Written By: Natalie Hansen

There has been a long standing debate in baseball and softball about how much it really matters to be right or left-handed when it comes to hitting. Switch hitting and platooning gained steam on the baseball side while softball players experimented with slap hitting from the left-handed batter’s box. As the game has progressed, so have the strategies and playing styles. With more access to information than ever before, we can use game data to continue analyzing playing strategies. This post breaks down the concept of handedness in college baseball and softball and explores how right and left-handed hitters impact the game differently through data.

What is Platoon Advantage?

A strategy used by MLB teams for over a century, the platoon system is a method of sharing playing time between two baseball players. The two players play the same position, but they bat on opposite sides of the plate. The theory behind this method is that hitters typically do better against opposite-handed pitchers, so by splitting playing time depending on the opposing pitchers’ handedness, the hitting team can gain the platoon advantage. The offensive platoon advantage is when the batter hits opposite of the opposing pitcher’s handedness. Examples of this platoon advantage would be when right handed hitters (RHH) hit off of left handed pitchers (LHP), or vice versa (LHH vs. RHP). The defensive team can also have the platoon advantage in like-handed matchups between LHH vs. LHP or RHH vs. RHP since hitters are said to perform worse (i.e. worse contact quality) against same handed pitchers. Switch hitters are said to always have the advantage since they can adjust to either side of the plate, depending on their opposing pitcher’s handedness. When the hitter has the platoon advantage, he or she doesn’t have to contend with the glove-side breaking balls that are moving away from them. Breaking pitches that move in towards the hitter are easier to deal with.

History of Platoon Strategy

While there is no formal research about the platoon system in college baseball or softball, there is a long standing history of the platoon system in professional baseball spanning over 130 years. Bill James’ New Historical Baseball Abstract notes that the first known platoon system was the rotating of RHH Gid Gardner and LHH Tom Brown by the National League’s Indianapolis Hoosiers in 1887. James notes that the next major example was the 1906 Detroit Tigers rotation of Freddie Payne, Boss Schmidt, and Jack Warner as catcher throughout the season. Although the strategy was not used extensively throughout the early 1900’s, during the mid-1900’s, manager Casey Stengel lead the New York Yankees to five consecutive World Series Championships (1949-1953) using a platoon strategy with players at third base, first base, and in left field. The use of platoon systems continued throughout the late 1900’s until teams started expanding their bullpens to better account for potential offensive platoon advantages. With the rise of data analytics in sports, front offices are now better able to assess the success of platoon systems leading to a resurgence in their use throughout the 2010’s.

One way to analyze whether a platoon system might be effective is by looking at hitting statistics separated out by matchup type. Since hitters can be either be right-handed (RHH) or left-handed (LHH) and pitchers can either be right-handed (RHP) or left-handed (LHP), there are 4 different matchups that we can analyze:

  1. RHH vs. RHP
  2. RHH vs. LHP
  3. LHH vs. RHP
  4. LHH vs. LHP

RHH vs. LHP and LHH vs. RHP give hitters the platoon advantage since they are batting against an opposite-handed pitcher. The table below shows batting average and plate appearances (PA) for each of these matchups during the 2021 MLB season for any player that had 50 or more PA. We can see that the highest batting average was .267 for RHH vs. LHP while the lowest was .238 for LHH vs. LHP. While this data only looks at one season, we can begin to see why playing a RHH over a LHH might be advantageous for teams when they are facing LHPs. Teams can use information like this, along with data about their own players’ performances, to make educated decisions about playing time, scouting, and recruiting.

In The Book: Playing The Percentages in Baseball, Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin devote an entire chapter to analyzing the effects of each side establishing the platoon advantage. They conclude that “variations in platoon splits are real, not the indirect result of particular types of players (such as power hitters) all being affected similarly.” However, specifically for hitters, these variations are of “secondary importance” to the general advantage of hitting against an opposite handed pitcher.

While we can trace a history of the platoon system in professional baseball, research about its use and effectiveness in college baseball and softball is nonexistent. By analyzing data surrounding handedness, college softball and baseball teams can better decide what types of players to recruit and understand how players’ handedness relates to game events. The remainder of this post will take a look at data regarding handedness & platoon advantage through bar charts, tables, and spray charts with a goal in understanding how handedness impacts college baseball and softball.

NCAA Baseball Handedness

In order to begin unpacking the role of handedness in NCAA Baseball, we must first understand how many hitters and pitchers in each division are right-handed and left-handed. Leveraging 6-4-3 Charts data, the graphic below shows the percentage breakdown of hitters in each 2022 NCAA baseball division by handedness. As expected, a majority of hitters from every division are right-handed, but the percentage of left-handers and switch hitters are highest for D1 and lower at the D2 and D3 levels.

