Are Groundball Pitchers Overrated?

Justin Masterson is one of the game's best groundball pitchers. (via Erik Drost)

Justin Masterson is one of the game’s best groundball pitchers. (via Erik Drost)

Getting a ground ball is a good outcome for a pitcher.

While I don’t think that anyone reading this article would dispute this fact, here’s a table from Dan Farnsworth’s 2014 THT piece on batted ball types to illustrate the point:

Batted Balls Outcomes for 2013 MLB regular season
Batted Ball Type OBP SLG OPS ISO wOBA
Grounders .232 .250 .483 .018 .213
Liners .685 .883 1.568 .193 .681
Flies .213 .621 .834 .403 .346

Ground balls turn into hits only about 23 percent of the time, and almost never go for extra bases, for an average wOBA of .213. To put that number into perspective, the lowest wOBA by a qualified position player in the past decade is .247 (by Alcides Escobar in 2013, if you must know).

So, if ground balls are good, then groundball pitchers must be good, right? This is one assumption that makes ERA estimators such as xFIP and SIERA so appealing — they place a value on the pitching skill of inducing ground balls. Also appealing is that inducing ground balls is a repeatable skill with a very high year-to-year correlation (R = 0.85). This stability, along with the absence of home runs (which are weighed very heavily by FIP and fluctuate more drastically) makes these estimators more stable. In fact, Bill Petti found that SIERA and xFIP- were the most stable of the commonly used ERA predictors, and that they were significantly better at predicting future ERA than ERA itself.

However, a closer look at these correlations reveals a surprising piece of information. While xFIP is much more stable year-to-year than FIP, FIP is actually slightly better at predicting future ERA.

Year One to Two Correlation Comparisons
Year Two Y1 GB% Y1 ERA- Y1 FIP- Y1 xFIP-
Y2 ERA- -0.05 0.36 0.45 0.42
Y2 FIP- -0.14 0.41 0.58 0.58
Y2 xFIP- -0.25 0.42 0.60 0.70

Why might this be the case? Once again, let’s look at the correlations. While ground-ball percentage (GB%) has an inverse correlation to future xFIP (R = -0.25), there is practically no correlation to future ERA (R = -0.05). These trends hold true even when looking at the same year. Among qualified starters from 2010-2014 (443 player-seasons), there was no correlation between GB% and ERA- (R = -0.09).

So, if ground balls are good for pitchers, and inducing them is a repeatable skill, then why aren’t pitchers who induce ground balls getting better results?

Fly Ball Contact Management

The key here lies in two other pitching outcomes that appear to be intertwined with ground balls: pop-ups and home runs.

Pop-ups are nearly as good as strikeouts, in that they are almost always an automatic out. While inducing pop-ups appears to be a repeatable skill (IFFB% has a year-to-year correlation of 0.37), it is not nearly as stable as strikeout or walk rates. (Note: IFFB% measures the percentage of fly balls that are infield flies, not total infield fly percentage.) As it turns out, groundball pitchers not only have lower total pop-up rates because of fewer fly balls, but groundball rate actually has a strong inverse correlation to IFFB% (R = -0.45), meaning that fly balls hit against groundball pitchers are less likely to be pop-ups than if they came against an average or flyball pitcher.

Meanwhile, while groundball pitchers give up fewer total home runs, they give up more home runs than expected given their low flyball rate. That is, there is a slight positive correlation between groundball percentage and home runs per fly ball (R = 0.13 for the same year, R = 0.17 for the following year). This might not be surprising to those of you who are intimately familiar with the factors involved in calculating SIERA. Matt Swartz noticed this relationship and included it in the formula, stating that “pitchers who have higher flyball rates allow fewer home runs per fly ball” and mentioning Matt Cain (circa 2011 – not the new version) as a relevant example.

