Lately, I’ve been working on a few projects related to the concept of the “opposite field premium.” I think that opposite field hitting ability is something that we don’t pay enough attention to, and that the ability to hit to all fields can only become more valuable to a major league hitter over the next few years.
The majors’ best opposite field hitters are better hitters (overall) than the average hitter. Additionally, defenses can’t shift against good opposite field hitters. Joey Votto agrees, and so should you.
Considering my interest in this type of work, it makes sense that I’ve been keeping a close eye on Mike Moustakas this year. Almost one out of every two balls that Moustakas hits in play are pulled, but his pull percentage alone doesn’t really do justice to his (in)ability to hit to left field. I don’t think I can come up with words that are strong enough to make this point clear to every reader, so I’ll let the numbers do the talking.
In the table below, I’ll use weighted runs created as a proxy for hitting ability. Weighted runs created (or wRC) measures a hitter’s offensive output in runs. The wRC+ metric uses 100 as league average, and we interpret differences from 100 as percentage point differences above/below league average.
If you’re wondering how to interpret a negative wRC+ value, I don’t have a great answer for you. FanGraphs defines an awful hitter as someone who posts a 40 wRC+ or lower (a hitter who creates 60 percent less runs than league average). A hitter with a wRC+ of zero technically creates 100 percent less runs than the average player (or zero runs, relative to the average). Moustakas is clearly a very good hitter when he pulls the ball, if not one of the league’s best. But just how awful is Moustakas as an opposite field hitter? It’s hard to tell, actually, because he breaks the scale.
Side note: According to this metric, only two players were worse opposite field hitters than Moustakas was in 2012. Interestingly enough, the first is Jimmy Rollins—a switch hitter. The second is Aaron “I broke my hand because I tried to go the other way” Hill.
I guess it is obvious at this point that Moustakas hasn’t entered 2013 with a more balanced offensive approach. The gap between his pull and opposite field production is even wider now than it was in 2012, and his overall offensive production has been disappointing. Can we attribute Moustakas’ recent struggles to this one, glaring flaw? And what do these splits tell us about Moustakas’ unique swing?
What does he hit where?
Royals fans can find some solace in the fact that Moustakas has average-ish plate discipline. In fact, he has swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone this year (relative to 2012). However, it’s possible that Moustakas has an issue determining which pitches should be pulled, and which pitches should be hit the other way. If you look at the graph below, you’ll see that he is hitting outside pitches to left field—this is a good thing. However, he pulls the ball so often that he likely is also be pulling some of the outside pitches that he sees. I’ve plotted pitches that Moustakas hit to left field in 2012 below. We see this strike zone from a catcher’s point of view.
It appears that Moustakas does hit pitches that are thrown on the outer half to left field at least some of the time. He also pulls a good number of these pitches, but he doesn’t have a lot of success doing that. In an earlier article I wrote on Zack Cozart‘s struggles at the plate, I argued that some dead pull hitters tend roll over and hit lazy ground balls on pulled outside pitches.
We can get a better idea of how well Moustakas handles fastballs on the outer half if we compare his results to league averages. Below, I’ve pulled up two graphs that do just that (courtesy of baseballheatmaps.com). Moustakas is a better hitter than the rest of major league baseball in the green/red areas of the strike zone, and a worse hitter than average in the blue zones. Again, both strike zones are shown from the catcher’s point of view.
With these plots, we can confirm what I originally thought to be true. Moustakas can’t hit pitches that are thrown on the lower outer edge of the plate. My guess is that he has trouble with these pitches because a pitch thrown to the outside corner can’t be effectively pulled by any hitter. I’ll have a full study on this topic soon, but for now you’ll either have to agree with me or write an angry comment below.
These negative run values can be partially explained by fly outs to left field (recall Moustakas’ ridiculous opposite field fly ball rate), but they can also be explained by swinging strikes. Moustakas swings and misses at about the league average rate, but he whiffs most often at pitches low and on the left side of the plate. What’s more, the area of the strike zone in which he swings and misses most often sits just below the area in which he often flies out to left field.
Mike Moustakas has a swing that clearly wasn’t built to hit pitches thrown low and away from the lefty. You may not call the outside corner a hole, but Moustakas’ current approach isn’t as versatile as it could be. I think his dead pull ability is extremely impressive, as he was able to heavily rely on it last year while remaining somewhat productive. But is Moustakas still a bona fide major league hitter if pitchers begin to pound the outside corner? Maybe not.