Let Athletes Be Athletes: Fast Hitters Don’t Have to Be Lefties

Are hitters really faster out of the left-handed hitter batters box? (photos via Keith Allison)

Are hitters really faster out of the left-side batter’s box? (photos via Keith Allison)

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.

VMart L

Now compare that to the position he is in at the end of his right-handed swing.

VMart R

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%
Billy Hamilton 45 22.20% 12 16.70% 5.50%
Angel Pagan 120 8.30% 61 3.30% 5.00%
Melky Cabrera 167 4.20% 71 1.40% 2.80%
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 95 4.20% 36 2.80% 1.40%
Jose Reyes 147 6.80% 60 6.70% 0.10%
Alberto Callaspo 150 4.00% 71 4.20% -0.20%
Pablo Sandoval 182 3.30% 75 4.00% -0.70%
Erick Aybar 227 4.40% 96 5.20% -0.80%
Justin Smoak 119 5.90% 60 6.70% -0.80%
Emilio Bonifacio 169 8.30% 76 9.20% -0.90%
Jimmy Rollins 190 2.10% 67 3.00% -0.90%
Jed Lowrie 143 1.40% 83 3.60% -2.20%
Victor Martinez 211 1.90% 98 4.10% -2.20%
Asdrubal Cabrera 132 3.80% 74 6.80% -3.00%
Carlos Santana 150 4.00% 97 7.20% -3.20%
Dexter Fowler 135 5.20% 68 8.80% -3.60%
Nick Swisher 125 2.40% 79 6.30% -3.90%
Neil Walker 192 2.60% 29 6.90% -4.30%
Coco Crisp 147 3.40% 84 8.30% -4.90%
Brian Roberts 71 1.40% 61 6.60% -5.20%
Chase Headley 156 3.20% 58 8.60% -5.40%
Ben Zobrist 200 5.00% 88 11.40% -6.40%
Yangervis Solarte 48 2.10% 22 9.10% -7.00%
Everth Cabrera 208 5.30% 83 13.30% -8.00%
Danny Espinosa 71 1.40% 26 11.50% -10.10%

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
Jimmy Rollins 4.14 4.43 0.29
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 4.40 4.57 0.17
Yangervis Solarte 4.35 4.52 0.17
Everth Cabrera 4.01 4.13 0.12
Chase Headley 4.60 4.72 0.12
Dexter Fowler 4.07 4.18 0.11
Melky Cabrera 4.37 4.47 0.10
Alberto Callaspo 4.32 4.42 0.10
Nick Swisher 4.57 4.64 0.07
Asdrubal Cabrera 4.50 4.51 0.01
Erick Aybar 4.24 4.24 0
Jose Reyes 4.04 4.04 0
Justin Smoak 4.74 4.74 0
Pablo Sandoval 4.41 4.40 -0.01
Jed Lowrie 4.34 4.33 -0.01
Brian Roberts 4.41 4.40 -0.01
Carlos Santana 4.37 4.34 -0.03
Billy Hamilton 3.86 3.81 -0.05
Angel Pagan 4.10 4.03 -0.07
Danny Espinosa 4.34 4.27 -0.07
Neil Walker 4.32 4.24 -0.08
Ben Zobrist 4.34 4.24 -0.10
Emilio Bonifacio 4.07 3.93 -0.14
Victor Martinez 4.87 4.61 -0.26
Coco Crisp 4.22 3.90 -0.32

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):

Hamilton L

And the right side (3.86 sec):

Hamilton 1

Here is a side-by-side breakdown of Hamilton at contact, 0.8 sec and 1.0 sec, respectively:

Hamilton L 1 Hamilton R 1
Hamilton L 2 Hamilton R 2
Hamilton L 3 Hamilton R 3

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.
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Comments

  1. tz said...

    The best example I’ve ever seen of your premise is Bernie Williams. A natural righty, he always had big-time pop batting from the right side, even early in his MLB career. I truly believe that he would be a first-ballot HOFer if he had simply been allowed to bat right-handed full-time.

