Maybe Ground-Ball Pitchers Actually Are a Bad Bet?

Maybe you remember, but a couple of years ago, Bill James went on a rant about ground-ball pitchers. It started with a bang:

Make a list of the best pitchers in baseball. Make a list of the best pitchers in baseball, in any era, and what you will find is that 80% of them are not ground ball pitchers. They’re fly ball pitchers.

And it got louder. James felt that they got injured often, and flamed out. “They’re great for two years, and then they blow up,” he wrote. “Always.”

The response was swift.

Bill Petti illustrated fairly conclusively that heavy ground-ball guys didn’t have more arm injuries and didn’t have more severe injuries. Russell Carleton followed up with a piece that showed that ground-ball rate did not improve injury prediction for the elbow or the shoulder.

And so we wiped our hands and moved on. Except that we forgot a main thrust of what James said, which is that ground ball pitchers don’t last long. Craig Wright, in a response to the post, did a good job of putting it in a different context: “In doing aging profiles for pitchers during my career, I downgraded extreme groundball pitchers because they tended to show more reactive responses to abuse setting off premature aging syndrome (PAS) and also to the normal aging response,” he wrote.

Well, that’s something different. And I haven’t seen a repudiation of that portion of his claims. Do ground-ball pitchers age poorer than the regular population? And is it a function of sinker usage, since more internal rotation on the shoulder could lead to more shoulder problems and decreased performance even if it doesn’t show in injury data?

I asked Jeff Zimmerman to work up the aging curves for three groups: all pitchers, all pitchers with a ground-ball rate over 50%, and sinker-heavy pitchers (usage rate of 30% or more). Here’s how runs allowed per nine innings age, year to year, for the three groups.

GrounderAging

By including sinkers in this graph, we’re limiting ourselves to aging since 2008. So the sample on the sinker aging curve isn’t great — between 28 and 34, where it looks like sinker-ballers age better than the regular population, the buckets average nearly 400 innings. The “all pitchers” curve averages over 2000. So let’s call that sinker curve inconclusive.

The ground-ball curve, though? The buckets average 600 innings and are closer to half the size of the “all” curve in most spots, and there are no missing ages. It certainly looks like James was right: right around 30 years old, ground-ball guys start to age worse. They add four runs to their peak RA/9 two years earlier than the average pitcher. The attrition is much worse, too: between 32 and 34 years old, 34% of all innings pitched leave the game, while 74% of all innings pitched by plus ground-ball pitchers disappear.

That’s a startling number, actually. But look at the number of 30-year olds who reached qualified status with 50% ground-ball rate or higher last year. Only two of them will pitch next year.

Expand the search to include pitchers about to turn thirty, and we start to see a fresh crop that will test the truism. Felix Hernandez and Jake Arrieta are most famously at the top of the heap, but the list is fascinating. Four years from now, we’re likely to be looking at two or three of these guys still pitching. Say it ain’t so.



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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


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output gap
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output gap
2 months 23 days ago

Do ground ball pitchers with a high K% age better than those with low K%?

Paul22
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Paul22
2 months 22 days ago

Good question, you beat me to it. I would have been interested in the aging curve for extreme FB pitchers as well

hobbes020
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hobbes020
2 months 23 days ago

If you say that within earshot of Keuchel, he’ll beat you to death with his beard.

Doug
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Doug
2 months 23 days ago

I think Rick Reuschel would have disagreed with James, as he was still slinging ground balls waiting to happen at 40. Now, that’s far enough back that I don’t see GB% in the stats, but everybody knew him as a ground ball pitcher. While it’s possible that he changed his approach over time, the low HR rate (which we CAN see) over most of his career suggests otherwise.

merlin401
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merlin401
2 months 23 days ago

Certainly in any broad analysis like this it is understood that their are exceptions to every “rule” (though more like there are outliers on both sides of any general trend)

Doug
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Doug
2 months 23 days ago

For the most part, yes, but James did emphasize “Always.”

Tom Dooley
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Tom Dooley
2 months 22 days ago

You’re not wrong; you’re just responding to an incomplete excerpt. The preface of the column in which that quote appeared:

Allow me to rant for a few minutes here without any evidence. We’ll get to the evidence later; I’m just trying to frame the debate.

