Playing in the spray – Curtis Granderson

Curtis Granderson’s 2009 season has received plenty of scrutiny, and this was even before trade rumors crept up. Granderson struggled at times during the season, and had a hard time sustaining success. His .249 batting average was the lowest of his career and it was a drag on his on base percentage and slugging percentage as well. We know batting average is volatile so did Granderson just suffer from some bad luck, or did something else change? Fortunately we have hit location data to help shed some light on these questions.

Granderson’s batting average was dragged down by a .276 batting average on balls in play. That is a number that should typically be in the .320ish range, especially for someone with Granderson’s speed. A shift like that would lead people to think he was largely unlucky. A closer look would show a shift in his balls in play from the harder to field grounders to the easier to field fly balls. Ask fans what they saw and many would say it looked like Granderson got overly concerned with the homers (a new career high) and that he pulled the ball to much. But what would the data say?

Spray Charts and other data

Below are spray charts for each of Granderson’s last 3 years. These charts were assembled by using data from the MLB.com Gameday application. The hit locations are reported by the MLB.com stringer and aren’t absolute positions in the sense that Pitch f/x measures things, but this serves as a very nice proxy. The blue dots are outs, the orange dots are hits. Click on each chart to get a larger view.

Granderson 2007 Spray Granderson 2008 Spray Chart Granderson 2009 Spray Chart

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One of the nice things about spray charts is that there is plenty of data and certain trends can emerge. One of the not so nice things about spray charts is that there is plenty of data and they can sometimes be overwhelming.

The pretty orange table to the right takes the above spray charts and puts them into tabular form. The vector is the direction the ball was hit. Second base is 90 degrees from home plate, the first baseline is at 135 degrees and the third baseline is at 45 degrees. The gradient shading indicates the higher percentages, the darker the field, the higher the concentration of balls in play.

While he’s been a pull hitter his whole career, it became much more pronounced in 2009 with half of his balls in play (50%)between the first baseline and the approximate spot of the second baseman. That easily topped his previous seasons where he had 42% and 46% in 2007 and 2008 respectively.

Summarizing the table into  a more compact table gives us:

Dir.	2007	2008	2009
Oppo	16.53%	21.41%	16.53%
Middle	36.23%	34.22%	29.08%
Pull	46.40%	42.60%	50.60%

Opposite is defined as vectors 50-75,  middle is defined as 80-105, and pull is defined as 110-135 (keep in mind these are actually buckets so the something like 76 would fall in the 80 bucket and 46 would fall in the 50 bucket).

Granderson went the opposite way at the exact same rate as 2007, his best season. The 2008 season was when he spread the ball around the most, but the difference between 2009 and the other season was the rate at which he took the ball up the middle.

Pulling the ball isn’t a bad thing

We hear it all the time that batters get too pull happy. Maybe Granderson falls into that category in 2009, but if you look at his overall numbers he hits MUCH better to the pull field. For his career he hits .470 on balls that he pulls versus .302 on balls up the middle and .293 on balls to the left side.

Granderson continued to thrive when pulling the ball in 2009, perhaps dismissing the notion that he was pull-happy. He posted a .457 batting average on pulled balls as opposed to hitting .241 up the middle and .221 to the opposite field.

But I won’t dismiss the notion and instead speculate that Granderson either a)tried to pull the ball too much and balls the other way were accidents or b)had a mechanical change that prevented him from driving the ball when he wasn’t pulling it. Or maybe it was some combination of both, like b) fostering a).

The air outs

The biggest change in Granderson’s batted ball distribution was the exchange of ground balls for fly balls. Granderson’s line drive rate was right in line with his career mark (21.2 % in 2009 and 20.7% overall). But Granderson for his career is a 36% ground ball hitter and a 43% fly ball hitter. In 2009 those numbers were 29% and 49%. This shift helped Granderson’s home run production, but it hurt his batting average on balls in play driving down his overall batting average.

Not all fly balls are created equal. Some fly balls have a chance to become home runs or gappers. Pop-ups have a very small chance of becoming anything other than an easy out. Unfortunately Granderson hit a ton of pop-ups in 2009. Those pop-ups also accounted for a healthy percentage of the balls that Granderson hit to the opposite field.

Grandy 09 Hits                 image

You’ll see that the Fly Out profile remained fairly consistent in terms of distribution across each of the last 3 years. It’s the fly balls classified as Pop Outs that rose dramatically. Also, Granderson did tend to pull everything that he hit on the ground with only 26 ground outs that weren’t pulled in 2009.

*A brief aside on classifications – These are how MLB.com classified items and they are the ones that made distinction between Pop Outs and Fly Outs. Also, these are pretty much the classifications we have to work with. I don’t have information like “Ground ball single to left” to account for hits that went to the left side on the ground.

For those who prefer the visual representation of the spray chart, the plot below has all of Granderson’s Fly Outs and Pop-Outs for the last 3 years.

Granderson Air Spray Visually it’s easy to see the disproportionate number of red dots as opposed to the other colors. The other thing I think I see (haven’t quantified it) is that there are more deep blue and green dots in left field.

Putting it together

As with most things there isn’t just one answer. Because he still did well when pulling the ball, I don’t think he was necessarily pulling the ball too much. The pop-ups were a large source of the drop in batting average with infield flies having a similar negative impact as a strikeout. It almost always results in an out and almost always fails to advance runners. The difference is that a couple manage to drop (ask Gerald Laird and his love affair with the right field foul line).

Hitters do have some control over infield flies and with Granderson doubling his rate there was probably a change. The 2006 Hardball Times annual shows us that there is a .60 year to year correlation for infield fly rates for hitters so it is something that hitters do have control over.

Using the xBABIP calculator Granderson’s BABIP should have been about .301. So we can ballpark it and say half of his dip in BABIP can be attributed to bad luck, and about half can be chalked up to a change in batted ball distribution.

I don’t know that Granderson needs to use the whole field to be effective. He was very effective in 2007 without hitting a lot of balls to the opposite field. But he probably does need to use more of the field than he did in 2009 when a big chunk of opposite field balls were merely pop-ups.

References

The sites where data was drawn from were linked in the context of the article, but I also used The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2006
for data on infield fly repeatability. The spray charts and corresponding data were produced by following the examples in the uber valuable Baseball Hacks
book.