The Pros and Cons of Pulling the Ball: Bouncy Ball Edition

While there have been similar articles about the advantages of pulling the ball in the past, I wanted to do some new research based on the changed ball as well as player development.

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.

Let’s look at some pros and cons of pulling the ball using 2019 data, starting with the cons.

Cons of Pulling the Ball

The first con is that BABIP is negatively correlated with pull percentage. In 2019, hitters with a pull rate below 35% have a .322 BABIP. Those that pull 35-40% of the time have a .309 BABIP, and a 40-45% pull rate comes in at .301, while 45% pull hitters have just a .285 BABIP.

This is partially because the shift eats up grounders, so let’s 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 ground-ball rate of lower than 38%.

The BABIP of this pulled-fly-ball group is even lower at .277. Granted, the sample size of this group was small, but historical data shows the same pattern for this. Extreme pull fly-ball hitters have low BABIPs, which hurts their on-base percentages, although they still can be elite hitters. The best example of this is probably Jose Bautista, who always had BABIPs around .270 but was still an elite hitter due to above-average contact skills and elite power.

The other big downside of pulling is that it is harder to lift pulled balls. The league launch angle for pulled balls is about 5 degrees, vs. about 20 for opposite-field hits, 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 hitter’s mechanics and pitch selection. As the above cited article shows, certain pitch locations can be pulled better in the air. First, as every little league coach knows, inside pitches can be pulled better than outside ones, but also high ones can be pulled better than low ones, and 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.

So the pull hitter cannot really overcome the BABIP penalty, but he can overcome the launch angle issue with the right pitch selection and hitting mechanics.

Pros of Pulling the Ball

A big upside to pulling the ball is that pull rate is positively correlated with power. League ISO for hitters with an under-35% pull rate is just .131, while for those between 35-40% and 40-45% it is around .184, and it is a whopping .212 for those pulling more than 45% of the time.

wRC+ is at 103 for those under 35% and then slightly raises from 110 (35-40%) to 116 (more than 45%).

There is a positive effect of wRC+ by pulling more, but 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-plus 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 Christian Yelich.

The explanation for this is probably pretty easy. Low-powered hitters are gaining a lot from a few more feet on their fly balls as well as shorter fences.

The average pulled fly ball between 20 and 45 degrees this year flew 342 feet, but to center it was slightly less at 333, and opposite-field hits a lot less at 303.

That doesn’t matter as much with high-powered guys because they have power to all parts of the field, albeit even they should avoid straight oppo shots, because when between zero degrees and 15 degrees going opposite-field, the fly-ball distance was still a solid 321, but the extreme opposite-field balls of 15-45 degrees are just going 286 feet, so they will not go out often. The elite power guys like Mike Trout, J.D. Martinez, and Yelich thus can cash in on the BABIP bonus of all-field hitting while still belting 35 bombs, while the lower-powered guys need to pull the ball.

The top 20 hitters average about a 42% pull rate, which means pulling a lot is not a special trait of elite hitters (just above league-average), but a healthy pull rate is still needed to succeed at the highest level, as you need to be able to turn on some pitches with authority.

How much you pull the ball depends on your power. Fringy power guys should pull a bit more, except when they have zero power, while big power guys should stay between opposite-field gaps and pull liners for power and BABIP.

The approach I am suggesting to hitters as a compromise between all-field hitting and pulling is an “oppo gap to pull line” approach, in which outside pitches are hit middle to about 15 degrees oppo, while middle-in pitches are pulled, occasionally pulling an elevated outside pitch.

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