The strength of the San Francisco Giants is undoubtedly their pitching staff, which annually ranks among the best in baseball. Led by ace Tim Lincecum and a collection of hard-throwing relievers, the Giants once again led all of baseball in strikeout rate last year, but the thing that makes their pitchers special isn’t their ability to miss bats, but rather their unique ability to rack up a ton of outs on fly balls.
This might not sound like a particularly sexy skill for a pitching staff to possess, but most fly balls that are not caught become extra-base hits and about 10 percent of the time they fly over the wall for a home run. Pitchers who give up a lot of balls in the air tend to do so because they throw a lot of fastballs up in the strike zone, where hitters are prone to chasing pitches that they can’t get the bat on. That’s why a lot of fly ball pitchers are also good strikeout pitchers. The problem is that when a pitcher who lives in the high part of the strike zone misses with his location the ball can get hit very hard and far, so these pitchers often give up a lot of homers; for example, Ted Lilly had the lowest rate of ground balls in baseball last year and gave up a staggering 1.49 home runs per nine innings.
While most pitchers tend to hover around a rate of 10 percent of their fly balls leaving the yard, this does not hold true for pitchers who wear the Giants’ jersey, and it hasn’t for quite some time. Only 8 percent of the fly balls allowed by San Francisco pitchers in 2010 went over the fence, and as usual that was the best mark in baseball. This isn’t anything new — the Giants’ staff has been beating the league average on home runs per fly ball rate for a decade now.
Since 2002 (the first year our batted ball data is available at FanGraphs), the league average HR/FB rate is 10.4 percent with 27 of the 30 teams within 1 percent of that mark on either side. Very few pitchers have shown a constant ability to post a better than average rate in this category over large amounts of innings, so this isn’t a skill that teams have been able to cultivate among their pitchers. Except for the Giants. Their HR/FB rate since 2002 is just 8.6 percent, and the gap between them and the next best team (Oakland at 9.3 percent) is equal in distance between the second-place team and the ninth-place team (the Dodgers).
Put simply, no team is even close to the Giants in keeping its fly balls in the yard, and it hasn’t really mattered who the pitchers on the staff have been. While you might suspect that the low HR/FB rates posted by Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jason Schmidt are simply due to their high-quality pitches, the team has also seen the likes of Russ Ortiz, Brett Tomko and Matt Morris prevent home runs during their stints in San Francisco. And, to make things even more interesting, none of the pitchers who have shown this ability while in the Bay Area have been able to take those skills to other cities and keep their home run rates as low as they were previously.
The most natural explanation in situations like this would be the home park that the team plays in, and indeed AT&T Park is one of the toughest places in baseball for a left-handed hitter to hit a home run. The long distance to the right-field wall, combined with the wall’s height and proximity to a body of water which can produce some stiff winds, make it a challenging place for lefties to pull the ball out of the park.
However, the way their home park plays does nothing to explain the fact they also have the lowest rate of home runs per fly balls on the road since 2002 as well, coming in at just 9.1 percent. That’s higher than their home mark of 8.0 percent, but still quite a bit better than average. It is true that their road games involve a number of stints in Petco Park, but their division also includes the homer-havens of Colorado and Arizona, so we can’t give credit to their rivals’ parks, either.
Despite turning over the pitching staff several times and pitching in a way that suggest that their home park is not the sole factor (though it is certainly one of the factors), the Giants have continually been among the league leaders in home run prevention. The only constant during the past nine years has been Dave Righetti, who has been the pitching coach for that entire stretch. When I asked him about this phenomenon during spring training, however, he didn’t seem to have any more answers than I did.
He dismissed the notion that he encourages his pitchers to walk hitters rather than groove pitches that they might hit out of the park, responding with a firm “absolutely not” when asked if he coached his pitchers to avoid giving in when behind in the count. I also asked him if he or the organization specifically targeted or developed pitchers who they thought could limit home runs, and he said that they did not — they try to get pitchers who could limit walks and get strikeouts, just like everyone else.
And yet, whether it is intentional or not, the Giants have been able to cultivate a pitching staff that consistently gives up few home runs despite putting the ball in the air with some frequency. Even during the playoffs last year, facing some of the game’s most impressive power hitters, they allowed just nine home runs in 15 postseason games.
Whether it’s Righetti, the park, the pitchers or some really long-lasting good fortune — or, most likely, a combination of all of these things — the Giants have been better at preventing home runs than any other team in baseball, and it is perhaps the biggest reason that their pitching has annually been among the best in the game.
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