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.