“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.