The Giants Are Doing It Again

Quick, guess which team’s pitching staff has the lowest HR/FB rate in baseball. Okay, the subject probably gives away the answer, but even if it didn’t, the smart guess would have been San Francisco. After all, they’ve been dominating this category for the last decade.

We spent a decent amount of time this winter talking about the Giants ability to prevent home runs. It started off talking about Matt Cain, moved on to a broader discussion, and then shifted towards looking at whether Dave Righetti might be the key to understanding why San Francisco continues to keep the ball in the park better than any other team in baseball. While we don’t have a concrete answer yet, as more data piles up, three oft-cited factors are seeing their potential influences diminished – the pitchers themselves, sample size of the data, and park factors.

We’ll start with the latter. While AT&T Park is certainly part of the reason why the Giants have been able to depress home run rates over the years, their pitchers continue to carry this trait with them on road trips. In fact, the Giants HR/FB rate is lower on the road (5.7%, lowest in baseball) this year than it is at home (6.6%, 10th in baseball). These numbers aren’t as crazy low as they would have been a few years ago, as the league HR/FB rate continues to drop (it’s now just below nine percent for 2011), but there’s no denying that the Giants are once again allowing fewer home runs on fly balls than any other team in baseball. As we noted over the winter, the Giants have consistently been one of the best teams in baseball at preventing home runs away from their home park, and they’re continuing this trend again this year. There’s more going on here than playing half their games in an environment where it is hard to put the ball in the seats.

As for sample size, it continues to grow by the day. We’re going on 10 years of batted ball data now and the trend is remarkably consistent. If this was only a pattern seen over the last few years, it could still be seen as simply an outlier on the data, something that we’d expect to find given enough digging through a massive amount of numbers. But, the pattern is showing no signs of slowing up, and we’re now dealing with a decade’s worth of evidence. This stopped being a small sample size a while ago.

That leaves us with the final factor often referenced as a significant influence – the pitchers themselves. We’ve heard all kinds of theories for why Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are hard to hit home runs against, and some of them even sound like they have merit. However, it’s always been hard to ignore the glut of mediocre pitchers who showed up in San Francisco and immediately stopped giving up home runs upon arrival. Brett Tomko, Jerome Williams, Matt Morris, Russ Ortiz… these guys are not exactly Cy Young.

Well, we can another name to that pile – Ryan Vogelsong. He entered the season with a career 8.5% HR/FB rate in just under 300 innings in the Major Leagues, none of them coming since 2006. Now, thrust into the Giants rotation to replace Barry Zito, he’s tossed up a nifty little 4.0% HR/FB rate in 41 innings. By himself, he proves nothing, and a 40 inning sample isn’t all that useful. But, when taking a look at the Giants history of right-handed pitchers over the last ten years, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the team found a guy off the scrap heap and has turned him into a pretty decent starting pitcher. They’ve been doing this forever.

When I talked to Dave Righetti about this during Spring Training, he seemed genuinely interested and confused by the data at the same time. I’m right there with him. I find the Giants ability to keep this up both fascinating and bewildering – I don’t know that anyone knows how they’re doing it, but they’re doing it again, and it’s getting harder and harder to say that Righetti – or someone in the Giants organization – hasn’t figured out some way to either acquire or develop pitchers who just don’t give up home runs.

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

62 Responses to “The Giants Are Doing It Again”

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  1. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    Climate! The air is heavier in SF in the summer as it is super cold there. I know this does not explain the low HR rates on the road, but that could be explained by scouting. If a pitcheri s known to never give up homers, then to try to hit a homer off they guy might be discouraged by scouts, so the players are taught to swing for average and work the count against the pitcher.

    Just ideas.

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    • letitrain10 says:

      Climate would make sense because it is seems to be the same way in Oakland.

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    • Giant Torture says:

      Wow, did you miss the entire part about how they’re allowing fewer home runs on the road? Did you even read the article for that matter?

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        Did you even read the post for that matter? He acknowledges “this does not explain the low HR rates on the road” and then goes on to give a secondary explanation.

