Burke Badenhop and the Tampa Bay infield are a marriage made in ground-ball heaven. MLB’s league-average GB rate fluctuates around 44 percent, and the sinkerballing right-hander boasts a career mark of 55.8 in 254 big-league relief innings. As Mike Axisa wrote when the Rays acquired him from the Marlins last December: “Tampa’s pitchers have enjoyed a .228 BABIP on ground balls over the last four seasons (.224 over the last three seasons), which plays right into Badenhop’s ground ball happy ways.”
Badenhop, who has an economics degree from Bowling Green, talked about his signature sinker and his utilization of PitchFX data when the Rays visited Fenway Park over the weekend.
Badenhop on being an undervalued asset: “Thinking at the margin and responding to incentives are economic theories, and that‘s kind of how I got here. The Rays are more efficient with the way they utilize their resources and my innate ground-ball ability is where I derive my value. Last year, with the Marlins, I was throwing innings that usually weren’t the most important. Now, I’m with a playoff team that has a different way of looking at things. We’re more analytical here.
“If I’m with any other team, are they going to have someone who is essentially their ground-ball guy? I can’t imagine that I’d fit into every major-league bullpen in terms of what I do. Other teams might use me differently. Joe Maddon, Andrew Friedman, and those guys know what they’re doing. They’re very cutting-edge and are very — as Joe puts it — old school in their approach, but new school in the way they go about doing things.
“When I got traded over here, I kind of knew how they run things. I played with Randy Choate last year and he had played here. Joe Maddon obviously has a reputation throughout the game as being a forward-thinking guy.”
On defensive positioning and shifts: “Last year, going into September, I went through my numbers and found that my third baseman had made five plays for me. Over five months, that’s one play per month. And I was getting crushed in the six hole. I was thinking to myself, ‘What is the point of having a third baseman out there?’
“I talked to [Rays third base coach] Tom Foley about that. The charts also showed that I get 10 percent in the area over by second base. Why even have a second baseman there if the ball is going to be hit there 10 percent of time? Let’s move me over where they‘re hitting the ball against me.
“[The Tampa Bay coaches] say, ‘We want to catch line drives’ and through the first two weeks of the season I’ve seen a lot of that. We’ve been in the right place to catch line drives, which is great.
“In Miami, we had Perry Hill as our infield coach and he was pretty good, but we’re more forward thinking here. We’re a little bit more likely to buck the trend. We’ll put everybody on one side of the infield and whatnot. If we happen to get burned, Joe is fine with that.”
On pitching to his strengths: “They want me to put the ball on the ground, but I can’t control my results. All I can do is control my pitches. By having a better defense behind me, I should have more success.
“Making a guy hit the ball on the ground is hard enough. To try to make him hit it exactly where you want it is even more difficult, so I try not to think about that. I just try to control my pitches, and when it goes on the ground, I’m pretty sure we’re going to have somebody in the area to make the play.
“I need to pitch to my strengths. Not doing that is one thing that got me in trouble when I first started pitching in the big leagues. We’d have a scouting-report meeting before I went out to the mound it seemed like I had to pound every guy hard, in. Every guy I’d need to pitch up, at his hands, and I’m not very good at elevating. There I was, a rookie, thinking that the only way I’m going to get guys out is if I do something I’m not good at.
“I don’t think I have horrible stuff, but I’m not going to go out there and out-stuff guys. I know what type of pitcher I am and how I need to use my stuff. I know what a good pitch is.”
On analyzing his performance: “I look at my numbers on FanGraphs. I know my ground-ball rate and all the other stuff. You guys have things like average fastball velos, which to some people might not matter, but to me it’s the world. I absolutely look at PitchFX. I go back and look through every pitch I threw. I look at my break. Usually, my best pitch would be an 89 or 90 mph sinker with about a 9, 10 or 11 [horizontal drop]. When I’m sitting more like 6 or 7, I know I just wasn’t on top of my game. There was something I wasn’t doing to get through my pitches that day.
“A long time ago, guys didn’t have that type of info. It was just. ‘You were up in the zone today’ or ‘You didn’t pitch very well.’ Now you can dissect it and have a better understanding of why you didn‘t pitch well.
“[Last week] in Detroit, I had a good sinker, but I was about five inches up in the zone, so everything was running into barrels instead of running into knees and being hit on the ground. It was better in the game against Boston. The home run I gave up to [Mike] Aviles wasn‘t on a sinker; it was on a slider.
“Up-in-the-zone sinkers tend to be flatter, because you’re not on top of the baseball as much. The hitters are seeing more of the baseball, so it gets hit more. You can have some success if your sinker is up and moving a good amount, but it’s not ideal. You can get guys out on a more consistent basis with balls down in the zone. That‘s what I have to do — keep the ball on the ground and let my defense make the plays behind me.”
Joe Maddon on Badenhop: “We like to bring him into innings with stuff going on because he can get a ground ball. He’s already done that for us a couple of times. If he’s not starting an inning, the optimal situation for him is to be that double-play guy. We like him to be out there against righties who have a high percentage of putting the ball on the ground to begin with. Although, against him, most right-handed hitters turn into ground-ball hitters. He also has a history of getting ground balls off of left-handed hitters.
“Any time you can have a guy who can put the ball on the ground with any consistency, especially with our defense, is attractive. With our infield, and our infield plays, getting a guy like that was appealing. When Andrew [Friedman] brought up getting him, that was very attractive.”