Archive for June, 2012

Rough Starts Hiding Recent Turnarounds

When evaluating a player, it’s generally a good idea to look at larger sample sizes so that short term swings in performance don’t mislead you into an incorrect conclusion. However, there are some cases where looking at a player’s line from the entire season will cause you to miss some adjustments and improvements that players have made in season. In fact, just focusing on the overall performance in 2012 might cause you to come to the wrong conclusion about several pitchers who have recently gotten back on the right track after some very tough starts to the year. So, while you shouldn’t completely ignore the fact that they struggled out of the gate, here are some pitchers whose turnarounds might fly under the radar if you only focus on full season numbers.

Ubaldo Jimenez, Cleveland Indians

For the first two months of the season, Ubaldo Jimenez appeared broken. He had more walks than strikeouts in both April and May, pacing the Majors by issuing 28 free passes in the second month of the year. His velocity was down, his command was off, and the former groundball machine had turned into a fly ball pitcher who couldn’t throw strikes. However, once the calendar flipped to June, Jimenez began to right the ship.

During the last month, Jimenez has struck out 32 batters in 32 1/3 innings pitched, totaling one strikeout less than he did in the first two months combined. He’s also gotten his command problems under control, issuing just 11 walks and holding batters to a .282 on base percentage. He still isn’t getting ground balls, but his velocity in June (92.9 MPH) is up one MPH from where it was in April (91.9), and he’s commanding the strike zone once again. He still doesn’t look like the pitcher who dominated in Colorado several years ago, but he’s showing that he can still get batters out, and the problems that plagued him early in the season weren’t permanent.

Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins.

Liriano was perhaps the worst pitcher in baseball in April, posting an 11.02 ERA that got him kicked out of the Twins rotation, which is a pretty remarkable feat considering that the Twins don’t have many quality pitchers to begin with. Everything was wrong – his fastball velocity (91.6 MPH) was down, his command (7.16 BB/9) was off, he wasn’t getting strikeouts (6.61 K/9), and he was giving up home runs (1.65 HR/9) in bunches. The Twins shipped him off to the bullpen to try to get straightened out, and whatever he did while pitching in relief got him ready to dominate upon rejoining the rotation.

Liriano in June just looks like an entirely different pitcher. His fastball is up to 93.9 MPH, putting him among the hardest throwing southpaws in the league once again. His groundball rate this month is 57.1%, a dramatic turnaround from the 31.6% GB% he posted in April. The walks are down and the strikeouts are up, and opposing batters are hitting just .155/.252/.243 against Liriano in June. He’s always been an inconsistent pitcher, but early in the year, Liriano was throwing batting practice and now he’s making Justin Verlander look like a slacker. Given how he’s throwing, Liriano has gone from a complete disaster to a suddenly interesting trade chip for the Twins at the deadline.

Hiroki Kuroda, New York Yankees

Kuroda didn’t find a lot of interest in the free agent market last winter, both because of his advancing age but also because of the negative perception teams have about importing pitchers from the National League West. While Dodger Stadium isn’t the pitcher’s paradise it used to be, it’s still not a terrible place to pitch, and the road trips include frequent stops in San Diego and San Francisco, two of the best pitcher’s parks in baseball. Going from the NL West to the AL East is perhaps the roughest jump in level of competition and change in ballparks any pitcher can make.

So, when Kuroda started the year as a pitch-to-contact guy with a serious home run problem, many were quick to chide Brian Cashman for not understanding that Kuroda’s numbers were simply a product of his environment. However, as he’s adjusted to his new environment, Kuroda has adapted and was one of baseball’s best pitchers in June.

His strikeout rate in April and May (5.43 K/9) was one of the main sources of concern, but he’s racked up 8.47 K/9 in June, showing that he still has the ability to put hitters away. The home run problem has dissipated as well, and Kuroda’s 2.38 ERA in June is one of the main reasons why the Yankees have gone 19-6 this month. Kuroda might not be quite as dominant as he was during his days in Los Angeles, but he is showing that he can be a good pitcher regardless of what park he’s pitching in, and his success in LA wasn’t all simply due to inferior opponents.

Joey Votto is Chasing History

Some records in baseball have become legendary over the years, to the point where most baseball fans know exactly what the number and record holder are. The records for most career no-hitters (7, Nolan Ryan), longest hitting streak (56 games, Joe DiMaggio), consecutive games played (2,632, Cal Ripken), and stolen bases in a season (130, Rickey Henderson) are some of the more famous numbers in the sport, and have stood the test of time with few challengers since they were established. But, there’s actually another record that hasn’t been seriously threatened in 75 years that is coming under assault this season, but you probably haven’t heard much about it yet — Joey Votto is poised to make a run at the record for the most doubles in a season.