        I don’t buy the secondary explanation, but at least read a post before criticizing someone for the same thing.

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  2. Nick44 says:

    Late movement on pitches? What is the Giant pitcher’s average LD% and does this trend with HR/FB on a year-by-year basis? This is interesting stuff and probably worth a data-mining exercise to at least see what pops up. A certain pithcing philosophy should turn up results in some sort of metric (i.e. Duncan with GB% and seamed FB type, etc.). Perhaps there is something else in the Giants data (may have to separate pre and post-Giants pitcher history to find it.)

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  3. baty says:

    In cases like this, I wish I could see split categories/game progression graphs that show pitch type and value. Looking at year by year pitch usage and effect, kind of tells a story as to how a pitcher is being used, but having a higher resolution explanation (monthly, by game, against LHH/RHH, home/away, etc…) of how a pitcher’s use might be evolving within a season seems to be pretty informative, especially with the possibilities brought about by sudden team changes, ballpark, league, and coaching influence/adjustment, maturity…. Sometimes a new pitch is added/adjusted midseason by coaching… maybe pitch selections are slightly different between home/away splits… maybe a lefty/righty pitch selection approach is the successful adaptation…

    Maybe there isn’t much change that takes place, but there has to be see some patterns taking place that could direct a more detailed explanation to the rate of change between between all of those influences… so that when a player switches teams, for instance, the rate and type of change could suggest that it is more of a switch in park/league factors, or maybe it’s more the growth influence of coaching, etc…

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  4. boxx says:

    Kick me- you may have hit it on the nose. None of this is using hard data but there seems to be a common bond when it comes to pitcher’s parks vs. their hitter friendly counterparts: Water!!! All of the teams that play on the West Coast all play in what are widely considered “pitcher friendly parks” – Seattle, San Fran, Chavez Ravine, Oakland, and Petco. As are, in most case the teams that play on the East Coast – Old Shea and Citi Field are both pitcher’s parks. Boston is great for righthanded hitters but not so for lefties as we once thought. Old Yankee stadium stadium was death on right-handers and would have been neutral if not for the short porch down the right field line. New Yankee stadium is a launch pad for all (still more so for lefties) but that has more to do with the stadium design and the jet streams that were created by such design. Target Field in Minnesota has winds from the Great Lakes killing fly balls, a complete 180 compared to the Metro Dome days.

    Conversely look at extreme hitters parks for a sec. They are either located inland or in the midwest – Cincinatti, Wringley (in the summer), U.S Cellular, Denver pre-Humidor, New Busch. Or places where the air is “hot and dry” – Arlington, Houston, Arizona.

    So yeah, the closer you are to a major body of water the more likely you are to experience things that depress HR, like colder temperatures, stronger wind gusts and thicker moister air.

    Another factor to consider which I sorta covered above and may help explain why they are so good at limiting road HR: Their schedule! Think about it. They play 81 games at a pitcher friendly home. In their division they play a 20 or so total games in LA and San Diego every year. The Humidor has neutralized Coors field for the most part. Add to that the three games they play in places like Oakland during interleague play or place Citi Field and Washington when they come out East and when you tally it all up, the Giants, year-in-and-year-out, play around 120 games in “pitcher’s parks”.

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    • quincy0191 says:

      Then why don’t the Padres and Dodgers experience the same phenomenon? Petco is even worse for home runs than AT&T (which isn’t bad for RHH) but the Padres have a 10.1% HR/FB over the last ten years. The Dodgers are at 9.8%, but the Giants lead baseball at 8.5%.

      And while Coors has had the humidor for a few years, this dates back to the pre-humidor days, and you still have to account for Chase Field.

      I’m sure AT&T isn’t hurting the HR/FB rate, but the park factor isn’t so low that it can explain this entirely, and then there’s the road number, which even if the Giants play in a lot of pitcher’s parks, should be about the same as the road numbers for any other team, but they still lead baseball by a good amount.

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      • CDI says:

        Because the Giants still have better starting pitchers than the Padres.
        Lincecum vs. Latos? (Latos is/was good for a stretch of 20 games. TL has 2 cy’s. That should nip *THAT* debate in the bud.)
        Cain vs. Richard?
        Sanchez vs. Harang?

