by Micah Greenhill

Hitting to All Sides of the Field

The Reds offensive struggles in 2020 were frustrating and well documented. The statistic often used to explain these struggles is Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). BABIP helps to determine the “luck factor” in a player’s ability to get a hit. While it varies from season to season, the typical BABIP of MLB is around .300. In stark contrast, according to Fangraphs, the 2020 BABIP of the Cincinnati Reds was .245, good for lowest in all baseball. Every other aspect of the Reds offense was at least above average. At first glance, it makes sense to use this statistic to blame the Red’s offensive woes on bad luck. However, is bad luck the true culprit, or was there something else at play?

Enter the Shift

Much has been written about the shift in recent years. Some fans enjoy the novelty of watching players play out of position. Others disapprove, saying that it creates much less on field drama by decreasing baserunners. Whatever your opinion is, one thing is for certain: In a game where shifting is taking place, the ability to hit the ball to all parts of the field on a consistent basis is becoming more critical.

The shift is applied to a hitter when he shows a tendency to hit the ball to the same part of the field. Typically, hitters end up hitting the ball to their pull side, as they try to hit for more power. Usage of the shift varies from team to team, but data has indicated that shifts are much more common against left handed hitters. In fact, during the 2020 season, left handed hitters were shifted against over 50% of the time. The key to beating the shift is to be able to hit the ball to all sides of the field on a consistent basis.

2020 Reds in Retrospect

So, how did the Redlegs do in hitting to all sides of the field? Let’s check the data.

Player Pull% Straight Oppo% BABIP
MLB Average 36.6% 37.9% 25.5% 0.300
Reds Average 40.5% 38.4% 21.6% 0.246
Eugenio Suarez 51.5% 31.1% 17.4% 0.222
Aristides Aquino 44.8% 51.7% 3.4% 0.222
Jesse Winker 44.2% 34.6% 21.2% 0.283
Tucker Barnhart 42.9% 34.3% 22.9% 0.231
Nick Senzel 42.9% 32.1% 25.0% 0.204
Joey Votto 40.6% 35.0% 24.5% 0.235
Mike Moustakas 36.2% 42.9% 21.0% 0.247
Nick Castellanos 34.7% 44.7% 20.7% 0.257
Shogo Akiyama 23.1% 38.8% 38.0% 0.314
Kyle Farmer 37.3% 43.1% 19.6% 0.333

Source: Baseball Savant, 2020 Reds Players with Statistically Significant Sample of Battled Ball Events

Wow, that’s a lot of hitting to the pull side. In  fact, as a team, the Reds pulled the ball more than any other team in baseball (40.5% of all  batted balls), except the Diamondbacks and Astros (41.3% and 42.1% respectively). Eugenio Suarez is chief offender here, pulling the baseball in over half of all batted balls. Aristides Aquino only hit to opposite field in 3.4% of his batted balls, sacrificing a third of the field every time he put the ball in play. Shogo Akiyama is on the other end of the extreme, hitting the ball to opposite field more often than hitting to his pull side. It’s interesting and worth noting that Akiyama is one of the few Reds to have an above average BABIP, with Kyle Farmer being the other exception. For the 2020 Reds, there is a strong correlation between hitting to the pull side and having a low BABIP. In fact, when one removes Kyle Farmer’s anomalous data, the correlation between pull hitting and BABIP is -71%, indicating an inverse relationship.

For the Reds, the more they pulled the ball, the less it fell for a hit. This was due to heavy shifting against the Reds. In fact, the Reds BABIP against the shift was .247, good for worst in all baseball. Left handed hitting Reds, such as Joey Votto, were especially hurt. Over the 2020 season, based on the quality of his contact, his expected batting average was a respectable .282. In reality, his batting average ended up at .226.

The picture is more bleak when looking at only ground balls and line drives, in which the shift is most effective. During the 2020 season, all Reds line drives and ground balls hit to the pull side had a BABIP of .232, as opposed to a BABIP of .360 when hitting straight or to opposite field. These pulled line drives and ground balls were often well hit with an expected batting average of .365. That is suspiciously close to the BABIP of balls that were not pulled.

