The Rays always seem to be at the forefront of sabermetric innovation.. They employ an army of ivy league baseball analysts in the front office, they fully embrace the shift, and they employ pitch framing superstars. The Rays like to stay on top of the ball. For the Rays, sabermetric advancement is a means of survival. And for the Rays, in the power house AL East, it is the only way to survive.
Over the past 7 years, it seems the Rays have been on to something. Looking at Fangraphs team offensive data from 2009 to 2016, there is a clear pattern with the Rays. They are third in fly ball% at 37.5%. The team with the highest FB% during that timespan is the Oakland Athletics. The A’s pursuit of fly ball happy hitters was pretty well documented. In a great article over at DeadSpin from 2013, Andrew Koo (Who now works for the Tigers), shows us the advantages of hitting fly balls. First, Koo highlights how fly ball rates have decreased in the league since 2009. With an increasing trend towards ground ball pitchers, Billy Beane made a clear effort to acquire fly ball hitters. Why? Because as Koo shows us, fly ball hitters are significantly better against ground ball pitchers compared to other batters. Tom Tango, who is mentioned in the Koo article, found that this platoon advantage is very minimal, and is really only realized and meaningful when the "advantage is multiplied through several hitters. This is exactly what the A’s and Rays have done over the past 7 years. Both teams have stockpiled fly ball hitters.
The Rays have done something else too. They have stockpiled fly ball hitters that also pull the ball a lot. Over the past 7 years, they lead the league in pull % at 42.8%. Looking at this years team, the strategy seems to be in full effect once again. Of all the Rays hitters with at least 100 PA this year, only 3 players (Miller, Forsythe, and Dickerson) are below the league average in pull %. Now, it could be pure coincidence that the Rays pull the ball so much. But I think we all know this is no coincidence at all. They seem to be preaching the pull happy approach.
Advantages of Pulling the Ball
When looking at offensive data on pulled balls vs data on other batted ball directions, the strategy makes sense. Looking at league data from 2009 to 2015, the average wRC+ on balls hit to the pull side is about 157, compared to 112 on balls hit up the middle. Isolated power on balls hit to the pull side is over 100 points greater than on balls hit up the middle or to the opposite field. There is an offensive advantage to pulling the ball, when the ball is put in play. Given the clear advantage to hitting the ball to the ball side, why wouldn’t every team stockpile dead pull hitters?
Possible Disadvantages of Pulling the Ball
The answer: conventional wisdom says dead pull hitters don’t have the right approach. From the time I started playing baseball, I have been told to hit the ball to all fields. And I don't disagree with this philosophy. Staying back and being able to drive the ball to all fields definitely makes for a very productive hitter. But it also makes for dead pull hitters to be undervalued. One knock on dead pull hitters is that when they hit ground balls, they roll over the ball and commit easy outs. Looking at the data, I found this to be true. Pull hitters that hit the ball on the ground have a high tendency to produce weak contact. Below is a graph of the soft hit percentage vs gb percentage on balls that are pulled for all 30 teams from 2009-2016. The graph shows a positive correlation between ground balls and soft hit percentage.
However, during that same time span, the Rays have the 4th lowest gb% on pulled balls. Unsurprisingly, the Rays have the 6th lowest soft hit % on ground balls from 2009-2016. The Rays have made a concerted effort to hit the ball in the air and as a result they have avoided the weak contact that comes with pulling the ball on the ground.
The Rays have found and pounced on a market inefficiency. They have optimized their offense by targeting and developing players that consistently pull the ball in the air and avoid weak contact on the ground. Since these players aren’t the conventional hit to all fields player, they can get these players for cheap. The Rays have have capitalized on the offensive advantage of pulling the ball.
Food For Thought
Something to think about further is the trend of Pull% in the MLB from 2002-2016. It is down 5%. Intuitively, this makes sense, as velocity is way up over that time span. With velocity up, it is harder to pull the ball. This trend reminded me of a trend mentioned earlier in the article. As noted by Koo and Tango, ground balls are up around the MLB. As Tango found, fly ball hitters have an advantage against ground ball pitchers, and it is beneficial to utilize that advantage. What if there is a similar platoon advantage regarding pull hitters vs. power pitchers? In line with Tango’s logic, what if dead pull hitters have a platoon advantage against power pitchers? What if the Rays have figured out this advantage and have been exploiting it for years? The platoon advantage makes sense. Dead pull hitters, by nature, go up to the plate looking to pull the ball. Which means they are early on almost everything. As a result, they wouldn’t have as much trouble catching up to gas. This is definitely something to think about, and something I will be certainly researching in the coming weeks.
(All Data From Fangraphs)