        Even if the parks are equal, I would still expect the Giants to give up less home runs than the Padres staff.

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      • quincy0191 says:

        The Giants pitching RIGHT NOW is better than the Padres, and has been for a couple of years. But like the article says, look at the data for the last ten years, including the early 2000’s when the Giants’ pitching wasn’t particularly good. The HR/FB rates are still the best in baseball.

        Point is, over that much time there has been so much turnover in the Giants’ pitching staff that pure talent isn’t enough to explain the difference. Vogelsong’s a good example; he does suffer from SSS, but he’s sporting a 4% HR/FB.

        If the parks are equal, the Giants should give up fewer homers, but the parks aren’t equal, Petco is worse on homers. So the superior talent of the Giants is mitigated by the pitcher’s heaven that is Petco, yet the Giants’ HR/FB over the last ten years is significantly better.

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    • B says:

      Do you have any idea how Target Field is from a great lake? Any great lake?

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    • joser says:

      Moister air is not thicker. It is thinner. Air at sea level is denser than at altitude, which is why people make this association, but at a given altitude (pressure) the greater the water vapor content the less dense the air (Nitrogen gas makes up ~78% of air and it has an atomic weight of 28, Oxygen gas makes up ~21% and has an atomic weight of 32, while water has an atomic weight of 18; at 1 atmosphere and 20°C, water vapor is about 30% less dense than the surrounding N2 gas and 40% less dense than O2). Of course the partial pressure of water vapor is relatively low even on humid days, so it’s a small effect, but nonetheless moist humid air helps a baseball fly (slightly) further. What it doesn’t help is actually making a baseball fly off the bat, as a damp ball is less elastic (and a damp bat also, though not the the same extent). Which is why they put the balls in a humidor at Coors.

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    • Terence says:

      The air is not “hot and dry” in Houston. In fact Houston might be the most humid city on this list.

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  5. boxx says:

    As Baty said, some splits would also be nice. The HR/FB splits for opposing pitchers when they pitch at At&T Park compared to the other parks would help. Are pitchers who are prone to gofer balls suddenly better at preventing them when their teams travel to San Fran? How about those same splits for the Giants offense? Do the HR numbers go up when they hit the road? No fault to Dave, but the numbers provided simply don’t allow for a logical conclusion. Since sample size isn’t an issue, their has to be some underlying stats that could allow us to do more than just make guesses. Or how about examining the HR/FB rates of pitchers before and after signing with Giants? Those splits may tell us nothing but the extra info can’t hurt.

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  6. Grammar Police says:

    Latter is used in reference to two things, not more than two.

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  7. boxx says:

    B- It’s close enough. The stadium doesn’t have to be “right on” the Great Lakes to be affected by it. New York isn’t anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico, that doesn’t change the fact many of the rain showers in the NY metro area come from low pressure systems that start in the Gulf and slowly make there way to northeast. Or another example is the quake near Japan. It caused dangerous tide levels on the California coastline despite the fact that Japan is several thousands of miles away. In any case, it’s an excuse I’ve heard and read in a few places as to why guys (especially Mauer) are having trouble hitting jacks there now. Unless of course your Jose Bautista.

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  8. boxx says:

    Unless of course YOU’RE (not your) Jose Bautista

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  9. Mr Punch says:

    Some slips in this discussion: LA may be a pitcher-friendly park but it’s by no means homer-unfriendly: Oakland doesn’t have quite the same climate as SF (because it’s not on the ocean). That said, kick me may have at least part of the answer.

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  10. Dave Cameron says:

    Trying to figure out what causes San Francisco’s home park to suppress home runs isn’t all that interesting, honestly. The weather, the tall wall, the dimensions – they all play into it.

    The real question is why the Giants pitchers continually prevent home runs, both at home and on the road, to a degree that can’t be explained by park factors.

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  11. Victor Frankenstein says:

    Oh, that HR suppression were the sole key to success.