Similarly on the pitching side, right-handedness dominates, and the percentage of left-handed pitchers is highest at the D1 level. Out of the general population, it’s estimated that around 10% are left-handed, so there are a considerable amount of left-handed players in NCAA baseball. Charts later in this post break down hitting statistics according to handedness, so having a baseline understanding of the number of right and left handed players helps contextualize these statistics.

Baseball Matchup Data

Now that we understand the breakdown of players by handedness for NCAA baseball, we can begin looking at hitting statistics by matchup for baseball over time. 6-4-3 Charts houses data for D1 Baseball from 2017-2022, which accumulates over 3 million plate appearances. The table below shows batting average (BA), on-base plus slugging (OPS), and plate appearances (PA) for each of the 4 types of matchups that are possible. This table aggregates these statistics over the 2017-2022 seasons. We can see that over time for D1 Baseball, the highest BA and OPS have been for the LHH vs. RHP matchup (.289/.824). The lowest BA and OPS have been from the LHH vs. LHP matchup (.271/.767). This sample of D1 Baseball data shows that LHH perform better against RHP than LHP, in terms of BA and OPS. These statistics support implementation of a platooning a RHH for a LHH when facing LHPs, in general. As with the use of any data, coaches must combine the information they receive from data with their own expertise of the player-level attributes to make decisions for their team.

Similar to the results at the D1 level, D2 baseball also sees the lowest BA and OPS for the LHH vs. LHP matchup (.282/.804) and the highest for the LHH vs. RHP matchup (.305/.865). D3 baseball sees the lowest BA and OPS with the same-handed matchups of LHH vs. LHP (.290/.798) and RHH vs. RHP (.290/.789). Throughout all three NCAA baseball divisions, the highest BA and OPS comes from the LHH vs. RHP matchup. Since there are noticeable differences in outcomes according to matchup, we can see that a platoon system might be effective in college baseball.

Platoon Advantage in Baseball

By examining matchups from 2022 D1 baseball games, we can analyze the % of plate appearances in which the hitting team had the platoon advantage (RHH vs. LHP or LHH vs. RHP). The table below shows the top 10 teams from D1 baseball in 2022 in terms of the % of plate appearances in which they were advantaged. We can compare the % advantaged to the league average of 43.5%.

 

Most of the teams in the top 10 have a large number of left-handed and switch hitters, leading to more platoon advantaged plate appearances. For example, post-season qualifier East Carolina rostered 3 players that they considered switch hitters and 8 players that they listed as left-handed. TCU rostered 10 left-handers and 2 switch hitters. This large portion of switch hitters and left-handers allowed East Carolina and TCU to consistently have the platoon advantage against right-handed pitchers.

NCAA Softball Handedness

We can also break down the percentage of players with different handedness for NCAA softball in 2022. Using 6-4-3 Charts data, the chart below shows the percentage of hitters who are right-handed, left-handed, or switch hitters by division for 2022. Similar to baseball, we see that Division 1 has the most LHHs, as compared to Division 2 and 3. On the contrary though, while baseball had a higher percentage of switch hitters at the Division 1 than the other levels, we see the opposite for softball. We actually see that, in 2022, Division 2 and 3 softball had a larger percentage of switch hitters than Division 1. Since switch hitters are said to have the platoon advantage in any at-bat, this finding brings question as to why there are not more switch hitters in Division 1 softball. As we analyze other data relating to handedness later in this post, we may be able to explore why there is a lower percentage of switch hitters.

On the pitching side, shown in the chart below, we see that a majority of pitchers at every level are right-handed. Following the same trend as baseball, Division 1 has a larger percentage of LHPs than the other divisions. Interestingly, though, the percentage of LHPs at every softball level is nearly half the percentage for baseball. The percentage of LHPs in softball ranges between 9.3-14.3% which is a lot closer to the total population percentage of 10%. Further research on softball pitching could investigate why there is a lower percentage of LHPs in softball.

Platoon Advantage in Softball

The table below shows that the league average for platoon advantaged situations is 39% of plate appearances. The top 10 D1 softball teams in terms of platoon advantaged situations are shown.

Michigan, a post-season qualifying softball team, was platoon advantaged 64.6% of all plate appearances in 2022.  Of their 10 players that averaged 2 PA/G and played in 75% of games, 8 were left-handed hitters. This large makeup of LHHs against majority right-handed D1 pitchers led to the high number of platoon advantaged situations.

