David Freese goes opposite field, profits.

by on June 15, 2012 · 0 comments

David Freese: Two-for-four, one double, one home run, three runs batted in.

Both the double and the home run were to the right-center gap. That’s important, in context.

Post-game, the @Cardinals social media folks had this to add on Freese’s solid day at the plate:

https://twitter.com/Cardinals/status/213471819636817921

What could he possibly have found?  Cards beat-writer extraordinaire Derrick Goold elaborated in today’s Post-Dispatch, noting that Freese had been pounding batting practice pitches into right field and the right field bleachers – then including quotes from Freese like “Stay with my approach. Stay with my approach. Stay with my approach.”

Is Freese finding comfort in his swing again, settling in as a big-leaguer? Remember that Freese, despite being twenty-nine years old has accumulated only 898 MLB plate appearances, hindered by a late start and nagging injuries. We often see that hitters come up, have success, then pitchers adjust to them. Then it is up to the hitter to adjust to the pitchers’ adjustments, and so on. Is this another “correction” in Freese’s career?

I digress… but stay with me after the jump…

I’ve long been an advocate of David Freese hitting the ball to the opposite field, and his seemingly natural power stroke that way.

For instance, reference this conversation with one of my trusted baseball Twitter pals Rui:

@rui_xu: That was Freese’s 5th pulled HR this year. He had 3 last year

@PitchersHit8th: @rui_xu you think that’s a good or bad thing? I’ve always thought when he was going oppo seemed like he was seeing the ball best

@rui_xu: @PitchersHit8th I think it’s a good thing. He and Mac have been working on it. You hit for more power when you pull it

@PitchersHit8th: @rui_xu just seems like such a pure hitter going the other way, not trying to do to much with the pitch – guess its a matter of balance

@rui_xu: @PitchersHit8th He’s a natural oppo hitter and always will be, but learning to pull inside pitches was an important development point

There are some important takeaways from this exchange for me – my perception has been that Freese’s power has been almost exclusively opposite field, with the occasional outburst into the left field porch. Further examination (data from Fangraphs) shows that Freese has ten home runs on the “pull” side, and ten on the “opposite” side. BUT… seven of those pull home runs have been from this season, only two opposite. It’s clear there is a focus on pulling the ball. It also seems safe to say that has resulted in an increase in power numbers – Freese has more home runs this season than any other, and still in fewer at-bats.  But does that come at a cost to his overall success?

Naturally, the excellent Bernie Miklasz was all over this long before my exchange with Rui and before last night’s opposite field outburst from Freese:

Again, Freese knows this is about his swing and approach. But these numbers confirm that he’s correct. Or, we should say, he’s right. Because when Freese goes right, he’s at his best.

What numbers? Click on the link to Bernie’s column above and read through, down to the part about pull percentages and Freese’s success going each direction… I’ll wait.

I ran the numbers myself using the batted ball data at Fangraphs – not that I don’t trust Bernie’s numbers – to get the latest picture of how Freese’s batted balls fly.

2011

Pull – 28% – 0.838 OPS
Middle – 35% – 0.719 OPS
Opposite – 36% – 1.290 OPS

2012

Pull – 42% – 1.226 OPS
Middle – 35% – 1.103 OPS
Opposite – 23% – 0.821 OPS

Career

Pull – 33% – 0.931 OPS
Middle – 35% – 0.923 OPS
Opposite – 33% – 1.107 OPS

Let’s chop up those numbers. Freese’s opposite field splits in 2011 and 2012 each represent opposite extremes in “Fun with BABIP”. 2011 opposite field BABIP was an absurd 0.446. 2012′s opposite field BABIP is an equally absurd 0.235. If we assume those can meet in the middle, you get, well, around Freese’s career number. Likewise on the pull side, the sample from 2011 was low because he didn’t pull the ball as much, and the 2012 sample is low because we’re only a little over a third through a season.

Sidebar: regardless of whether he’s pulling the ball or going oppo, it seems safe to say that we can be comfortable with Freese’s ability as a hitter.

So it looks like he’s doing well all-around, right? What’s the beef?

Well, further digging into the numbers Bernie provided is that when Freese pulls the ball on the ground, the results haven’t been as good. His OPS and other peripherals are held up by the home runs pulled – and who am I to argue with home runs? – but for 2012 Freese’s pulled ground ball rate is 56.5%. His ground ball rate to the right side is only 13.9%. Line drive rate improves by 6% – from 24.2% to 30.6%, pull versus opposite.

What does something like that look like?

(all spray charts courtesy TexasLeaguers.com)

Lots of outs on the left side of the infield, fewer hits to right field.

Compare that with 2011:

More data points obviously, but the emphasis on pulling the ball in 2012 is apparent. Still a pretty successful pull hitter, but likewise oppo.

We’ve looked at the numbers, we’ve looked at spray charts – why not bust out some heat maps?!

The most damning evidence, to me, comes from looking at where pitches live that David Freese is hitting. If the numbers don’t convince you (and frankly, as I’m writing, I see that Freese is having slugging success pulling the ball), and the spray charts don’t paint the picture (still a lot of green dots on those, aren’t there?) then let’s see what we can figure out from the heat maps.

Using the excellent iOS app Bill James Baseball IQ, I was able to generate heat maps for Freese’s hits in his career, for 2011-2012 combined, and 2012 alone. We’ll look at them one by one…

The career map tends to back up a theory that Freese can take a pitch outside to right field with success, when collaborating this map with his career numbers.

Sure, it’s entirely possible that he extended and yanked that pretty yellow spot at the top outside corner off of the fair pole in left field, but for the sake of argument, I’ll assume not.

Note that the hottest spot is just outside of center, that is an important data point comparative to the next few images and in comparison to the numbers above.

When the time period shifts from career to the last two seasons (2011 and partial 2012), you can already see how the dynamic changes.

Far more emphasis inside, assuming again that means pulling balls because who’s hitting that ball on the hands to the opposite field, at least with any regularity?

Keep in mind that this is more heavily weighted by 2012′s numbers than most players because Freese only saw 363 plate appearances in 2011 (231 thus far in 2012).

Finally, the 2012 map shows an almost exclusive focus on hitting pitches inside, which jibes with big pull numbers and the down opposite field numbers.

Bear in mind that these maps show balls that went for hits, so in 2012 Freese is rarely connecting with outside pitches that result in positive outcomes.

To me that is important, because I think it’s the one point that connects all of these – Freese is not getting hits on outside pitches.

Why?

In my opinion, some back of the envelope math grounded in the numbers and images above, could reason that less reaching to pull an outside pitch could result in fewer ground and fly ball outs to the left side and more line drive hits to the right side.

So in short (or long, as the case may be):

Step 1: “Stay with your approach” David Freese.

Step 2: Go with the outside pitch.

Step 3: Hit doubles to right field (the home runs are a bonus).

Step 4: Profit.

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Writing about the Cardinals and other loosely associated topics since 2008, I've grown tired of the April run-out only to disappoint Cardinal fans everywhere by mid-May. I do not believe in surrendering free outs.
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