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Entries in ground balls (3)

Wednesday
Oct022013

Bucs, Cards Thrive Low in the Zone

The Pirates and Cardinals will square off in the National League Division Series, thanks in large part to pitching staffs boasting top-five ERAs during the regular season. Pittsburgh and St. Louis are mirror images on the mound, and that comparison extends beyond possessing a vets with wicked curveballs (Game 1 starters A.J. Burnett and Adam Wainwright), hot-shot rookies (Gerrit Cole, Shelby Miller, and Michael Wacha, among others) and where-did-he-come-from closers once again facing doubters (Jason Grilli and Edward Mujica). These clubs are equipped for deep October runs because their pitchers pound hitters at the knees, generate grounders and keep the ball in the park at historic levels. It doesn't hurt that their backstops skillfully steal strikes on borderline pitches, either.

Waging a Ground War

Collectively, the Pirates have thrown an MLB-high 47.6 percent of their pitches to the lower third of the strike zone. The Cardinals also live low in the zone, locating there at the eighth-highest clip (43.3 percent) in the majors. Pittsburgh and St. Louis' "keep it low" philosophy has produced ground balls by the bushel -- the Pirates have the highest single-season team ground ball rate (52.5 percent) in the majors over the past decade, while the Cardinals (48.5 percent) come in eighth.

Charlie Morton (64.6 percent) is the game's top worm-burner among starting pitchers, with Burnett (58.2 percent)  also ranking in the top 10. Francisco Liriano (52.4 percent), Joe Kelly (51.5 percent), Cole (51 percent) and Wainwright (50.1 percent) are among the grounder-centric starters who figure to make a difference in this series (sorry, Jeff Locke and Jake Westbrook).

Seth Maness (70.7 percent) is the most difficult reliever to loft this side of Brad Ziegler, and lefty hit man Randy Choate (68.4 percent) isn't far behind. Mark Melancon (62.2 percent), Carlos Martinez (56.5 percent) and Justin Wilson (53.5 percent) could also alter a game with a late-inning double play.

The Pirates complement their scorched-earth policy by frequently shifting their infielders, a strategy that has paid off in the form of the fifth-lowest opponent average on ground balls hit (.230) in 2013. The Cardinals (.248) are right around the MLB average (.248). 

Historic Homer Prevention

By waging a ground war, the Pirates (0.62 home runs allowed per nine innings) and Cardinals (0.69 HR/9) have surrendered the fewest homers among all MLB clubs. Once you adjust for year-to-year variations in league wide home run levels, the '13 Bucs and Cards are both enjoying one of the ten best homer prevention seasons in club history during the Live Ball Era (1920-present).

This year's Bucs team ranks fourth in franchise history during the Live Ball Era in HR+, or a team's home run rate as a percentage of the National League average during that season. They have surrendered 30 percent fewer homers than the NL average.

Lowest HR+ for Bucs during Live-Ball Era

St. Louis, meanwhile, has given up 22 percent fewer big flies than the NL average this year. That's tied for ninth-best in franchise history during the Live Ball Era.

Lowest HR+ for Cardinals during Live-Ball Era

Stealing Strikes

Aside from inducing ground balls and preventing home runs, there's another added benefit for Pirates and Cardinals pitchers who keep the ball down -- their catchers do a great job of framing low pitches. Yadier Molina and Russell Martin both get more called strikes on low pitches thrown in the strike zone (In-Zone ClStr%) than most catchers, with Molina ranking third among all backstops receiving at least 2,000 pitches and Martin ranking sixth. Molina also gets an above-average number of calls on low pitches that are located off the plate (Out-Zone ClStr%), placing sixth in the majors. Martin is around league average in that regard.

Molina and Martin's called strike rates on low pitches, 2013

With their pitchers getting so many grounders and Martin influencing calls on stuff located at the knees, the Pirates have limited batters to an MLB-low .248 slugging percentage on low pitches this season. The Cardinals' combo of ground ball pitchers and a strike-stealing catcher in Molina has yielded a .308 opponent slugging percentage on low stuff, tied for eighth-lowest in the game. Every pitching coach stresses the need to pound hitters are the knees. But the Bucs or Cards could just ride that platitude to postseason glory.