In addition to these correlations, ground balls also have a very slight negative correlation with strikeouts and a slight positive correlation with walks. This makes some sense, since pitches up in the zone are both more likely to be fly balls and more likely to be whiffs. So what if groundball rate doesn’t correlate with run prevention because of this association? What if ground balls are good, but the pitchers who induce them are simply worse at striking out batters and avoiding walks?

To see if this is the case, we can look at how ground balls correlate to a pitcher’s ability (or lack thereof) to pitch up to (or outperform) their ERA estimators. If ground balls are good, than the pitchers who inducing them should prevent runs as well or better than their FIP and xFIP would predict.

Groundball and Infield Fly Ball Percentage Correlations
Correlation to: FIP- minus ERA- xFIP- minus ERA- xFIP- minus FIP-
GB% -0.07 -0.14 -0.13
IFFB% 0.17 0.25 0.18

Because of the nature of adjusted ERA and ERA estimators, a positive number means that the pitcher “outperformed” his  peripherals. In terms of this graph, it means those pitchers’ ERAs were lower than their FIP or xFIP, or that their FIP was lower than their xFIP.

With groundball rate, the correlation is very small, but negative across the board. At the very least, groundball pitchers do not outperform their peripherals (which might be expected, given that the ERA estimators do not take into account the fact that ground balls are less likely to turn into doubles or triples). Meanwhile, pitchers with higher IFFB% – which, as I mentioned earlier, has a significant inverse correlation to groundball percentage – did outperform their peripherals, particularly xFIP.

Comparing High- and Low-Groundball Pitchers

However, these correlations are fairly small. What happens if we look at groundball pitchers? To do this, I looked at the 80 pitchers who threw at least 600 innings between 2010 and 2014. These pitchers had an average groundball rate of 45.3 percent, with a standard deviation of 5.4 percent. So, I looked at pitchers who were at least one standard deviation above or below the mean groundball rate, and defined them as “High GB%” and “Low GB%” pitchers.

The High GB% group includes 10 pitchers, including notable worm-burners such as Rick Porcello, Felix Hernandez, Justin Masterson and Tim Hudson. Meanwhile, the Low GB% group (13 pitchers) includes the previously mentioned Cain, along with flyball machines Jered Weaver and Max Scherzer.

Let’s look at the average statistics from these two groups:

Statistical Comparison, High GB% vs. Low GB% Pitchers
High GB% 10 54.4% 26.8% 11.0% 7.6% 0.293 17.2% 7.9% 102.2 100.5 96.6
Low GB% 13 36.8% 42.7% 9.4% 11.2% 0.285 19.9% 7.3% 99.7 100.6 103.0
Average 80 45.3% 34.7% 10.2% 9.4% 0.291 19.5% 7.1% 96.6 96.8 96.6

Starting near the left, we see that the High GB% pitchers have above-average HR/FB rates and below average IFFB% (i.e. more home runs and fewer pop-ups per fly ball). Meanwhile the fly balls generated by the Low GB% group are more likely to turn into pop-ups and less likely to leave the park. While these differences may not seem huge, they are both statistically significant (P < .001). Low GB% pitchers also have a slightly below-average BABIP due to the increase in pop-ups (not significant), and have a slightly higher strikeout rate than their groundball brethren (P < .05).

When we combine all of these factors, we see that the High GB% pitchers allow more damage on their fly balls, leading them to underperform both their xFIP and FIP by a rather large margin. Meanwhile, the ability of the Low GB% group to manage flyball contact allowed them to beat their xFIP, while their FIP (which accounted for the reduced HR/FB%) estimated their ERA fairly accurately. And ultimately, while the High GB% pitchers have a strong edge in xFIP, it is in fact the Low GB% group that posted the better ERA.

One item of note is that despite similar K% and BB% rates, the Low GB% group was actually inferior to the average pool. This could mean that the ideal pitcher doesn’t rely too heavily on inducing ground balls or weak flyball contact, but has an average balance of the two and can, perhaps, use either strategy depending on the situation. In this sample, a dozen pitchers were within one percentage point of the average GB% and FB%. This group includes studs such as Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, David Price and Cole Hamels, and has an average ERA- of 90.5.

