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Bill James on overrating ground-ball pitchers

Norm Hall

It's $3 per month so you might have missed it, but Bill James recently wrote a really infotaining column at Bill James Online titled, "The Analogy of the Fisherman". Without getting into the analogy because that's best left to Bill, I'll just say that Bill expresses some skepticism about the general utility of ground-ball pitchers. Here's an early and representative passage:

Allow me to rant for a few minutes here without any evidence. We’ll get to the evidence later; I’m just trying to frame the debate. Any analyst can give you a long list of reasons why ground ball pitchers should be the best pitchers. The problem is, they’re not.

Make a list of the best pitchers in baseball. Make a list of the best pitchers in baseball, in any era, and what you will find is that 80% of them are not ground ball pitchers. They’re fly ball pitchers. Tom Seaver was not a ground ball pitcher. Bob Gibson was not a ground ball pitcher. Randy Johnson was not a ground ball pitcher. Justin Verlander is not a ground ball pitcher. Pedro Martinez was not a ground ball pitcher. Roger Clemens was not a ground ball pitcher. David Cone was not a ground ball pitcher. Dwight Gooden was not a ground ball pitcher. Catfish Hunter was not a ground ball pitcher. Steve Carlton was not a ground ball pitcher.

Greg Maddux, of course, was a ground ball pitcher, and there have been a few others, like Kevin Brown. The vast majority of good pitchers are not ground ball pitchers, and the vast majority of ground ball pitchers are not good pitchers.

What I have never understood about ground ball pitchers, and do not understand now, is why they always get hurt. Show me an extreme ground ball pitcher, a guy with a terrific ground ball rate, and I’ll show you a guy who is going to be good for two years and then get hurt. I’m not saying this about Chien-Ming Wang and Brandon Webb; I was saying this before Chien-Ming Wang and Brandon Webb. They’re just the latest examples. Mark Fidrych. Randy Jones. Ross Grimsley. Mike Caldwell. Rick Langford. Lary Sorensen. Clyde Wright. Fritz Peterson. Dave Roberts. They’re great for two years, and then they blow up. Always.*

* I've eliminated Bill's preference for hilarious insistence on two (or three!) spaces after each period. Sorry Bill!

Derek Lowe has enjoyed a long and generally healthy career.

Bill: "Derek Lowe? Derek Lowe was sensational in 2002; the rest of his career he’s a .500 pitcher. You take Derek Lowe; I’ll take Verlander."

I will note that in the six seasons after 2002, Lowe went 85-67 with a 111 ERA+, which was pretty damned good. And Lowe did not get hurt; from 2003 through 2011, Lowe started more games than any other pitcher in the major leagues (and thus, I would guess, the world).

But, yeah: We'll all take Justin Verlander. Which is sort of Bill's point. In terms of quality and durability, Derek Lowe represents the up-side of sinker-ballers, while Verlander represents the up-side of high-fastballers.

Toward the end, Bill writes ...

When I talk about ground ball pitchers getting hurt, I’m not really talking about guys like Adam Wainwright and Andy Pettitte, with Ground Ball Rates around 38% or Ground Ball /Fly Ball Ratios around 5 to 4. In that context, I was talking about the guys with really extreme Ground Ball tendencies, like Chien-Ming Wang and Brandon Webb. Those guys, it seems to me, always self-destruct after a couple of years, unless their name is spelled "D-e-r-e-k-L-o-w-e". I don’t know why.

... and he concludes, "However, many of the statements which have been made by sabermetric advocates of ground ball pitchers are also inaccurate. But I will leave it for them to clean up their own messes."

I think that's fair. I think some of us just sort of assumed that since home runs are bad and ground-ball pitchers tend to give up fewer home runs, then ground-ball pitchers are good. But it turns out the difference between ground-ball pitchers and fly-ball pitchers tends to be exaggerated. The only significant difference is between extreme ground-ball pitchers -- of whom, there aren't many -- and fly-ball pitchers ... and Bill argues that those extreme ground-ball hitters usually get hurt after two or three years anyway.

In fairness to extreme ground-ball pitchers, Bill hasn't offered in this essay any systematic injury analysis; just a long list of sinker-ballers who did get hurt. It's a compelling list, to be sure. Maybe there's something particularly dangerous about throwing sinkers that sink enough and are fast enough to fool the world's greatest batters.

Bill has some really smart readers, and gets some really good comments. I found this one particularly intriguing:

In doing aging profiles for pitchers during my career, I downgraded extreme groundball pitchers because they tended to show more reactive responses to abuse setting off premature aging syndrome (PAS) and also to the normal aging response. They are logically be a group of pitchers who would benefit more than most from managed workloads shaped to their circumstance. I tried to convince the Indians of this in regard to Derek Lowe last season, telling them that there was a key that could be simply applied to managing Lowe's workload that would significantly enhance his ability to sustain a positive performance as a starting pitcher over the 2012 season. They felt they already had Lowe figured out and replied, "We believe that Lowe will perform appreciably better next year than he did last year." In their wisdom they ended up doing exactly the opposite of what my study indicated would be the single most helpful thing they could do to enhance his effectiveness at this late stage of his career. He crashed and burned after a fast start. (5.52 ERA in his 21 starts, allowing an .819 OPS.)

That was posted by Craig Wright, who's been working in sabermetrics for ... well, for a long time. I will note that while Lowe's "fast start" included a 7-3 record and a 3.06 ERA, he also walked as many batters as he struck out in that span (11 starts), and so that ERA probably wasn't sustainable.

Things got a lot worse, though; in his next 10 starts, Lowe went 1-7 with an 8.77 ERA. Oddly, though, both his strikeout-to-walk ratio and his home-run rates were roughly the same as they'd been in those first 11 starts. ERA-wise, Lowe was probably exceptionally unlucky during his "fast start" and exceptionally unlucky during those next 10 starts, after which the Indians dumped him. For what it's worth, Lowe actually pitched well in 17 relief outings after joining the Yankees. He's currently battling for a job with the Rangers, and I'm not absolutely convinced that he can't still help somebody in a limited role.

Anyway, this is all a lot to chew on. Anybody hungry?

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