Author’s Note: Over my next few posts here on Rockies Zingers, I’ll be examining the philosophy of the organization in regards to developing pitching prospects. Saturday started with part one, where our discussion centered on park factors and the environments in which the Rockies develop their young arms. Part two is upon us now, and looks into the organization philosophy of ground ball pitching and its overall effectiveness.
Ever since the Colorado Rockies entered Major League Baseball as a member of the National League in 1993, a lot has been made of the advantages given to hitters, mainly due to the altitude and thin Rocky Mountain air. With the addition of the humidor in 2003, that was supposed to assist in evening that advantage out, and in some ways it did, but not quite as dramatically as what may have been intended. As such, with baseballs continuing to fly in, around, and out of Coors Field, the team took what would seem to be a very logical step in philosophy. Pitch to contact, induce ground balls, create more outs and limit the balls being hit safely.
Unfortunately, Rockies fans haven’t been given many opportunities to see successful pitchers, mostly living through mediocre performances. Clearly, the free agent method of acquiring pitchers hasn’t been the most successful with those large contracts given to Denny Neagle or Mike Hampton. It is fair to Neagle and Hampton to mention they were fly ball pitchers, which doesn’t bode real well for pitching in Coors Field on a regular basis. What’s the alternative? Well, the Rockies have to grow their arms from within. The team has to adopt a pitching philosophy that it can teach and use to develop home grown talent year after year; fortifying what would otherwise be a weakness to a team.
The Rockies have attempted to develop these pitchers utilizing the aforementioned ground ball pitching technique. In theory, it makes sense. If a hitter is spraying balls on the ground, the majority won’t make it out of the infield and therefore will result in outs, keeping runners off the bases and runs off the scoreboard. That said, before we label anyone a mastermind or baseball savant, it doesn’t take too many sinkers that don’t sink to get launched around the park and a few runs to be scored, so execution is really the point of emphasis here.
Before we sink our teeth into Rockies specific information, let’s investigate ground ball pitching. From our friends at Fangraphs, pitchers with high ground ball rates may give up more total hits, but fewer extra base hits. Being that a ground ball has a degree of difficulty higher than a fly ball, it is easier to result in a hit. As I mentioned though, a ball on the ground is less likely to go for extra bases. The reverse is also true. A fly ball is easier to field typically, but can result in extra bases more so than a ground ball. Fangraphs provides a chart that shows us historically that grounders make up 44% the league-average batted ball breakdown, and then points out to us that ground ball pitchers should see that percentage above 50. (Remember that, it’ll come in handy later. I promise.)
Now, throwing those ground balls requires a pitcher to trust the defense playing behind him, something that has been working in the Rockies favor, especially when Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado are playing on the left side of the infield. This has been a huge factor with Arenado out with injury. The otherwise stellar defense has taken a step back. The top notch defense those two and their comrades on the other side can provide when healthy minimizes the damage the ground balls that turn into hits provide. Being able to turn the double play if a mistake is made or a walk is issued is pivotal towards limiting the advancement of the base runners.
Getting back to the Rockies’ pitchers specifically, Patrick Saunders wrote for the Denver Post on April 27th about the sinkerball being added to pitchers’ repertoires. Saunders wrote:
“…Inducing groundballs has become an essential part of the Rockies’ baseball bible. “Thou Shall Throw Sinkers” has become one of the “absolute” commandments of manager Walt Weiss and his coaches… It’s not a coincidence that throwing a sinker has become a primary tool for right-handers Tyler Chatwood, Jhoulys Chacin, Jordan Lyles and LaTroy Hawkins — and to a growing extent, Juan Nicasio.”
The sinker is an effective pitch when trying to force a grounder due to its tendency to sink, for lack of a better term. Getting an extra bit of drop compared to a normal fastball will cause hitters to drive the ball into the ground. The below pitch frequency map from ESPN Stats & Info shows us the location in the strike zone of ground ball inducing pitches from the 2014 season. You can see that the majority of those are coming from pitches thrown in the middle to lower half of the strike zone. Keeping the ball low is exactly the premise for this philosophy.
The sinker, shown below, moves that location even a bit further south. This reinforces the idea that sinker causes extra drop, forcing more hitters into chopping down at it and spraying it into the grass. Now, that said, we can play the extreme sample size card with this heat map, as only ten pitches are being displayed. It becomes tough to put a lot of stock in ten ground ball inducing pitches, but it does lend some credence to the idea that the sinker is an optimal ground ball pitch.
We have the basic premises that the Rockies wish to induce ground balls and the main tool of doing so is by throwing sinkers. We have the idea that the more ground balls induced, the fewer runs that are given up. The question remaining is then, “Is this idea working for the Rockies?”
The chart above shows the top 5 teams in Major League Baseball in terms of Ground Ball percentage entering play on June 30th. The Rockies come in 4th, with a percentage of 49.0%, good for four percent more than the historical league average. It’s safe to conclude from that data that the Rockies are utilizing a ground ball friendly approach. Unfortunately, it isn't frequent enough to get above that 50% mark I asked you to remember earlier, and the Rockies overall pitching numbers reflect that, ranking last in the league in ERA, home runs allowed per nine innings, and essentially near the bottom of every generally accepted pitching statistic. The Rockies aren't inducing enough ground balls, are still getting caught too high in the zone resulting in fly balls, and are walking to many batters, resulting in free bases.
What’s the remedy? Well, for one, the pitching staff needs to get healthy. With Brett Anderson, Tyler Chatwood, Jordan Lyles, and Boone Logan all on the DL and prospect Eddie Butler joining them, the Rockies are utilizing some pitchers they were not expecting to be counting upon. Some of these pitchers may not have finished developing their own sinker or groundball pitch. Some of them have struggled with command, missing the plate or getting too much of it resulting in walks or mistake hits for the opposition. A return to the healthy pitching staff the front office was counting on could bring some of those numbers back to shore. The other solution is to execute better. While it may result in a higher BABIP number, the reality is the team still isn’t pitching to enough contact and forcing those ground balls. They’re limiting their own effectiveness and putting themselves in precarious positions. Lastly, we go back to the piece by Patrick Saunders regarding the use of the sinker, and reference the above heat map showing it isn't inducing as many ground balls as conventional wisdom would point out. Pitching coach Jim Wright should be held accountable for these things moving forward. If the organization philosophy isn’t being executed as it fully should be, some changes may be on the horizon.
Look for the Rockies to continue emphasizing the ground ball in the coming years. As more and more pitching talent enters the system, it would not be of much surprise to allow some freedoms to the higher ranking prospects who may not require much retooling. This could result in the team getting away from ground ball pitching, but as far as the current administration is concerned, the onus is on the here and now for the philosophy to show that it can work and be successful.