Employing a similar strategy as outlined above, we can see that pitchers who significantly under-perform their peripherals (ERA- at least nine percent worse than their xFIP-) tend to induce more ground balls (48.5 percent) than their over-performing counterparts (43.1 percent groundball rate). Also, high-IFFB% pitchers tend to out-perform their FIP and xFIP, while those with low IFFB% rates tend to underperform. (Notably, only three high-IFFB% pitchers managed to maintain an average or better GB% and HR/FB% – Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay and Jon Lester.)

It is clear that High GB% and Low GB% pitchers achieve significantly different batted ball outcomes, but we haven’t yet looked at how they might be doing this.

Fastball Comparison, High GB% vs. Low GB% Pitchers (PITCHf/x stats)
Group FA% vFA FA-Z
High GB% 21.9% 91.1 6.2
Low GB% 43.4% 90.3 9.4
Average 32.8% 91.2 8.3

One of the keys appears to be in fastball usage. Groundball pitchers are less likely to rely on their four-seam fastball, often mixing in a heavier dose of sinkers/two-seam fastballs. Interestingly, while the Low GB% pitchers throw more four-seamers, it’s not because they have better velocity. In fact, this group had below-average velocity. One thing they did have, however, was extra rise on their fastball (P < .001).

The far right column indicates the average vertical movement on these pitches. The higher the number, the less a fastball drops on its way to the plate. All but one of the 13 Low GB% pitchers had above-average vertical movement on their fastballs, with an average of 9.4 inches. While the 1.1 inch extra rise relative to the average population might not seem like a big deal, keep in mind that the maximum allowed bat radius in the majors is 1.3 inches. One inch is the difference between putting the barrel on the ball and a can of corn.

Four-seam movement also has a strong correlation to batted ball outcomes in the total pitcher pool, such as GB% (R = -0.63), IFFB% (R = 0.37) and HR/FB% (R = 0.29). Pitchers with more rise on their fastball throw it more often, and get more weak fly ball contact at the expense of grounders.

While this analysis was all performed with pitchers who tossed at least 600 innings, reducing the requirement to 400 innings (and expanding the player pool) yields similar results. Ground ball pitchers still have less rise on their fastball, and get fewer pop-ups and more home runs on the fly balls they do allow, all with a high degree of statistical significance.

Closing Thoughts

So, are ground balls good? Of course they are!

However, this fact has led to a strong bias toward groundball pitchers (and against their flyball counterparts) in the baseball analytics community. Just because a ground ball in itself is a good outcome for a pitcher, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should place a significant value on pitchers who are skilled at inducing grounders. In fact, pitchers who get a lot of ground balls often struggle in other facets of their game, particularly in managing fly ball contact. And while there are groundball pitchers who can avoid the long ball and maintain a solid pop-up rate (I’m looking at you, Felix), these pitchers are the exception rather than the rule.

As the strike zone has expanded downwards, pitching down in the zone has become an increasingly popular strategy. While this has allowed some pitchers to rack up grounders without sacrificing strikeouts, this analysis has shown that there can be a tradeoff associated with chasing ground balls. Many of today’s successful groundballers, such as Sonny Gray, Alex Cobb and Tyson Ross (all of whom ranked in the top-5 in GB% among qualified pitchers in 2014) actually have above-average “rise” on their four-seam fastball, and throw it a decent amount of the time. This has allowed them to maintain a high strikeout and groundball rates, and their contact management skills aren’t quite as poor as many other High-GB% pitchers.

In addition, pitch location certainly matters. A fastball low in the zone can still turn into a pop-up if the batter thinks that it is going to drop more than it actually does. Future research must be done to clarify this relationship, in addition to looking at how these trends might play out with specific pitch types.

