Even though I spend ~95% of my life thinking about baseball related questions, one was recently posed to me that I had never previously given much, or any, thought to. Since hitters will likely lose exit velocity when hitting the ball to the opposite field, how big of an advantage would being able to maintain exit velocity to all fields be for a hitter?
To begin this exercise, we should start by getting a better understanding of the importance of hitting the ball hard. It should seem fairly obvious that hitting the ball harder will generally lead to better results, but how much does exit velocity impact offensive production? Using data from 2020 and filtering out players who faced less than 540 total pitches (60 games * 3 plate appearances per game * 3 pitches per at bat), we can plot the correlation between exit velocity and wOBA from 2020.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that hitting the ball harder will lead to better results on average and there are certainly some very familiar names at the top of the leaderboard for highest average exit velocity in 2020 (again these are only the hitters who faced 540 total pitches). By breaking exit velocity down by batted ball direction, we can see how well Major League hitters overall in 2020 were able to maintain their exit velocity for each batted ball direction.
It also should not be very surprising that hitters are likely to lose exit velocity when going to the opposite field compared to when they go to the pull field. Using 2020 data, the difference in mean EV can be calculated for all balls pulled compared to all balls hit to the opposite field. For all batted balls to the pull fields, the mean exit velocity was about 5 MPH higher (89.6) than the mean exit velocity of balls hit to the opposite fields (84.5). It should also be noted that the wOBA on batted balls to the pull fields was about .085 higher than the wOBA for all batted balls to the opposite field.
For purposes of this exercise, a Statcast pitch-by-pitch database from the 2020 season will be used to focus on only the balls that were hit to the pull and opposite field, thus balls hit up the middle will be ignored. To begin this exercise, I will again filter out hitters who faced less than 540 total pitches (60 games * 3 plate appearances per game * 3 pitches per at bat) in 2020 to avoid any small sample randomness. I will also filter out all sacrifice bunts as these will likely skew the overall numbers. After doing all this, we are left with 229 total hitters from the 2020 season and we can start by looking at the hitters who had the highest average exit velocity to the opposite field.
There are certainly some very recognizable names here as well and most of these hitters have already, or are set up to make a lot of money during their professional careers. It certainly seems like hitters learning to go the other way is a very valuable skill for all hitters to learn, especially considering the rapidly rising rates of shifts seen across Major League Baseball that are unlikely to go away anytime soon without regulation from the league.
Next, we can look at the hitters with the lowest average exit velocity to the opposite field in 2020.
By taking the difference between exit velocity on balls hit to the opposite field and exit velocity on balls hit to the pull field, it can be determined that 29 of our 229 (~12.7%) hitters from the 2020 season actually did hit the ball harder on average when going to the opposite field compared to when they went to the pull field. The top ten hitters with the largest difference (the ten who hit the ball harder on average when going to the opposite field compared to when they went to the pull field) are shown below.
We can now check how these ten hitters wOBA’s changed when going to the pull field vs. when going to the opposite field.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that 7 of the top 10 hitters who hit the ball harder to the opposite field compared to the pull field also did better in terms of wOBA when going the other way (again these are only batted balls).
Now we can check the hitters who hit did the worst at maintaining their exit velocity when going to opposite way. The top ten hitters that were the worst at maintaining their exit velocity when going the opposite way in 2020 are shown below.
We can again compare these hitters results when going the opposite way compared to when pulling the ball.
It looks like 9 of these 10 hitters did worse offensively when going the opposite way vs. when they pulled the ball.
By closely examining the above table, there are some interesting things that can be observed. First off, the hitter who was the worst hitter at maintaining his exit velocity when going the other way in 2020 was Cedric Mullins. Mullins, a switch-hitter, was much better hitting left-handed as opposed to hitting right-handed last year. The only other switch-hitter on this list in Jose Ramirez and outside of these two the this list features 4 right-handers and 4 left-handers. Mullins also tied for the league lead in total bunts last year with 15. As I previously mentioned, sacrifice bunts were filtered out but this removed only 4 of his 15 total bunts from 2020. Looking at the rest of this list however, none of these hitters, outside of Danny Jansen with 3, laid down any bunts in 2020 that were not filtered out.
The 10 best hitters at difference in exit velocity to the opposite field vs. the pull field faced what Statcast defines as an shifted and strategic infield alignment much less frequently (~42% of all pitches faced) compared to those hitters worst at maintaining their exit velocity the opposite way (~61.4% of all pitches faced). Also unsurprisingly, the hitters best at going the opposite way also did a lot better against what is defined as shifted and strategic infield alignments.
While there are many different paths one can take to understand the importance of hitters being able to maintain their exit velocity when going the opposite way, it is undeniable that there are a lot of benefits to hitters learning to go to the opposite field. Furthermore, the hitters that hit the ball harder to the opposite field versus the pull field are unsurprisingly going to be much better when going that way and did much better when facing infield shifts in 2020. Hitters learning to go the opposite way and hit the ball hard to the opposite field is a very valuable skill for hitters to learn and those hitters with the highest average exit velocity overall and highest exit velocity to the opposite field are certainly ones that appear set up to make a lot of money during their playing careers.