Not too long ago, I observed that Allen Craig was getting pitched differently. He was getting pitched differently because he was hitting differently, in that he hasn’t been hitting for pull power. So pitchers have fed him more fastballs, and more fastballs inside, daring him to turn on something. Before that, I observed that Robinson Cano was also missing his pull power, although he compensated better than Craig has. And somewhere along the line, I wrote something similar about Evan Longoria, so I guess I realize I’m interested in certain batted-ball tendencies. And that realization made me want to look at the bigger picture.
Some hitters are lethal when they’re able to pull the ball. Other guys are quite good at going the other way. Brian Dozier is a total pull hitter, who can’t do crap the other way. Ryan Howard, meanwhile, can’t do crap to his pull side, preferring the opposite field. Individual tendencies are individual tendencies, but things get interesting when you see those tendencies change. Changes can be indicative of changes to swing or ability.
I’m interested in batted balls to the pull side and batted balls to the opposite field. But for these purposes I’m not interested in groundballs, because I’m thinking about balls in play that could go for power. Using the FanGraphs leaderboards, I recovered fly balls and line drives that were pulled, hit to center, and hit the other way. I combined the two stats into one — air balls — and then I calculated the rates to each field. For example, this year, Yoenis Cespedes has pulled 34% of his air balls. Kyle Seager has hit 28% of his air balls the other way.
Then, for each hitter, I simply calculated Pull Air% – Opposite Air%, which you can accept if you can accept K% – BB%. Then I went through all the same process for 2013, then I compared the data for batters with at least 100 air balls in each of the last two seasons. There are 164 such batters, and the stat appears to be reasonably sustainable:
There’s a good relationship there, which isn’t surprising, because batted-ball distributions are a part of a hitter’s identity. If you have a guy who pulls a good amount of his air balls, he’s probably going to keep on pulling a good amount of his air balls, unless something changes. And it’s those changes in which I’m most interested.
In case you’re curious, that isolated dot toward the bottom left: Joe Mauer. A year ago, he pulled 11% of his air balls, and he hit 52% of his air balls the other way, for a difference of -41%. This year, he’s pulled 8% of his air balls, and he’s hit 65% of his air balls the other way, for a difference of -57%. He had the league’s lowest difference in 2013, and he has the league’s lowest difference in 2014, and look no further for an explanation of why Joe Mauer isn’t hitting for power. He’s hitting the ball in the air the other way even more often, and he’s not doing so with the authority he did in 2009. Something with Joe Mauer is clearly awry.
Now, the ultimate point of this is the comparison between 2013 and 2014. For each year, I already had the difference between pulled air balls and air balls the other way. Then, between years, I calculated the difference between those differences. A positive result would belong to a hitter who’s pulled the ball in the air more often in 2014. A negative result would belong to a hitter who’s pulled the ball in the air less often.
Here now are the ten biggest positive differences:
- Starlin Castro, +27%
- Michael Brantley, +25%
- Brandon Moss, +22%
- Anthony Rizzo, +22%
- Jay Bruce, +20%
- Jose Altuve, +19%
- Troy Tulowitzki, +17%
- Alexei Ramirez, +17%
- Devin Mesoraco, +17%
- Salvador Perez, +17%
Castro, a year ago, pulled 15% of his air balls, and hit 51% the other way, for a (rounded) difference of -35%. Castro, this year, has pulled 26% of his air balls, and hit 35% the other way, for a difference of -9%. So the (rounded) difference between those differences is +27%, yielding the number above. Castro has drastically reduced his air balls to the opposite field, and he’s turned many of those into pulled flies and liners.
It reads like a list of high achievers. There’s an MVP candidate in there, and some guys having breakthrough campaigns. In all, a year ago, these guys hit .269/.323/.420, with a .151 ISO and a 102 wRC+. This year, they’ve hit .292/.357/.481, with a .189 ISO and a 131 wRC+. The only player who hasn’t gotten better is Bruce, and he’s had some injury issues. All these guys have been able to pull the ball in the air more often, and that’s closely related to performing better at the plate.
Now the other side. Here are the ten biggest negative differences:
- Allen Craig, -35%
- Domonic Brown, -32%
- Mark Reynolds, -27%
- Dioner Navarro, -26%
- Angel Pagan, -25%
- Andrelton Simmons, -25%
- Marcell Ozuna, -24%
- Justin Smoak, -23%
- Andre Ethier, -20%
- Robinson Cano, -19%
Right away, you can see it’s not a killer. And I should mention that right behind Cano is Andrew McCutchen, at -18%. But the list is topped by a couple crushing disappointments, and, a year ago, these guys hit .272/.339/.441, with a .169 ISO and a 116 wRC+. This year, they’ve hit .260/.316/.388, with a .128 ISO and a 96 wRC+. By and large, it’s a worse unit, because it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to sting the ball with authority the other way.
Pagan has been fine, even though his ISO has dropped. Cano has thus far traded extra-base hits for extra singles. Ozuna’s annihilated the pulled balls he has hit. McCutchen’s running a career-best opposite-field wRC+. It’s possible to survive this trade-off, especially if you have MVP-level natural ability, but most things in baseball should be considered on a case-by-case basis, and in most cases, a trade-off like this is a bad thing. With Craig, this seems indicative of something wrong with his swing. Same goes for Brown. A guy like Smoak doesn’t have the power to succeed by pulling the ball less often. You can never be sure what’s a slowing bat and what’s just poor timing or a mechanical hitch, but if a player is hitting the ball in the air the other way more often, at the expense of pulled balls, it seems like it should be worrisome unless it’s part of an intentional plan.
The Cubs have been pleased with Starlin Castro’s offensive development, and as it happens, this year he’s pulling the ball in the air a lot more often. The Cardinals have been badly hurt by Allen Craig’s offensive decline, and this year he’s pulling the ball in the air a lot less often. Andrew McCutchen is also pulling the ball in the air a lot less often, but he’s still thriving because he’s one of the best players in baseball and, like Robinson Cano, he seems able to make the best of what the pitchers will provide. There aren’t many statistical rules in baseball that apply to everybody the same across the board, but exceptions tend to be few, and limited to the truly exceptional.
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