And later, the acknowledgement:

Greg Maddux, of course, was a ground ball pitcher, and there have been a few others, like Kevin Brown.

Paul22
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Paul22
2 months 22 days ago

He retracted that when someone asked about Derek Lowe

Mike Podhorzer
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2 months 23 days ago

But is it the ground balls/sinkers behind the early aging, or is it because extreme groundballers typically post lower strikeout rates than flyballers, giving them less margin for error if either their strikeout rate declines further or their ground ball rate deteriorates?

Legeisc
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Legeisc
2 months 23 days ago

I think this is it. Fly ball pitchers typically strikeout more guys with 4 seamers, but can switch to more sinkers to age more gracefully. Gallardo would be an extreme example of a guy that abandoned his 4 seamer for a sinker to stay productive even though it sent his K rate down the drain. As GB pitchers are already pitching like old guys when they are young…they can’t switch to old guy tactics later in their careers.

Buck Farmer
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Buck Farmer
2 months 23 days ago

I agree. I think this might be tied directly to the loss of velocity. Groundball pitchers have a smaller margin for error, so when they lose some velocity strikeout pitchers can transition to a pitch to contact type game, while groundball pitchers are already to far gone.

isavage
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isavage
2 months 22 days ago

It seems a lot of sinkerballers don’t have great command too, it’s more like they throw to a general area and let the movement of the pitch do the work, and often they don’t have great secondary offerings they can fall back on. When you are basically ignoring the upper part of the strike zone because your pitches don’t allow you to be successful when they are much above the knees, it’s going to be harder to deal with velocity loss, than a pitcher who has always had to command the whole zone to be successful. I always thought this about Justin Masterson, he could be successful when he could throw his sinker 93-94mph because it was such a nasty pitch, but you back that velocity off a bit and he would be back to being at best a reliever who can’t get lefties out.

dtpollitt
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dtpollitt
2 months 23 days ago

So the Cubs have 4 guys on those lists–Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Hammel. I’m not sure what that means but it’s something.

Shirtless Bartolo Colon says in Serbian to Vietnamese to French and back to John Elway
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Shirtless Bartolo Colon says in Serbian to Vietnamese to French and back to John Elway
2 months 23 days ago

I should’ve refreshed before posting, oops.

rpg006
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rpg006
2 months 22 days ago

Not really… only Arrieta qualifies as >50% GB…Lester at 49% could probably also be counted though, and Lackey is pretty close… but Hammel certainly wouldn’t count

mike sixel
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mike sixel
2 months 23 days ago

Does it matter why they age worse, or that they do age worse….because if they do age worse, that’s what a GM should worry about. Now, you may ALSO want to worry about why, to see if you can alter the course……

Shirtless Bartolo Colon says in Serbian to Vietnamese to French and back to John Elway
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Shirtless Bartolo Colon says in Serbian to Vietnamese to French and back to John Elway
2 months 23 days ago

It seems Theo & Co. have a predilection for signing older GB pitchers. Ditto for the Bucs.

formerly matt w
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formerly matt w
2 months 23 days ago

“But look at the number of 30-year olds who reached qualified status with 50% ground-ball rate or higher last year. Only two of them will pitch next year.”

But there were only three of them (at least on the page you linked), and the one who won’t pitch this year is a 39-year-old who pitched well last year and who is retiring to spend more time with his family after teasing retirement for the two years before that.

Here’s some random anecdata–I looked at ground ball rates from 2010-2 among pitchers aged 25-32, so ones who would’ve been 30-37 last season, and I decided to look mostly at pitchers who put up 6 fWAR in that period (figuring that the reason Nick Blackburn isn’t around anymore isn’t that he was a groundball pitcher, it’s that he was a bad groundball pitcher).

Among the 12/65 pitchers posting groundball rates of 50% and above, five posted 6 WAR or above; of these Lester and Cueto have remained excellent, Masterson and Romero had flamed out by last year, and Wainwright missed last year but was excellent before then.