The current record holder is Earl Webb, who hit 67 doubles for the Boston Red Sox in 1931. He broke George Burns’ record of 64 doubles that had been set five years previous to that. In fact, only six players in history have ever recorded 60 or more doubles in a season, and all of six of them did it in the 11 seasons between 1926 and 1936. For hitters, it was the golden age of the double.

The last player to even make a run at Webb’s record was Todd Helton in 2000. Aided by playing in Coors Field during the peak of the offensive surge at the turn of the century, Helton finished the season with 59 doubles, and his season represents the gold standard for modern day doubles production. With 30 doubles in his first 68 games, Votto’s on pace to obliterate Helton’s mark and actually run down Webb as well.

At his current pace, Votto would end the season with 71 doubles, and while history suggests he probably can’t keep hitting doubles at this pace, he is the perfect modern day hitter to challenge Webb’s record.

Doubles require line drives, because line drives are both hit hard enough to get into the gaps or down the lines and are not hit high enough to clear any fences for a home run. Among the 330 players with at least 2,000 plate appearances since 2002, only two (Mark Loretta and Todd Helton) have a higher line drive rate than Votto’s 24.8%. He’s turned things up another notch in the first half of 2012, posting a ridiculous 33.0% line drive rate this season, up from the 27.5% mark he posted last year, and easily the best single season line drive rate since batted ball data began being collected.

In addition to hitting line drives, Votto is also remarkable at avoiding infield flies – the kinds of balls in play that are outs nearly 100% of the time. He hasn’t hit a single pop-up all year, which might be weird if he didn’t go the entire 2010 season without hitting an infield fly. In fact, his one pop-up from last year is starting to look like the aberration. When Votto hits the ball, it goes out, not up.

He also excels in one other skill critical to racking up a lot of doubles – driving the ball to the opposite field. Taking out his 13 home runs, Votto has put 170 balls in the field of play this season — 60 to left, 63 to center, 49 to right. His opposite field power is the driving force behind his run at Webb’s doubles records, as half of his 30 doubles have come on balls hit to left field. He’s the league leader in opposite field doubles with 15, but his eight doubles to center field rank fourth in the league, and there are 45 hitters with more pulled doubles this season than Votto. For Votto, left field is his doubles sweet spot.

This combination of high line drive rate and willingness to go to the opposite field is the perfect recipe for a lot of extra base hits that don’t quite clear the wall, and while Votto runs pretty well for a first baseman, he doesn’t run so well that he’s likely to keep on going for third. If Votto was a right-handed hitter, he’d likely have a better chance at turning some of those doubles into triples, but given his average speed and the fact that he’s hitting the ball towards third base, he’s more likely to settle for two bases instead of trying for three. Being a high doubles hitter requires an interesting combination of skills, and no player in today’s game specializes in these more than Votto.

If anything is going to keep him from the record, though, it might just be his home park. The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati has historically been a below average park for home runs because the shorter fences convert would-be doubles into home runs. In fact, GABP has historically inflated home runs by right-handed hitters (most of whom pull the ball to left field, which is Votto’s doubles field) by 13 percent, while playing as a just slightly below average doubles park due to those home runs.

When you look at the parks that historically inflate doubles (Colorado, Boston, Arizona), you begin to understand why Helton, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Luis Gonzalez, and Matt Holliday have all managed seasons with at least 50 doubles in the past 10 years. Since the Reds opened their new stadium, they’ve only had two hitters get even 40 doubles in a season — Sean Casey in 2004 and Votto last year.

So, can Votto break Webb’s record? It won’t be easy, as he’ll need 38 doubles over the Reds remaining 94 games, and he’s never hit more than 40 in 161 games in any prior season. Even with Votto’s predilection for line drives to the opposite field, the game has changed dramatically since Webb played, as the league average strikeout rate is now more than twice as high as it was back in 1931, while the average home run rate is twice as high. More strikeouts and more home runs equal many fewer chances for doubles, which is why no one has crossed the 60 double mark in 75 years. Votto’s halfway there, though, and has more than half the season remaining, so Webb could be in for his first real challenge in a very long time.