This effect is even more pronounced when looking at the breakout of left handed hitters specifically. Over the course of the season, left handed Reds hitters who pulled the ball had a BABIP of .169, as opposed to right handed hitters who had a BABIP of .295 in the same situation.

BABIP XBA
Reds Right Handed Hitters 0.294 0.390
Reds Left Handed Hitters 0.169 0.348

 

The Perfect Hitter

When trying to improve, it can be helpful to study the successes of others. For this exercise, consider Nationals star hitter, Juan Soto. Soto, arguably the best all around hitter in baseball, has a very interesting batted ball profile.

Player Pull% Straight Oppo% BABIP
MLB Average 36.6% 37.9% 25.5% 0.300
Juan Soto 26.0% 48.0% 26.0% 0.363
Reds Average 40.1% 38.4% 21.6% 0.246

Source: Baseball Savant

Beautiful. Talk about balance. One of the factors that led to Soto’s success in 2020 is his ability to hit the ball to any part of the ballpark. Teams have trouble shifting against him because they have no idea where he is going to hit the ball.

If Juan Soto represents the perfect hitter, which Reds player most closely resembles him?

Player Pull/Oppo Gap
Juan Soto 0.00
Eugenio Suarez 0.34
Aristides Aquino 0.41
Jesse Winker 0.23
Tucker Barnhart 0.20
Nick Senzel 0.18
Joey Votto 0.16
Mike Moustakas 0.15
Nick Castellanos 0.14
Shogo Akiyama -0.15
Kyle Farmer -0.18

Based off batted ball data, the player that most closely resembled 2020 Soto is Nick Castellanos. While he pulled the ball 14% more than he his opposite field, he showed the most ability to hit the ball to all parts of the field.  Akiyama and Moustakas were very close seconds. While it is unreasonable to expect any of these players to hit like Juan Soto, positive regression is likely, and Reds fans can expect improvement from these players specifically.

Looking to 2021

Let’s look forward to the 2021 year to examine what we can expect from our offense. Many baseball analysts are predicting that, due to the unsustainably poor BABIP, the Reds offense will be better than 2020.  In addition to the assumption that their BABIP will positively regress to the mean, many other underlying metrics suggest offensive improvement. During the 2020 season, the Reds were above average, or even top tier, in many important aspects of hitting.

  • 7th in Barrel Rate
  • 7th in Home Runs
  • 12th in Expected Slugging
  • 2nd in Walks
  • 10th best in chase rate
  • 10th in XWOBA

These metrics suggest that there is a lot to like about this offense, and over the course of a full season, it will be exciting to see what it is truly capable of achieving.

Micah is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up watching games at Cinergy Field with his family. A recent MBA graduate, Micah has always had a passion for data analytics and uses his understanding of big data to better understand and appreciate what is happening on the baseball diamond and in the front office. When he's not watching baseball, you can find Micah and his wife frequenting different restaurants and coffee shops in the area. For questions and inquiries, please reach out to micahgreenhill@gmail.com.

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Mike
Mike
15 days ago

I feel like there’s a few questions that are danced around in the data presented but not explicitly discussed.
1) What are other teams xBA on balls pulled vs their actual BABIP?
2) Do other teams have as high of a gap on xBA vs actual BABIP on balls pulled vs balls hit the other way(pushed?) and should that be considered when factoring in xBA going forward?

IOW, it seems like a lot of the “bad luck” the Reds hit into last year was due to the fact they pulled a larger % of their balls in play, and thus were hitting into a shift.
But that could leave two (or more) explanations, 1) they pulled more and teams shifted to take away hits on pulled balls so they just need to hit the other way more often(ie everyone has a huge gap between xBA and BABIP on pulled balls) or 2)They pulled more AND they were even unluckier than the average bear when it comes to pulled balls finding fielders.

Roger Mitchell
Roger Mitchell
11 days ago
Reply to  Mike

This article was insightful. I found the Juan Soto comparison helpful. Keep up the great work.

Roger Mitchell
Roger Mitchell
11 days ago

This article was insightful. I found the Juan Soto comparison helpful. Keep up the great work.

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[…] the Redlegs are trying to put the ball in play by hitting to all parts of the field—something we covered last week. This new hitting approach worked well tonight, with the Reds completely clobbering the Pirates […]