FG on Fox: Crash Davis Was Wrong

“Relax, all right? Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls – it’s more democratic.” — Crash Davis, in 1988′s classic baseball flick “Bull Durham”

This piece of advice from Kevin Costner’s character has been translated into nearly every ballpark in America, as fans and commentators alike lament a struggling pitcher’s inability to just throw the ball over the plate. Even if they hit the ball, it’s not another boring walk, and besides, you have seven guys standing behind you who are covering most of the field; as long you keep the ball in the ballpark, odds are that the hitter is going to make an out. Trust your defense, pitch to contact and, most importantly, work deep in the game.

But is putting trust into your defense actually a good strategy? After all, while most balls in play become outs, almost every strikeout becomes an out — there are rare times when a batter does reach on a strikeout due to a wild pitch or passed ball — and a pitcher’s job is to rack up as many outs as he can, while allowing as few runs as he can in the process. Are strikeouts an inefficient way of collecting outs, and would a pitcher be better off trading them in for those democratic ground balls if he wants to get as many outs as possible while staying within his pitch count? Let’s dive into the numbers.

Overall, there are 105 starting pitchers who have thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. The average pitcher in this group has thrown 3.8 pitches for every batter faced, so given today’s rough guideline of 100 pitches per game for a starter, a pitcher can be expected to face about 26 batters per game, or get through the entire batting order nearly three times. However, because some batters reach base, the average qualified starter has required 5.3 pitches for each out he has recorded, meaning that he records about 19 outs per start, or 6 1/3 innings pitched.

Do groundball pitchers get more bang for their buck, as is often suggested? Let’s take a look at those 105 starters broken into quartiles based on ground ball percentage this year.

Read the rest on FoxSports.com.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


30 Responses to “FG on Fox: Crash Davis Was Wrong”

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  1. Anon21 says:

    I mean, fair enough on your substantive point, but re: the headline: the Davis quote expresses an aesthetic preference, not a strategic recommendation. Properly understood, it’s not capable of being classified as right or wrong.

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  2. RC says:

    “After all, while most balls in play become outs, almost every strikeout becomes an out”

    That sort of logic will work just fine on Fox.

    Seriously?

    The point is that getting a strikeout is HARDER than getting a groundball, not that it’s somehow less of an out or something.

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    • DavidKB says:

      Most articles will seem stupid if you only read 5 sentences in.

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    • Anon21 says:

      That surely depends on the pitcher’s particular repertoire, right? A guy who’s used to pitching high in the zone with really good velocity may well find it easier to notch a strikeout than to induce a groundball, and if he tries to change what’s worked in the past to try and induce more groundballs, he may lose what made him effective in the first place.

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  3. rr says:

    Too watered down for my liking.

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    • joser says:

      When the first articles for Fox appeared, the comments here were full of “This is too technical for the broader audience, you need to make it more accessible for the non-sabre crowd.” Dave can’t win.

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  4. murphyluke says:

    I love the “throw some ground balls” part of that quote. Right. As if the pitcher can just turn around and roll the ball toward the shortstop for an easy out. That would certainly be nice but in actuality inducing ground balls from the batter is not an easy task in itself.

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    • drewcorb says:

      You’re right but I’ll let it slide because Costner makes some great baseball movies.

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    • joser says:

      It’s not easy, but certainly most pitchers with more than one pitch show a tendency to get more groundballs with one than another. So at least with respect to pitch selection, most (but definitely not all) pitchers can go some ways toward making that outcome more or less likely (regardless of how absolutely likely it might be). Of course you can’t just keep throwing your-most-groundball-y pitch, so obviously other factors have to come into play. But in the context of that quote (IIRC — it’s been a while since I watched that movie) Nuke was throwing nothing but fastballs, so it could even be taken as more of an argument for mixing up pitches anyway.

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  5. Steven says:

    The most dominant of starters will strike out what, 10 guys per 9 innings? That’s 17 other outs that still need to be made. Crash’s point was to focus on getting his stuff over the plate, and that’s what’s most important. Trying to hard by “overthrowing” leads to lots of walks and the occasional wiener-high flat fastball that gets crushed 450 feet.

    My point is, would you rather have Doug Fister who will strike out less than 7 per 9 innings but walks less than 2 per 9 and rarely gives up home runs, or Edinson Volquez who usually strikes out more than 8 per 9, but walks over 4 and will likely give up more than 1 home run per 9 now that he’s out of Petco?

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  6. Jon L. says:

    The line from Crash Davis is about getting the pitcher not to overthrow, to keep an easy, repeatable motion so he can actually control where the ball is going. The rest is just color. The movie establishes pretty damn solidly that the pitcher in question is emotional and immature, and responds well to creative arguments and analogies that may not be backed up, or even related to, empirical facts.

