Tony Bernazard’s Opposite Day

Yesterday morning, in the Daily News, John Harper wrote about how former VP of Player Development Tony Bernazard’s emphasis on going the opposite way last season was detrimental to the Mets’ success.

Hitting coach Howard Johnson,
who has now changed the philosophy to try and make the Mets more of a
power-hitting ballclub again, Sunday confirmed what I’d been told by
sources in the organization.
“Yes,” said HoJo on the question of Bernazard setting the hitting
philosophy. “That was a big thing in our organization. It was a big
part of the organization’s philosophy, starting in the minor leagues.”
Sources say Bernazard, who oversaw minor-league development, was so
insistent on players hitting the ball to the opposite field that minor
leaguers were scolded for pulling the ball, sometimes even when they
got a hit.

Last paragraph first.  For developing players, process is often more important than results.  If a young player is consistently trying to yank curveballs, sure, it’ll produce some hits, but it’ll also produce a lot of softly rolled-over ground balls to middle infielders.  So, just because a player got a hit, a gentle reminder (at least by baseball standards) about process and approach is not necessarily, by itself, misguided.

However, making an established MLB star, like, oh say David Wright, emphasize the opposite field at the expense of his natural pull power, is just silly.

To this end, Ted Berg almost breaks his own arm patting himself on the back for pointing out last summer that David Wright was going the opposite way more often in 2009, the worst season, at least by HR, of Wright’s professional career.  Berg suggested that the Mets immediately cease and desist their oppo-heavy approach.

At the Hardball Times, John Walsh checks the numbers with a quick and impressive study to find that the Mets went the other way more than all but three other MLB teams in 2009 and that of the five batters with 150+ balls in play in ’08 and ’09, four of the five went the other way more often in ’09.  The only Mets hitter who pulled the ball more often in ’09 with enough contact in each year to qualify was Luis Castillo, who was awful (.245/.355/.305) and out of shape in ’08 in which his bat was so slow, it felt like he could barely pull a pitch in a beer-league softball game.  As Mets fans know he improved to  .302/.387/.346 in ’09.   This improvement had something to do with better conditioning and something to do with a 60 point BABIP improvement.  Lets leave Castillo, a slap-hitter by nature, aside.  Even so, it’s clear that Mets hitters were doing something differently, and it wasn’t good.

Over at Amazin’ Avenue, James K picks up on the theme and writes,

The importance of “going to the opposite field” is one of those empty
bromides that doesn’t really make any sense but allows “baseball
people” to feel smarter than fans and other outsiders to the game…

I don’t buy this either.  Many successful MLB hitters rely on pulling the ball (see, Utley, Chase).  Others use the whole field.  Very few, like almost none, rely on going the other way exclusively.  It’s all about knowing the right time and situation.  Going to the opposite field is an important piece of most players’ offensive games, it just can’t be the only, or even, primary piece.  I love AA, but this misses the mark a little bit to fit James’ insider/outsider worldview.

The Minor Implications

I simply don’t have the time to create a database of every piece of contact by a Met farmhand last year to determine whether the organization as a whole began pulling the ball more post-Bernazard or whether players went the other way more often early in the season as compared with previous years.  If we have any database geniuses around here, this would be the time to speak up.  However, we do have some anecdotal evidence that certain Mets prospects pulled the ball more later in the season.

I did the research for Kirk Nieuwenhuis last September, and determined in part that his huge finish to the season with St. Lucie was due to an improved ability to pull the ballBaseball America wrote about this as well.

Lets take a look at Ike Davis, with some help from the spray charts of the wonderful minorleaguesplits.com.  In Brooklyn in 2008, focusing on his green hit dots, he did most of his damage either right back up the middle to dead center, or by pulling the ball into right field.  In St. Lucie to begin 2009, his production was more spread throughout the OF.  However, all but one of his homers were either hit to dead center, or pulled to basically straight away right.  By the end of the year, at AA Binghamton, Davis’s green dots are highly concentrated in right field, as are all but one of his HR.  Is this a normal development pattern or does it reflect a decreased emphasis throughout 2009 on going the other way for the Mets top prospects?

Anyway, count this as one more reason to be pleased Tony Bernazard is no longer setting instructional policy in the minor league system.

Failboat from Aaroncook.com because it’s funny.  Top 41 hopefully returns later today.

There are 9 comments

  1. WC

    All well and good to assign the blame to Bernazard, and maybe he did dictate the organizational approach, but someone else pointed out yesterday that last spring, Jerry was raving about how he used to do that 80 curveball opposite field drill with the White Sox, so that at least was not a new invention from Tony.

    I do agree with AA that going the other way is one of those empty baseball cliches. Being able to go to all fields is important for some players, and a lot of the best hitters do this, sure, but I’d like to think that this is because they’re so good that they are able to generate hard, solid contact no matter at what depth the ball meets the bat in the zone. They’re not trying to poke the ball through the hole or flare a single over the 2b’s head.

    1. Toby Hyde

      Great point on Manuel’s affection for the goofy 80-ball oppo drill.