Cubs Pitchers Make Sense For Red Sox

Ryan Dempster pitched very well on Friday, shutting the Red Sox offense out over seven innings. It was the third straight start in which he tossed at least seven shutout innings, reducing his ERA to 2.11 in the process. With his typically strong peripherals, Dempster has already tallied 1.9 WAR in 81 innings, putting him on pace for his highest total since posting 5.2 WAR with the 2008 Cubs. However, given his contractual status and the Cubs futility this season, Dempster is likely to find himself finishing the season in another uniform.

While a few contenders — the Yankees and Dodgers, mostly — have already inquired on his availability, the team Dempster just recently blanked could and should have interest. The Red Sox interest in Cubs pitching doesn’t have to stop there, either, as Matt Garza is conceivably available as well. Both righties would help solidify the Red Sox starting rotation and help them get back into the running for a very obtainable playoff berth.

Neither pitcher would come cheap, but the Red Sox have a solid system and the front office familiarity — Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer run the Cubs now after having served together with the Red Sox for many years — could certainly help matters. The Red Sox might not instantly appear to be natural trade partners for the Cubs pitchers, but they stand to make up some ground as offensive contributors regress to the mean and return from injuries. Adding a 4-5 WAR pitcher to the mix could take them even farther.

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Misused Relievers of 2012

While setting a line-up card and deciding who plays and who sits might be the most important decision a manager makes each day, how he deploys his bullpen is almost certainly a close second. Among in game decisions, proper bullpen usage has a larger effect on the outcome than pretty much anything else, and wise use of the assets that are available can have a significant impact in deciding close games. With a continuing move towards larger bullpens and more emphasis on match-ups, reliever usage is now a critical part of a manager’s job, but not every team is getting it right this year. Here are a few examples of some teams who could benefit from changing up the way they’re deploying their bullpens.

Philadelphia Phillies, Closer

Over the winter, the Phillies gave Jonathan Papelbon $52 million to take over their closer role and solidify their bullpen, and so far, he’s lived up to expectations: 17 for 17 in save opportunities, 2.10 ERA, and a fantastic 29/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. However, the Phillies are 6-11 in one run games, the worst mark of any team in the National League, which is one of the main reasons they find themselves in last place in the National League East. With an elite closer, the team should be better at winning close games, but the problem is that manager Charlie Manuel is just not willing to use him in any situation except where there’s a save opportunity.

This issue has been most obvious whenever the Phillies have entered the late innings in a tie score on the road. Because Manuel is holding Papelbon for a save situation should the team later take the lead, he will essentially empty his bullpen in an effort to preserve Papeblon’s ability to hold down a lead at a later point should the Phillies ever score. Bill Baer at Crashburn Alley chronicled the seven instances where this has occurred and the Phillies have gone on to lose without Papelbon ever taking the mound. In those seven situations, the game has been lost by the following pitchers: Joe Blanton, David Herndon, Antonio Bastardo, Brian Sanches, Michael Schwimer, B.J. Rosenberg (making his MLB debut, no less), and Joe Savery.

Papelbon has routinely sat in the bullpen and watched his teammates blow leads, hoping to get a chance to protect a save opportunity that never materialized. Even when he has been called upon, he’s been placed in situations that are simply less important than other closers. Here is the list of the average leverage index when a pitcher enters the game for each closer with at least 15 saves this season:

Joel Hanrahan – 1.92
Jim Johnson – 1.85
Jonathan Broxton – 1.83
Brett Myers – 1.83
Alfredo Aceves – 1.74
Craig Kimbrel – 1.73
Santiago Casilla – 1.64
Chris Perez – 1.63
Frank Francisco – 1.61
Fernando Rodney – 1.52
Jonathan Papelbon – 1.45

Papelbon ranks dead last among this group, and on average, you’d expect a premium closer to have a mark between 1.70 and 2.00. Papelbon is well below that threshold, not for lack of opportunities, but because his usage has been dictated entirely by whether or not he can accumulate a save when he’s brought into the game. Giving a pitcher the security of knowing that he’s the ninth inning guy is one thing, but then not allowing him to preserve tie games in the ninth inning or in extra innings simply because it’s not technically considered a save is just a waste of an asset. The Phillies have one really great reliever, and if they’d use him more often, they’d have more wins than they do now.

Houston Astros, Setup Man

The Astros have primarily leaned on two pitchers to protect eighth inning leads – Wilton Lopez and Fernando Rodriguez. Lopez is probably the team’s best reliever, so he’s a natural fit for the role, but the decision to utilize Rodriguez as a high leverage setup man is a bit bizarre to say the least.

