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On the power profiles of switch-hitters

There is an assumption that all of Yasmani Grandal’s power comes from the left side. Is it true?

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

I revere Vin Scully. When he was nearing the end of his run last year I was happy to be able to contribute some nostalgia-soaked memories about him for this website. That said, he was one of the many purveyors of an observation that I took issue with: that Dodgers’ catcher Yasmani Grandal’s power resided only from the left side.

This was an opinion that I’ve heard expressed a lot, both by Scully and on national broadcasts. It’s easy to see why that is the narrative; of Grandal’s 27 home runs in 2016, 23 came batting left-handed. The reason I’ve always met that talking point with my own private, dismissive eye-roll is that it seems like a superficial assumption. Grandal had so few plate appearances against left-handers in 2016 that of course comparing the raw home run totals will be misleading. It’s an easy thing for a broadcast to mention though, so I never gave it much thought after the fact.

Fast forward to mid-February. Baseball news is scarce as pitchers and catchers are still just unpacking in Arizona and Florida. In between all the ‘best shape of his life’ stories, this note from Camelback Ranch caught my eye and reminded me of the notion that many believe Grandal’s power is only from the left side.

With the news that (health permitting of course) he’ll get more opportunities as a righty, let’s dig in and see if there’s any truth to the anecdotal observation that his power is more impressive when standing in the box as a lefty. Here are some power indicator splits from both last season and his career to date:

Yasmani Grandal’s Power Splits

Year PA/HR v R as L PA/HR v L as R ISO v R as L ISO v L as R HR/FB v R as L HR/FB v L as R
Year PA/HR v R as L PA/HR v L as R ISO v R as L ISO v L as R HR/FB v R as L HR/FB v L as R
2016 15.7 24.0 .268 .171 25.0% 26.7%
Career 22.8 36.3 .203 .145 18.3% 16.1%
Data via FanGraphs

In one sense my instincts here were totally wrong. Grandal both in 2016 and his entire career has a much smaller PA/HR mark from the left side, and his isolated power echoes that advantage. Yet, when we look at his HR/FB rate in 2016 it was actually higher as a right-hander. The explanation here is simple, Grandal has plenty of ability to drive the ball from the right side but he has had difficulty elevating the ball consistently in these situations.

Yasmani Grandal’s Batted Ball Splits

Handedness LD% GB% FB% IFFB% Avg. Exit Velocity Avg. Launch Angle
Handedness LD% GB% FB% IFFB% Avg. Exit Velocity Avg. Launch Angle
vs. R as L 15.2% 42.4% 42.4% 9.8% 92.8 MPH 14.0°
vs. L as R 19.6% 53.6% 26.8% 20.0% 91.1 MPH 7.7°
Data via FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

The exit velocity difference from the left to the right side is not much, and he’s still above average as a righty. His launch angle is problematic though, as it’s nearly doubled as a left-handed hitter. The inability to put the ball in the air has killed Grandal as a right-hander, and when he is able to elevate, the result is often an infield fly.

To Grandal and the Dodgers’ credit, they recognized this issue and have been working on a mechanical fix during the offseason, as Andy McCullough of the LA Times reports:

Twice a week he met with former Dodgers hitting coach Jeff Pentland to polish his right-handed swing, and this spring he has already displayed “better leverage in his lower half, and a well-balanced plane for his swing,” hitting coach Turner Ward said.

With increased opportunities from the right side for Grandal in 2017, we’ll find out if an improved swing plane from the right side has a tangible effect on his ground-ball problem.

It’s an issue of semantics and admittedly nitpicking, but I’ll stick to my guns on one point; when hitting right-handed Grandal does NOT have less power, he’s just tapped into that power far less often. It’s not an issue of ability, it’s an issue of execution. If he can fix the launch angle problem as a righty, the perception will change.

