Friday, July 18, 2008

Built-In Advantage: For All Lefties?

Just over a week ago, research was released by an engineer professor at Washington University, David Peters. The article was for a web site publication for the university, not a scholarly journal, but it was enough to draw the attention of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

What does Peters conclude? Something that may not be all the surprising to those who watch and research baseball regularly: lefties have a big advantage in most areas. Peters' first question: how did the Hall of Famers do? Here's the results: 13 out of 61 enshrined pitchers are left-handed, which is more than twice the number of lefties in the regular population. Position players? 71 Hall of Fame position players batted right-handed, 59 left-handed, and eight were switch-hitters. Among the left-handed hitters are some of the game's greatest names: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr., Tris Speaker, Shoeless Joe, Willie Keeler, George Sisler, Tony Gwynn, Eddie Collins, Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, Mickey Cochrane and George Brett.

What is the reason? Peters claims that baseball is set-up naturally as a game for lefties to dominate. As a right-handed hitter swings, his momentum carries him the wrong way--toward third base. A lefty, already standing roughly 5 feet closer to first base, swings and naturally spins in the correct direction. This means, Peters says, that the lefty travels the 90 feet to first roughly one-sixth of a second faster than the righty. The obvious result is that this tends to produce more hits and a higher batting average.

And, of course, because most pitchers are right-handed, the left-handed hitter also tends to have a match-up advantage. Peters claims that "you get depth perception" as a lefty, whereas, as a right-handed batter facing a right-handed pitcher, the right-hander actually has to pick up the ball visually as it comes from behind the pitcher's left shoulder, which leads to the loss of split-second timing to pick up the ball.

Peters points out that, according to retrosheet.org, left-handers hit .272 against right-handed pitchers last season. Righties vs. righties hit .261. Against left-handed pitching, righties hit .281, lefties just .251. But there were 122,053 at-bats against right-handed pitchers last season, nearly three times as many as the 45,730 against lefties. Of course, he has a few counterexamples, the main disadvantage being a catcher who throws left-handed. Peters also points out that only 22 of 138 position players in the Hall were "pure" lefties, meaning that they hit and threw left-handed.

Peters' article isn't really anything too terribly new in that it isn't exactly sabermatric research, but in pulling from the Hall and from basic statistics, a clear trend does exist indicating that there is a bias for lefties. This, besides the more mathematical explanation, should suggest that organizations should consistently value left-handed hitters and pitchers. Organizations do tend to value lefties, but often it seems just for having one in the bullpen just for lefty-lefty specialty match-ups. They don't seem to value left-handed hitters as much, because they focus too much on the struggles of many lefties against left-handed pitchers without looking at the big numbers and the sample size.

In other words, if someone like Ron Gardenhire did a little basic research, the way Peters did, he might find out that in the long run, it's better to value a left-hander hitter like Jason Kubel (as well as Joe Mauer) being in the lineup as much as possible over getting obsessed with match-ups and smaller sample sizes. Granted, some lefties just plain cannot hit left-handed pitchers (Jacque Jones anyone?), but Kubel and Mauer aren't necessarily those kinds of hitters. Rather than "protecting" them and replacing them with right-handers like Craig Monroe, it might be helpful to adopt a central philosophy that similarly values lefties all across the board.

However, once again, too much probably shouldn't be read into this, since the study is not too in depth and is based of the examination of some math, some oberservations, some stats, and at that, some select ones from very talented players. Despite this, I think it is a point worth considering in what makes up the larger philosophy of both fans and organizations.

* For those paying attention, there have been some interesting developments with regards to Francisco Liriano. The left-hander started the day by making news through his agent, filing a grievance against the Twins for not calling him up from the minors after three straight starts without allowing a run, believing they did so to avoid arbitration for another year. It's probably not a good sign that the Twins' possible ace might be a little unhappy, but it is a good sign that he had yet another great start last night, going eight innings while giving up a seven hits and one run while striking out eighth and walking none. It's probably about time they just call him up and be done with it. Hopefully that means goodbye to Brian Bass and a permanent bullpen trip for Livan Hernandez.

13 comments:

beth said...

The Red Wings beat writer said that Liriano *said* he was curious that he hadn't been called up, but not frustrated, leading to speculation that it was the agent who was behind this grievence, not Liriano. Of course, Liriano could be being diplomatic to the press (which I actually like, rather than players who are sulky children and throw public tantrums all the time).

Joe Mauer has faced left-hand pitchers this year. It just makes more sense to put Redmond in against the lefties (he'll hit better in that situation than against right-handed pitchers), and Mauer does need rest from time to time.

Nick M. said...

I don't think my point is that Redmond doesn't play. But Mauer certainly can DH more often too against lefties. Regardless of any of the specifics, the general point of the article and post is just to consider lefty advantages and how much we should value left-handed hitters.