Rodriguez gets a decent amount of strikeouts, which is good for getting out of jams, but that’s about the only thing he does well. He’s an extreme fly ball pitcher (50% FB%) who also struggles with his command (11.9% BB%), which is a poor combination for trying to protect narrow leads. Rodriguez’s willingness to pitch up in the zone but inability to hit his spots makes him extremely prone to allowing home runs, as he’s allowed one for every 31 batters he’s faced in his career. Because he also issues a lot of walks, six of those home runs have come with men on base. Even if you hand him a lead of two or more runs, he’s capable of giving that up in a hurry.

Meanwhile, the Astros have a Brandon Lyon – a much better pitcher with a track record of success – throwing what amounts to mop-up innings in games that have already been decided. Of the 102 batters he’s faced this year, only 13 of them have hit in high leverage situations (defined as a plate appearance with a leverage index of 1.5 or higher, meaning that the PA is at least 50% more likely to effect the outcome of the game than average), while 71 of his batters faced have come in low leverage (0.5 or lower) situations, meaning that the game is essentially over at that point.

Among Astros relievers, Rodriguez has the second highest average leverage index on the staff (1.51), while Lyon has the second lowest LI (0.80). Lyon is clearly the superior pitcher, and the Astros would win more games if they simply switched the roles these two are pitching in.

Oakland Athletics, Left-Handed Specialist

The A’s are known for being on the cutting edge of using data to make decisions, but one has to wonder how you’d fit Brian Fuentes’ usage into Moneyball. For his career, Fuentes has been one of the best left-on-left relief pitchers in baseball, using his sidearm delivery to dominate quality LHBs while just trying to survive against right-handers. Here are his career platoon splits:

Vs Left: 7.2% BB%, 28.3% K%, 0.64 HR/9
Vs Right: 10.% BB%, 22.9% K%, 1.01 HR/9

He’s not a disaster against right-handers, but he’s at his best when he’s facing mostly left-handed hitters. However, 60 of the 96 batters Fuentes has pitched to this year have been right-handed, and not surprisingly, he struggled when he was asked to pitch in the closer role. Fuentes’ skillset is perfect for seventh or eighth inning match-up work, but as the closer, he simply had to face whatever batters were coming up to bat in the ninth, regardless of what side of the plate they pitched from. There’s a reason you don’t see many sidearming closers – it’s not a very good use of their abilities.

Forget Garza, Get Dempster Instead

With the Chicago Cubs in rebuilding mode, Theo Epstein is likely to be a very busy man during this summer’s trading season. The addition of the second wild card incentivizes teams that are hanging around on the periphery of the playoff race to keep their rosters in tact and try to make a second half run, so the Cubs president will be one of just a few people with legitimate talent to unload. In Matt Garza, the team has an asset who could probably command more in return than any other pitcher on the market, but when playoff contenders start hunting around the north side of Chicago, they may do better by letting someone else pay the premium for Garza and instead focus on his less heralded but equally effective teammate – Ryan Dempster.

Dempster might not get the same kind of notoriety as Garza, but when you look at their recent body of work, you can see just how similar they actually are.

2009 – 2012:

Garza: 8.0% BB%, 21.1% K%, 1.02 HR/9
Dempster: 8.7% BB%, 21.5% K%, 1.00 HR/9

Their walk, strikeout, and home run rates are nearly identical over a sample that covers their last three seasons and change. Garza’s ERA is slightly lower (3.76 to 3.95) on account of posting a better batting average on balls in play (.281 to .301), but that’s a mark that is influenced heavily by a team’s defenders, and not surprisingly, a low BABIP isn’t something Garza was able to sustain after leaving Tampa Bay, a team that is often among the best in baseball at turning batted balls into outs.

Despite their similar numbers, there are usually two arguments made in Garza’s favor – his “breakout” 2011 season and his prior success in the American League East. We’ll do with them in that order.

There’s no question that last year was the best year of Garza’s career, setting personal bests in nearly every meaningful category. The most drastic change was in his home run rate (dropping from 1.23 HR/9 in 2010 to 0.64 HR/9 in 2011), which had always been a problem in prior years. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to have carried over to 2012, as he’s again giving up home runs in bunches, and his performance this season looks an awful lot like his pre-breakout performance of 2009.

