When Conventional Wisdom Holds A Player Back: A Thought Experiment

We’ve made it this far. Sometimes, that’s misleading. It’s easy to give ourselves credit, but it’s also a fact that can lock us into a certain mindset: “We’ve been having success with this approach, so let’s keep using this approach.” These are the kinds of thoughts that breed conventional wisdom, ones that seem to make so much sense that we don’t need to think twice about them, so we don’t. Intentional or not, baseball is the same way sometimes.

Say the speedy guy is up to bat. He slaps it to the opposite field and generates some offense with his legs. He’s using what he has to take what he can get. That’s been the conventional wisdom on the diamond, and maybe elsewhere, forever. Let’s consider a mystery player who’s taken that to heart.

Hwit 1 redux

The Mystery Player has hit the ball to the opposite field a lot more than his peers, with a little more loft, pretty much the same average exit velocity, a much lower peak, and a bunch more speed. The speed here is key. It’s why you’d figure he’s going to the opposite field so much. But the real question is this: How’s it really working for him?

Hwit1

There are a couple things worth noting here. The expected wOBA for balls hit the opposite way is probably lower than the overall league average of .316 because they’re often the kind that end up as lazy flies to outfielders more than doubles into alleys or better, unless the hitter is, say, Joey Votto (.445 oppo wOBA) or JD Martinez (.536 oppo wOBA).

The actual wOBA is probably so much higher than the league average of .318 because the guys hitting these balls are often burners like Mallex Smith and Lorenzo Cain, whose sprint times are in the 92nd and 83rd percentile; or at least guys who can run faster than average, like Matt Duffy and Corey Dickerson. All of those hitters went the other way at least 32% of the time last season.

The mystery player is in the 91st percentile in sprint speed, though, just a half step behind Mallex Smith. Considering all of the above, and that he gets on base at a clip nearly 40% lower than average on balls he hits to the opposite field, despite being faster than almost everyone, we have to ask — why is he doing it?

The answer is easy. The mystery player is Whit Merrifield. He was a top-20 player in all of baseball last year, and has provided the Royals with 9.5 fWAR in less than three full seasons. Clearly Merrifield’s approach is working for him…but it raises questions. He debuted at 27. He’s already 30. How much longer can he last going the opposite way at this rate? How much sooner might he have reached the Majors if he had shirked conventional wisdom? How much better could he get? How many players have never even gotten the chance he has because they were taught to do something that ultimately held them back?

We don’t have a time machine, so we can’t answer all these questions. What we’re really asking about, anyway, is player development. A player with these flaws — even if he’s already productive — seemingly has two potential options to get better. And before we move on, I want to be clear: this conversation isn’t designed around “fixing” Whit Merrifield. He’s already really good, despite any flaws he may have. But his tendency to go the opposite way is a great peek into the approach of a hitter following conventional wisdom.

One option for a player who goes to the opposite field at a high rate to have more success, speedy or not, is to get more on plane with those pitches. Being “on plane” is not a static thing. If a hitter takes the same cut at a ball low and in as they do high and away, the results will be wildly different. It’s an action that’s about where the pitcher is sending the ball, not what the player wants to do with the bat. The less on plane a hitter is, the more energy that gets lost when the bat hits the ball.

If the ball is naturally moving toward the ground, the hitter should naturally attack by swinging up. Jason Ochart, Director of Hitting for Driveline and Minor League Hitting Coordinator for the Phillies, describes the ideal attack angle for a pro under these terms:

  • If their peak exit velocity is under 105 mph, their attack angle should be between 5 and 15 degrees.
  • If their peak exit velocity is above 105 mph, it should be between 10 and 20 degrees.

Let’s go back to considering Whit Merrifeld. His peak exit velocity to the opposite field last year was 101.8 mph. Overall, it was 106.4 mph, which happened against Aaron Loup in April. In 2017, it was 102 mph to opposite field and 110.5 mph overall. The year he debuted, he was 103.6 mph going oppo and 107.1 mph overall in half of a season.

He gets pitched away twice as much as the league does on average, and over 30% more than righties. Those are pitches primed for a hitter to take the opposite way, just being levied against him like there’s no tomorrow.  With the results Merrifield has yielded in the Majors, of course pitchers would want to force him into going oppo. Likewise, it’s perhaps just as clear that working to attack the ball between five and 15 degrees on pitches outside could see him reach another level.

Remember, though, Merrifield’s already 30, and he’s already having lots of success at the highest level. For as much as the Big Leagues can be about an “adapt or die” mindset, they can also be about trusting the idea of “dance with who brought you.” Maybe he doesn’t want — or need — to rework such a large portion of his game. But not every player with skills comparable to Merrifield’s necessarily have the same degree of success. They have to find a way to adapt around their weakness.

If they don’t want to reshape their swing, they could also train in game-like settings to swing less at the pitches they do the least with. In a sense, this is something Whit Merrifield has already done. He’s cut his chase rate each year he’s been in the league. The problem, if we can call it that, is that he still makes contact on balls out of the zone about eight percent more than average. It’s another instance of his skill set undercutting his performance, and one he could elect to fill. Similar to reworking their swing, the non-Merrifields of the world would have to make a choice — retrain their body or their eyes to give themselves a bigger shot at the ultimate goal of playing in the Majors.

That choice represents a necessity for those players who don’t hit as well overall or aren’t capable of fielding multiple positions to know how their batted balls are truly servicing or hurting them. The conventional wisdom that’s been driving their game for years may not be what they really need.

If you’ve gotten this far, wherever you are, it’s fair to give yourself some credit. You’ve earned it. But, unless you’re like Whit Merrifield, holding onto it might be holding you back.

Zone data and fWAR from FanGraphs. All other data from Statcast. Feature photo from Stack.

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