When it comes to projecting and developing amateur and minor-league players, speed is completely overrated. I get why it is though; if the “hit-o-meter”—a hypothetical tool that puts a two-digit, written-in-stone number on a player’s hitting ability—had come out before the radar gun and stopwatch, I probably would be lamenting the lack of hard-throwing pitchers and speedy defensive outfielders in baseball. It is easy to measure speed, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which players are good at using their speed to impact a baseball game.
The part I have an issue with is when a fast hitter is virtually instructed to abandon his hit tool early in his baseball development to focus solely on his speed. Players like Carlos Gomez have been encouraged to hit the ball on the ground rather than try to drive the ball, only to change gears before enjoying career-defining success. But don’t believe me; let’s let Gomez tell us himself:
For five or six years, I tried to hit the ball on the ground and bunt and hit it the other way,” Gomez says. “I know people wanted to help me to do my best, but it wasn’t working. I finally said, ‘I’m tired.’ If I was going to be out of baseball, I wanted to at least try it my way.”
Other hitters, usually natural right-handers, are taught to hit from the left side in order to take advantage of being closer to first base. This presumably allows them to get to first quicker and beat out more infield singles. Billy Hamilton is a notable recent example, having begun to switch hit in 2010. Shane Victorino also picked it up in the minor leagues at the Double-A level in the Dodgers organization. Maybe that is the only way some players get a shot at playing higher-level baseball, but these career-altering decisions are made much too quickly when a player has plus speed.
I wrote an entire article about why even fast hitters shouldn’t hit ground balls. Here I would like to question the second tactic fast hitters are taught: are batters truly faster to first base from the left side of the plate?
It is obvious why they could be. The middle of the left-handed batter’s box is at least a stride length closer to first base than for right-handers. In a game where 0.4 seconds is the difference between average runners and the fastest in the game, a few feet shorter distance certainly means a great deal. However, think about the position in which a left-handed batter finishes his swing.
Now compare that to the position he is in at the end of his right-handed swing.
Which position looks more ready to accelerate to first base? As a left-handed batter, Victor Martinez here has to turn his shoulders and feet toward the right side of the diamond before he can really be expected to reach full speed. As a righty, his body is already facing first base, and he only needs to start pumping his legs to get under way.
I am sure one or two of you are already logging into the comments section to yell at me, “WHAT ABOUT ICHIRO, IDIOT?” Fair question, but the name-calling isn’t necessary. Ichiro Suzuki used the best of both worlds by starting closer to the bag on the left side while also beginning to run as he hit. Though it is impossible to argue this strategy limited his hit tool (career .319 batting average/.361 on-base percentage), there always have been rumblings that he intentionally sapped his impressive power through this approach.
Since not everyone can be Ichiro, let’s look at some numbers. For starters, I selected the 25 switch hitters with the most plate appearances thus far in 2014 and looked at their infield hit rates from each side of the plate. To grab a bigger sample of numbers, I included the totals since the start of the 2013 season.
Here is the full list, complete with infield hit percentages (infield hits per ground ball) as well as the total number of ground balls for each side. The last column is simply the difference between the infield hit percentages for each side.
|Infield hit rates for 2014 switch-hitters since start of 2013 season|
|Player||L GB||L IFH%||R GB||R IFH%||L-R IFH%|
If there is a distinct advantage in being closer to first base, especially one worth learning to hit from a different side of the plate, it should be obvious here. At the top we have Hamilton and Angel Pagan, two notorious speedsters, whose ability to beat balls out does seem to be better from the left side. However, toward the bottom of the chart sit Everth Cabrera and Ben Zobrist, who have an even larger difference in the other direction. Also of note, the extremes on both ends are mostly made up of hitters who have smaller samples to draw from. Nothing too conclusive yet.
For more definitive data, I decided to do some grunt work. I went through MLB.TV’s archives to time each of these hitters running to first base. I downloaded video of close plays at first from each side of the plate and used QuickTime Player’s inspector to measure the time from contact to touching first base. No human error-ridden stopwatches were harmed in the making of this study.
There are two problems with this procedure that should be mentioned before any further analysis. First, there is no real control here. They are all running the same distance on similar plays, but we have no way of saying definitively that they are running full speed on their fastest times. The only real way to make sure would be to put these hitters through a showcase-style workout, with each hitter having some incentive to bust it out of the box to first base.
The second issue is the bias inherent in hitters’ beliefs. A speedy player who hits a ground ball from the left side will likely feel he has a better chance of beating the throw than he does from the right side. I was not as worried about this bias, since it should skew the data further in favor of faster times from the left side, which is not necessarily what we see.
Listed here are the results of this endeavor, showing the fastest time for each side and the difference between the two.
|Running times to first base for 2014 switch-hitters|
|Player||R Fast||L Fast||L – R|
My initial obvious yet obligatory observation? Hamilton is really fast. He’s almost two tenths of a second faster than just about everyone, with Bonifacio and Crisp the only others coming in under four seconds. Inconsequential for our purposes, but it is still fun to see how awesome Hamilton is.
Beyond that, we see a similar spread to the infield hit rates above. Eleven of these hitters are faster from the left side, compared to just 10 being faster from the right. That advantage is even less impressive with the average coming in at 0.004 seconds in favor of the lefty versions. There are fast and slow runners mixed throughout the table, with Bonifacio and Crisp on the opposite end of Everth Cabrera and Rollins, and Aybar and Reyes dead even in the middle.
For a visual of how this breaks down, let’s look at Hamilton in his fastest times from each side of the plate. Here he is getting out of the box from the left side (3.81 sec):
And the right side (3.86 sec):
Here is a side-by-side breakdown of Hamilton at contact, 0.8 sec and 1.0 sec, respectively:
He obviously starts closer in the left-handed box, and he maintains the lead after 0.8 seconds. By the one-second mark, however, he is almost dead even from both sides. His better starting position from the right side allows him to accelerate sooner than from the left.
As we can see from the data, there is a lot less of an advantage batting from the left side than commonly assumed, if there is any at all. Some hitters may be able to get down the line appreciably faster from the left side, but at what cost? If a hitter’s primary focus while he is swinging is to get out of the box, the quality of contact surely is going to suffer. Ichiro is the exception that proves the rule; if everyone had his combination of speed and unbelievable hand-eye coordination, this would be a different story.
The one other advantage I left out until now is bunting. Drag bunting certainly is easier from the left side, and Reds personnel claim Hamilton was able to post a 3.3-second time to first on a bunt in spring training. However, even the most prolific bunters cannot carve out a career on that skill alone. They have to be able to hit the ball with some authority for the other team to give them any kind of respect, which allows them the space to use the bunt as a true weapon.
Please understand, this is not meant to pick on Hamilton or the Reds’ player development system; he is merely a more exciting player to examine than most. Hamilton already had experimented with hitting from the left side before trying it in games, and you have to respect the coaches who work directly with him for having more information than we do. For some, this style of play may be their only shot to progress to higher levels of baseball, simply because they lack the hitting ability to be anything more than a speed-first, slap-the-ball-around type of hitter. To say no one should hit a certain way is as ridiculous as saying everyone should.
My wish is only that players would be allowed to develop fully as hitters before being typecast, limited to roles they may outgrow given the chance. Don’t cheat us from getting to see the most explosive athletes impact all facets of the game. Let them spend time improving the most important tool on offense—hitting—and discover for themselves what kind of player they will be. Imagine whose careers might have gone differently with open minds surrounding them.
References & Resources
- All stats gleaned from FanGraphs.com.
- A big thanks to my mentor and friend, Craig Wallenbrock, for giving me the idea for this article.