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Fielding opportunities by position based on pitcher hand

by Dan Levitt


Evaluating fielders based on statistics like Total Chances or Range Factor (simply Total Chances per game) has been shown to have some merit. That is, better fielders typically make more plays per game.  One of the underlying assumptions in the evaluation is that all fielders at the same position, over time, would be exposed to the same number of fielding opportunities.  One flaw in this assumption which I examine below is that where balls are hit is at least partially dependent on the pitcher's hand.

The conventional wisdom suggests that with a left-handed pitcher on the mound, a manager would stock his line-up with right-handed hitters thus increasing the likelihood of hits to the left side.  Against a right-handed hurler, the opposite would be expected to occur.

Using the 1980 - 1983 Retrosheet files to look at this issue leads to  some intriguing observations.  

Table 1 -- First "Out" By Position

Pos     <--LHP------>   <---RHP------>
"Outs"     Pct   "Outs"    Pct
1        5420     5.8%   12144    5.7%
2        1711     1.8%    4025    1.9%
3        7337     7.9%   22091   10.3%
4       14348    15.4%   39037   18.2%
5       14027    15.0%   26518   12.4%
6       18232    19.5%   37957   17.7%
7        9006     9.6%   23598   11.0%
8       12841    13.8%   28630   13.3%
9       10466    11.2%   20636    9.6%
Total   93388   100.0%  214636  100.0%

Notes: the first out is defined as the sum of (1) the first putout if there was no strikeout or infield assist on the play and (2) the first assist if the first putout was made by an infielder.  All table data consists of four year totals.

The infield results are intuitive: with a left-hander pitching, 24.3% of the first outs are made by the 1B or 2B.  When a righty takes the mound, this increases to 28.5%.  Conversely, a third-baseman's out percentage with a lefty pitcher is 15.0% and only 12.4% when a righty pitches.

The outfield results on the other hand seem counter-intuitive.  A greater proportion of outs to the left (rather than right) fielder against righties?  One would expect the larger percentage of left-handed hitters to fly out to right relatively more often. For another perspective I ran a table for which position fielded the ball for hits.

Table 2 -- Hits Fielded By Position

Pos     <--LHP------>   <---RHP------>
"Hits"     Pct   "Hits"    Pct
1         501     1.4%   1088     1.3%
2          42     0.1%     81     0.1%
3         294     0.8%    696     0.9%
4         572     1.6%   1594     2.0%
5        1225     3.4%   2358     2.9%
6        1289     3.6%   2679     3.3%
7       13397    37.0%  25195    30.9%
8       10322    28.5%  24108    29.6%
9        8544    23.6%  23666    29.1%
Total   36186   100.0%  81465   100.0%

Here the outfield totals make intuitive sense.  Hits are relatively more likely  to left against left-handers and to right against right-handers.  As an aside, against right-handers, the left/center/right split is almost exactly 1/3 - 1/3 - 1/3.

Summary: it seems the most likely explanation for the reverse outfield data on outs is that these opportunities aren't as solidly hit and hence have a higher likelihood that they were hit the opposite way.  Balls hit hard on the other hand, i.e. those that fell in for hits, followed the expected pattern.

As to the distribution of total chances, I think it safe to conclude, for infielders at least, that the  handedness of the pitcher does affect a fielder's opportunities.  Some effect occurs for outfield opportunities as well but not as one might expect.

by Dan Levitt

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This page updated February 06, 2000.

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