Wilmer Flores’s career path has been confusing, as the 24-year-old has been moved all around the infield by the Mets over the past couple of years and was nearly sent to the Brewers last year in the Carlos Gomez non-trade. But there’s been something very consistent since the start of the 2015 season: his performance against left-handed pitching.
Flores has hit .333/.382/.667 with a .333 ISO and a 184 wRC+ against lefties. Last year, he hit .310/.355/.600 with a 162 wRC+ against them. The sample size should be considered, as he’s made just 68 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers this year and only 107 plate appearances against them last season. But it’s also important to consider that those numbers are incredible.
According to Fangraphs, Flores has totaled a 170 wRC+ against southpaws since the start of 2015. Among all players with at least 150 plate appearances against lefties over that span, that figure ranks eighth in all of baseball, ahead of Mike Trout and just a bit behind Jose Altuve and Josh Donaldson. Simply put, over the last two seasons, Wilmer Flores has not only feasted on left-handed pitching, but he has performed like an MVP candidate against them. It’s not small sample size BABIP, either. Flores has done all of that with just a .276 BABIP against lefties this year, and a better—but not wildly high—.308 last year.
Unfortunately, though, that has not rung true against same-handed pitching, as Flores has combined for just a 79 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers over the same span in a much larger sample size of 541 plate appearances. So over the past two seasons, Flores has been two completely different hitters, depending on the handedness of the opposing pitcher.
Interestingly enough, though, Flores is not hitting the ball significantly harder against left-handed pitchers than right-handed pitchers. Here are his exit velocities splits for 2015 and 2016:
Last year, Flores hit the ball harder against left-handed pitchers, but check out this year’s numbers. Flores has hit the ball near-equally hard against pitchers from both sides. It’s less because he’s hitting right-handers better, though, and more because his velocities have dropped almost two full miles per hour against lefties.
So there has to be something more here, and there is. The answer lies precisely where exit velocity fails, and that’s where the ball is going when it’s hit. Unfortunately, launch angle data isn’t available to the public just yet, but by simply looking at Flores's batted ball results, we can see what Flores is doing differently.
This year, Flores has a 57.1% fly ball rate and just a 21.4% ground ball rate against left-handed pitching. Against right-handed pitching, he has a 39.4% fly ball rate and a 41.3% ground ball rate. His line drive rate is virtually equal against both types of pitchers, but his HR/FB ratio against lefties is 21.4%—a stunningly high rate compared to the league average of about 10 percent—and is just 7.3% against righties.
So why is Flores hitting it in the air so much more against lefties? Well, it could have something to do with how he’s been pitched to by them. Let’s take a look at where he’s been pitched.
It’s clear that the plan against Flores is to pitch him down and away, and righties have had much more success doing it than lefties. As a result, they’ve gotten him to roll over those pitches and hit ground balls.
The lefties haven’t. You can tell there is a focus on down and away, but they’ve been missing in the zone, in spots where Flores thrives.
That, at least intuitively, stands to explain to extremely high rate at which Flores has hit home runs against lefties. To lend more credence to that point, last year Flores’s GB/FB rates were actually quite static and didn’t really differ based on the handedness of the pitcher, but he posted an almost identical HR/FB rates split to this season: 21.9% against lefties and 7.3% against righties.
Batted ball distance splits by pitchers handedness aren’t publicly available, so we can’t know for sure if Flores is really just hitting the ball farther against lefties. But while it seems unlikely that he will continue to have as many fly balls leave the park against them as he has, he will continue to crush them as long as they keep pitching him how they are.
So is Flores's success against lefties sustainable? Is there an actual reason why lefties are missing so much against him? Is Flores really one just of the best hitters in the league against lefties? It appears that while Flores might not be this good against lefties, it's probably not just sample size randomness either.
Basically, Wilmer Flores is still an enigma and we don’t entirely know what to expect going forward. It is still hard to know if the young infielder can improve enough against right-handed pitching to be a reliable everyday player, or whether his performance against left-handed pitching is sustainable or not. But there is no doubt that Wilmer Flores should be playing every game against left-handed pitching with no exceptions until proven otherwise. Given that he can play any infield position, there is no excuse not to get Flores in the lineup on those days.
Being a lefty-masher who can play at any infield position on any given day is valuable. We still don't entirely know what his role will be going forward, but if Wilmer Flores at least keeps this up, he should remain a major league-caliber player. And that wasn’t a certainty a year ago.