Note: Left-on-left data and other split data is complete back to 1974, mostly complete back to 1950, and only somewhat recorded back to 1930.
Elaine Thompson/AP Images
It’s a familiar scene. It’s late in the game and a lefty slugger is lying in wait in the on-deck circle. The crowd’s energy is palpable, anticipating a ball demolished into the right field bleachers. But then, the manager motions to the bullpen. A left-handed pitcher enters the game and the seemingly invincible slugger flails helplessly against the southpaw.
The left on left kryptonite is an established and historical trend. Of the 363 left-handed hitters to record 100 total hits against lefties, 343 have had a lower OPS against left handed pitching relative to their career total. Even the greatest hitters of all time struggled against left-handed pitching. Ted Williams and Jim Thome’s splits have their OPS percentages drop by over 220 points each against left-handed pitching.
With modern day bullpen strategy and dominant left-handed starters such as Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale, the ability to hit left-handed pitching is in demand. Even though teams have tinkered with platoons (playing right handed hitters vs left handed pitchers and vice versa), the effects of not playing every day is noted to affect timing and player confidence. Furthermore, platooning usurps valuable roster space; one position is occupied by two players, and a player that could be supplementing the team elsewhere is forfeited. It is much more valuable to have a player with the ability to hit both lefties and righties well.
To isolate split data, I decided to create my own statistic, pltOPS+. pltOPS+ will function with the same mechanism as OPS+, but it compares platoon splits rather than overall offensive production. A pltOPS+ of 100 means the player is hitting the same against righties and lefties. Lower than 100 means the player hits worse against lefties and vice versa. Below is the formula and a link to the simple calculator I created to do these calculations.
Using this formula, I have developed a criterion for discussing the greatest left on left hitters of all time.
- The hitter must hit lefties well. Obviously.
- The hitter has to be historically good. For example, Daric Barton’s pltOPS+ of 135 is the highest of all time for left-handed batters with over 100 recorded hits against left-handed pitching. Yet, Barton has only been an average major league hitter in his 8 year career.
- The player must not have a huge discrepancy in his ability to hit Right Handers and Left Handers. This is where pltOPS+ is important. Even though Ted Williams had a .934 OPS against left handed pitching, which is incredible, he was significantly better against right-handed pitching. His pltOPS+ of 63 means he was approximately 47 percent less effective against left-handed pitching.
Ichiro Suzuki is one of the most decorated hitters in baseball history. As a traditional contact hitter, Ichiro has accumulated over 3000 hits, has one MVP award, and is the greatest Asian baseball player of all time. What puts Ichiro in contention as the greatest left on left hitter of all time is his uncanny ability to hit left handed pitching better than right handed pitching. Ichiro has a whopping career pltOPS+ of 110. Ichiro is the only left handed hitter with at least 400 hits against left handed pitching to hit better against lefties than righties. He has 931 career hits against southpaws.
Barry Bonds is one of the most imposing players to ever step foot in a batter’s box. The home run king dominated lefties and righties for over two decades. Even though Barry Bonds was a better hitter against righties, his pltOPS+ is “only” 82, Bonds was still the most dominant force against left handed pitching. Bonds played in the era of relief pitchers and specialists, yet his OPS of .986 ranks first among lefties with over 400 recorded left on left hits. If Bonds only hit against left handed pitching in his career, he would have the 9th highest OPS in baseball history.
Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig*
As I discussed in the note, platoon data is only somewhat accounted for back until 1930, hence the asterisk. While we do not have a full sample of what Gehrig and Ruth accomplished, we know the heart of murderer’s row mashed indiscriminately. Both had OPS’s north of 1.000 against lefties. Gehrig had a pltOPS+ of 85 and Ruth had a pltOPS+ of 104. Ruth and Gehrig were historical outliers that dominated baseball in an irreplicable way. Their invulnerability against left-handed pitching only furthers their herculean or “ruthian” legacies.
Splits statistics in baseball have irreversibly changed the game’s strategy in the modern era. Watching left-on-left bullpen calls have become a contentious point to those who want to speed up games, but strategically, these maneuvers are here to stay. In conclusion, the ability to hit left-on-left pitching is becoming an increasingly valuable asset. While successful left-on-left hitting has been historically sparse, there is precedence of bucking this trend. Furthermore, as baseball scouting and analysis continues to skew more towards the valuation of players rather than raw ability, the added value of hitting regardless of pitcher-handedness will continue to be emphasized more. Young rookie starlets like Rafael Devers, who currently has extreme reverse splits, and Cody Bellinger, who rakes against anyone, may be harbingers of a future era where handed matchups do not mean destiny.
None of this could have been done without the invaluable tools of Baseball Play Index and Fangraphs.
Daniel Kim is a Freshman in the McDonough School of Business