In the pre-steroids era, when power hitters resembled actual human beings and not Marvel superheroes, few batters had the physical strength to hit the ball effectively and regularly to the opposite field. Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters the game has ever known, never adjusted to the dramatic shifts defenses employed against him, savvy to his extreme tendency toward pulling the ball.
As players got stronger, whether through legal or illegal means, more and more players began to recognize the value of taking an extra moment before swinging at the pitch. No longer were these hitters forced to swing early so that they might pull the ball and exact sufficient power; instead, their greater strength meant they no longer had to sacrifice a chance at a powerful hit in order to gain an extra moment of decision-making.
Even as the steroids era has begun to fade away and players' bodies are a bit more proportional, this tendency to hit the ball to the opposite field has remained more common than it has generally been in the past. Some of the game's finest hitters have achieved much of their success due to their ability to hit the ball to the opposite field.
Here we rank eight of the game's finest opposite-field hitters.
Michael Young has gained a reputation as an excellent opposite field hitter, largely based on the circumstantial evidence of a few timely opposite field hits. Although the actual numbers are not on par with those at the top of this list, he is still one of the premiere opposite field hitters in baseball.
Young's opposite field batting average is .362, 32 points above his hits down the middle, but 92 points below his pull average. More impressively, he has hit 35 home runs to the opposite field, only four below his pull total, though just 20.7 percent of his career home runs were to the opposite field.
Like nearly all batters, Young's productivity falls when hitting to the opposite field. Though Young doesn't shine when hitting to the opposite field, he is a steady hitter no matter where he is batting, and his decrease in productivity when hitting to the opposite field is far less than most.
Lance Berkman has hit 20.7 percent of his career home runs to the opposite field, only 7.2 percent less than the number of home runs he has hit while pulling the ball.
Berkman has also hit for high average to the opposite side, batting .401 when taking it the other way.
Berkman is still very much a pull hitter, and his numbers are most impressive when he slams the ball to right field. Still, Berkman is a very well rounded player, and his ability to take the ball to all sides of the field has been critical to his success, and will likely continue to do so as he gets older and his power begins to decrease.
Ichiro Suzuki's power is almost completely limited to when he pulls the ball; of his 95 career home runs, 79 were pulled to right field and 16 were hit up the middle, with none having been hit to the opposite field. But though his power is limited to when he pulls the ball, he is one of the most effective base-hitters in the league when he slaps the ball to the opposite field.
Ichiro has a career batting average of .380 when hitting the ball to the left side. Though his average is much higher when pulling the ball (.456, this is still an impressive number and indicative of his skills at distributing the ball across the field.
Because of Ichiro's unique batting style, in which he begins his run to first base while still in his swinging motion, it is difficult for him to hit the ball effectively to the opposite field, and he strongly prefers to pull the ball. Still, Ichiro is such an effective hitter that even his least effective manner of hitting the ball ranks amongst the elite in the game.
It only takes a quick look at Jim Thome's 6'3", 250 pound frame to understand how he has managed to hit to the opposite field so effectively during his career.
Thome's power to the opposite field has been strong, hitting 106 of his 604 home runs to the opposite field. Where Thome shines, however, is his ability to get on base when hitting to the opposite field. Thome's batting average when hitting the ball to the left side is .424, only 21 points behind his average when pulling the ball and 60 points above his average when hitting up the middle.
Thome's hits to the left side aren't just bloopers and home runs; he has hit 86 doubles and earned a slugging percentage of .873. His ability to hit to the opposite field has been critical to his success, as Thome is the type of hitter who would normally earn a defensive shift that would severely hamper his batting average. He is one of the most well-rounded opposite field hitters in the game today, and his ability to hit to all parts of the field has been critical to his Hall of Fame-caliber career.
Ryan Howard's opposite field batting numbers are so staggering that they demand double checking. While his batting average is an impressive .411, 25 points higher than his pull average and just a single point below his up the middle average, Howard's true opposite field talent lies in his power.
Howard's opposite field slugging percentage is 1.066 and his OPS is 1.468, each at least 150 points over his totals to other parts of the field. These power numbers put Howard in a world by himself. One amateur study even contends that he's the greatest opposite field power hitter in the history of the game.
Ryan Howard is a great power hitter no matter where he is hitting the ball, and it is a testament to his incredible strength and extreme bat speed that he is so effective when hitting the ball to the opposite field. Because he has enough power to hit home runs regularly to the opposite field, he can wait on the ball a moment longer than nearly all other batters, giving him more time to adjust to the pitch.
Howard's batting average isn't as impressive as others on this list, but his jaw dropping power to the opposite field puts him in elite company near the very top.
Joe Mauer has legendarily fast bat speed, giving him the leeway to wait longer before swinging at a pitch. This extra moment allows him the freedom to hit the ball to the opposite field, a critical reason he has been such an effective hitter during his career. In fact, Mauer has hit more effectively to the opposite field than he has when pulling the ball.
Mauer has a career batting average of .441 when taking the ball to the opposite side, with a slugging percentage of .686 and a 1.116 OPS. In comparison, Mauer bats .329 up the middle and .388 when pulling the ball. Mauer also has a higher home run per at bat rate to the opposite field than elsewhere on the field, and has hit only two less double to the opposite field than up the middle, despite over 1,000 less at bats when hitting to the opposite field.
Mauer is one of the league's finest in every aspect of the game, and his talent at hitting to the opposite field puts him in a class nearly of his own.
Even the best opposite field hitters still nearly always hit better when pulling the ball. Not so with Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez has a higher batting average, home run per at bat ratio, slugging percentage, and OPS when hitting to the opposite field than when hitting the ball anywhere else.
Gonzalez has a career batting average of .425 when hitting to the opposite field, a remarkable 27 points above his pull average and 87 points above his average when hitting up the middle. He also hits home runs in 9.7 percent of the at bats in which he hits the ball to the opposite field, and has an OPS of 1.256 when hitting the ball to left field.
If Gonzalez continues his current trend of hitting as effectively to left field as he has in his career, he will soon be the best opposite field hitter in the Majors.
Of all the batters in baseball who regularly take the ball to the opposite field, none are more notorious for doing so than Derek Jeter. His unique swing, referred to as the Jeterian Swing, allows him the flexibility to hit the ball to any part of the field. Jeter is an aggressive, relatively free-swinging batter, and it his ability to adapt to the location of the pitch that allows him to hit for a high average while still batting in an aggressive manner.
Jeter has hit 72 of his 240 career home runs to the opposite field, nine more than he has pulled to left field. Jeter also has a career batting average of .451 on balls hit to the opposite field, five points higher than his batting average for pulled pitches and 133 points higher than his batting average up the middle.
Despite playing much of his career in an era of players doing anything necessary, whether legal or illegal, to put up power numbers, Jeter has been content to distribute his hits throughout the field of play, and as a result has become the most notable opposite field hitter of his generation.