2009: 9.2% BB%, 22.0% K%, 1.11 HR/9
2012: 8.2% BB%, 22.6% K%, 1.24 HR/9

When you account for the relative strength of the different parks and leagues he was pitching in, Garza’s 2009 rated as a 94 xFIP-, which essentially means he was six percent above average in the skills that best predict future pitching performance. In 2012, his numbers equal that same 94 xFIP-, and his career mark is 96. In other words, Garza is pitching to the level you’d expect based on his career norms, and last year looks more like an aberration than any real breakout.

Now, about that success against the tough AL East competitors. It’s true that Garza managed to hold his own while pitching for the Rays, but if the Orioles or Blue Jays are looking to bring him in because of his past success against the Red Sox and Yankees, they might want to look again.

Garza’s career numbers versus MLB: 8.1% BB%, 19.8% K%, 0.99 HR/9
Garza’s career numbers versus BOS: 8.5% BB%, 16.2% K%, 1.22 HR/9
Garza’s career numbers versus NYY: 8.3% BB%, 16.5% K%, 1.49 HR/9

The Red Sox and Yankees historically put some terrific line-ups on the field, so there’s no shame in giving up a lot of home runs against them, but there’s not much evidence to suggest that Garza has some special skill that allows him to hold down the two offensive titans of the division. As most pitchers do, when faced with a series of good hitters, he performs worse than his overall numbers. This isn’t a knock against him, but a team should understand that Garza’s experience pitching in Tampa Bay doesn’t mean he actually performed all that well against the Yankees and Red Sox.

Garza is a quality pitcher, but so is Dempster, and a team willing to settle for a 2012 rotation upgrade only would likely get just as strong of a performance from the Cubs other starting pitcher for sale as they would by acquiring their supposed ace. Given Dempster’s age, higher higher salary, and impending free agency, he won’t require the same kinds of sacrifices in terms of prospects to obtain, and whichever team gets Dempster may find that he’s not just a one year rental after all.

A change in the new collective bargaining agreement requires a team to make a one year qualifying offer equal to the average salary of the 125 highest paid players in baseball – most estimates place that around $12 to $13 million. At age 35, Dempster probably won’t be landing a lucrative long term contract over the winter, and depending on how he finishes the season, he may be tempted to accept an offer of $12 million in salary for 2013 – after all, Hiroki Kuroda was a fairly similar free agent and ended up settling for $10 million last winter. Any team acquiring Dempster could have the option of either getting him back for 2013 at a fair salary without a long term commitment or getting draft pick compensation if he decides to sign elsewhere next winter. Either outcome could be beneficial to the team.

For the rebuilding Cubs, they probably wouldn’t be interested in retaining Dempster at that price next year, so they’re less likely to make the qualifying offer than a club who expects to be a contender. But, other teams in need of a short term rotation upgrade could see Dempster as a significant boost to their playoff chances this year while also offering some potential future value as well.

Garza is the brand name product while Dempster is the generic version, but as in most cases, buying the generic can get you the same product at a fraction of the cost. My advice to teams looking to the Cubs for pitching help – you want Dempster, not Garza.

Are GB Spikes Sustainable?

At the top of the ground ball leaderboards for starting pitchers, there are three pretty familiar names – Derek Lowe, Trevor Cahill, and Jake Westbrook. All three rely heavily on their sinker and are primarily pitch-to-contact starters who rely on their infielders to make outs behind them. They have long track records of extreme ground ball rates, and their performance this year is nothing new.

However, coming in right behind Westbrook is James Shields, who is getting ground balls on 59 percent of his balls in play this year. Shields is nothing like Lowe, Cahill, or Westbrook – he’s a strikeout pitcher who throws a lot of change-ups and has never relied much on the ground ball in previous years. In fact, from 2009 to 2011, Shields GB% was 43.3%, slightly below the league average. Shields extreme spike in getting ground balls is fascinating enough on its own, but is compounded by the fact that he’s not the only guy who has transformed himself into a ground ball pitcher in the first two months of the season.

Over in Philadelphia, Cliff Lee is also seeing a significant uptick in ground balls, posting a 54.5% GB% this year after coming in at just 43.1% over the prior three seasons. Like Shields, Lee is also a high strikeout pitcher with one of the game’s better change-ups, but he has been incorporating a two seam fastball more over the last several years, and the pitch seems to be gaining in effectiveness. In fact, this isn’t the first time Lee has dramatically altered his batted ball profile – Lee went from being an extreme fly ball pitcher in 2007 (35.3% GB%) to a slightly above average ground ball pitcher (45.9% GB%) in 2008, the year he turned into one of the game’s elite starting pitchers.

