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Staring Down the Sinkerballers, Part Two

“There is little if any difference among major-league pitchers in their ability to prevent hits on balls hit in the field of play.” If you’re reading this site, I imagine these are not foreign words to you, as I’m quoting from Voros McCracken’s first article outlining his famous DIPS theory. With that sentence, pitching evaluation was changed forever. But, I do find it interesting that McCracken limited himself to “major-league pitchers,” as his findings surely represent a universal truth in baseball.

Yesterday, I began my writing at FanGraphs with the assertion that right-handed sinker-throwing prospects are a breed inherently undervalued by the conventions of Minor League prospect coverage. They do not throw hard, they do not strike people out, and they do not possess a ceiling. These are not power pitchers that need to be coddled and have their command harnessed, because for a right-handed worm-burner to be drafted, some semblance of secondary skills must be present. This is merely a group of prospects that relies on their fielders’ ability “to prevent hits on balls hit in the field of play” more than any other type of prospect. Simply: they are underrated because they are most dependent on inexperienced fielders.

In the Major Leagues, fielders seem to routinely turn about 69% of balls in play into outs. Last year, I wrote an article that found the 2008 NCAA Division I average defensive efficiency to be 61.7%. This difference, I don’t have to tell you, is astronomical, and varies even further on a team-to-team basis. My article focused some on the notion that the “what have you done for me lately” aspect of scouting is susceptible to underrating a pitcher because his defense doesn’t get to balls and runs cross the plate. The response I heard from Major League executives seemed to validate this theory.

If scouts are making this mistake at the college level, then I have no qualms accusing prospect evaluators (big note here: myself included!) of doing the same with Minor League pitchers. To reinforce the notion that a hit in Peoria isn’t the same as a hit in Chicago, I calculated the Defensive Efficiency of each full season league for the past five years. I should note these figures will be slightly inflated, as it just seems impossible to weed out batted ball errors from the total figure. Still, that would only have an incremental effect on these numbers, which show that fielding gets better as you move up the ladder and get more experienced defenders behind you.

League               DER
Midwest              .6495
South Atlantic       .6461
California           .6348
Carolina             .6589
Florida State        .6566
Eastern              .6642
Southern             .6614
Texas                .6595
International        .6660
Pacific Coast        .6571

Obviously, the altitude and park effects present in the California and Pacific Coast Leagues skew their data a bit, but it’s clear that a pitcher should expect a better defense with each promotion in the Minor Leagues. And as such, the baseline H/9 that we judge pitch-to-contact pitchers by should be higher in the lower levels. If a sinkerball pitcher is getting his ground balls, regardless of the outcome, he is doing his job. A player with an identical percentage of ground balls in play at each level is simply going to have more success to the most advanced level he is assigned.

I’ll close out with an example. Rick Porcello is, without question, one of the most talented players I chose for my sinkerballers sampler. He’s a guy that no one really underrated, but he’s a prime example of the defensive difference between High-A and Major League Baseball, given that he made the jump in just one year. In 2008, Porcello posted a 3.83 FIP with the Lakeland Tigers. He had a ridiculous 64.1 groundball percentage, a 25.2 flyball percentage, and a 8.3 line drive percentage. Using David Appelman’s expected BABIP formula for pitchers, Porcello should have had a .252 BABIP. It was .280. In the Majors, he essentially gave up 10% of his groundballs and turned them into line drives, as he faced a hugely more talented group of hitters. His expected BABIP at the Major League level was a still respectable .298. But the Detroit Tigers defense gave him a .281 BABIP.

There were no significant differences in Porcello’s stuff between 2008 and 2009. But the reason he was able to make such a fascinating transition so seamlessly was because his pitching style is just as suited for the benefits of a Major League defense (as compared to a High-A one) as it is for the trade-off of facing an average High-A hitter compared to a Major League one. With the emergence of batted ball data in the Minor Leagues, the influx of support in DIPS theory and the importance of defense, using hit rates to evaluate sinkerballers should soon become a thing of the past. We’ll see where Major League Baseball teams have made this mistake when I analyze the Minor League commonalities of my sinkerballer sample group tomorrow.