Softball Matchup Data

Below we see the matchup hitting statistics for D1 Softball 2017-2022, leveraging 6-4-3 Charts data. The table shows batting average (BA), on-base plus slugging (OPS), and plate appearances (PA) for each of the possible matchups. The highest BA comes from the LHH vs. RHP matchup at .294, while the highest OPS comes from the RHH vs. LHP matchup at .778. Although the LHH vs. LHP matchup results in the lowest OPS of all the matchups, it represents the second highest batting average. This tells us that left-handed hitters in D1 softball are simply getting more hits, but hitting for less power, as shown through OPS.

In Division 2, the two highest BA also came from left-handed hitters against both types of pitchers. LHH vs. RHP had a .309 BA and LHH vs. RHP had a .297 BA, nearly ten percentage points higher than the next highest matchup. Division 3 softball also showed the LHH dominance with the LHH vs. RHP matchup having a .326 BA and LHH vs. LHP .308 BA. At all the levels of NCAA college softball across all the seasons with available data, left-handed hitters simply get hits more often than right-handed hitters. The softball data does not show evidence that a platoon strategy would be effective based on BA and OPS. Rather, the softball data shows just how effective it is to be a left-handed hitter. The success that we see from left-handed hitters might explain why there are less switch hitters in softball than baseball. In general, switch hitting aims to create opposite-handed matchups, but we do not see a higher level of success in these matchups for the softball data. The dominance of left-handed hitters in this data suggests that if a player can hit left-handed, why would they ever want to hit right-handed?

Softball and Slap Hitting

Enter the slapper– a fast, left-handed softball player with the ability to move through the batter’s box toward first base as they make contact with the ball. Taking advantage of the 60 feet between home and first, slappers look to combine their speed with their ability to hit the ball to holes on the field to beat out plays on the infield that right-handers might not be able to. The combination of bunting, slapping, and hitting away makes these players hard to defend and characterizes a type of player that does not exist in baseball. Between slappers and other fast left-handed softball hitters, it’s not necessarily a surprise that LHHs had higher BAs in all of the divisions’ matchup data. One way to further characterize the role of handedness in baseball and softball is to look at some data for balls in play (BIP).

Balls in Play

Below is a table showing BABIP, Infield BIP % and Outfield BIP % for D1 Baseball and Softball from 2017-2022. Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) measures a player’s batting average only on balls that they hit into the field of play, which removes home runs and strikeouts. We can see that for baseball, there is not much difference in BABIP between RHH and LHH. For softball, we see that BABIP for LHHs is .334, while BABIP for RHH is .041 lower at .293. This shows that left-handed hitters in softball get hits more often on balls that they put in play than right-handers. The next categories measure the percent of balls in play that go to either the infield or the outfield. We can see here that these percentages are identical for right and left-handed hitters in baseball, suggesting that handedness does not impact how often balls are hit to the infield or outfield. While baseball had no difference in the percentage of balls hit to the infield and outfield, LHHs in softball hit the ball more on the infield than RHHs by 6%, while the opposite is true for outfield balls in play.

Some other BIP metrics that we can analyze are Infield Success %, Outfield Success %, and Bunt Success %. Infield Success % measures how many of the balls in play on the infield resulted in a hit for the batter. In the table below, we can see that RHHs in baseball had an 21.4% Infield Success %, while LHHs had a 21.5%, only differing by .1%. In softball, LHHs are more successful than RHHs by nearly 6% on infield hits. Since a left-handed hitter’s batter’s box is closer to first base, and the distance to first in softball is 60 ft, this likely contributes to LHH’s ability to beat out balls in play on the infield for hits.

Outfield Success % measures how many of the balls in play in the outfield resulted in a hit for the batter. We see again here that there are marginal differences between RHHs and LHHs for this metric in baseball. For softball, there is only a 1% difference between RHHs and LHHs.

The last column, Bunt Success % measures how many of the attempted bunts resulted in a hit. While there is a 7.3% difference between handedness for this category in baseball, we see almost a 22% difference in softball. Fast left-handed hitters and well-practiced slappers contribute to this dominant bunt success in D1 softball. From analyzing the BIP data for baseball and softball, we can see that the handedness of the hitter creates more diverse results for softball than baseball. We can also analyze spray charts to see where RHHs and LHHs have hit the ball over time.

Spray Data for Baseball

The spray chart below shows all of the balls that were hit in play by right-handed hitters when there were runners in scoring position for the 2017-2022 seasons. The 6-4-3 Charts data contains 896,407 BIP to the infield and 759,977 BIP to the outfield with RISP over this time period. We can see that there is a strong pull side distribution for hits on the infield while there is an even split between the outfield zones.

