An Inquiry Into The Efficacy of Differing Pitching Philosophies

A philosophical question many people have likely pondered is the decision of whether it is more beneficial to be daring and to take risks, or to simply remain content with the status quo and use a more risk-averse approach. Being audacious requires a willingness to leave the comfort of society’s praise and expectations, and this ambition is too often discouraged. As a Baseball fan, one can relate these themes to styles of pitching and philosophies for being successful as a pitcher.

In the age of the juiced ball and home run spike, it would seem safe to say that the most prevalent style of pitching involves throwing lots of pitches towards the low-outside corner of the plate. If one thinks about the last time they watched a Baseball game, they would very likely remember the number of times they saw the catcher set up his target on the edge of the lower part of home plate. The idea is to basically throw the baseball as far away from the hitter as possible, while barely catching the plate. One would imagine that the idea is to generate ground balls and induce strikeouts, when pitchers throw to this location. Throwing pitches up in the zone is typically associated with allowing hitters to elevate the ball and get to more of their power.

Can one reasonably fight fire with fire, or should they simply use water? In Baseball terms: Is the art of ground-ball induction a worthwhile endeavor for pitchers, or should they challenge hitters more aggressively with their pitch locations?

Visually, these are the two examples that help one understand the essence of what the differing pitching philosophies entail:

Marcus Stroman painting the low-outside corner:

Chris Sale blowing hitters away with high heat:

Chris Sale was arguably the best pitcher on the planet last season; he was honestly chosen as an example for this piece because his statistics are a part of the data being analyzed here. Marcus Stroman’s numbers are also a part of the data being interpreted; his ground-ball rate of 62.1% ranked highest among all qualified starting pitchers in 2017. Sale, on the other hand, recorded the ninth-lowest ground ball rate among qualified starters, at 38.7%.

This investigation is going to look at the twenty starting pitchers across Major League Baseball who were best able to induce ground balls this past season, as well as the other twenty who generated the fewest number of them. To start, it is apt to examine the durability and effectiveness of the two different kinds of pitchers being evaluated. Below are two tables showing the ground-ball rates, games started, and innings pitched by two very different kinds of pitchers:

Ground Ball Artists’ Durability Statistics:

Rank  Name GB% GS IP
1 Marcus Stroman 62.1 % 33 201
2 Luis Perdomo 61.8 % 29 163.2
3 Clayton Richard 59.2 % 32 197.1
4 Mike Leake 53.7 % 31 186
5 Sonny Gray 52.8 % 27 162.1
6 Carlos Martinez 51.3 % 32 205
7 Luis Severino 50.6 % 31 193.1
8 Patrick Corbin 50.4 % 32 189.2
9 Jimmy Nelson 50.3 % 29 175.1
10 Zach Davies 50.2 % 33 191.1
11 Aaron Nola 49.8 % 27 168
12 Michael Fulmer 49.2 % 25 164.2
13 Masahiro Tanaka 49.2 % 30 178.1
14 Jhoulys Chacin 49.1 % 32 180.1
15 Andrew Cashner 48.6 % 28 166.2
16 Tanner Roark 48.2 % 30 181.1
17 Michael Wacha 48.0 % 30 165.2
18 Clayton Kershaw 47.9 % 27 175
19 Alex Cobb 47.8 % 29 179.1
20 Martin Perez 47.3 % 32 185
   Average 51.4 % 29.9 180.2

Leading the ground ball pitchers above is Marcus Stroman, who is the model for all pitchers striving to generate weak contact. Also included is Carlos Martinez and his impressive 9.53 K/9 last season, as well as Yankees ace Luis Severino. One can never forget Clayton Kershaw, of course. Martin Perez and Luis Perdomo do not appear to be much more than league average starters, and Andrew Cashner’s drop in strikeouts does not inspire confidence moving forward. Aside from those three players though, the rest are some very accomplished and talented pitchers.

Low Ground-Ball Rate Pitchers’ Durability Statistics:

Rank Name GB% GS IP
1 Marco Estrada 30.3 % 33 186
2 Dylan Bundy 32.8 % 28 169.2
3 Justin Verlander 33.5 % 33 206
4 Dan Straily 34.2 % 33 181.2
5 Jeremy Hellickson 34.9 % 30 164
6 Max Scherzer 36.5 % 31 200.2
7 Matt Moore 37.7 % 31 174.1
8 Jason Hammel 38.0 % 32 180.1
9 Chris Sale 38.7 % 32 214.1
10 Rick Porcello 39.2 % 33 203.1
11 Julio Teheran 40.0 % 32 188.1
12 Ricky Nolasco 40.1 % 33 181
13 Jason Vargas 40.3 % 32 179.2
14 Robbie Ray 40.3 % 28 162
15 Yu Darvish 40.7 % 31 186.2
16 Ervin Santana 41.2 % 33 211.1
17 John Lackey 41.2 % 30 170.2
18 Jeff Samardzija 41.5 % 32 207.2
19 Chris Archer 42.0 % 34 201
20 Kevin Gausman 42.7 % 34 186.2
  Average 38.3 % 31.7 187.5

