In 2010 the Phillies signed Ryan Howard to a five-year contract extension. The potential problems with that deal were well documented at the time and pretty much every day since, but perhaps one of the biggest was Howard's platoon splits, that is, how he performed against different-handed pitchers.
Against right-handed pitchers, Howard was a remorseless pitcher-smashing machine, but put a left-hander on the mound and he suddenly became a back-up middle infielder, meek as you please, wet noodle limply in hand. Between the years 2007 and 2009, the three seasons prior to his extension, Howard's OPS against left-handed hitters dropped from .826 to .653. That's going from good-not-great to Triple-A roster filler, and it made facing Howard in the later innings much, much easier.
A small portion of Howard's plate appearances came against lefties, so you might fairly imagine it was a small sample size/luck issue. But that wasn't the reason Howard couldn't hit lefties. Instead, it's something baseball people call a platoon split. It means a player hits differently against different-handed pitchers. Many hitters have platoon splits, but frequently the largest sufferers of this affliction are left-handed hitters. Baseball is a very difficult game and requires lots of practice, and the majority of pitchers, especially at the lower levels (high school, college) are right-handed. This means most left-handed hitters don't face many left-handed pitchers, whereas right-handed hitters face nothing but right-handed pitchers almost exclusively until college or the minor leagues. This is what plagued and continues to plague Ryan Howard.
For a hitter, the platoon advantage itself comes from the way the pitcher throws the ball. We often think of a pitcher as throwing the ball straight from the mound to the plate like a pitching machine, but that isn't actually the case. Pitchers throw with all different arm angles and thus the ball travels to the plate from somewhere other than the center of the pitching rubber. This changes the way the hitter sees the ball. When a pitcher's arm comes around the side to release the ball, it can look like the ball is coming right at a same-sided hitter, whereas that same release can provide an excellent viewpoint from which to track the ball for an opposite-sided hitter.
Breaking balls only compound the problem. Most breaking pitches (sliders, cutters, curveballs) break away from a same-sided hitter while an opposite-sided hitter gets a much better look. Opposite-sided hitters also avoid the illusion (sometimes decidedly not an illusion) that a breaking ball will hit them. As anyone who has ever taken a pitch to the back, head, shin, face, or leg can attest, pain and, on subsequent at-bats, the promise of more pain, only increases hitting's difficulty. Human instinct is to get the heck out of the way when a ball is thrown at them (or appears to be) at 90+ mph, or even 75 mph, and that instinct needs to be fought by hitters of same-sided pitchers. All of this plays into the platoon advantage.
There are two ways to get around the platoon advantage problem. First, learn to hit lefties. Some hitters can do it. David Ortiz did. He's not quite as good against lefties as he is against righties, but he doesn't become a more menacing looking John McDonald by putting a left-handed pitcher on the mound. "Do it" is a tough directive though. Some guys just can't.
The second way to deal with platoon problems is to avoid them entirely by switch hitting. If you can bat from both sides of the plate, then you'll always face different-sided pitchers and you'll always have the platoon advantage. (Well, almost always.) This is the reason switch hitters are so desirable. This was one of the draws for the Red Sox when they signed outfielder Shane Victorino to a three-year, $39 million contract this past off-season.
Victorino has been an above-average hitter over the course of his career and having the platoon advantage in every plate appearance has been helpful. Victorino was having a good first season for Boston when he pulled a muscle in his side. He's also suffered hamstring problems. The injuries made it harder to swing a bat from the left side than the right. So Victorino stopped swinging the bat from the left side, but kept swinging from the right. Victorino stopped switch-hitting.
You would think that would be a big problem. You would think that handing the platoon advantage over to the pitcher would have hurt his production, that he might be struggling, or experiencing a downturn in his usual productivity. You would think so, but nope.
Victorino is in the midst of one of the most productive streaks of his career. After he gave up hitting left-handed during August 4's game, Victorino is hitting .301/.381/.528 with seven home runs. According to Fan Graphs, Victorino is the most productive hitter in baseball over the last 30 days, almost exactly how long he's been hitting exclusively from the right side. Over that period, he's been better than Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Robinson Cano, and Miguel Cabrera. And he's done it all by giving up an advantage that requires exhaustive work to earn, and that most managers will halt the game repeatedly to swipe back.
So how is that possible? Luckily WEEI.com's Tim Healey asked him that very question, or something similar, and Victorino revealed all, saying, "Don't ask about me hitting right-handed." Okay, so he revealed nothing, and sadly Healey didn't follow up with a question asking about hitting left-handed. So if Victorino knows why he's having so much success hitting exclusively right-handed, he's not telling. Ah, mystery.
His manager, John Farrell, was more talkative. He offered two rationales to WEEI.com's Annie Maroon. Firstly, Farrell said, "[Victorino is] hitting from such a stronger base on the right-handed side of the plate." Secondly, Farrell believes that the element of surprise may play a small role. "I think initially, right-handed pitchers, when he stepped into the box right-handed, were -- I'm not going to say you saw a different expression on the face, but it's something that you haven't seen," Farrell said.
Surprising opposing pitchers doesn't sound like a particularly strong reason for a month-long run of this type. If it did, hitters would come to the plate dressed in animal costumes, or as cheese. And now I'm badly wishing this were true. Maybe there's something small to it, but Farrell's first explanation, putting some portion of it on Victorino's mechanics, sounds more reasonable. Hitting mechanics are virtually impossible for outsiders to figure out. Not that we can't look at them and note differences, but we can't know how those differences feel, or the affect of those feelings on a hitter. We do know that feeling confident plays a role in performance, so if a hitter feels confident in his past hitting, that will help his future hitting. Or should. Probably. We think.
What Farrell didn't mention and Victorino wouldn't say is that Victorino's physical state also likely played a role. Odd as it sounds, if he's healthy from one side and unhealthy from the other, well, that sort of explains it, right? However, that only explains why he's hitting right-handed all the time, not why he's doing it so well.
The 'doing well' part is where things get difficult. Players get on hot streaks all the time, and this could just be one of Victorino's, which would explain his reluctance to discuss it with the media, as players often aren't eager to jinx themselves. Every year there are right-handed hitters who go nuts against both right- and left-handed pitchers for a month at a time or more, so a hot streak from a right-handed hitter, even if he used to be a switch hitter, wouldn't be unheard of.
Victorino has been playing in the major leagues for a decade now, so we've got a pretty good handle on what kind of hitter he is, and good as he usually is, he's not this good. Over the course of a given season, you'd expect him to get hot eventually. The odd part is that he's gotten hot while making getting hot harder to achieve. In other words, you might expect this if he started switch hitting, not stopped.
The funny thing is that Victorino has long been a player that hit better from the right side anyway. True he had the platoon advantage there, but he had it hitting left-handed as well, so the comparison can fairly be made. Victorino is naturally right-handed, so returning to his roots in this way may have helped boost his confidence, and got him onto this hot streak. Or maybe switch-hitting was the only thing holding him back from becoming Mike Trout this past decade.
Victorino did go back to hitting left-handed recently. For one at-bat. He struck out on three pitches. I'm guessing "Troutorino" is going to stick with the right-handed thing for a while longer, at least until the magic wears off.