Looking into Grandal’s power splits got me thinking about whether or not other switch-hitting sluggers had demonstrable differences in their numbers from each side of the plate. Here are the eight other switch-hitters who had at least 20 home runs and 50 plate appearances from each side:

2016 Switch-Hitting Sluggers’ Power Splits

Player PA/HR v R as L PA/HR v L as R ISO v R as L ISO v L as R HR/FB v R as L HR/FB v L as R
Player PA/HR v R as L PA/HR v L as R ISO v R as L ISO v L as R HR/FB v R as L HR/FB v L as R
Carlos Santana 16.4 49.0 .285 .128 19.7% 8.2%
Carlos Beltran 21.5 18.1 .204 .252 16.9% 18.0%
Asdrubal Cabrera 22.2 41.3 .208 .143 14.7% 10.7%
Kendrys Morales 22.3 17.7 .191 .231 19.6% 18.0%
Victor Martinez 22.4 23.3 .196 .161 14.8% 14.6%
Neil Walker 23.2 13.8 .167 .280 14.4% 21.1%
Danny Espinosa 31.5 14.2 .141 .261 14.6% 24.3%
Min. 20 HR & 50 PA from each side Data via FanGraphs

Power Advantage from the Left Side

Cleveland slugger Carlos Santana saw a dramatic difference in power from the left and the right side in 2016. Of his 34 home runs, just four of them came as a righty. He has always been a better power hitter from the left side but 2016 saw a bigger difference than ever before. The 16.4 PA/HR number as a lefty bested his career number of 23.7, and the 49.0 mark from the right side was much higher than his career 39.2 number.

Much like Grandal, Santana saw a significant difference in ground-ball rate depending on his handedness. As a righty his 53.9 percent ground-ball rate was significantly higher than the 37.7 percent mark he carried from the left side and explains the imbalance in production.

Joining the ‘unable to elevate from the right side’ club is Mets’ shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, a somewhat surprising inclusion on this list as it was the first time he eclipsed the 20 home run mark since 2011. He was able to cut his career ground-ball rate as a lefty but saw it increase from the right side. Cabrera saw double digit HR/FB rates from both sides of the plate, besting his single digit career splits. His isolated power of .143 as a right-hander was right in line with career mark of .140, but as a lefty he was able to jump up to .208 from a career number of .154.

Power Advantage from the Right Side

New Angels’ second baseman Danny Espinosa has always demonstrated more power from the right side, but that difference was even more exaggerated in 2016 when he hit a career high 24 home runs. His isolated power as a right-hander was .261, significantly higher than his already respectable .197 career mark. Meanwhile Espinosa’s HR/FB rate as lefty increased 1.1 percentage point, while his right-handed number jumped an impressive 9.1 percentage points.

While Espinosa has always been more dangerous from the right side, Mets’ second baseman Neil Walker has most certainly not. In 2016 Walker told ESPN’s Adam Rubin about a change in approach when batting right-handed:

"I got rid of my toe tap," Walker said. "So far it's been a good point for me from a timing standpoint when I have a toe tap from the left side. It was hard for me to maintain it from the right side for many years. Going into this last offseason, that was a big point for me. ... It's gotten me into a much better rhythm than I have been in the past."

For his career Walker holds a right handed PA/HR mark of 62 plate appearances per home run. In 2016 he bested that career mark by 48.2 plate appearances, finishing with PA/HR of 13.8 as a righty. It seems that the one mechanical change worked wonders.

Equal Opportunity Sluggers

The two oldest gentlemen on this list are also the two most consistent from both sides of the dish. Tigers’ designated hitter Victor Martinez and Astros’ outfielder Carlos Beltran have both shown a less-than-four plate appearance difference in both their 2016 and career PA/HR numbers. Perhaps most notable is that Martinez saw his 2016 marks significantly lower than his career marks, but they decreased in tandem, he didn’t just improve from one side of the plate.

New Blue Jays’ designated hitter Kendrys Morales is a different case. His career PA/HR from the right side had been almost 10 plate appearances higher than from the left, but in 2016 the right side was the better of the two marks. This will come as no surprise if you’ve read this far, but he did it by elevating the ball. Morales owns a career ground-ball rate of 48.4 percent from the right side. In 2016 he was able to cut that to 34.5 percent. That’s a 13.9 percent decrease, of which he sent 9.4 percentage points to his fly-ball rate and 4.5 percentage points to his line drive. That’s a significant positive change in Morales’ batted ball profile and it showed up in his power production.

When you’re parsing stat lines to deal with handedness splits there are always going to be small sample size issues. While some guys like Carlos Santana have career differences in their power numbers from one side of the plate that have revealed themselves over time; others, like Kendrys Morales, see fluctuations year-to-year.

As these eight sluggers have shown, more often than not a disparity in the numbers is an issue with failing to elevate the ball from one side, not a lack of power altogether. To assume their power tool corresponds to their home run totals is a mistake, there’s usually an underlying reason for a discrepancy. These players are major league caliber hitters from both sides of the plate for a reason.

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Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.