Most baseball fans know successful pitchers can consistently put the ball where they want to — skills known as control (where they place each pitch) and command (the placement in a specific place in the strike zone). They also know that strikeouts are the best way to ensure outs, and that ground balls are preferable to fly balls, because only the latter can become home runs.
But even some pitchers may not know just how much it pays to whiff hitters. That’s because groundbreaking — and controversial — research by an unknown sabermetrician (an analyst whether a writer, executive, or fan who uses advanced statistics to evaluate players) named Voros McCracken in 1999 revealed that a pitcher had little, if any, control over balls in play. McCracken’s work has been refined in the 15 subsequent years, but most statisticians now accept his primary thesis.
Here are some more fascinating results about pitching that may surprise you:
Strikeouts are good, even better than was thought. High strikeout pitchers generate weaker contact, which means they allow fewer hits and have lower home run rates. Also, pitchers with higher strikeout (also referred to as a K) rates seem to induce more ground balls when they need a double play.
Pitchers with more strikeouts give up a lower percentage of home runs per fly ball. Pitchers who allow less contact also get weaker contact from hitters, meaning fewer balls hit on the bat’s sweet spot (a spot on the bat 5 to 7 inches from the end of the barrel that provides the most powerful swing) and leaving the yard.
Pitchers with more strikeouts get more ground balls in double-play situations.
Pitchers with more strikeouts allow opponents fewer hits on balls in play.
Groundball pitchers allow their defense to turn those ground balls into outs more successfully than fly-ball pitchers. A pitcher with a 60-percent ground-ball rate will allow opponents’ a lower batting average on balls in play than a pitcher with a 40-percent ground-ball rate. This is true even if the first pitcher walks a lot of hitters.
Ground balls become hits more often than fly balls.
Relief pitchers allow fewer hits on balls in play, as well as fewer home runs per fly ball. The obvious reason is that most relievers are expected to throw only one or two innings — meaning that they can throw as hard as possible without having to worry about conserving energy that they’d need if they pitched longer.
Also, unlike starters, they can show hitters their entire repertoire of pitches, knowing that they almost certainly won’t have to face the same hitters later in the game. (If they do, their team is in big trouble.)
The more ground balls a pitcher allows, the easier they are to field. You may think that practice makes perfect — the more infielders are kept on their toes, the more prepared they are to field those grounders. But it’s more complicated than that. A pitcher like Brandon Webb, Tim Hudson, or Chien-Ming Wang throw heavy sinkers, which make it hard for the hitter to hit the ball hard. Thus, the ground balls aren’t as well hit and easier to catch.
Pitchers who have higher fly-ball rates allow fewer home runs per fly ball. The reason: The fly balls they give up are disproportionately infield flies and lazy fly balls to the outfield.
Anybody involved in baseball can use this information to acquire a keener grasp of the game. General managers — who are always seeking more information before making decisions that cost millions of dollars — already have incorporated it into the way they evaluate players and construct a certain kind of team (for example, one that stresses strong infield defense). Managers and coaches can use it to define certain pitchers’ roles, align their team’s defense, and decide which pitcher to bring in to face an opposition hitter.
Pitchers can look at this research and decide to alter their repertoire or approach; for example, a pitcher who throws his fastball up in the zone might try to come up with a split-finger fastball to induce more ground balls. Another may work on developing a strikeout pitch. Hitters will want to know the tendencies of pitchers so they can figure out a way to neutralize them. And fans who can’t enough inside info will eat it up because it gives them more ways to study the game — and win barroom arguments.