Batted Ball Location Leaderboards
With apologies to Dave Studeman, whose batted ball leaderboards on The Hardball Times are always must reads, I decided to try a similar data presentation, breaking up batted ball stats by fields of play instead of by type. Using linear weight run values, I developed lists showing who the most productive players were in 2008 when pulling the ball, taking the ball back up the middle, or going to the opposite field.
Every one of the top ten players when it came to pulling the ball happened to bat right-handed, which can be explained by their relative advantage when hitting ground balls. Righties who pull grounders force longer throws than lefties who pull grounders. These players are mainly fly ball hitters. In the case of switch-hitters like Chone Figgins, I combined their pulled/center/opposite field stats from each side of the plate, so right-handed balls to left are added to left-handed balls to right to come up with pulled batted balls.
Jorge Cantu and Dan Uggla—who would’ve thunk? Uggla is a former Rule 5 pick and Cantu spent time last year in two different minor league systems before both found their rightful spots on the Marlins. I’d have to attribute their appearance on the leaderboard to coincidence. Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, on the other hand, are given a bit of an extra push, as both are clearly aided by the green monster. Pedroia might be the perfectly suited player for Fenway. Just check out his home run chart. He has yet to hit a 400-foot homerun in his career. You have to wonder whether he’d be the MVP outside of that park, as it would certainly be a challenge to find a voter who checks park-adjusted stats.
I don’t think I ever expected to see the universally beloved Joe Mauer on the bottom of any list, but he gets murdered by pulled groundballs. Only three of his nine long balls went to right field in 2008, as he unfortunately never developed the 20 homerun power people were hoping for. Chone Figgins, Ryan Theriot, and Cesar Izturis all had one homerun apiece last year, while Castillo tallied six, so it appears that a minimal amount of power is necessary to be successful pulling the ball.
It’s interesting that the top six players on this list bat right-handed. But the bottom four players do too, so that would suggest that the trend of righties is random. It’s tough to choose between the hitters best at pulling the ball and best at going up the middle, but I’m siding with the latter set of players. I’d classify the first set of hitters more as homerun hitters and the second set as line drive types. Pedroia appears at the bottom of this list, likely because in Fenway he doesn’t derive the same benefit from his fly balls to center as he does to the left-field wall. He picked up just three hits on 73 center-field flies.
What Mauer lacks in pulled balls he makes up for with his approach going the other way, as he is the only catcher to appear on a leaderboard. Nick Markakis, Matt Kemp, and Manny Ramirez all show up as top center and opposite field hitters. These guys are at times described as "pure" hitters, and there's why. I'd presume each one is quite talented at going with the pitch.
Without trying to sound hyperbolic, I have to ask: is Ryan Howard the greatest opposite-field power-hitter ever? His 2006 and 2008 seasons in which he crushed 25 and 20 opposite-field blasts, respectively, are the only years in the last four in which any player has hit more than even 15 homers to their weak side. Howard does have his opposite-field numbers skewed by his groundball run value, which is likely only positive due to the vacated side of the infield.
Analyzing Howard’s trends piqued my interest in a specific batted ball type and location: pulled groundballs. There were seven players who cost their team 20 runs on pulled grounders: Mark Teahen, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Casey Kotchman, and Carlos Delgado. Several of these players do indeed receive the defensive shift, but I immediately noticed one of these names is not like the other. Jimmy Rollins sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s a switch-hitter, and as such is the only non-lefty to appear on the list. He is far and away the fastest player in the group and an absolutely awesome baserunner, but he apparently wasn’t able to make the most of his speed last year when he put the ball in play, compiling a well below league average 19% hit rate on grounders and legging out a single bunt hit in seven attempts.
Adrian Gonzalez might actually have power that approaches Howard’s but we’ll never know until he gets out of Petco. At the other end, one thing’s for certain: pitchers need to find ways to prevent Cantu from pulling the ball. Here's what the spray chart for Cantu—perhaps the best pull hitter and worst opposite field hitter in the game—looks like.