I’m a Chicago Cubs fan, and turned 16 just prior to Opening Day, 2005. That was the day Jerry Hairston, Jr. made his Cubs debut, and also the first Cubs game called by brand-new broadcast duo Len Kasper and Bob Brenly. By the time Hairston entered that game, in the seventh inning, the score was 12-4 or some ridiculous thing. (It ended at 16-6.) The new partners in the booth were killing time. I was reveling in an Opening-Day laugher, because at 16, I was prone to apoplexy when games stayed too close. Brenly idly noted that Jerry Hairston pulled more pitches over his own shoulder and into the stands a very short way down the third-base line than anyone Brenly had ever seen. He also talked about how Jerry’s brother Scott (whom Brenly had briefly managed the previous year) was similarly able to get well around on the ball and yank it, no matter what.
I’m not sure why all that stuck in my head, but it did. It was the first thing that leapt to mind whenever I saw either player play from then on. In the 2011 NLDS, Jerry had an important single to left field, which I was able to first predict, then explain, to one of my close friends. I mused, then, that teams really shoot themselves in the foot by not playing anyone named Hairston to pull in some sort of extreme shift. I still think it’s true.
I had never checked the data, though, until this weekend. I thought you, dear reader, might want to know what I found.
It’s true. It’s all true. Jerry’s career OPS when pulling the ball is .923. When hitting it to center field, that figure drops to .655. Going the other way, it drops all the way to .484. He has never hit an opposite-field home run. Of all the balls he has ever hit to the opposite field, roughly one in eight have been pop-ups on the right side of the infield. Scott is an even more stark example. His career pulled OPS is 1.144. It spirals to a still-respectable .784 on balls to center field, but then all the way to .510 going the other way. Of 95 career home runs, Scott has pulled 80.
It’s not uncommon, of course, for batters to be better pulling the ball. As a whole, the league had a .952 OPS pulling the ball in 2012; an .803 figure on balls to center field; and a .728 number to the opposite field. Home runs per fly ball, league-wide, break down 32.0 percent/6.9 percent/3.1 percent. Now, these are league splits, and most batters probably are either a pull-conscious or opposite-field type of hitter, not something as balanced as the averages suggest. Still, it’s clear that the Hairstons are of a certain class who focus much more on doing what they want with a pitch than letting the pitch itself dictate their address of the ball.
There’s something broader we can learn about baseball here. Pulling the ball with authority–especially if the ball one is pulling is a fastball–requires starting one’s swing early and/or having good bat speed. The former usually better explains it, because many hitters with great bat speed use that gift to gain an extra split-second of time to discern the desirability of the pitch. Neither Hairston brother shows much patience; both seem to guess and swing. What I deduce from this is that pull hitters might rely more than most players on hitting opposite-handed pitching. The primary reason the platoon advantage exists, it seems to me, is that batters pick up the ball much sooner and better out of the hands of opposite-handed hurlers.
I looked into it, and my hypothesis was partially correct. If you’re smarter than me, and many of you are, you might already have guessed this: Guys who pull the ball exceptionally well rely more than usually heavily on hitting for power against opposite-handed pitchers. Jonny Gomes, Curtis Granderson, Giancarlo Stanton, Ryan Ludwick, J.P. Arencibia and others had very different splits in terms of strike-zone control and hitting for average on balls in play, but all shared a drastic improvement in isolated power against opposite-handed hurlers. Whenever I get a chance, I’ll pass along a more scientific set of results, and try to draw more scientific conclusions, but we’ve found something here. The Hairstons need to be facing lefties in order to tap into their power, and since they never draw walks, they basically need to face lefties in order to be effective. Being a pull hitter without plate discipline makes one a platoon player, and severely curtails star potential. This is very intuitive; I’m not breaking new ground. But it’s nice to have found some proof and logical foundation for that truth.
To follow one more tangent, this finding underscores the presence of three distinct component offensive skills, all affected in different ways by different situations. While batters can occasionally trade power for patience or contact for power, the opponent they face and several other external factors influence what blend of skills they can actually put to use in a given at-bat. Being a good “pure hitter,” as I call it (making consistent contact and being able to hit with different swing paths and to different fields as needed), makes one much less vulnerable to platoon problems than the average batter. Being especially heavy on the three true outcomes (home runs, strikeouts and walks) does the opposite, because the lion’s share of the platoon advantage shows up in strikeouts and walks. Contact hitters usually use the opposite field well, helping them combat same-handed pitching. The confrontation at the plate is much more complex and interesting than just “lefties can’t hit lefties.”
I’m also interested in this because it makes it important that Scott Hairston end up somewhere accommodating to right-handed power hitters. Fenway is too obvious and simple an example, and anyway Boston doesn’t need anyone of Hairston’s ilk. But think like that. Of teams with even a vague outfield need, the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and Baltimore Orioles have the friendliest home parks to Scott’s profile. San Francisco is best-positioned of those clubs to leverage the addition, but in absolute terms, the Cubs would be the best on-field fit.
Wrigley Field is wildly inviting for righty pull hitters. Chicago has both David DeJesus and Nate Schierholtz penciled in for full-time duty right now. Both are left-handed hitters, and have more than the average amount of trouble against lefty hurlers. Hairston would complement them well, and might even have a path to expanded playing time if Alfonso Soriano were traded.
Moreover, the Hairston family tradition somewhat demands that Scott make his way there eventually. Scott and Jerry’s grandfather, Sam Hairston, played just four games in MLB, at age 31, for the Chicago White Sox, after a half-decade in the Negro Leagues. Their father, Jerry, Sr., played primarily for the Sox during his 16-year career. Jerry, Sr.’s brother John had just a cup of coffee in the bugs, but had it with the 1969 Chicago Cubs. Jerry, as noted above, has put in his time, too. Scott joining the Cubs makes the most sense, then, but I wouldn’t expect from him any more (or even as much) as Soriano gave Chicago in left field in 2012, and if he plays well in the first half, he could easily end the season in another uniform.Next post: Sporadic Thoughts on the Weird, Wild Chicago White Sox
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