Targeting Ground Ball Specialists
If you're looking to improve your fantasy baseball rotation, Howard Bender encourages you to hunt down those ground ball specialists to help keep your ratios stabilized.
With the seemingly always surging offensive numbers throughout baseball, the selection of starting pitchers can be a real pain in the ass sometimes. Everyone wants to own Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale but there aren’t enough of those guys to go around. Not to mention, if you come from the school that preaches to wait on starting pitching, you never have a shot at these guys unless you trade for them. And how difficult is that? Ever try to throw an offer to Kershaw’s owner? You’d think you just insulted his wife AND his mother at the same time.
I’m not saying it’s impossible and if you have either the offense or the pitching depth to pull off a deal that nets you an elite arm, by all means, go ahead. The problem I’ve seen though, is the owners of those players want a mint in return and it’s awfully tough to tear apart your team for one of those guys. It’s the old “robbing Peter to pay Paul” most of the time and few fantasy owners can really afford to do it.
So where do you go? Which pitchers do you target? In many cases, fantasy owners don’t even look at the numbers as much as they look at the names. They hear names like Jacob deGrom, Jon Lester or even Dylan Bundy and automatically assume that, regardless of what their current totals are, they’ve got high end talent. Really. Even names like David Price and James Paxton, guys who are sitting on the DL with major issues, still command a lot of faith in their owners. Now I’m not saying they don’t have talent, but when it comes to building my rotation, if I don’t have a marquee name like a Sale or a Kershaw, I’m looking at statistics before I look at names and one of the first places I go is the ground ball rate.
I love me some ground ball action. I really do. Why wouldn’t you? Take a fly ball pitcher who calls a pitcher-friendly park his home and suddenly you have to worry about where he’s throwing on the road. Take a guy like Dan Straily or Matt Shoemaker, both of whom call pitcher-friendly parks home. How are you feeling about Shoemaker and his 48.6-percent fly ball rate in the Rogers Centre? Straily is sporting a 49.6-percent fly ball rate. Do you feel comfortable starting him at Chase Field? How about Coors?
With ground ball specialists, the concern regarding ballpark factors lessens tremendously. Sure, you have to worry about the level of defense playing behind them, but at this level, the concern, though still a factor, doesn’t need to be harped on as if this were a Little League game. They’re all professionals and between defensive shifts, sensible placement and enough skills to be playing at this level, fantasy owners really don’t need to freak out because the Padres defense is that much worse than that of the Braves. Obviously there’s a difference, but how much of that difference is being reflected in what we as fantasy owners see?
Statistically-speaking, there are a few things you should understand when looking at which ground ball pitchers you want to target. People’s first instinct is to always look at a pitchers ERA and FIP. We are trained to understand that when a pitcher’s FIP is lower than their ERA, they are pitching better than their numbers indicate and their defense behind them is a potential cause for their struggles. Not with all ground ballers, though. A high ground ball rate means the pitcher is more reliant on his defense and if you look at his FIP which is Fielding Independent, you’ll see that, for the most part, the FIP is actually higher. That’s normal.
Those who have a lower FIP, or even one closer to equal, are unlikely to see much change for the better. The defense behind them might not be as strong. Maybe the contact they induce is harder than others. Maybe they hang too many pitches in the zone after failing to get batters to change their sinkers or sliders. There are a number of variables that can come into play, but for the sake of choosing your pitchers to target, just keep in mind that if their ground ball rate is over 50-percent and their FIP is lower than their ERA, you aren’t likely to see significant ERA swings for the better. That’s not to say you won’t see any positive change – especially if you look at the chart below and see guys like Carlos Martinez and Luis Severino falling into this category – but you cannot expect them to start knocking a full run off their ERA over the rest of the season.
Another stat you will need to understand will be significantly higher is the HR/FB rate. Again, most of us are trained to avoid pitchers with a high HR/FB, but if the pitcher doesn’t allow much in the way of fly balls, obviously any home run allowed is going to significantly swing that number up. Take a look at Dallas Keuchel’s rate below. It’s sitting at 19.4-percent. Not a great number if you look at it on its own, is it? You know what fly ball pitchers have a HR/FB similar to that? How about Bronson Arroyo, Ricky Nolasco and Nate Karns? Not a great cross-section, is it? That’s why, when I look at ground ball specialists to target, I steer more towards their HR/9 than their HR/FB rate.
I definitely don’t ignore it, though. Especially when it comes to those ground ballers with a low HR/FB rate. I love grabbing them, especially if their HR/9 is particularly low. No one wants any part of Mike Leake for some reason, but as an SP4 or 5? Come on. We’re talking a high ground ball rate, few home runs allowed and solid ratios, even if you do look at his FIP over his ERA. He’s certainly not the be-all, end-all of pitchers, but as a supporting cast member? I’ll take that – low strikeout rate or not.
And that’s the final stat I want to look at here – K/9. Obviously, fantasy owners are in need of strikeouts and most ground ball specialists just aren’t that type of pitcher. Again, they generally pitch to a lot more contact, so you should expect fewer whiffs. There are certainly exceptions as we see below with Lance McCullers, Carlos Martinez, Luis Severino and Michael Pineda, but keep in mind that those pitchers are not as common. Check on their swing-and-miss rates to see the sustainability of their K-rate. It’s still early in the season and some pitchers, like Pineda for example, have faced some struggling offenses who are doing more hacking than others. That’s not to say they can’t continue to induce this wild, flailing we’re seeing from their opposition, but at some point, you tend to see the plate discipline improve and some of these pitchers will see lower swing rates outside the zone.
The list below highlights the top 20 ground ball specialists in the game right now. There are some names you simply cannot go after on the trade market – guys like R.A. Dickey, Jaime Garcia and for me, Wade Miley – as they just aren’t reliable. But there are certainly a lot of names here you can go after with confidence. Players like Dallas Keuchel, Jon Lester, Lance McCullers and Carlos Martinez are going to cost you more on the trade front, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with building a support team around guys like Mike Leake, Taijuan Walker and Ivan Nova.
2017 Ground Ball Rate Leaders