Without watching a player bat everyday it’s easy to fall back on what you’ve known before to be true and to act as if that thing is still true. In the case of James Loney we saw a guy that went opposite field with aplomb earlier in the year. He was going with the tons of pitches that he was getting middle and away and his batting average was the biggest benefit of this approach. I took a look at him earlier this year and saw very much that this was the case. More recently it seems like he’s pulling the ball more leading to soft grounders to the second basemen that aren’t really much of a threat. Is this just bad memory or is there something in the data to confirm this observation?
Using Baseball-Reference’s unparalleled Play Index I have gone through and assigned whether every ball in play was pulled, up the middle, or to opposite field. This isn’t perfect, because not all balls to the shortstop are necessarily opposite field as they could be up the middle and likewise with other balls that are on the edge of two zones, but I think it gives a good idea of how he has trended. In order to show this graphically I have assigned a value of two to each pulled ball in play, a value of one for each shot up the middle, and a value of zero for all balls to the left side of the infield. By doing this you can see how things have clumped over the year (at each value) and it makes it easy to create a 50 ball in play trendline that shows how his trends have moved over the course of the year. The black line is that trend and any time it’s north of 1.0 he’s pulling the ball more than normal and anytime it’s less than 1.0 he’s going opposite field more.
This yields two pretty large spikes in the second half of the data where he was becoming more pull-conscious. I have split these in half using the vertical black line because it makes the math easy, but also because you can see that that’s the point where he started to become more volatile in his batted ball trajectories. Additionally, I have included his moving wOBAcon which plugs in the the wOBA values of .90 for a single, 1.24 for a double, 1.56 for a triple, and 1.95 for a home run while weighing all outs as being worth 0.00 runs. The dashed line down the middle is his season average wOBAcon, which is only looking at balls in play and not strikeouts or walks, of .370. We see that when he’s going at his best is when he’s going to the left side more, but know that the overall correlation was pretty weak here at 0.08. Still, this seems like solid evidence for a player pulling the ball more. This next chart continues to confirm the visual observation:
He’s going back up the middle at the exact same rate and he has turned around four percentage points of his oppo shots into pulled balls in play. Here’s a look at the exact numbers for those that care:
1st Half: 46 Middle, 62 Oppo, 69 Pull
2nd Half: 46 Middle, 54 Oppo, 77 Pull
That might not seem like a lot, but eight balls that have a solid chance of being a hit to the opposite field instead of a pulled ball can make a difference. As a hypothetical, if all eight of those balls in play were hits to the opposite field and we assume that they were all pulled outs then his average would go from around .310 to roughly .329. That’s kind of a big deal. This is an extreme example, but it goes a long way to show a guy that’s getting away from what he does well.
Ok, well maybe it’s because guys are pitching him inside more so you’d want to see him pulling those pitches, but that’s not really the case. The following charts will back this up, but first let me present the summary data. If we draw a line down the dead center, middle of the plate and say that every contacted ball to the left of the line, from the catcher’s perspective, is away and everything to the right is in then we get this breakdown:
1st Half: Away 117 pitches, Inside 60 pitches, 66% Away, 34% Inside
2nd Half: Away 118 pitches, Inside 58 pitches, 67% Away, 33% Inside
He’s putting balls in play at almost the exact same rate based on where it’s pitched, but here’s a detailed look at where each contacted pitch is headed:
In the first half subset we see that, sure, he pulls some pitches that are middle and away, but pretty much everything well away he’s just taking the other way and almost everything inside is being pulled or back up the gut. How has that changed over the second half subset:
Now we’re seeing a bunch of pitches middle and away being pulled. Many of these are down which means he’s basically going to turn over a cheap grounder to the right side if he tries to pull that. These are pitches that can burn worms nicely if they’re taken the other way. This may come across as a simplistic look at this sort of thing, but I feel there is real value here and that a guy that has the ability to be a very good hitter is getting away from the one thing that allows him to achieve the upper bounds of his ability. James Loney has had a nice season, but he could re-realize his incredible early success if he gets back to going with pitches, particularly those that are on the outer half of the plate.