    On the other hand, I wonder if some natural righties may have a higher BB% if they bat left-handed (because their dominant eye is closer to the pitcher. Hamilton’s minor-league splits show a much higher BB% when batting left-handed, which may be worth enough to offset the reduction in ISO when batting left-handed.

    Most importantly, is there ANY chance of getting Hamilton on the US Olympic track team? From what I’ve seen of his jump, his acceleration, and his max speed, I have to imagine he’d post an excellent time in the 100 meters.

    • notthatfast said...

      He’s actually probably not that fast. Probably 10.6 or so for the 100m dash. In smaller states that makes you the best HS sprinter in the state. Baseball speed and track speed are two different animals. Everybody think they fast until they get timed on the track with FAT. For example, the 40 yard dash times give athletes about 0.12 seconds since reaction time is cut off.

      Denard Robinson was one of the fastest guys in college football and he thought he could beat Bolt. Robinson’s best HS time was like 10.7. Bolt is 9.58. BIG difference. His best 60m time at U of M was like 0.9 sec slower than Bolt, which is massive.

      The only guy that is objectively fast is Andres Torres, he ran 10.37 if I recall in Puerto Rico. Deion Sanders ran about 10.3 in college.

      Source: in track business, was ok runner.

      • tz said...

        I jumped the gun on that one for sure. If you take Bolt’s 9.58, that’s a pace of 8.75 seconds per 100 yards or 2.63 seconds per 30 yards aka 90 feet.

        Even if you allow for the acceleration out of the box and maybe a slight slowdown running on baseball dirt vs. an Olympic track, Bolt might be able to go from home to first in under 3 seconds. Which totally blows my mind.

      • Kyle said...

        According to this site: http://www.freelapusa.com/how-fast-can-usain-bolt-run-the-40-yard-dash/ Usain Bolt’s 30 meter time in his 2009 record setting sprint was 3.78 seconds. 30 meters is about 98.5 feet. If the difference between a sprinters position and having just swung a baseball bat at a 90mph fastball makes up for at least 9 feet of difference than Billy Hamilton may very well be faster to first base than Usain Bolt! Bolt would almost certainly be faster over 100 meters, but at 30 meters it looks like Hamilton would give the World’s Fastest Man a run for his money.

      • notthatfast said...

        No. Once again, in track you start running when the gun goes off. It’s roughly 0.12 seconds, which is massive. Stopwatches are massively inaccurate.

        People think they fast until they run in track. Then yhey get they humble lie.

      • Kyle said...

        So your argument, notthatfast, is that having just swung a baseball bat is not a disadvantage as compared to being in a sprinter’s position? That is patently absurd, to the point that this discussion has no reason to continue. You’re obviously not interested in any sort of honest discussion.

    • Dan Farnsworth said...

      The eye-dominance theory is interesting, and definitely something I’d like to see more data on. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people talk about the importance of having your dominant eye closer to the pitcher, which does make sense. It also has a reasonable likelihood of being BS, but who knows? I can’t find any studies on baseball players, but there is one on PubMed that found no higher incidence of cross-dominance (right eye-dominant, left-handed and vice-versa) in South African cricket players.

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16230997?dopt=Abstract

      I have a hard time believing the position of the dominant eye matters as long as both eyes are on the ball. If you had to choose one eye or the other, obviously the dominant one would be the better option, but you can’t truly perceive depth without having two eyes on whatever you’re looking at.

      • tz said...

        I remember Ted Williams mentioning this in “The Science of Hitting”, where he wished that he had a dominant right eye. I agree that this probably matters little for folks with normal binocular vision (or 20/15 vision like Williams), but if someone has a big enough discrepancy in the vision between their eyes it could make a difference.

        And I can’t mention “The Science of Hitting” without including a link to a cool article on the great graphics, including the first heatmap to reach the age of 40:

        http://regressing.deadspin.com/the-beautiful-infographics-of-ted-williamss-the-scienc-1511889371

    • notthatfast said...

      Humble pie. Darn smartphone keyboard. He’s probably kind of fast, but you can beat your ass that he won’t be olympic level right now.