Taking a look at the individual pitchers who generated the lowest percentage of ground balls, it is notable to see the back-to-back National League Cy Young Winner, Max Scherzer. Also included is Chris Sale, whom the writer of this article thinks was the best pitcher in Baseball last season. However, it is imperative not to forget about the man at the top of the table, Marco Estrada. He has actually been a very good player throughout the past couple seasons for the Blue Jays. It is simply hard to feel good about the future outlook of the man nicknamed “Estradabien” with his 89.8 mph average fastball velocity, who generates the least number of ground balls among qualified Major League starting pitchers. The point is really that there are varying levels of talent and performance in the group of pitchers in the table, which is a part of what makes this investigation so captivating.

If a pitcher is getting hitters to pound the ball on the ground, he is seemingly more likely to be efficient with his pitch count, and should theoretically be able to stay in the game longer. Though this theory does not hold true in the case of the pitchers being evaluated here. The qualified starting pitchers with the lowest ground ball rates averaged almost two more starts comparatively with those who had the highest ground ball rates in 2017. The same low ground-ball rate pitchers also pitched approximately seven more innings than the ground-ball artists threw this past season.

This finding begs the question: Are pitchers who are less interested or talented at generating ground balls more durable than the pitchers who are more successful in doing so? Half of the twenty ground ball inducing pitchers (10) went on the 10-day Disabled List last season at least once, while only twenty percent of the pitchers with the lowest ground-ball rates (4) required time on the Disabled List. It would appear based on this data, that ground-ball pitchers are more injury prone comparatively with pitchers who seem less interested and able to induce ground balls.

Staying healthy is obviously a significant part of being a successful player, especially in the case of pitchers. The table below, however, shows the important stats one is usually looking for when comparing these two different kinds of pitchers:

2017 Performances of High and Low Ground-Ball Pitchers

Pitching Philosophy K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP WAR
High Groundball 7.88 2.72 1.04 3.92 3.1
Low Groundball 8.73 2.80 1.40 4.28 2.7

This data slightly favors the high ground-ball pitching philosophy, which is quite an interesting development. Yet at this point it is still not necessarily clear whether one approach is favorable to the other. The data representing the results of both pitching philosophies is simply too similar to come to a sound conclusion thus far.

Thus it would be prudent to view the 2018 projections for both kinds of pitchers, to have an idea of what pitching philosophy is potentially going to make the players more successful moving forward. Steamer projects the High ground-ball pitchers to produce an average WAR of 2.65 in 2018, with the Low ground ball pitchers expected to produce 2.35 WAR on average. Again, there is a slight inclination to lean towards the ground-ball approach, yet the difference in projected performance from both types of pitchers is marginal. At this point it would seem like a good idea to simply accept that there are different ways of pitching, and depending on the pitcher’s skillset, he should pitch to his strengths.

Taking a look at how the two different styles of pitching fared in 2016 is also important. The high ground ball rate pitchers produced an average WAR of 2.72, in comparison with the 2.65 WAR put up by the pitchers with the lowest percentages of ground balls. Given that there has not been a significant difference in production between the two different styles of pitching over the last two seasons, could this be related to the home-run spike and juiced baseballs?

Despite suspicion that these themes could have been related to how pitchers have performed and approached their location of pitches to hitters, the fact that there was not a significant difference in performance between the two different ground ball rates does not provide evidence for them being a real factor in this investigation. While it would be more satisfying to say that throwing the ball up in the zone is preferable to painting the low-outside corner of the plate, or vice versa, there simply is not sufficient evidence for either being truly better than the other.

In this case the answer seems to lie in the middle – aces like Chris Sale and Max Scherzer are clearly having success with high heat up in the zone to hitters. Marcus Stroman is keeping hitters from making quality contact by keeping the ball down and throwing a great sinker. Luis Severino is using some of the best velocity of any starter in the Major Leagues to generate ground balls. Perhaps this was always too binary of an exploration of what is an inherently open-ended question. Hopefully, this article has at least helped advocate for pitchers who challenge hitters up in the zone, without criticizing the admirable approach of keeping the ball down in the zone and inducing ground balls.

All data used in this piece was taken from Fangraphs.

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When he is not spending time with his family or loved ones, Conrad does all he can to better understand and appreciate the beautiful game of Baseball. Twitter: @conradparrish

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What does xFIP look like when you compare the two groups? SIERA?