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  12. AA says:

    Much like with IFFB rate, HR% is likely more able to be controlled than the current metrics account for.

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    • Matt says:

      Assuming that’s true, wouldn’t understanding how the Giants have been able to control that rate assist us in tinkering/correcting metrics or coming up with new ones that would be more accurate?

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  13. BMac says:

    Actually, I believe the effect is even stronger than the analysis showed. To be fair, you need to compare how the other teams fared on the road EXCLUDING AT&T park. After all, the SF could not pitch there “on the road” since it is their home park and is already excluded. If you excluded AT&T, then the Padres, Dodgers, etc. would have an even WORSE road record for HR/FB, I am sure.

    I would guess it is either talent selection or coaching after they join the organization. The guess at the beginning of the article that Dave Righetti had something to do with it may not be so far off. It seems he started as pitching coach there in 2000…

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  14. MrKnowNothing says:

    Are there great fluctuations over the years? Do the Cubs go from 20 to 5 sometimes?

    Or I dunno maybe someone just has to be the lowest.

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  15. al says:

    mommy! he’s doing it again!!

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  16. Phantom Stranger says:

    No one likes to talk about it because they won the World Series for the first time in over a half-century, but most of the bullpen was throwing Gaylord Perry specials down the stretch. The ridiculous beards and long hair are used to hold slick, illicit substances used to doctor a ball and give it a little extra movement for certain pitches. The Giants are not the only team that has pitchers currently doing that, but it was never so blatant as them where most of the staff was doing it. Or did you really think that magical stretch of pitching down the stretch was all natural?

    You do not need to doctor the ball on every pitch for it to help, it would be caught by the umpires too easily. A possibly relevant sidebar to the Giants’ success at keeping homerun rates down.

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  17. Ben says:

    ^ Wow. That’s about the most unintelligent argument I’ve ever heard.

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  18. J. Welderson says:

    Dave, I ask for the following information because Fangraphs frequently will talk about correlations but not actually show us the math they’ve done:

    Have you done a proper statistical analysis that controls for park factor, schedule, etc., all at the same time, and do you still find a statistically significant difference (p < 0.05, but I'd imagine something stronger is warranted) between the Giants' HR/FB rate and the league average? If so, can we please see the data and analysis used? This is the sort of rigor I'm accustomed to seeing on, say, Tango Tiger's blog and I've found it to be a little lacking here. Thanks.

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      I’ve been asking myself the same thing. These people throw together all kinds of stats that they seem to sometimes pull out of their asses but really don’t actually say anything because it doesn’t make normal statistical sense. For example, let’s say that Philly ends up with a better team average than Atlanta, are they a better offense? Maybe, but maybe not because they didn’t have to face 4 of the top 20 pitchers in the game.

      I don’t see why we don’t just use variance and LSD (least significant difference) and that sort of thing.

      Someone needs to get SAS or something.

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  19. Antonio Bananas says:

    Can’t we adjust the percent for league/park/hitters?

    I mean really, they play in a big park, they play in the same division as San Diego (PETCO). Plus they play in the NL, which is the pitcher’s league. PLUS the NL had 6 of the top 9 pitcher friendly parks last year.

    To top if all off, their pitchers have really good stuff. You put all that together and it’s kinda hard to see them NOT having the best ratio.

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    • Matt says:

      I mean really, they play in a big park: -They take it with them on the road

      they play in the same division as San Diego (PETCO).: -So do 4 other teams, including San Diego (who you can also apply your #1 to)

      Plus they play in the NL, which is the pitcher’s league.: -So does the rest of the NL, and the NL West.

      PLUS the NL had 6 of the top 9 pitcher friendly parks last year.: -The other NL West teams play in those parks there just as often as the Giants

      To top if all off, their pitchers have really good stuff.: -This has been going on since 2000. Or were you including Kurt Ainsworth, Ryan Jensen, and Mark Gardner in that?

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      • Antonio Banans says:

        Yea, they take it on the road, but half of their games are at home. Significant amount.