We use ERA estimators like xFIP because they are straightforward. xFIP relies on only three factors, all of which the pitcher has a great deal of control over and are very stable from year to year. We like it because it removes the sometimes huge fluctuations seen in home run rates that can wreak havoc on a pitcher’s ERA and FIP. And as a tool for doing that, it is excellent.

However, while xFIP is a useful tool, when we rely on it too much we fall into a trap: the trap of forgetting that not all fly balls are created equal, and that while neither inducing pop-ups nor avoiding home runs is not as repeatable as inducing ground balls, they nonetheless remain valuable skills.

So next time you’re getting ready to write off a young pitcher who’s succeeding despite giving up “too many” fly balls, just remember: Ground balls may be good, but groundball pitching is also overrated.

Matt is a PhD student researching cancer and stem cell biology, and spends some of his free time writing about the analytics of beer at BeerGraphs and contributing to The Hardball Times. Follow him on twitter at @murphym45.
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Brian Cartwright
7 years ago

This expands on what I wrote in The Hardball Times Annual a couple years ago.

Batted balls come in a distribution of vertical angles from -90 to +90.

A pitcher getting a high gb% (vert angle < 0) shifts his entire distribution downwards, resulting in fewer ball at the other end of the spectrum (pop-ups). As you said, infield flies are almost automatic outs, as are high angle outfield flies (which mlbam has chosen not to classify as an outfield pop-up).

The ground ball pitcher's vertical angle distribution shifting downward means he's also going to get more balls in the 0 to +30 range, which is where most base hits and homers on balls in the air reside. Although the ground ball pitcher will allow more hits on balls in the air, more of them will fall in front of the outfielders for singles. A high gb% pitcher can allow an airball hit rate of up to 50%, while for low gb% pitchers it's down to 30%.

In the end, if you add up all the pieces, the overall BABIP and overall effectiveness for the two groups comes out roughly the same. They allow different types of batted balls, but one group is not clearly better than the other.

Nathaniel Dawson
7 years ago

Groundballs actually top out at about 8-10 degrees vertical, depending on where on the spectrum you want to start classifying a batted ball as a line drive.

7 years ago

This is a very well written, well researched piece. Thanks Matthew!

Did you account for survivor bias when looking at the pool of pitchers from 2010-2014?

Neil S
7 years ago

One question: why use ERA or ERA-, rather than RA/9? It’s been pointed out that groundball pitchers have a wider gap between their ERA and RA/9, owing to the larger number of errors on groundballs. Given that this is all about runs allowed, shouldn’t that factor into an analysis of whether they’re overrated?

7 years ago

Do you think that the downward trend of offense has suppressed the value of groundball pitchers?

I am thinking that with more baserunners groundball pitchers would gain value over flyball pitchers due to more double plays for groundballers and more multi-run HRs by flyballers.

Mr Punch
7 years ago

Very nice – but do you take enough account of double plays? And of team fielding? Certainly no fielding-independent metric can possibly be applicable to ground-ball pitchers, as without fielding all grounders are hits.

7 years ago

Nice article and analysis. This concurs with the research that Bill James published in the 2013 post-season, that ground-ball tendency does not confer any advantage or disadvantage. He found that no matter what the GB% (and for that, he used GB% as a percentage of all batters faced), the ERA was basically the same, i.e. it don’t matter how many GB a pitcher gave up, it wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad.

7 years ago

“He found that no matter what the GB% (and for that, he used GB% as a percentage of all batters faced), the ERA was basically the same”

Not buying that. Look at the first page of the link below. It is G/F ratio for all qualified starters in 2014. Take that 40 names, then flip the list over. Compare the two lists, and its pretty clear the list with the higher groundball rate is a much better group.

