MLB Handicapping: Righties and Lefties
by Trevor Whenham - 04/24/2008
For baseball handicappers there are so many things to consider when capping a game that it's really easy to overlook a small but crucial detail and make a costly mistake. One of the areas that this can come up is with batting. People will often look at how a team is batting, and they will obviously look at the pitcher who is pitching, but they often don't break down the team batting to look at how the team performs as a whole against right-handed pitchers versus left-handers. There are many teams that have a wide gulf in their ability to hit the two types of throwers, and if you don't compensate for that then you can wrongly assume that a team is likely to do much better or much worse than they actually are given the pitcher.
The differences are striking. Only one team - Boston - is hitting .300 against right-handed pitchers. No other team is above .295. Against lefties teams have had much more success - five are hitting above .300. The relative ease of hitting lefties versus righties is consistent across the league - the average batting average in the league is .259 against righties and three points better against lefties.
Here's a look at teams that are notable for their difference in abilities to hit the different pitchers.
Florida - By any measure the Marlins have been a huge surprise this year. They are 12-8, and they find themselves 1-½ games up in a division that they weren't supposed to be even remotely competitive in. There are a couple of things you have to consider about what they have done, though. They have amassed their record largely by beating up on lousy teams - they are a combined 8-3 against Pittsburgh and Washington. They've also done it by taking advantage of right-handers. They have hit .295 against righties, which is second best in the majors behind only Boston. Against lefties, though, they are better than just two teams at a paltry .204. The power change is as bad as their average - they have a team OPS of .902 against righties, and .573 when pitchers throw with their left hand.
Milwaukee - The Brewers have the opposite problem of the Marlins. They hit a solid .293 against left-handers, and have a slugging percentage of .531 (the best in the majors by a solid margin). Right-handers have been much tougher for them - a .232 average and .358 slugging percentage. This is a bit of a surprising situation because Prince Fielder is a left handed batter, but Ryan Braun is an absolute beast against lefties, and that outweighs the problems Fielder might have.
Toronto - You could correctly argue that the Blue Jays are too boring as a team to even worry about, but we will consider them because they do have a big difference - .270 against right-handers and .233 against lefties. This is noteworthy because it is a bit surprising. Vernon Wells is the best player on the team, and he is much stronger from the left side - his batting average since 2005 is 77 points higher against lefties. Wells has actually been better against righties this year, but that should change as the season goes along and the sample sizes grow. Frank Thomas was also particularly good against lefties, but that's obviously no longer relevant here.
Angels - The Angels aren't having problems hitting from either side of the plate, but it is still notable that they are much better against left-handers. They have the best average in the league against lefties at .337, but they drop back to .286 against righties. The important thing to note, though, is that they have had the second fewest at-bats against lefties - just 101. They have 34 hits, but their power is underwhelming from that side. Their power isn't much better against righties, but they have had the second most at-bats against them, so their average is likely a bit more sustainable over the long run.
Dodgers - The Dodgers are another team that would only face left-handers if they had the choice. They are hitting .311 against them, but only .245 against the alternative. At that rate Joe Torre is probably about to blow a gasket.
Arizona - There's little debate that Arizona is the best team in baseball right now. That wouldn't be the case if there were no lefties in the world. They are only hitting .261 against right-handers, but that leaps up to .303 against southpaws. Unlike the Angels, the difference is likely sustainable for the Diamondbacks. They have had 254 at-bats against lefties - the third most in the league.