      The world’s best sprinters were all 10.4-10.5 when starting out. It does take training, if a lot less than distance running.

  2. Creed Mangrum said...

    I don’t know if this is just making everything more complicated than it needs to be, but I wonder if you looked at tendencies to pull the ball on ground balls. In the first table you look at infield hit percentage on ground balls. I don’t have any stats on my person at the moment for this, but it seems like when I watch Billy Hamilton hit, his ground balls tend to the middle of the field to the opposite way creating long throws for the infield. If you could filter out the ground balls to the left side and the right side and then compare the hit percentage on these it would interesting to see whether or not the lefties had the advantage to ground balls to the left side of the infield.

    • Dan Farnsworth said...

      I originally pulled the numbers on this and started including it in the study, but there was no correlation whatsoever to infield hit % or lefty vs. righty times to first. I felt it wasn’t necessary to include because of that, but it is a good question. For what it’s worth, Hamilton has hit more ground balls to the right 1/3 of the infield from both sides of the plate.

    • Kyle said...

      It would be interesting, but I don’t really think it’s relevant to the study, is it? Unless it would be possible to train a player to push more ground balls it’s just a possible explanation for the data rather than a necessary part of the data.

  3. said...

    Fascinating piece, Dan

    Given the nature of righties to generally push (start) off their left foot first and lefties to push off their right foot, I’m wondering if the marginal difference and overall even distribution results are mainly due to a predominant (stronger) push off foot.

    In other words, the difference of speed is even smaller than your results, and possibly zero, and players can improve the slower time through repetitive practice and strengthening of less dominant push off foot.

    If this is true, the only reason to switch hit would be to see the ball better–not to increase speed from home to first.

  4. said...

    HERE! HERE! Great article! This is something that has needed to be said and researched on and show to baseball that they are screwing up hitters.

    I had heard about this for a long time, but had assumed that there was some modicum of truth that this slap hitting works for people, but I’m an adherent of Ted Williams’ Science of Hitting teaching. So this would be a good story for you to use as evidence of the idiocy of baseball in forcing hitters to slap the ball: Andres Torres.

    You can search on him and learning to hit like Albert Pujols. Like Gomez above, he was told to slap the ball to utilize his speed (something that maybe works in Little League because coaches like to win and fielders are not the best, but horrible long-term for the kids) and it got him nowhere even though he was a top prospect for the Tigers, he just wasn’t developing.

    Feeling that his career was ending soon if he didn’t do anything, he searched online for training to hit like Albert Pujols and apparently ran across a guy who worked with people over the internet (sorry, memory not the best anymore, recalling from 4 years ago). He worked on changing his mechanics, even once met with the guy who made some adjustments, and he had made the change, which was around the time the Giants signed him.

    Too bad there isn’t a tool for reverse engineering what his career could have been like had he learned the proper way to hit early on, but Torres had a monster year for the Giants in 2010, 5.3 bWAR/6.5 fWAR (star level), helping them win their first World Series in city franchise history. But he was already 32 YO then, where the downside of his career lurked, and injuries soon essentially took him out of baseball. To paraphrase Brando from On the Waterfront, “he coulda been an All-Star” had any, ANY, of the teams who he was with before the Giants recognized this problem with his hitting. And he played for five different teams before (including the Twins who had Gomez).

    Not that the Giants necessarily recognized this, I’m still trying to figure that out. They have a fast guy in Gary Brown, whose speed batting RH rivals LHB in reaching 1B, and they have been working on his mechanics. I would love to know if they are part of this “slap-hit” mentality or not.

    Right now, I’m guessing not. We had a fast guy before, Burris, and his batting line screams “slap hitter”, he literally had almost zero power, zero ISO. The Giants former hitting coach, Carney Lansford, complained publicly about how Burris had the forearms to hit for power and line-drives, but he wouldn’t change to what Carney tried to teach him. But that is just one, and it was one coach who is no longer there.