RISP Right-Handed Hitters 2017-2022

For left-handed hitters over this same time period, 6-4-3 Charts data contains 459,202 BIP to the infield and 389,470 BIP to the outfield. We see that there is also a lot of hits batted towards the infield pull side with outfield balls in play evenly distributed.

RISP Left-Handed Hitters 2017-2022

In general from these baseball sprays across the 2017-2022 seasons, we can see that hitters tend to pull the ball on their infield contacts while spraying the ball across the outfield with runners in scoring position.

Case Study: Spencer Jones

Spencer Jones, a Junior utility player and left-handed hitter from the 2022 Vanderbilt Baseball team is a perfect case to compare to the long-term aggregate left-handed hitting statistics. His BABIP, at .468, is higher than the D1 baseball average of .338, but his percentage of BIP on the infield and outfield match the D1 baseball averages. We can see that his infield BIP are successful hits 28.4% of the time, and he is successful on his outfield hits 77.9% of the time, which is well above the average.

Comparing his 2022 spray to the aggregated LHH RISP spray, we can see that Jones spreads his balls in play more across the infield while his outfield balls in play have a lot of up-the-middle and opposite-field power. As a LHH, Jones makes more use of the infield than D1 baseball LHHs aggregated with RISP.

Jones’ ability to spray hits across the field allowed him to end the season with a .363/.460/.618 slash, 38 RBI, team high 17 doubles, 1 triple, and 7 home runs.

Spray Data for Softball

The 6-4-3 Charts data has 643,620 BIP to the infield by RHH with RISP and 452,705 BIP to the outfield. Looking at the aggregated spray charts for D1 softball, we see that RHHs favor the pull-side on both the infield and the outfield balls in play for data across the 2017-2022 seasons.

RISP Right-Handed Hitters 2017-2022

On the contrary though, we do not see a strong pull side tendency coming from LHHs across this same time period with RISP (385,212 BIP to the infield and 222,322 BIP to the outfield). Rather, LHHs in Division 1 softball evenly spread their hits across the infield with RISP and favor left-field with their outfield balls in play.

RISP Left-Handed Hitters 2017-2022

Comparing the aggregated softball sprays to the baseball sprays, we can see that LHHs in softball are less pull-side heavy that LHHs in baseball.

Case Study: Kendra Falby

One 2022 softball player that we can analyze is Kendra Falby, a Freshman outfielder and left-handed hitter. Falby’s BIP metrics show just how successful the left-handed hitter was during the 2022 season. Falby’s BABIP of .480 was well above the D1 average of .334. She hit the ball in the infield 3 out of every 4 balls in play. Of the balls in play on the infield, she successfully got a hit 37.6% of the time. Her outfield success rate though? 65.9%, nearly 13% better than the average for a LHH in D1 softball. Her lethal speed also contributed to her ability to bunt for a hit 76.5% of all bunts that she laid down.

Taking a look at Falby’s spray with RISP for 2022, we see that she was able to hit up the middle on the infield 39% of all infield BIP. When she hit it to the outfield with RISP, she did so 56% to left field.

 

Falby’s ability to mix her short game, opposite field power, and insane speed generated a .392/.444/.493 slash with 26 RBI, 7 doubles, 3 triples, and 3 home runs, not to mention her 36-41 stolen bases.

Conclusion

This post analyzed data for college baseball and softball to explore the relationship between handedness and hitting. The data for baseball showed that implementing a platoon system may be effective for some teams due to the differences in averages based on matchups. On the softball side, there was little evidence that a platoon system would be effective. Rather, left-handed hitters dominated most of the matchup data and showed their ability to hit the ball to varying parts of the field. Some reasons that the data may favor left-handed hitters more in softball than baseball is the the field size. Since the distance between home and first in softball is 60 ft, LHHs are able to get down the baseline more quickly out of the left-handed batter’s box. This dynamic, combined with slap hitting and bunting, allows left-handed hitters to generate higher BABIPs than right-handed hitters, which is unique to softball. Additionally, pitching plays a large role in hitting outcomes, both for softball and baseball. Further research about pitcher’s wind-ups and release points could be conducted to see if there are further differences between baseball and softball with handedness. Further analysis can also be done on how types of pitches, what sequencing, and what pitching splits further uncover differences by handedness for the sports. From analyzing hitting statistics relating to handedness, we see that opposite matchups matter more in baseball while left-handed hitters in any matchup matter more in softball.