As for Liriano, even if he is being diplomatic with the press, I have to agree with Seth at SethSpeaks. This is pretty ridiculous and players speak through their agents. There is no reason that a greivance should have been filed. Little could be more sulky or childish to me, except for maybe some "Manny" moments.

TT said...

I'm trying to figure out how a study that shows that left handed hitters do better in general because they have a natural advantage against right handed pitchers indicates they should be allowed to bat against left handed pitchers.

There is no reason that a greivance should have been filed.

Of course there is - but it doesn't appear a grievance has been filed. Instead, the players union is investigating the situation. Looking into the issue isn't the same as filing a grievance.

The idea that the Twins are leaving Liriano at AAA in order to avoid having him eligible for salary arbitration is neither new, nor outrageous. There are several hundred thousand dollars at stake and the agent wouldn't be doing his job if he didn't pursue the issue. Frankly, the people being childish are the fans who are complaining about it.

ubelmann said...

I think you're missing the main point here. Because so many pitchers are right-handed, it's easier for a LHB with a large platoon split to make it to the majors. This is why, in general, left-handed batters have larger platoon splits than right-handed batters.

As such, we should realize that, well, left-handed batters tend to have larger platoon splits than right-handed batters. There actually isn't a whole lot of evidence that any of the Twins' left-handed batters have a small or even normal split against LHP.

Granted, some lefties just plain cannot hit left-handed pitchers (Jacque Jones anyone?), but Kubel and Mauer aren't necessarily those kinds of hitters.

.625 -- Kubel career OPS vs. LHP
.628 -- Jacque Jones career OPS vs. LHP

Looking back on it, Jacque wasn't platooned because Gardy thought he covered a lot of ground out there (and he did.) He may have given other reasons, but the Twins will almost always give the benefit of the doubt to guys who they think play good defense.

I'll grant that Mauer is an elite hitter, and as such could be an exception to the general rule that left-handed batters have a smaller platoon split, but over 2,000+ plate apperances now, Mauer has an over 200-point OPS difference in his line vs. LHP and vs. RHP.

.326/.419/.503 -- Mauer vs. RHP
.290/.351/.362 -- Mauer vs. LHP

If you look closely enough, over short periods of time (like a season here or there), the split will look smaller, but the smaller split will only turn out to be a mirage--Mauer is at a significant disadvantage against left-handed pitching.

That's okay, though, because as a catcher, Mauer's going to need 25-35 games off every year, so we might as well just carry a right-handed backup catcher and give him his off days against left-handed pitching. Not really such a big deal.

Even Morneau--who is also an elite hitter--has a nearly 200-point OPS platoon split for his career.

In the long run, the Twins would absolutely benefit from the presence of two good right-handed hitters so that they could send out Mauer-righty-Morneau-righty-Kubel. Then teams would have to choose to let Mauer, Morneau, and Kubel mash RHP or let the right-handed batters get the platoon advantage against LOOGYs.

TT said...

Looking back on it, Jacque wasn't platooned because Gardy thought he covered a lot of ground out there (and he did.) He may have given other reasons, but the Twins will almost always give the benefit of the doubt to guys who they think play good defense.

I think that Jones defense was part of it. Its always an advantage to be able to contribute even when you struggle with the bat.

The other issue here is that no team can platoon everyone and, once a player is platooned, whatever ability he has to hit lefties is going to atrophy. I think the Twins saw Jones as one of their everyday players.

Daymonster said...

TT, According to the New York Times Grenske did file a grievance. The players union won't look into a situation without a grievance. All reports said that Grenske was going to file a grievance last week.

TT said...

Daymonster -

A usual, the media, including the NYT, got it wrong. Here is the language from the players agreement for filing a grievance:

"Any Player who believes that he has a justifiable Grievance
shall first discuss the matter with a representative of his Club designated to handle such matters, in an attempt to settle it. If the matter is not resolved as a result of such discussions, a written notice of the Grievance shall be presented to the Club’s designated representative;"

Smith said he hadn't heard anything about it. If Liriano had filed a grievance, he would have been the first to know.

"The players union won't look into a situation without a grievance."

I don't think that is true. The union has often got involved with issues before a grievance was filed.

This is another example of repeating something often enough that it becomes true.

Daymonster said...

No offense, but I will take every major news outlet's report over your interpretation of the agreement's language.

So you can go to the player's union and ask them to investigate before filing a grievance, But you can't file a grievance before telling the GM that you are going to file a grievance?

TT said...

you can't file a grievance before telling the GM that you are going to file a grievance?

No, you can't. Because you "file a grievance" with the team. As the language of the player agreement makes clear.

I will take every major news outlet's report

Of course you will. Which is why something repeated often enough becomes true.frzdd

Anonymous said...

STRIB Headline:

"If filed, grievance could take a while"

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