7 years ago

“groundball pitching is also overrated”

Then why do so many top pitchers end up in the upper ends of G/F ratio?
Keuchel, Ross, Gray Hernandez, Cobb, Alvarez, Volquez, Kershaw, Samardzija, Richards, Fister, Greinke, Kluber, Hamels, Wainwright, Strasburg, Cueto, Wood: All those pitchers are in the top 40 for G/F ratio in 2014. Plus there are several other good pitchers who were hurt by poor infields:

I’m not saying groundballs guarantee anything, but thats a strong list. The premise isn’t passing the smell test.

7 years ago
Reply to  TB

A lot of those pitchers also end up ranking highly in IFFB%. The article notes that the elite pitchers (Kershaw, Felix, etc.) are capable of putting up high GB% AND high IFFB%.

7 years ago
Reply to  Eric

Really? Because a quick check of IFFB% finds Felix ranked 85th out of 88 qualified pitchers. It doesn’t get much more opposite than that. Kershaw seems to be an outlier. Most of the rest, (quality pitchers who also have high GB/FB rate) are low on the IFFB% list (generally speaking).

Don’t Infield Flies count as Fly balls? So wouldn’t it be contrary to think that a lot of players would have high GB rates and at the same time have high IFF rates?

7 years ago
Reply to  TB

Note that overrated doesn’t mean “bad.” It means overrated, as in “Is it not as good as we quite thought it was?” Not to mention, note that of the pitchers you listed Kluber, Hamels, Wainwright, Strasburg, Cueto, Wood are all below 1.00 according to your link. That means they give up more flyballs than groundballs. Not to mention, you find decent/good pitchers like Weaver, Teheran, Phil Hughes, Scherzer, Kennedy, Zimmerman, Sale, Price, Kazmir, and Lester on the “last 40” of the same list you used.

7 years ago
Reply to  Is

“. . . all below 1.00 according to your link. That means they give up more flyballs than ground balls.”
The pitchers I listed are all above the mean. More flyballs are hit in baseball than groundballs, leading to the mean dipping below 1.00. By your logic a .400 batting average isn’t very good, because the hitter made more outs than he had hits.

“Weaver, Teheran, Phil Hughes, Scherzer, Kennedy, Zimmerman, Sale, Price, Kazmir, and Lester”
Kershaw, Cueto, Wainwright, Fister, Hamels, Alvarez, Greinke, Wood and Ross.
Check the ERA leaders board, that almost everyone. Seriously, which group would you take?

7 years ago
Reply to  Is

Using ERA leaderboards is a bad choice. Cherry picking the familiar best names won’t do you much since you’re just using names. Look at the article! Look at the chart! FIP- is very similar for the High GB% vs low GB% but ERA- shows favor for low GB% when using a general population not cherry picking the best known names.

Nathaniel Dawson
7 years ago
Reply to  TB

A few things that pop out:

There are NOT more flyballs than groundballs hit in major league baseball. Groundball rate for the league as a whole hovers around 44-45%, while flyball rate is around 35-36%. That means the median is generally somewhere around 1.25 GB/FB. For the 2014 season for qualified pitchers, the median was 1.33. I have no knowledge of how ESPN derives their groundball and flyball numbers, they seem to be weighted more toward flyballs than the numbers you normally see for a pool of pitchers. Contrast ESPN’s list with Fangraphs, for example, which has much higher GB/FB ratios:

Looking at only qualified pitchers is going to give you a skewed perception of relative quality. Most pitchers on that list are going to be better than the overall population of pitchers. Of course you’ll see lower ERA’s on that list than for the larger overall population.

Using ERA doesn’t give you common ground to compare groundball pitchers to flyball pitchers. As mentioned above, groundball pitchers allow more errors and unearned runs. This just comes with the territory for a pitcher that induces a lot of groundballs. They make it harder for their fielders to convert the batted balls they allow into outs. Better to use R/9, as that is what really matters to a team trying to win a game. It’s not which team allows the fewest earned runs, it’s which team allows the fewest runs that wins the game.