        Yes, the other teams in the division play in Petco, but the Giants play in Petco AND at their park (AT&T?). So what? 55% of their games are in pitcher friendly parks. The difference between SD and SF is that SF has better pitchers and SD’s offense sucks, which SF gets to pitch against.

        You keep saying “yea but other teams do too”. However, you aren’t putting it all together. NO other team, except for San Diego, meets all the stadium criteria that SF has going for it, the difference is San Diego has an awful offense that SF gets to pitch against and SF has better pitchers. They have the perfect storm.

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  20. slash12 says:

    Check out the leader boards for IFFB% among pitching staffs in the same time period. It would appear the Giants lead this category as well. This seems to me no coincidence, as HR/FB includes Infield Fly balls in it’s equation. It would be interesting to see how the giants fare in HR/OFFB (a stat I’ve been wishing fangraphs offered for a while now). Perhaps inducing IFFB’s is the skill we should be assessing, and not HR/FB rate (an IFFB is good for more reasons then just the fact that it’s not going to go for a homerun, it’s also much more likely to be caught, and if for some reason it’s not..not going for extra bases at all)

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  21. DrBGiantsfan says:

    This really isn’t as hard as it seems. It can all be summed up in two basic principles:

    1. Fastball Command!

    2. Never give in to the hitter!

    The Giants draft and sign pitchers with great velocity who can command the fastball on both sides of the plate. Most HR’s are not lazy flyballs that just happen to carry over the fence. Most HR’s are crushed off one of two kinds of pitches: 1. Fastballs that catch too much of the middle of the strike zone and 2. Hanging breaking balls. Well commanded fastballs with velocity in the 90’s just don’t get crushed very often.

    Giants pitchers give up a lot of walks. I don’t think Righetti overtly tells the pitchers to walk batters to avoid giving up HR’s, but I do think he preaches incessantly to never, ever give in to the hitter. Even if it’s a 3-1 or 3-2 count with a couple of runners on base, they’re still trying to keep it on the corner. They aren’t pitching scared. They aren’t trying to walk the batter, but they also are not afraid to walk the batter while trying to get him out.

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    • hairball says:

      THIS, but I would add that Righetti seems to be a master teacher of the changeup. I’m not sure how that plays into this. Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps it really helps the fastball. I don’t now, but to me, it’s always been one of Righetti’s defining characteristics as a pitching coach.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      That’s just not true. I talked to Righetti about this. He doesn’t tell them what you’re assuming he tells them.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Well, at least Righetti SAYS he doesn’t tell them that and maybe he even THINKS he doesn’t tell them that. Maybe he doesn’t say it quite like that, I don’t know. All I know is that is the way they PITCH, all of them, all the time. It’s been a very noticeable characteristic over the course of Righetti’s tenure as pitching coach. There are times when watching it as fan can be extremely frustrating. You find yourself yelling at the TV, “just throw strikes, dammit!”

        Now, I’m not saying that Righetti or the Giants or their pitchers have as their primary goal to avoid HR’s. I think their primary goal is to get the hitter out. Suppressing HR’s is likely a natural by-product of the way they go about getting hitters out, fastball command and not throwing fat pitches.

        Heck, they don’t even give in to sacrifice bunts! I bet if you look up % of successful sacrifice bunt attempts against, you’d find the Giants are pretty good at that too. Again, it’s all about fastball command. They come in high and hard on the inside corner and literally try to knock the bat out of the hands of the bunter, or at least get them to pop it up.

        I read a quote from Dick Tidrow talking about why they drafted Bumgarner. They look for pitchers who can command the fastball on both sides of the plate, so drafting the right type of pitcher is certainly part of the equation.

        I’ve heard Brian Wilson comment on post game interviews after one of his usual 2 walks and a 3-2 count with the bases loades Saves, that he didn’t want to give the hitter anything over middle of the plate he could hit for a HR. I’ve heard other Giants pitchers make similar comments. Mike Krukow, on the Giants TV broadcasts repeatedly comments when Rags comes out to talk to a pitcher who has put a runner or two on base that he’s probably reminding the pitcher he has a base to work with and not give in to the hitter.

