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Down to Earth

Success can be elusive for ground-ball specialists

Posted: Monday May 1, 2006 12:30PM; Updated: Monday May 1, 2006 1:10PM
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Brandon Webb is baseball's consummate ground-ball pitcher, with a ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio of 4.53 this season.
Brandon Webb is baseball's consummate ground-ball pitcher, with a ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio of 4.53 this season.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

There's something very tantalizing, very Holy Grail, about the ground-ball pitcher. Visions of 27 outs on 27 pitches dance in one's head. Why waste three fastballs or more in pursuit of a strikeout when you can set a batter down with one easy sinker?

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb, for example, is Lancelot of the Knights of the Ground Table. According to The Hardball Times, Webb annually induces grounders on two thirds of the balls that batters put in play against him. Webb has emerged as one of the top young pitchers in the game, and you could be forgiven for thinking that ground balls are the fast track to success for a big league hurler.

Cooler heads realize it's not that simple. By and large, ground-ball pitchers have to work at least as hard as strikeout artists to get their outs. And the punishment opposing offenses can inflict upon some of the ground-ballingist of ground-ballers can really be confounding. A few unlucky bounces here and the smallest cluster of line drives or fly balls there are enough to do a pitcher in.

The first problem is the home run ball. Thanks to the detailed statistics that are kept today, we can learn which pitchers give up the highest percentage of homers among the fly balls hit off them. The leaders in this category last season were Derek Lowe of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Webb, who just happen to be No. 2 and No. 1 in the most ground balls per balls in play.

Contrary to expectations, ground-ball pitchers regularly populate the list of most home runs allowed each year. When batters get one up, they really get one up. In 2005, Greg Maddux of the Chicago Cubs and Jason Marquis of the St. Louis Cardinals tied for ninth in baseball in home runs allowed, with 29, and Lowe was right behind them at 28. All three pitchers induced grounders on more than half of the batters they faced, yet each allowed home runs at a rate worse than that of baseball's biggest fly-ball pitcher of 2005, the Washington Nationals' John Patterson.

Why the anomaly? For one thing, Patterson benefited from pitching 64 percent of his innings in RFK Stadium, one of the toughest ballparks to homer in last season. In contrast, Wrigley Field, Busch Stadium and, yes, even ostensibly pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium were all places where balls left the park at an above-average rate. This is just one example of how ground-ball pitchers are at the mercy of factors beyond their control.

The supporting cast is another participant in ground-baller codependency. Statisticians can calculate what a pitcher's expected ERA would be if he had an average defense behind him; one such statistic is called Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). Last year, Webb had a 3.57 ERA, but his FIP was 3.40. The math indicates that even when you ignore errors, Arizona's defense was slightly below the league average when Webb pitched, costing him 0.16 in ERA.

That might not seem like much, but in the previous season Webb allowed 20 percent more walks and hits per inning pitched yet produced virtually the same ERA, 3.59, as in 2005. A major reason for this appears to be that in '04, the defense behind him was stronger, saving him 0.55 in ERA. (His FIP was 4.10.)