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Pity the Pull Hitter

Why situational hitting is so hard, and why beating the shift isn’t merely a matter of putting one’s mind to it

With the Mets up 4-1 in the eighth inning of a game against the Cardinals on April 24, New York first baseman Lucas Duda led off against right-handed reliever Eric Fornataro. The left-handed Duda is an extreme pull hitter: As his spray chart from the start of the 2013 season through that day shows, a high percentage of his ground balls had been fielded between first and second base.

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St. Louis was well aware of his tendencies. This is the infield alignment that greeted him:

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When Duda worked the count to 2-1 and waited for the fourth pitch of the plate appearance, the sight grew slightly more dismaying:

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Center fielder Jon Jay stood in straightaway center, but left fielder Matt Holliday (not pictured) was the only defender stationed to the left side of second base. Every other Cardinal who wasn’t obligated to keep his foot on the rubber or in the catcher’s box, including third baseman Matt Carpenter and shortstop Daniel Descalso, was standing on the right side of second. The Cards, one might sheepishly say, were stacked against Duda.

This was a pull hitter’s nightmare, but it was also an opportunity. A bunt or a weak grounder to the left side of second would have meant a guaranteed single and a potential double, even for someone with Duda’s limited speed. “At that point, how do you not just try to roll one to the shortstop hole?” Mets play-by-play man Gary Cohen would ask, moments later.

Duda didn’t try to roll one anywhere. He took his usual full-strength swing, giving no indication he was attempting to defy his history. Instead of a left-side single, he produced one of the saddest ground balls of the season, a bouncer that was doomed from the moment it left his bat. Score one for the spray chart.

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This story has an uplifting ending, though. In May, Duda learned to bunt to beat the shift, and he hit happily ever after.

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Admittedly, we can’t credit Duda’s beautiful bunt for the .259/.355/.512 line he’s posted since his grounder into the Cardinals’ imbalanced infield. Though Duda is now willing to drop down the occasional bunt, he still sees more than his share of shifts. And judging by batted-ball direction, Duda doesn’t seem to discriminate between shifted and non-shifted plate appearances. When he swings away against the shift — and according to Inside Edge, only seven other batters have put as many balls into play with the shift on this season — Duda rarely swings away. Without a shift on, he’s gone to the opposite field 27 percent of the time; with a shift on, he’s done so only 24 percent of the time.

In a game in early July, Duda drove in the winning run with an opposite-field double, which prompted Mets manager Terry Collins to say, “When you do that, they’re not going to shift on you.” But Duda doesn’t do that regularly, and defenses know it. Batting average isn’t an all-encompassing stat, and the small sample oversells the impact, but according to Baseball Info Solutions, Duda has hit .178 on grounders and short liners with the shift on, compared to .323 against standard defensive alignments. (Against Duda, of course, the shift is the standard alignment.)

Duda’s quasi-star season shows it’s still possible to succeed as a pull hitter in 2014. However, it also suggests that in baseball, maybe now more than ever, it would really pay to be a place hitter.

What’s a place hitter? Here’s how the term was defined by a man known neither for place hitting nor for explaining archaic baseball slang, Babe Ruth: “The place hitter is the chap who can take a ball which ordinarily he would hit to right, and hit it to left, or vice versa,” he wrote in Babe Ruth’s Own Book of Baseball in 1928.

“I observed long ago,” self-proclaimed place hitter Ty Cobb told writer, editor, and proto-stathead F.C. Lane in Lane’s 1925 book, Batting, “that many good batters have a fundamental weakness at bat, a tendency to hit either into right or left field. That is bad, for it gives the fielders too much of an edge.” If Cobb thought that edge was significant in the days before databases, he would’ve been appalled to see what the Cardinals did to Duda. According to BIS, 2014’s shift total is on pace for a 68 percent increase over 2013’s total, which was itself up 78 percent over the 2012 total, which represented a 94 percent rise relative to 2011. Although the shift bears less responsibility for flatlining offense than the rising strikeout rate does, individualized defense has taken a toll on pull-happy hitters. A skilled place hitter — more commonly referred to today as a situational hitter — could either exempt himself from the shift or make his opponent pay for any attempt to employ it.

However, the shift isn’t the only situation that might make a batter try to deviate from his typical pattern. Before we focus on shifts, we should turn our eyes to four other scenarios that are widely believed (based on broadcaster patter) to be ripe for situational hitting. If we can find evidence of an altered approach in those cases, then we can tell whether it’s realistic to expect Duda (or any other victim of the shift) to fight back by going the other way. Building on the work of John Walsh, who studied the same subject six years ago (in a higher-offense era, and before the explosion in shifts), let’s take a look at whether batters adjust their approach on hit-and-run plays, in opportunities to advance a runner on second, in sac-fly situations, and in two-strike counts. Unless otherwise noted, data comes courtesy of Retrosheet (queried and corralled by Baseball Prospectus researcher Rob McQuown) and includes the entirety of the current low-offense era, 2010 to 2014. “Balls in play” exclude home runs, ground-rule doubles, and bunts.