    So thank you for this article, hopefully it will get those in MLB who read Fangraphs to sit up and think about what they are doing to some of their best prospects. Gomez and Torres are stark examples of what they are missing out on. Plus, as both demonstrated, it did not take them long to learn the proper way of hitting, Torres took about a year of instruction and practice before he was a very valuable hitter, basically All-Star caliber, looking at his WAR in 2009 prorated to a full season. Oh, here is the link to the instructor’s recounting of his training of Torres, good read: http://www.chrisoleary.com/projects/Baseball/Hitting/RethinkingHitting/Essays/MyExperienceWithAndresTorres.html

    • said...

      And per the ending of the article regarding the Reds, I should add that I also don’t blame all teams for this. Perhaps they are being nice and letting the player hit the way that they are comfortable with. And maybe the player is having some success with that. Plus, changing mechanics like that could cost the player and team an additional year of development, so if it ain’t broke, why fix it.

      But you would think that there would have been one coach like Lansford who would tell Torres that slapping is not working for him, to try something else. It was not like Andres was killing it in the minors. He was OK but not really that good in the minors, with pretty poor ISO and SLG. And it was not like he was doing well in the majors either. He had to take it upon himself to learn and change.

    • Dan Farnsworth said...

      Andres Torres was originally included in the intro as well, but it seemed weird writing about Gomez and Torres as equals in any way… :)

  5. james wilson said...

    Really good info. Iglesias had an uncanny babip in his ’13 season with Boston because he was on the way out of the box by the time the ball hit the ground to the left side.

  6. Gabriel said...

    I like this article as a beginning. It seems like the first test you did (infield hit rates for switch hitters) could be done multi-year and vastly increase the sample size. Another test that might be useful would be ground ball hit rate (regardless of whether it makes it into the outfield or not).

    I enjoy how you’ve challenged the assumption of the left-hander being out of the box faster. However, the larger issue here might be that if you are a marginal hitter who is speedy, it’s good to bat left-handed because you need every last bit of help you can get as a batter — including the platoon advantage vs righties and the drag bunting advantage. In other words, it may make sense for a guy like Hamilton to bat lefty because as a righty facing righties, he just won’t bat well enough to justify being played, even with the speed.

    On the other hand, your research indicates that better hitting fast guys (Rickey Henderson pops to mind as a fast player who batted well right-handed and, incidentally, threw the ball left-handed) should not change how they play — they will not get a benefit running to first and, more importantly, hit well enough that the negative adjustment to batting left-handed would be greater than any potential platoon/bunting benefit.

    • Dan Farnsworth said...

      I thought about increasing the sample size as well, but when I poked around the data for longer stretches of time, nothing interesting was popping up. Plus, it wasn’t the crux of my argument, so it would have been more analysis for not a lot of added payoff.

      As for Hamilton, by most accounts through last season he was a much stronger natural hitter from the right side. But like you said, I am more interested in the guys who are good enough hitters from the right side to continue developing, rather than try to pick up an entirely new swing and approach from the other side of the plate. I have no doubt some players only have a chance playing the bunt and slap game.

      Thanks for the comments!

  7. David said...

    Mickey Mantle. 3.1 seconds to first bade from the left hand side. Note the films from back then. Without a helmet, the batters tended to step into the bucket more. It was protection against an inside pitch. That gave the left handed batter a bigger advantage getting to first. With a step more in the bucket than toward the mound, a lefty was moving toward first and the righty was moving toward third. With batting styles these days, the advantage is greatly reduced.

  8. said...

    I understand why coaches felt that speedsters should hit from the left side. As you alluded, it meant they would be a full stride closer to 1st base. Also, which I don’t believe was mentioned, was that they felt that after your swing, you were already facing 1st base whereas a righty’s swing would make him face 3rd base. However, for some reason everyone chose to ignore the fact that the lower body for a righty was still facing 1st base (as you said in the article) but a lefty’s lower half was facing towards 3rd base.

    I’m in complete agreement, by the way. Don’t mess with a hitter and force him to be a switch-hitter just for speed’s sake. If you’re going to do it, do it for the platoon advantage, and if the hitter can’t prove that he can do it, then can the idea.

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