        There is just a whole lot of anecdotal and circumstantial evidence pointing to a certainly organizational philosophy despite what Dave Righetti may say in an interview.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        More on Tidrow. In the same interview where he talked about scouting Bumgarner, he said much the same thing about Matt Cain. Tidrow was impressed by Cain’s fastball command and exclaimed to Brian Sabean, “He’s perfect for us!”

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  22. J. Welderson says:

    Again, the question is not whether there’s a difference, or a trend, but whether it’s significant. Simply citing sample size is not enough here. If all the AL West teams have relatively low HR/FB rates, it might well no longer represent a significant difference, despite the sample size. Examining changes in pitchers who moved away from SF, as well as to it, might also help. Again, I understand people are eager to jump in with theories to explain the Giants’ unusual ability to keep the ball in the park, but it would be nice to see some decisive methodology demonstrating that they are actually doing so.

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      You know, all that stuff has been done in various articles on the subject. This is a subject that has been studied and discussed to death. The only people who still don’t accept it are the ones who don’t want to accept it. No matter how many times and way’s it’s proved they will still claim some nitpicky, irrelevant flaw in the analysis so they can go on claiming it doesn’t exist.

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      • KJOK says:

        I don’t see that Welderson’s question has been answered in those previous studies.

        Even over 10 years, perhaps JUST BY CHANCE, some team is going to end up #1 in exceeding the norm for HR/FB %, and some team is going to end up #30. Just because the Giants are #1 on the list does not mean it’s significant and has a cause other than random chance.

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      • J. Welderson says:

        Cool, can you point me to those studies? I haven’t seen them on Fangraphs or elsewhere, certainly not done rigorously, but maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough.

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      • Antonio Banans says:

        I agree. It’s really stupid to not use Least Significant Different, variance, etc. It baffles me that people on here, who can manipulate numbers and come up with all sorts of stats can’t include basic statistical functions.

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  23. Telo says:

    This is actually one of the more fascinating saber subplots in baseball right now to me. I really don’t have any idea of the answer. I wonder what Tango thinks of it.

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    • Telo says:

      To all of those Righetti theory supporters – here’s a hyopthetical:

      Righetti gets hired by another team… does the entire pitching staff immediately, or within a reasonable amount of time (couple months), give up less homeruns?

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  24. Scout Finch says:

    I have a theory I’d like to proffer.

    Perhaps the lower HR/FB rate has to do with the type of game the Giants pitchers are occupied with the majority of time : a tight one with no margin for error.

    Can we conclude that a homerun is usually the product of a pitcher serving up a cookie to a batter looking for a cookie? And that this scenario plays out more frequently when a lead is large enough for the pitcher go after the batter or get ahead when in the lead?

    The Giants pitchers don’t have that comfort zone. Their focus is dedicated to limiting damaging where one long ball can spell doom for their inept offense.
    Because they don’t have the luxury of throwing get it in fastballs, they are more likely to throw a higher percentage of pitchers that the hitter just can’t quite get both cheeks into.

    Just a theory and I’m sure someone more crafty than I can string it out or refute it entirely.


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  25. Franco says:

    Righetti himself had a pretty low HR/9 rate. Too bad we don’t HR/FB rates for him.

    The only good theory I’m seeing is that Righetti is altering something on a certain pitch that gives more late movement. It’d be an insane undertaking but maybe their is a certain pitch on the SF staff that has an extreme low HR/FB rate.

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  26. Nivra says:

    Has anyone looked at the minor league affiliates of the Giants? If what DrB says is true, that the Giants have an organizational philosophy not only in drafting and acquiring players, but also in their teaching, to be homerun averse, this trend should show up in AAA, AA, A+, A, and rookie ball.

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  27. John says:

    One factor why the home park doesn’t allow as many home runs because it’s almost impossible to hit a ball out to right center where it’s 421 feet with a 20 foot wall. I believe I heard the announcers say they’ve only seen two home runs ever go out above that 421 area. It’s the only park in baseball like that. If you completely eliminate all home runs from one area of other stadiums then that HR/FB rate will also take a tumble.

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