The Hit-and-Run

“I never try to place my hits except in bunting or on the hit-and-run play,” Hall of Famer Harry Heilmann told Lane. “Then it is an advantage to hit through short or through second and hit on the ground to advance the runner.” Edd Roush, a fellow Hall of Famer and a bigger believer in the power of place hitting, admitted that “few batters try to place their hits,” but added a caveat: “with the single exception of the hit and run.” If we’re going to find evidence of a leaguewide, situation-specific change in batted-ball direction, the hit-and-run seems like the perfect place to start.

The batter’s goal in the hit-and-run situation, which most often arises with a runner on first looking to steal second, is to take advantage of the hole created by the second baseman when he breaks toward the bag to receive the catcher’s throw. The key is to make contact and hit the ball behind the runner, which ideally results in a single and a first-and-third rally.

For our purposes, we’ll define balls put in play to the right side as any balls fielded by the first baseman, second baseman, or right fielder. “Right Side %” is balls in play on the right side of the field as a percentage of all balls in play. The verdict:

Situation Right Side %
Runner on First, Hit-and-Run 38.7
Runner on First, No Hit-and-Run 36.5

Hitters do manage to find the right side of the field more often when a runner is in motion, but barely more often. Strike one against situational hitting.

Moving the Runner Over

With a runner on second, first base open, and nobody out, the batter has a strong incentive to hit the ball to the right side. If he moves the runner to third to set up the sac-fly situation, he’ll be greeted with fist bumps and butt pats back at the bench and praised on the broadcast for his selfless, team-first attitude. Fist bumps and butt pats make the baseball world go round, so this is serious motivation.

In this case, we’ll compare situations with a runner on second, first base empty, and no outs to situations with a runner on second, first base empty, and one or two outs (when advancing the runner to third wouldn’t put him in position to score on a fly ball).

Situation Right Side %
Runner on Second, 0 Outs 40.4
Runner on Second, 1 or 2 Outs 36.7

Well, that’s something. Batters hit the ball to the right side about 10 percent more often when they have a chance to push the runner on second to third with only one out. There’s some selflessness left in the world.

We also ran the same numbers for situations in which the batter was hitting in the second spot in the order. Historically, bat control has been one of the most prized qualities in a no. 2 hitter: He’s the guy who’s supposed to be able to execute the hit-and-run or swat the ball to the right side to get the leadoff guy into scoring position. Recent sabermetric research, however, suggests that the no. 2 guy should be one of the team’s three best hitters, which means that putting a slap-happy bat-control specialist in that spot might be the biggest batting-order mistake that teams continue to make. Are they actually getting better bat control for their trouble?

Situation Right Side %
Runner on Second, 0 Outs 42.4
Runner on Second, 1 or 2 Outs 37.9

Marginally. From 2010 to 2014, no. 2 hitters have sent the ball to the right side with a runner on second and no outs about 12 percent more often than they have with a runner on second and one out or two outs, relative to the leaguewide 10 percent increase cited above. Whatever benefit that slight difference confers isn’t worth the penalty teams absorb when they give more plate appearances to inferior hitters. Fortunately, this finally appears to be changing. No. 2 hitters have produced a park-adjusted OPS 5 percent higher than the league’s this season, their best showing since 1992. That’s still worse than no. 3, no. 4, and no. 5 hitters, and tied with leadoff guys, but it’s better than no. 6 hitters, which hasn’t typically been the case.1

Another important takeaway: Hitters are less likely to hit a ball to the right side in a “move the runner over” situation than they have been at any point since 1950, which is as far back as BP’s Retrosheet database goes. Below is a moving four-year average of the ratio between right-side percentage with a runner on second and no outs and right-side percentage with a runner on second and at least one out. The higher the value, the more significant the situational adjustment.

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Hitters have never been less likely than they are now to alter their batted-ball location based on the situation. The cynical view is that with more money at stake, players are less willing to sacrifice stats. The more accurate view, I would wager, is that hitting has never been harder. Batters have been selected for their ability to hit big flies, not to play small ball, and pitchers have been selected for their ability to miss bats. If hitters are less likely to make contact, it stands to reason that they’d also be less likely to make contact they can control. What worked for Cobb and a few of his contemporaries might not work now.

Sac-Fly Situations

In this case, we’re looking at batted-ball types instead of batted-ball directions, since a runner can score from third with no outs or one out on a deep enough fly to any part of the park. The batter wants to keep the ball off the ground, because if he hits a grounder right at an infielder, the runner on third might have to hold, depriving multiple players of fist bumps and butt pats.

In sac-fly situations, hitters strike out about 14 percent less often than they do at all other times. They want to make contact — after all, an RBI (plus butt pats) awaits. When they do put it in play, though, their batted-ball distribution looks almost the same as it does with a runner on third in non-sac situations.

Situation FB% GB% LD% POP%
Runner on Third, 0 or 1 Out 24.8 46.4 24.1 7.4
Runner on Third, 2 Outs 23.6 48.0 20.3 8.0

Whatever effort batters put into elevation translates to about one extra fly ball per 100 balls in play. Another strike against situational hitting.

