Phil Plantier: Teacher of Groundball Hitters?

When we were talking about the Padres offensive woes, I noted that the Padres hit more groundballs than any team in baseball. This seems weird to me.

Hitting coach Phil Plantier had an extreme uppercut swing that generated few grounders. Not that every hitter will emulate his coach, but it’s counterintuitive to expect this from Plantier’s charges.

Worse, it’s counterproductive. Here are results for different types of batted balls in 2013:

Split PA BA OBP SLG
LD 30,452 .674 .668 .978
FB 40,391 .182 .178 .523
GB 58,359 .240 .240 .259

Including plate appearances may seem gratuitous, but it’s important to see that this is a large sample. It’s also important to see that, with a few exceptions, you don’t want to be hitting a lot of grounders. This isn’t a one-year effect:

Year OPS
LD FB GB
2011 1691 788 493
2012 1693 831 496
2013 1646 701 499
2014* 1668 632 509

*Through games of June 11.

Line drives are awesome, fly balls are decent (some of them leave the yard), grounders stink. Which brings me to my next point: Through June 11, the Padres are the only MLB team to hit more grounders than fly balls (1.06 GB/FB); they are tied with the Kansas City Royals for lowest line-drive percentage (21%).

In recent years, the Padres have made a habit of hitting too many grounders, but this season they’re outdoing themselves:

Year GB/FB Rank Hitting Coach
2011 0.88 28 Randy Ready
2012 0.95 29 Phil Plantier
2013 0.90 26 Phil Plantier
2014 1.06 30 Phil Plantier

It wasn’t always this way:

Year GB/FB Rank Hitting Coach
2006 0.74 2 Dave Magadan, Merv Rettenmund
2007 0.68 1 Merv Rettenmund, Wally Joyner
2008 0.75 9 Wally Joyner
2009 0.78 12 Jim Lefebvre, Randy Ready
2010 0.83 19 Randy Ready

Obviously the players were different, but there has been a radical shift in hitting strategy. Did guys get it in their head that fly balls die at Petco Park and stop trying to hit the ball in the air? I have no idea, but the results aren’t pretty.

On this year’s team, the only hitter doing any damage on groundballs is Cameron Maybin. His slash line is a robust .385/.385/.481. That’s nice, but it’s also probably a fluke, as his career line on grounders is .279/.279/.310.

On the flip side, and to nobody’s surprise, Yonder Alonso should never hit the ball on the ground. Among the 171 players with at least 200 total plate appearances so far in 2014, only José Abreu (217), Nick Swisher (250), and Brandon Hicks (257) have a lower OPS on groundballs than Alonso (263). They all have the good sense to not hit grounders as often as he does.

* * *

Do I have a point? No, I have two:

  • Even in a park where balls hit in the air don’t always carry, hitting grounders is a lousy strategy.
  • It’s funny (you may prefer some other word) that Plantier, who couldn’t hit a grounder to save his life, is coaching guys that do it more than anyone else.

Is this Plantier’s fault? I don’t know, but it’s happening on his watch, which… well, it sucks for him because his performance is judged by their performance. And when you’ve been shut out 11 times in your first 65 games after being blanked 9 times the entire season before, someone is bound to realize that the current plan of attack isn’t working and maybe it’s time for a new approach that preferably involves more line drives.

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  • Padres Prospects

    Nice work Geoff!

    A good companion read on the A’s going fly ball tendencies: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=22435

    • Geoff Young

      Thanks for reminding me about that study. It’s interesting to note that the one guy on the Padres who is actually hitting played for the A’s last year.

  • Good stuff as always. As I’m sure you’re already aware, Geoff, much has been written about the Petco Park infield and the way it seems to deaden grounders. Hitting a ton of grounders is a bad strategy to begin with, but at a park that has never rewarded them to being with? Deadly.

    The Padres already have the worst GB/FB rate in baseball, and FanGraphs has the Padres as being the only team with a GB rate over 50%.

    • Geoff Young

      Great point, Bryant. A defense-friendly infield provides yet another reason to hit the ball skyward, preferably on a low trajectory.

  • Dustin

    Great work. I wonder how much of the change in GB/FB ratio over the years is due to the Padres constant search for the Holy Grail, the Petco-proof hitter. Probably better off just looking for good hitters, preferably ones that can consistently hit the ball into the gaps and over the wall. Maybe that’s easier said than done.

    • Geoff Young

      You’ve touched on something that has concerned me since the days of Klesko and Nevin, when the park first got into people’s heads. I thought Burroughs would be the guy you describe. Adrian *was* that guy until he became prohibitively expensive and played out his decline phase on someone else’s mile-high stack of dimes. Bradley and Hairston were for a moment, although they had other issues. I’m afraid that “easier said than done” might be the most true thing we can say about all this.

  • GoldenBoy

    This is Brilliant. Makes so much sense. Out of curiosity, would you be able to find out what percentage of our grounders were hit to 2B? If I had to take a guess, I’d say 68%.

  • Billy Lybarger

    Maybe they’ve constructed a roster full of guys that don’t have much ability to do anything other than weakly ground out?