UC Riverside Pitchers are Grounded

Ground-ball rates are rather trendy right now in Major League Baseball, and for good reason. If you can find pitchers with high strikeout rates, as well as high ground-ball rates, then you have a real keeper on your staff. The rational behind the love of the ground ball is pretty simple. If a ball is hit on the ground it’s pretty hard for it to leave the park for a three-run homer.

With enough innings to qualify (He pitched 61.1 innings before being shutdown to protect his arm), the Blue Jays’ Marc Rzepczynski would rank 13th in the Major Leagues in ground-ball rate, sandwiched between Josh Johnson of the Marlins and Mike Pelfrey of the Mets. The Giants’ Daniel Runzler has a ground-ball rate of 50%, albeit it in a very small sample size of just 5.2 innings (seven appearances).

Both Rzepczynski and Runzler have something in common. They were both selected in the 2007 amateur draft and both players were taken out of UC Riverside. In his minor league career spanning parts of three seasons, Rzepczynski had a ground-ball rate of 63.8%, which is 2.4% better than current MLB leader Joel Pineiro‘s 61.4%. Runzler has a career minor-league rate of 62.8%.

In the past six drafts (2004-09), 17 pitchers have been selected out of UC Riverside. Prior to the 2007 draft, the most notable pitchers out of the six taken were Anthony Claggett (drafted by the Tigers and traded to the Yankees), and Daniel Stange (drafted by the Diamondbacks). Neither pitcher has an overly impressive career ground-ball rate.

Then comes the 2007 draft. Along with Rzepczynski and Runzler, James Simmons (Athletics) and Adam Reifer (Cardinals) were also drafted. Both pitchers have struggled more than their former teammates, but they continue to have potential as both pitchers made their clubs’ Top 30 prospect lists prior to 2009 (according to Baseball America).

Since being drafted, Simmons’ ground-ball rates have actually declined each year, which could very well be one of the reasons why he’s struggled to live up to being selected 25th overall in ’07. His repertoire, minus the worm-burning, is pretty average. Reifer had a dazzling first full season in pro ball in 2008 but he struggled mightily this season. His ground-ball rate dropped 15% – and he also lost 3.0 K/9 off of his strikeout rate.

In 2008, two more pitchers – both relievers in pro ball – were selected out of UC Riverside, although Robert Waite (Tigers) was the highest drafted player in the 17th round. Stephen Penney was also selected and signed with Seattle. Waite’s career ground-ball rate is 54.5%, and Penney’s is 54.9%.

Five more players were selected in 2009 and three of those pitchers also displayed solid ground-ball rates in their debuts: Joe Kelly (Cardinals, 56.4 GB%), Paul Applebee (Nationals, 40.6%), Matt Montgomery (Marlins, 64.7%), Paul Bargas (Rockies, 38.8%), and Ryan Platt (Brewers, 54.4%).

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that many UC Riverside pitchers have shown the ability to induce an above-average number of ground balls. Then again, maybe it’s not by chance and the school’s coaching staff is on to something. Either way, UC Riverside alums should be followed over the next few seasons – especially if ground-ball rates continue to gain in popularity.

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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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My father was actually the Sports Information Director at UCR for a long time, and I live just minutes away from UCR. Very rarely do they receive any kind of attention on a national scale, so this is pretty cool to see. I actually hit against Paul Bargas a few years back. He’s probably one of the toughest, most impressive lefties I ever faced. It comes as no surprise to me that he’s dominated his short stint in the Minors thus far.

Good read, Marc.