Two-Strike Fouls

The Dickson Baseball Dictionary’s entry for “fight off” reads: “To be a persistent batter who fouls off pitches until getting the pitch wanted or drawing a walk.” In Jason Kendall’s book, Throwback, he describes the way this works: “If a hitter chokes up with two strikes, he’s shortening his swing and just trying to get the ball in play. If I was choking up and got a borderline pitch — and I knew the umpire’s strike zone from being behind the plate — I could intentionally foul the ball off. You just have more bat control if you choke up.”

Here are the swing and foul/swing rates for the league, both before and after the second strike:

Situation Swing % Foul/Swing %
Before 2 Strikes 38.8 38.3
After 2 Strikes 60.6 39.7

Hitters swing much more often with two strikes in an effort to protect the plate. The decision to swing isn’t dependent on the pitcher, so the batter can make that change merely by setting his mind to it. His ability to foul off a pitch, though, is something the pitcher partly controls, so that’s not as easy to dictate. In fact, hitters hardly show any special ability to foul pitches off once they’re down to their last strike: The effect is an almost imperceptible 1.4 fouls per 100 swings. And in case you’re wondering about Kendall’s claim, the numbers offer no evidence of fouling-off acumen. His foul/swing rate rose less on two strikes than the league’s. Strike three: While there are always exceptions and outliers, most batters are limited in their ability to significantly alter their results from at-bat to at-bat.

And that brings us back to the shift. Based on the infinitesimal adjustments we’ve seen in other areas, you might suspect, as I did, that hitters would go the other way at least a little more often when they’re facing the shift. They certainly have the incentive: According to Inside Edge, players bat .540 when they hit opposite-field grounders against the shift. Given that, Gary Cohen’s slow roller suggestion seems sound. But the numbers tell what seems to be a counterintuitive tale:

2013
Shift On? Pull/Middle % Opposite Field %
No 69.2 30.8
Yes 71.4 28.6
2014
Shift On? Pull/Middle % Opposite Field %
No 69.3 30.7
Yes 74.9 25.1

That’s all batted balls, but the pattern has persisted this season with grounders and liners alone:

Shift On? Pull/Middle % BIP Opposite Field % BIP
Yes 81 7,419 19 1,733
No 77 50,295 23 15,231

Hitters, on the whole, are like Duda: They pull the ball more often against the shift, which seems self-destructive. And this isn’t a small sample. According to research conducted for this story by Baseball Prospectus analyst Russell Carleton, it takes only 30 balls in play for a hitter’s pull percentage to “stabilize,” or become a decent approximation of his true tendencies.2 We’re talking tens of thousands. Why would other hitters do what Duda did and attack the enemy’s most fortified position?

The obvious answer is a different approach by the pitchers. However, instead of busting batters inside, as one might expect, pitchers have stayed away slightly more often with the shift on.

Shift On? Inside% Middle% Away%
Yes 25.4 25.1 49.4
No 29.2 25.9 44.9

Another possibility: different pitch types. Here are the changes for each major pitch type, per 100 pitches, with the shift on relative to non-shift situations:

4/2-seam Sinker Cutter Curve Slider Change Split
-2.2 0.1 0.4 0.1 -1.6 2.4 0.9

This could explain some of the increased pull percentage: By trading fastballs for ground ball–getting changeups and splitters, pitchers make it marginally more likely batters will get around early and roll into the teeth of the shift, though the differences are fairly small. It’s also possible teams are shifting selectively, going into personalized alignments more often for batter-pitcher matchups that they think will make a pulled grounder more likely. And if pitchers are pitching to contact, that could lead to earlier outcomes, which would favor balls in play to the pull side (with two strikes, the batter is more likely to go the other way).

There are also psychological elements to consider, namely the distraction of seeing so many defenders arrayed against you, and the demeaning predictability it implies. And yes, some (but not all!) hitters may be hardheaded. However, even if they’re willing, the hitters who are most likely to face the shift are the ones who are least equipped to combat it. “The slugger, needless to say, is almost never a place hitter,” Cobb said. “He can’t be. It’s not in the scheme of things. He hammers the ball and let’s it go at that.”

“Perhaps 10 per cent of the batters in this league can hit either to right or left field more or less according to their will to do so,” Tris Speaker told F.C. Lane. “The remaining 90 percent have a decided tendency to hit into one field or the other. And even the 10 percent that you can call the batting elect, with all their ability, can never quite avoid the natural tendency to hit to a certain field.”

This might change as the shift becomes even more common; perhaps hitters will learn to use more of the field before single-sided habits grow ingrained. It’s worth remembering, though, what we learned from the results of the hit-and-run, man-on-second, and sac-fly scenarios. Situational hitting is hard, and getting harder.3 “Place hitting,” Lane said, “is the most difficult art in a batter’s entire repertoire.”

But there’s no excuse for not bunting. 

All stats current through Tuesday’s games.

Filed Under: MLB, Baseball, Lucas Duda, MLB Stats, Beating the Shift, Pull Hitting, Ben Lindbergh

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Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ BenLindbergh

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