to go to the opposite field (with the right pitch in the right location), good things can happen– hence batters having almost 2% more opposite field line drives than to the pull field.

    It’s when a batter is trying to pull a pitch (or just hit it solidly, or whatever) and fails that he often hits a weak ball to the opposite field, resulting in all those infield flies and weak fly balls that we observe.

    If Bernazard is telling Mets pitchers to always go the opposite way, he’s obviously wrong. You need to pick your spot to do so. But I don’t think any major league hitting instructor would teach his players to take EVERY SINGLE pitch the other way.

    Also, as far as the lefties vs. righties thing (where LHB are better going to the oppisite field than RHB), I think this is just a case of LHB seeing more RHP than RHB see LHP, and thus batting better. They get fooled less often due to the inherent platoon advantage, and thus more of their opposite field balls in play are a result of conscious effort to drive the ball there rather than a failed pull strategy.

    My hypothesis would suggest that if you show the percentage of balls hit to the opposite field, you’ll find that LHB hit fewer balls to the opposite field than RHB. Also that LHB will hit fewer balls to the opposite field vs. RHP than vs. LHP, and that RHB will hit fewer balls to the opposite field vs. LHP than vs. RHP.

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    • Temo says:

      An addition to the above: it would be interesting to get the pitcher’s side of this. Namely, knowing what we know about trajectory of a batted ball and its value, are we seeing that some pitchers are able to avoid getting “pulled”?

      Is a fly ball pitcher like Johan Santana, who had the highest infield fly ball % last year and one of the lowest HR/FB ratios in the league, able to do this because he forces hitters to hit the ball to the opposite field more often than the average pitcher?

      Anecdotally speaking, I’ve been to games that Santana pitches where his change up has caused hitter’s timing to be so off that it seems like every time he throws that pitch, it’s either a whiff or a weakly hit ball to the opposite field or to center field.

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  8. LeeTro says:

    A hit trajectory by pitch location graph would be telling here. You could split the plate up into sections and find out how far outside a pitch has to be before it’s advantageous to go up the middle or to the opposite field. I have no idea where to get that combination of trajectory and stats, but it would definitely be a great asset to the analysis.

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  9. AK707 says:

    And what do we say about Ryan Howard in all of this? How does he get his opposite field power – could others do the same?

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    • Temo says:

      As I said above, hitters will take certain pitches to the opposite field on purpose (I think every baseball fan knows this). Howard and the other players on that list (but Howard foremost of all) have the power to take those balls to the opposite field with enough authority to take it out of the park.

      It should be noted that Howard’s linedrive pattern is the opposite of the one noted for all players… instead of hitting more LDs to the opposite field, he actually hits fewer. And hits more fly balls to the opposite field instead.

      It should be noted that while Howard has a 51.9% HR/FB ratio to his pull field, he has a 27.0% HR/FB ratio to opposite field. So his power is also greater to pull than to opposite.

      I can’t find anyone who has a higher HR/FB ratio to opposite field than to pull. There are those who able to drive the ball more to opposite (Mauer, Votto, Jeter). These players, of course, are well known as batters who are exceptional at “going the other way”.

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    • wobatus says:

      Delgado also has (had?) tremendous opposite field power. Piazza did as well. Making that your over-arching goal doesn’t make sense, but being able to go the toher way with certain pitches isn’t an awful skill. Ted Williams would disagree. :)

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  10. Tom says:

    Great post, Would be interesting to have the data for the Mets compared to the rest of the league.

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    • Temo says:

      Well, it may have affected David Wright. Wright’s power unquestionably suffered last year, but not too much– 33.3% HR/FB to pull vs. 41.7% career average; 7.6% HR/FB to center vs. 6.1% career; 1.3% to opposite vs. 7.7% career.

      When pulling the ball, he hit more groundballs than he’s ever hit to pull before, and bit fewer liners and far fewer fly balls. That’s probably him avoiding Citi’s right field wall last year (though he said he wouldn’t do that this year).

      When hitting the ball to Center, he was more or less the same as he’s ever been, though he hit a few more liners (25.0%) than he ordinarily would (22.9% career).

      However, he went to the opposite field more than he has in the past (33% of his batted balls went to the opposite field vs. 31% career and most of his career). Furthermore, he seems to be going to the opposite field ON PURPOSE, rather than my mis-timing the ball, as 27.5% of his batted balls to opposite field were liners (most of his career, vs. 22.9% career).

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  11. Ben says:

    Does this mean all of the 2009 David Wright owners can file a class action against Bernazard?

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  12. Erik says:

    i should add that when hitting to opposite field, the action of the hips does NOT come after the point of contact. in every swing, hips move before hands. when hitting oppo, hitters are firing hips towards the opposite field.

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    • TCQ says:

      When hitting to the opposite field, the psych aspect is that you try to throw your hands to the ball, rather than pulling your hips through and letting your hands fly. Obviously the hips move first in a literal sense, but relative to when you’re pulling the ball, the description is sound.

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  13. Jay Schu says:

    Hey, it’s a great strategy in slow pitch softball! Oppo hitters rule! :D

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  14. grantjg1 says:

    I don’t think the CW is presented fairly here. Here’s what I was taught: Dead pull hitters are usually approached with an away-away-away strategy of changing speeds, which usually results in the hitter having a low average/high ISO combo; they become “mistake hitters” who can be eaten alive by pitchers with good control.

    A better approach is to try to drive balls on the outer third to the gap in right center. Good plate coverage forces all pitchers (regardless of talent) to come inside more frequently, and keeps the batter’s head steady on outside pitches, improving his eye. This will benefit hitters with quick wrists/hips (see: Pujols, Albert) by increasing their power numbers. Hitters with power, but more sluggish bats, will see far more pitches out over the plate than they otherwise would. In the modern game, where pitchers are afraid to throw inside, this “balanced” approach is the optimal approach for most hitters.

    Obviously, a true “opposite field” approach is moronic, but drills often overemphasize a particular strategy to break player’s habits or make them more cognizant of a particular concept. Maybe that’s what the dude was shooting for.

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  15. I do not accept this article. Nevertheless, I did researched in Yahoo and I’ve found out that you are correct and I was thinking in the wrong way. Continue writing good quality articles like this.

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