In case it hasn't caught on here, they're doing really cool stuff at Baseball Heat Maps. As the amount of publicly available data and tools continue to expand, we should be able to ask and answer increasingly complicated and interesting questions and hopefully this is another small step of progress.
What first caught my attention was the Pitcher Hit Location tool, which allows for us to create a more nuanced batted ball profile for pitchers.
This data isn't as good as we'd like it to be, because the truly advanced tools - Hit F/X and what have you - remain unavailable to the public. What I will be using is essentially a compilation of the "red dots" that MLB Gameday produces.
Those things. Unfortunately, Gameday measures where the ball was fielded and not where the ball first touches the ground - which would be a more useful dataset. Equally unfortunate is that given the variance in stadium conditions and the measurement method used, the data is not tremendously precise. If you've ever watched a game with Gameday open, I'm sure you've noticed that the dots do not seem to perfectly agree with what you just watched.
But it's close enough and it's what we've got, so as long as we understand to look for the broad strokes and not overstate our findings, no one should get hurt using this tool.
More specifically, I wanted to compare Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia. Why? Because Ivan Nova allowed a staggering 87 extra base hits and a .511 slugging percentage and because CC Sabathia is better and left handed.
The above mentioned tool from Baseball Heat Maps allowed me to split the field into ten zones - five across and two deep. For example, shallow left field, deep left-center, etc. Then, filtering by batted ball type (pops, liners, home runs, and flies) will divide up the final locations of balls hit in the air.
The cutoff between shallow and deep was 275 feet from home plate and the data pulled was from the 2012 season alone.
I didn't include the numerical values in each zone to avoid clutter, but the height of each bar represents the percentage of allowed balls in the air that ended up in each zone.
It has been observed in the past that pulled fly balls often do a lot more damage than fly balls to the opposite field, which are often mishit. We can further observe that Sabathia - a lefty who will face a majority of right handed batters - generated a lot of shallow fly balls to the right side of the field, which is a sign of effective pitching.
Of the deep balls allowed by Sabathia, the vast majority were allocated to left-center and center field. Almost none were hit deep to right and right-center. Given the dimensions of Yankee Stadium, there is an obvious benefit to doing exactly that.
In the past, Brian Cashman has said that Sabathia and other lefties have an advantage in Yankee Stadium when compared to their right handed counterparts. This quick and dirty analysis seems to back that up, in that we would much prefer Sabathia's distribution to Nova's, even if we just focus on location and ignore the fact that Nova gave up so many more deep fly balls. Especially with Brett Gardner around to run down mistakes in the expansive left-center gap.
From the other side, Nova was not particularly effective at keeping the ball in the middle of the field or close to the infield. Comparing to CC Sabathia is unfair to most anyone, and the lefty-friendly dimensions of the stadium are obviously outside his control, but this was the obvious killer of his 2012 season. He set a career high in K% and a career low in BB%, but ended up with a 5 ERA because of all the big hits that he gave up.
To some extent, we can remain optimistic for positive regression from Nova. He does not have a pre-2102 track record of allowing lots of home runs like, for example, Phil Hughes does. I just hope that he gets back to what made him successful when he first came up - using the late life on his fastball to keep the ball in the infield - and not what has seemed to get him in trouble - trying to strike everyone out with his breaking balls.