Going the Other Way
The dead pull hitter is dying out as batters crush the ball to the opposite field
Not long ago you could win bets with less knowledgeable fans—or at least pass yourself off as clairvoyant—by predicting where certain batters, especially sluggers, would hit the ball. Almost without fail, right-handed power hitters would bash the ball to left, and their lefthanded counterparts would rip it to right. "It used to be that for most guys, if you wanted to hit a home run, you had to pull the ball," says Bill Madlock, who was a distinguished righthanded batter for six teams from 1973 through '87 and is the Tigers' hitting coach. "I hit 163 home runs, and every one of them went to leftfield. Now I see righthanded guys who are 5'8" hitting the ball out to right center."
The dead pull hitter may not be extinct, but he certainly has become less commonplace. To be sure, a handful of sluggers-including the White Sox' Jose Canseco, the Blue Jays' Carlos Delgado, the Athletics' Jason Giambi, the Indians' Jim Thome and the Devil Rays' Greg Vaughn—still inspire defenses to shift drastically to one side of the field, but as a rule, hitters use the whole field much more than they did a generation ago. For example, in 1987 there were 23 batters with at least 300 plate appearances who pulled 50% or more of the balls they put in play. By '92 that number had decreased to 14, and by '97 it had fallen to nine. Through Sunday there were seven such hitters this season. (Vaughn, a right-handed hitter, had the highest pull percentage—62% of his balls had gone to the left side.) "More guys are dangerous from left center to right center," says Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "As far as just flat playing a guy to pull, there aren't nearly as many."
The reasons for the decline parallel those for the general surge in offensive production over the last decade: Hitters are more muscular than ever, parks are smaller, and pitchers work inside less often. Since today's bulked-up sluggers have little trouble reaching the seats in any direction—especially when those seats aren't as far away as they were in many older stadiums—they have little reason to concentrate on yanking the ball to the traditional power fields.
Batters also see far fewer pullable pitches than they did in the past. Scarred by batters wielding aluminum bats in amateur baseball, pitchers tend to work away, away, away. A diet of deliveries aimed at the outside corner has conditioned batsmen to hit the ball to the opposite field. "When I look at tape, I'd say 95 percent of pitches I see are on the outer half [of the plate]" says Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher.
"Pitchers won't give in," says Red Sox hitting coach Rick Down. "They're trying to get you to pull the ball from the middle of the plate out and hit a weak ground ball. To be an effective hitter, you have to hit the ball where it's pitched."
That was the philosophy taught by renowned hitting coaches Charlie Lau and Walt Hriniak in 1970s and early '80s. They stressed the importance of extending the arms to cover the entire plate. Current hitters have turned that idea into another means of producing home runs. "It used to be when someone hit homers to centerfield or the opposite way, it was freakish," says Boston third base coach Gene Lamont. "That's not the way it is anymore."
Playing Out the String
Dog Day Afternoons
Tigers outfielder Bobby Higginson remembers last August the way minimum-security prisoners look back on furlough afternoons. It was a glimpse of what life is like on the other side. Detroit, which had begun the month 48-56, caught fire and reached .500 that late in the season for the first time in three years. The Tigers weren't contenders—they never came closer than 11� games to the American League Central-champion White Sox—but at least they caught a whiff of what being in the running for a postseason berth might be like. "For a while we were listed in the wild-card standings—that was exciting," says Higginson. "I can't imagine what it would be like to be 10 or 15 games over .500 this time of year."
Detroit, which is working on its eighth straight losing season, was 20 games under 500 through Sunday. Six-year veteran Higginson and his teammates were again slogging through the season's dog days, the time of year when the weather is hot, the body tired and, for the handful of teams that aren't close to the wild card, the games meaningless. How does a player keep himself motivated while playing out the string with roughly a quarter of the schedule remaining?