There have been similar articles https://blogs.fangraphs.com/the-pros-and-cons-of-pulling-the-baseball/ about the advantages of pulling but I wanted to do a new research because the ball has changed as well as player developement did.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion among hitting coaches about pulling the ball. Traditionally batting coaches usually suggested going gap to gap, which means basically hitting where the ball is pitched and mostly trying to stay in the middle of the field between the middle infielders however recently this has changed and more and more sabermetrically leaning coaches suggest focusing on pulling the ball because they think that this will create more power.
So let us look at some pros and cons of pulling using 2019 MLB data. I am starting with the cons
Cons of pulling the ball
The first con of pulling the ball is that BABIP is negatively correlated with pull%. In 2019 hitters with a sub 35% pull rate have a ..322 BABIP.35-40% it is .309, 40-45 it is .301 and 45=.285.
Now this is partially because the shift eats up grounders, so let us test a common suggestion of the modern coaches: “Hit over the shift” because avoiding grounders means mostly avoiding the shift. To test if that works for BABIP (Spoiler, in the pros of pulling we will look at the effect of this on other stats) I was looking at hitters with a 45% pull rate and a GB rate of lower than 38%.
Surprisingly the BABIP of this pulled flyball group is even lower at .277. Granted the sample size of this group was very small with but historical data show the same pattern for this, extreme pull flyball hitters have low BABIPs which is hurting the on base percentage of those players, albeit they still can be elite hitters with the best example of this probably being Jose Bautista which always had BABIPs around 270 but still was an elite hitter due to above average contact skill and elite power and batting eye.
The other con of pulling is that it is harder to lift pulled balls. The league launch angle for pulled balls is like 5 degrees vs about 20 for oppo as you are more likely to roll over and top it if you hit it more out front.
However this can be influenced by the hitters mechanics and pitch selection. As the above cited article shows certain pitch locations can be pulled better in the air. First of course as every little league coach knows inside, can be pulled better than outside but also high can be pulled better than low, high middle and even outside pitches can easily be pulled while pulling low outside pitches leads to topped roll overs.
The ability to pull low pitches in the air strongly depends on batting mechanics.
Specifically achieving and maintaining a good vertical barrel angle helps with pulling low pitches in the air as this avoids roll overs.
See this post to explain the mechanics behind that.
Why does a flat bat and dropped hands lead to rollovers on low pitches but not high ones? See this video. On high pitch the bat can extend straight to center field even with a flat barrel. pic.twitter.com/0XTmoMe8Uw
— dominikk85 (@dominikkeul) April 8, 2019
So the pull hitter cannot really overcome the BABIP penalty but he can overcome the launch angle issue by the right pitch selection and hitting mechanics.
The pros of pulling
A big pro ist that pull rate is positively correlated with power. League ISO for under 35% pull rate is just .131 while between 35-40 and 40-45 it is around .184 and finally .212 for 45+.
wRC+ is at 103 under 35% and then slightly raises from 110 (35-40) to 116 (45+).
So there is a positive effect of wRC+ by pulling more. This effect is dependent on the hitters power. Conventional coaching wisdom says low powered hitters should spray the ball and power hitters should go for the pull bomb but the data actually show otherwise.
The hitters with a sub .150 ISO benefit a lot from pulling more while .230+ ISO guys actually lose a little bit of production (see the table). Keep in mind that the 166 for elite power under 35% pull rate is only one data point albeit a spectacular one in Yelich.
The explanation for this is probably pretty easy. Low powered hitters are gaining a lot from a few feet more flyball distance and also shorter fences.
The average pulled FB between 20 and 45 degrees this year flew 342 feet, to center it was slightly less at 333 and oppo a lot less at 303.
With high powered guys that does not matter as much because they have power to all parts of the field albeit even they should avoid straight oppo because between zero degrees and 15 degrees oppo the FB distance was still a solid 321 but the extreme oppo balls of 15-45 degrees are just 286 feet so they will not go out often. The elite power guys like Trout, JD martinez, Yelich thus can cash in on the BABIP bonus of all field hitting while still hitting 35 bombs, while the lower powered guys need to pull the ball.
Definitely pulling fly balls is a skill needed at the highest level and the top20 hitters average about 42% pull rate which means pulling a lot is not special a trait of elite hitters (just above league average) but a healthy pull rate is needed to succeed at the highest level, you need to be able to turn on some pitches with authority.
How much you pull the ball depends on your power. Fringy power guy should pull a bit more except when they have zero power while great power guys should stay between oppo gap and pull line for power and BABIP.
So the approach I am suggesting to hitters as a compromise between all field hitting and pulling is a “oppo gap to pull line”
approach in which outside pitches are hit middle to like 15 degrees oppo and middle in pitches are pulled and you can also occasionally pull an elevated outside pitch.
Spray patterns explained. Many coaches say gap to gap (grey) which is essentially 2b to SS. Most elite hitters however have this gap to gap but slightly turned to pull side so they pull the inside pitch a little more than they hit away oppo (orange). Pink shows pull hitter. pic.twitter.com/bMoEs2FGCd
— dominikk85 (@dominikkeul) June 11, 2019