    The idea that the character is literally suggesting fewer strikeouts and more grounders really misses the point. (This is directed more at the commenters than at Dave, who is presumably well aware that he’s misinterpreting the quote and is doing so in service of an effective introduction.)

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    • Jon L. says:

      I should add that the work on pitches per batter and pitches per out based on ground ball percentage is terrific. Really reminiscent of the way Bill James used to respond to ingrained beliefs by actually analyzing the evidence.

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  7. Richard Gadsden says:

    Do more strikeouts lead to closer collaboration between the state and large corporations?

    Well, we have a lot more strikeouts now, and big corporations certainly seem to be closer to government than they were in the trust-busting TR era, so there’s a hypothesis worthy of some testing.

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  8. Brendan says:

    It’s almost like this was intended for a different audience.

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  9. dang says:

    ERA- for each group is under 100. Is that because pitchers who threw enough innings to be qualified for the ERA title are, as a whole, all better than average, regardless of what kind of pitcher they are?

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  10. Godwin Missed says:

    I just think you could’ve done more with the title. Would’ve gone with something like “When it comes to pitching, Mussolini beats Madison.”

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  11. waynetolleson says:

    I don’t know what’s going on here, but some of these posts have struck me as really strange lately. It’s not that I have anything against statistical analysis in baseball, because baseball as we know it wouldn’t be possible with some form of statistical analysis. Rather, we have to understand what those statistics mean, which means we have to understand how they were produced.

    Anyone who has ever pitched, or played the game, understood the importance of pitching, understands why making batters put the ball in play is vital. Baseball is a “long haul” game, both the game itself and the season.

    Statistically, it’s always going to be better to keep the batter from putting the ball in play. How many big rallies have we seen that either started or consisted of broken-bat bloopers or dribblers, seeing-eye grounders, balls that eat-up fielders, bad hops, bad throws, insanely fast runners.

    If you strike the guy out, you practically eliminate the risk of all that other stuff happening. The only way an out could not be recorded is if the catcher cannot catch the ball, which is a very rare occurrence.

    The problem is that especially in today’s game, you simply cannot go through a game with the mindset of striking out every single batter. The practical reality is that you will expend too many pitches and too much energy doing so. This is obviously more true of starting pitchers, but is true, too, of relievers. If a reliever can get through an inning on eleven pitches, that makes it easier on him if he might have to pitch in two of the next three games, as well. This scenario is repeated series after series, week after week, month after month, year after year.

    Therefore, if you can get into a rhythm where you’re getting opposing hitters to make weak contact a lot, you can get a lot of quick outs and sail through three innings. Then, when you get into a jam in the seventh, you have a little left in the tank to throw your nastiest pitches and that those strikeouts when you most need them.

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    • Feeding the Abscess says:

      Getting hitters to consistently make weak contact means you’re throwing pitches on the edge of the strike zone or just out of the strike zone. This leads to more balls, which also leads to more pitches.

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      • waynetolleson says:

        “Getting hitters to consistently make weak contact means you’re throwing pitches on the edge of the strike zone or just out of the strike zone.”

        1.) And getting swings and misses doesn’t?

        2.) The most efficient pitchers are almost universally the ones who “pitch to contact.” Strikeouts take more effort. I know this both from personal experience pitching, but from years of watching the game. The statistics are undeniable. It’s much more often that the guys who throw big amounts of quality innings year after year aren’t trying to strike-out every batter.

        Sometimes, I see this site and it leaves me thinking, “Has the person writing this ever played baseball?” I don’t say that to be dismissive of statistics, but it’s almost like being really well-versed in music theory but never having played an instrument. You actually have to know the game to know what the statistics really mean.

        I see too much stuff that’s analysis in a vacuum, i.e. analysis that responds to a hypothetical scenario that doesn’t bear much relation to reality.

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    • joser says:

      “Statistically, it’s always going to be better to keep the batter from putting the ball in play. ” Always? Really? How many big rallies have we seen snuffed out by an inopportune double play?

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  12. shthar says:

    This was in the 2014 BIll James Handbook last year.

    But at least you’re stealing from the best.

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  13. Jcutiger says:

    Have you considered that the mindset to go 100% all the time is leading to the TJS epidemic? Looking like a lot of starters can’t handle full bore every pitch over many innings. Would you rather having JFer with an 8.5 k/9 but still pitching or out for 12-18 months? Thought so…

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    • joser says:

      Lots of things have been considered as leading to the TJS epidemic. The reality is that nobody really knows.

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  14. Iron says:

    Related studies have also shown that you get 97.4% less oxygen to your vital organs by breathing through your eyes.

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