7 years ago

9 out of the top 11 pitchers in ERA leaders in 2014, were also in the top 40 in GB/FB ratio:
Kershaw, Hernandez, Cueto, Wainwright, Fister, Kluber, Hamels, Richards, Alvarez.

I’ll take that “overrated” group anytime.

7 years ago
Reply to  TB

Have you even read the article or did you just bother to quote the premise? It spells it out for you in the closing: “So, are ground balls good? Of course they are!” No one actually thinks groundballs are BAD. Groundballs are an excellent thing to induce, but note what the author has written about flyball management and other things in the article.

7 years ago
Reply to  Is

It closes with “are groundballs good? Of course they are”?

We must be reading two different articles. Mine closes with “groundballs MAY be good, but groundball pitchers are also overrated”.

I disagree with the closing of the article I’m reading. Not the one your reading.

7 years ago
Reply to  Is

Starts the closing with* My bad on that
Still, I don’t get what you’re arguing, do you not see the quote “So, are ground balls good? Of course they are!”? The author isn’t saying GB are BAD, but you’re not getting that.

7 years ago

You might want to take into account handedness before reaching your conclusion about the mix of grounders/flyballs, as well as park factors. All of your examples for pitchers who employ a mix of the two at an elite level are hard-throwing lefties, while those at the extremes are all right-handed pitchers. I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t an interfering variable somewhere there. With the increase in LHB, the quality of contact against those lefties is going to be poorer on average than against RHP. Similarly, both Matt Cain and Tim Hudson pitch in spacious AT&T Park, which suppresses all offense. The intuition was that Matt Cain has been successful there because he’s a flyball pitcher, but in allowing a high total number of home runs, he gives back some of that value. By contrast, groundballs given up by Tim Hudson are further strangled by AT&T’s grass, and when batted balls do go in the air they’re just as subjected to the atmosphere as Matt Cain’s.

7 years ago

This was a very pleasant, well written and interesting piece. I’m curious to see what may happen to this balance if MLB does in fact raise the strike zone in future years. Surely we’d see a general shift towards more fly balls but would there still be the same desire for groundballers?

J. Cross
7 years ago

Matt, great article.

One questions about what you found here:

[quote]Meanwhile, while groundball pitchers give up fewer total home runs, they give up more home runs than expected given their low flyball rate. That is, there is a slight positive correlation between groundball percentage and home runs per fly ball (R = 0.13 for the same year, R = 0.17 for the following year). [/quote]

That’s opposite the result that Matt Carruth found here:

He found a slight *negative* correlation of -0.15 (sqrt(0.023)) between GB% and HR/FB. I’m wondering if you’ve used a different pool or pitchers or different weights or what. It looks like Matt C. has a large enough pool of pitchers here (just going by the large number of dots) that we’d be unlikely to find this large of a difference in correlations by chance.

J. Cross
7 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Murphy

Thanks for the reply. I’m seeing the same thing you are even when using 2007-2009 data. I’m wondering if using HR (via FB)/FB rather than HR/FB was the difference.

Nathaniel Dawson
7 years ago

Matthew, is it possible to recreate the same study but using FB%?

One of the things you’ll find when looking at batted ball rates individually is that you’re also catching a bit of line drive rates. A pitcher with a high GB rate or high FB rate will generally have a lower line drive rate, as there are only so many batted balls to go around, and more of one type generally means less of the other two types.

Or use GB/FB ratio (I use GB/(GB+FB) to keep the relationships linear), which effectively eliminates LD rate from the calculation (unless a tendency to allow a higher or lower GB/FB ratio also influences LD rate, but I’ve never seen that to be true).

Might be beneficial to look at relievers as well. They’re a little more messy, but they pitch about a third of all innings in major league baseball, so as a group, they also have a big impact on the game. You might think that results should be the same as starting pitchers, but we know relievers go about their business in several different noticeable ways.