The Next Tommy John?

Yesterday, I mentioned that Carlos Pena had a monstrous week in the Three True Outcomes, with 20 of his 28 plate appearances ending in a walk, a strikeout, or a home run. Pena essentially took the defense out of the equation when he was up to bat, making the result almost entirely dependent on the pitcher-hitter confrontation.

Today, we’ll look at the pitcher who is doing the exact opposite of that so far this year, Joel Pineiro. Through six starts, Pineiro has posted a 3.73 FIP, besting all of his seasonal performances dating back to 2001 when he burst onto the scene as a dominating relief pitcher for the Mariners. He’s given the Cardinals rotation quite a boost, and is one of the reasons why St. Louis is off to such a strong start.

Pineiro’s achieving this low FIP by minimizing the true outcomes to a ridiculous extreme. He’s faced 160 batters in his first six starts, and only 22 have managed to walk (seven), strikeout (13), or hit a home run (two). The other 138 batters, or 86.2 percent, have put the ball in play. The average National League pitcher has had just 68.5 percent of their plate appearances end with a ball in play.

Pineiro is easily the National League leader in ball in play rate. Ross Ohlendorf comes in second with 77.8 percent of batters faced ending with a ball in play, a far cry from Pineiro’s line so far. Over in the American League, however, there’s another pitcher giving Pineiro’s extreme contact strategy a try. Shane Loux, one of the Angels multitude of reinforcements, is at 82.7 percent balls in play. Like Pineiro, Loux also has gotten strong results from the no true outcomes strategy, posting a 3.80 FIP.

Both Pineiro and Loux are groundball pitchers, so they just throw a ton of sinkers and hope for the infielders to rack up the assists. However, in both cases, their success has been buoyed by remarkably low HR/FB rates – Pineiro’s is at 5.6 percent while Loux’s is at 2.6 percent. Pretty much every announcer on earth will tell you that these are succeeding due to the quantity of their groundballs, but in reality, it’s the quality of their flyballs that has made their seasons a success so far.

Unfortunately for these two, there’s no way they can continue to keep the ball in the park at these rates. The pitch to contact strategy can work for a while, but unless you have the most ridiculous sinker known to man, you’re going to give up home runs eventually. It might not happen over a given six start stretch, but it’s going to happen.

Theoretically, a pitcher can succeed with a no true outcome approach. We just haven’t seen one who has been able to limit the longball enough to make it work since Tommy John, who had a career 80 percent ball in play rate and a 3.38 FIP. I’m sure we’ll see another pitcher who has that special skillset eventually, but unfortunately for fans in St. Louis and Anaheim, these two aren’t it.

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

8 Responses to “The Next Tommy John?”

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  1. David Foy says:

    Thanks for the fascinating article. Just taking a quick glance at Tommy’s stats the HR/9 #s jump out at you. Derek Lowe, one of the most consistent pitchers at keeping the ball in the park (some of that is the parks he pitched in) has a HR/9 rate of .72 for his career, Tommy John’s rate is about .5, thats really out of this world.

    Slightly random question, are there any pitching staffs that as a whole staff are heavy on pitchers that minimize true outcomes? and are those staffs on teams that are supported by above average defense?

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  2. Ryan D says:

    H/T Rob Neyer please

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  3. aweb says:

    Is there anything that would allow you to think someone is the next Tommy John, in so far as the homer prevention goes? Homerun prevention by pitchers seems like something that will undergo a sober second thought, like BABIP did. The first thought for BABIP, if I recall correctly, that pitchers (knuckleballers excluded) didn’t have much control over it. The prevailing thought as I understand it now is that a select few pitchers do have such control, and make careers out of it.

    Preventing home runs on flyballs – which would mainly consist of the angle of ball/bat contact and bat speed – would seem to be a very fine subset of the flyball/groundball control most pitchers display consistently. It’s likely some pitchers are able to induce more weak flyballs than others, it’s just hard to spot in population studies, since the outliers end up looking like noise.

    It’s not just sinker-ballers who might qualify. Zito, even at the height of his struggles, kept his HR/FB reasonable, and is at 8.5% for his career. Meanwhile, someone like Dave Bush has been consistently near a career mark of 11.7%. Of course, very few pitchers manage to suppress Ks and BBs on top of that.

    I would think the hardest thing for a “no true outcomes” pitcher would be to get noticed and put up good minor league numbers. Minor leagues are noted for poorer defense (and facilities), making it hard for someone who relies on balls in play to succeed and stand out.

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  4. Jake says:

    What would a “no true outcomes” pitcher’s FIP be, if absolutely no hitters whiffed, walked, or homered?

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