      I’m not sure why anything you wrote in the second paragraph makes “going oppo” an empty baseball cliche. If the ball is pitched low and away for example, almost the only way a batter will hit the ball hard is to go the other way. Going the other way does not only refer to flicking (or flaring, to use your word) a ball; it can and does driving the ball.

      1. Not4Nuttin

        I’m with you on this Toby.

        There are always a few exceptions – some superstars who can seemingly hit any ball almost anywhere they want no matter where it is pitched. But for the 4 decades I have been watching baseball, a good hitter has always been able to use all fields and hit the ball where it is pitched. If they know a pitcher is going to live on the outside of the plate, they would be foolish if they did not look to drive the ball to the opposite field. That is no empty cliche, but rather common sense. Choice A is to try to pull it and weakly ground out to short (or if you are a lefty, to 2nd base). Choice A is to wait on the pitch and drive it back up the middle or to the opposite field.

        Of course, a batter who always looks to hit to the opposite field is probably no different than someone who always looks to pull. Presumably, pitchers will learn their tendency from film study and reputation, and jam those batters inside. Further proof that you should hit the ball where it is pitched.

  2. acerimusdux

    I think you nailed it Toby.

    If there was to some degree an organizational approach at the minor league level, I don’t think that’s all bad, especially at lower levels. In fact the Mets seem to have done a decent job lately of producing some bats at the minor league level. For many young players at lower levels, the natural tendency is going to sometimes be to try to do too much with tough pitches, and it is easy for guys to get into bad habits swinging for the fences. To some degree, I think it can be better for guys to learn to hit first, and then worry about hitting HR later.

    That said, it seems madness to try to completely overhaul the approach of successful MLB players like Wright and Beltran, and even for minor leaguers, this should really only be one part of a balanced overall approach.

    And instruction really should be tailored to some degree to individual players. For example, even some of our youngest prospects, such as Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada, are already great contact hitters, and probably would be served by working now on pulling and driving the ball more.

    On the other hand, some guys who are free swingers, who struggle making contact, especially with breaking balls away, might benefit from heavy use of this kind of drill. Is it possible this program even should get some or the credit for the resurgence of Jeff Francoeur?

  3. JamesK

    Hi Toby,

    I wrote earlier in the post:

    “Hitting the ball where it’s pitched seems like the smart play. Trying to hit an inside pitch to the opposite field just for the sake of it is pretty dumb. ”

    I probably should’ve just left it at that, because that was my central point.

    The passage you quoted above was poorly worded on my part. I don’t think hitting to the opposite field is unimportant by any means. I just think that too often it’s a go-to cliche for many baseball analysts whenever they explain why a player is struggling, regardless if the player’s actual problem is not going the other way. Just listen to Keith Hernandez (I love Keith, btw) diagnose hitters’ issues this season on air. He almost always attributes problems to failure to go the other way.

    Thanks for the feedback,

    James K.

    1. Toby Hyde

      Yes. Sometimes when we write too much we obscure our central point.

      Side story: I was in a sales meeting the other day pitching something to another guy almost twice my age, who has made his living by being a good salesman. He fixed on something in my inventory he liked, we talked about benefits, details, terms, etc. I started to move on to something else, and he stopped me and said, “stop, don’t oversell.”

      Back to the baseball, I think we come out in the same place on this. I’m not sure how I wrote the whole post above without resorting to the “hitting the ball where it’s pitched” line, but that’s clearly what we were both talking about because that’s really what most successful hitters do.

      There will be plenty of times when “insiders” say dumb shit about the game, and I look forward to your continued critiques.

      1. KevnCt

        Toby,
        Been reading for a while…..first time offering my 2 cents… and congrats on your new job!
        I think this is all about a slow news day with Tony B as a good target.
        For anyone to suggest a legitimate star like Wright is going to alter his approach due to Tony B is nonsense. Wright always went the other way and to look at anything he did last year means very little.

        As I recall, Jerry’s curve exercise was to train guys to stay in the AB, battle, and foul off pitches, even when tired. Depending on location, many times you have to hit a curve the other way….or ground out when you try and pull it. Teaching guys to let pitch location dictate what the hitter tries to do with it makes sense. Any assumption that Tony had guys trying to inside/out fastballs on the inside half is laughable.
        Like many things surrounding the Mets these days, just more pile ing on.

      2. Toby Hyde

        Kevin,
        I think there’s actually pretty compelling evidence that Wright did alter his approach in ’09. His oppo contact percentage was way up over his career norm.

      3. KevnCt

        I hear ya…but at times Wright was unrecognizable at the plate and for extended periods he looked defensive. He mentioned at one point this spring that he may have been trying to do too much. I guess my reading on this is that most of his stats from last season are abnormal. Also, as the only legit threat, pitchers were pitching him away, hence more out to RF.
        To the point about TB, the distinction between pitch location and how the hitter approaches that pitch is everything, but inside outing a fastball on this inside half, I find that hard to believe.

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