Finally, Jason Hammel has also seen a drastic rise in his ground ball rate as well, and his early success has been one of the keys to the Orioles surprising start to the season. Hammel has jumped from a 45.6% GB% from 2009 to 2011 to a 53.8% GB% this season, while also seeing a dramatic increase in strikeout rate. Often times, pitchers have to trade strikeouts (which are often generated through pitching up in the strike zone) for ground balls (which come from pitching down in the zone), but Hammel has managed to get both more ground balls and more strikeouts at the same time. That’s a pretty remarkable change.

With three guys all seeing big shifts in their batted ball profiles this season, you might think this is a fairly normal occurrence, but in reality, these guys are defying a significant amount of recent history. GB% for starting pitchers has a year to year correlation of 0.85, the highest mark of any results-oriented pitching metric out there. The only numbers for starting pitchers with a higher correlation relate to pitch selection, as guys who throw a lot of change-ups in one year tend to throw a lot of change-ups the next year, and we don’t see a lot of massive changes in types of pitches thrown. Ground ball rate actually holds as strongly from one year to the next as rate of fastballs thrown, which shows just how few changes we actually see in a pitcher’s batted ball profile.

In fact, if Shields were able to maintain his current ground ball rate, he’d post the largest single year spike in GB% of any pitcher since 2002, the first year batted ball data was collected. However, we can look at how other recent pitchers who have experienced large increases in ground ball rates have fared, and whether they were able to keep performing at a new level for a significant period of time. The most notable ground ball spikers of the last 10 years:

Joel Pineiro, STL, 2009.

Pineiro had always been a slightly above average ground ball guy, but once he bought into Dave Duncan’s affection for the two-seam fastball, he really took off. His GB rate jumped from 48.5% in 2008 to 60.5% in 2009, and he posted the best season of his career as a result. He cashed in on his success by signing a two year contract with the Angels after the season ended, and he essentially split the difference between the ground ball rates he’d posted in the prior two seasons, coming in at 54.9% in his first year in Anaheim. However, in 2010, he went right back to posting a similar mark to what he’d done in his pre-Duncan career, and performed poorly enough that he hasn’t pitched in the Major Leagues since.

Charlie Morton, PIT, 2011.

Morton famously revamped his mechanics after the 2010 season, deciding to emulate Roy Halladay’s delivery in hopes to achieving success in the big leagues. The new delivery and pound-the-bottom-of-the-zone approach resulted in a GB% jump from 46.8% to 58.5%, giving Morton his most successful season in the big leagues to date. Because this transformation occurred just last year, we don’t exactly how this change will play out over the long term, but it’s worth noting that Morton’s ground ball rate (56.5%) this year is almost as high as it was a year ago, and at least for now, it appears that the change has stuck.

Johan Santana, MIN, 2004.

After spending four years bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen, Santana was finally given a permanent starting job to begin the 2004 season. He’d been the most extreme fly ball pitcher in baseball the year before, posting a 28.2% GB%, but in his first full-time gig as a starter, he cranked the ground ball rate up to 40.6%, just a bit below league average. Santana would go on to be a unanimous Cy Young Award winner that year, and he kept his ground ball rate around 40 percent until 2008, when arm problems began to erode his velocity. The slower-throwing Santana of the last four years has gone back to being more of a fly ball pitcher, but given the spaciousness of Citi Field, that could be also be a conscious decision.

Of the three most significant spikes in ground ball rate, Santana maintained his GB% gains for several years, Pineiro held on to part of his for a year before regressing and getting injured, and Morton has held onto most of his gains during the first several months of this season. Given what we know about the strong year to year correlation of GB rates, this is about what we’d expect – changes in batted ball rates tend to be much more real than changes in other types of results, as pitchers have a lot of influence over the trajectory of the balls they allow to be put in play.

So, what does this mean for Shields, Lee, and Hammel? If they can sustain significantly higher ground ball rates while still getting as many strikeouts as they are now, this could be the start of legitimate improvement for all three. Since we’re dealing with a smaller sample of just two months, we should still expect some regression back towards previous career norms, but they don’t have to keep getting ground balls at their current rates in order for these changes to represent legitimate steps forward. For Lee, this shift could vault him into the elite tier of starting pitchers (if he wasn’t already), while the extra ground balls for Shields and Hammel should help them continue to pitch well in a the toughest division in baseball.