For the middle of the groundball range I chose the pitchers ranked 26 to 38–this isn’t quite centered on the middle, and it’s thirteen pitchers, but there was a three-way tie for 26-28 and a little bit of a gap to 39. (39 was Ubaldo Jimenez, so a pitcher who had been successful and then lost it.) In this range, we have Josh Johnson, Edwin Jackson, Chad Billingsley, and Gavin Floyd as 6-WAR pitchers who have completely lost it, Anibal Sanchez and James Shields as 6-WAR pitchers who were good up till a bad 2015, Jason Hamel and Yovani Gallardo have remained useful throughout, and Cole Hamels has remained a star. (FWIW those last three had the highest GB rate in this bucket.)

Looking at the twelve pitchers with the lowest GB rate in this period, 6-WAR pitchers are Jered Weaver, Shaun Marcum, Jason Vargas, Ian Kennedy, Matt Cain, Brandon Morrow, and Max Scherzer. Scherzer is extremely good!

That last list really makes me wonder how extreme fly ball pitchers age. These guys didn’t age well as a group.

formerly matt w
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formerly matt w
2 months 23 days ago

OK, looking at the linked post again, James explicitly excludes Wainwright:

When I talk about ground ball pitchers getting hurt, I’m not really talking about guys like Adam Wainwright and Andy Pettitte, with Ground Ball Rates around 38% or Ground Ball /Fly Ball Ratios around 5 to 4. In that context, I was talking about the guys with really extreme Ground Ball tendencies, like Chien-Ming Wang and Brandon Webb. Those guys, it seems to me, always self-destruct after a couple of years, unless their name is spelled “D-e-r-e-k-L-o-w-e”.

To which I say: Really? I mean, I know this is Bill James, but if you set the minimum ground-ball rates to 60% for the ’00s, you have five pitchers, Webb, Wang, Lowe, Jason Grimsley, and Chad Bradford. One of those he acknowledges as an exception, two were never any good, and Wang destroyed his foot running the bases. This is a criminally small sample size.

By the way, the quote in the OP about premature aging syndrome is from a comment by Craig Wright, not by James (at least that’s how Rob Neyer attributes it in the linked post).

rss2226
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rss2226
2 months 23 days ago

From a mechanical standpoint, could it have anything to do with GB pitchers having to stay low in the zone and having to extend themselves more to keep the ball down, accelerating the aging process?

Paul22
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Paul22
2 months 22 days ago

Not sure. But to get the sinking action they sort of have to turn the ball over more while throwing, almost like a screwball action, which causes more stress to the elbow or shoulder. Also, there is the perception sinkerballers get better action on the sinker when fatigued, so may tend to warm up more in the pen before games and pitch more fatigued than others pitchers at a similar pitchc ount

KwisatzHaderach
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KwisatzHaderach
2 months 22 days ago

Well some confusion can arise because a two-seam fastball can be of the higher spin, swing-back variety which tails more than it sinks…or the true sinker version which at its best is characterized by a spin-rate well below average, allowing it to drop more dramatically.
The arm action you’re describing characterizes the swing-back version, a la Doug Fister in his prime, for example, which has more sidespin and can be used effectively without staying at the absolute bottom of the zone. A true sinker is as much about grip pressure and getting as low a spin rate as possible on it, which is where the anecdote about mild fatigue improving the sinker comes from. Both tend to get groundballs, but there is a distinct difference in those two pitches.

I can’t help wondering if much of this isn’t just aging pitchers being forced to switch to the true sinker to survive. Meanwhile, a guy like Arrieta is throwing a very different pitch. His two-seam fastball has the spin rate of an average four-seamer, around 2250rpms, but has more sidespin and less backspin than a four-seamer, which is why it tails in on right-handers so hard. Add in the higher velocity than most two-seamers and you’ve got a dominant fastball, but not an actual, sinking, “sinker”.

Damaso
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Damaso
2 months 23 days ago

I like this article.

brokeslowly
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brokeslowly
2 months 22 days ago

Brett Anderson (age 28) out 3-5 months – needs second back surgery. Hmmm….

RedsManRick
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2 months 22 days ago

I’d be curious to see whether if the flyball/groundball think is simply a proxy for pitch mix or arm slot and whether or not its those things that are more strongly correlated with injury/loss of effectiveness.

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