Friday
Aug232013

Todd Frazier Getting Beat Inside

Todd Frazier could do no wrong in 2012. Frazier took over third base from an ailing Scott Rolen and proceeded to hit no-handed home runs, save random Pittsburghers who bit off a little more than they could chew and finish third in NL Rookie of the Year voting. His 2013 season, by contrast, hasn't been nearly as heroic.

Frazier's slugging percentage has dipped by over 100 points (from .498 in 2012 to .391) for the Reds, who rank a middling 13th in the majors in runs scored despite Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo reaching base at the highest clip among NL hitters. A major reason why Frazier isn't driving in his teammates this year is that he's struggling against pitches thrown inside. He made pitchers pay when they tried to bust him in on the hands in 2012, but he's meekly grounding out on those pitches this season.

During his rookie year, Frazier slugged .585 versus inside pitches, tying him with Jose Reyes for the 12th-highest mark among major league hitters. In 2013, though? Frazier's slugging a mere .383 against inside stuff, which places him directly behind the banjo-strumming Elvis Andrus for 111th among qualified batters.

Frazier has lost his power stroke against inner-third pitches because he's rolling over far more often against those offerings this year. Here's Frazier's ground ball rate by location against inside pitches in 2012, and then in 2013.

Frazier's ground ball rate vs. inside pitches, 2012

 

Frazier's ground ball rate vs. inside pitches, 2013

Frazier hit a ground ball 30 percent of the time against inside pitches during his Jedi-homering, Heimlich Maneuver-performing 2012 campaign, well below the 32 percent MLB average. In 2013, however, Frazier has hit a grounder 46 percent of the time pitchers toss him something inside.

Given Frazier's issues on pitches tailing in on his hands, it might not come as a surprise that he's really scuffling against sinkers. He was basically a league average hitter against the pitch last year, but his ground ball rate on sinkers has spiked  (from 53 percent to 62 percent) and his slugging percentage has plummeted (from .436 to .243).

The Reds don't need Frazier to be Superman. But if the club is to keep pace with the Pirates and Cardinals in brutally competitive division and Wild Card races, they'll need their third baseman to overcome his inner-third Kryptonite.

Monday
Jun252012

Greek God of...Grounders?

With rookie Will Middlebrooks increasingly bumping Kevin Youkilis to the bench and the Chicago White Sox getting such paltry production from the hot corner that manager Robin Ventrua had to think about unretiring (a combined .467 OPS at third base), Sunday's trade that sent Youk and cash to the South Side for Brent Lillibridge and Zach Stewart makes sense for both clubs.

It's impossible for Youkilis not to be an upgrade over the likes of Brent Morel and Orlando Hudson. But Youkilis, who raked to the tune of a 142 OPS+ from 2008-2011, is having a miserable year himself. The 33-year-old has a career-low walk rate (8.5 percent), is punching out more than ever (23.6 percent) and hasn't shown much power, with four home runs in 165 plate appearances. The result? an 87 OPS+.

Youkilis' power outage can be traced to his soaring ground ball rate, particularly against inside pitches. He hit few grounders during a 2010 season in which he slugged a robust .544. Youk's grounder rate increased significantly in 2011 as he was slowed by back, hip and sports hernia injuries and he slugged .459. This year, while again battling back problems, he's slugging just .377 and his ground ball rate is way above the league average:

YearGround Ball Pct.
2010 36.5
2011 41.6
2012 50
MLB Avg., 2010-12 44.6

 

While Youkilis once crushed inside pitches and rarely rolled over on the ball, he has become a ground ball machine against inside stuff lately. Check out his ground ball rate by pitch location over the past three years:

2010

Youkilis' ground ball rate by pitch location, 2010

 2011

Youkilis' ground ball rate by pitch location, 2011

 2012

Youkilis' ground ball rate by pitch location, 2012

Youkilis hit a ground ball against inside pitches about 30 percent of the time in 2010, well below the 41 percent MLB average. That increased to 34 percent in 2011 and has shot up to 53 percent in 2012. Not coincidentally, Youk's slugging percentage versus inside pitches has nosedived: .560 in 2010, .455 in 2011 and .244 this season (.424 average).

If Youkilis can hit anything near his ZiPS projection for the rest of the year (.262/.364/.466), he'll be a gargantuan upgrade for the White Sox and well worth the price of a couple million dollars, a utility player and a so-so swingman. But that's predicated on Youkilis being both healthy and able to handle inside pitches. If he keeps chopping so many inside offerings into the grass, a change in nickname might be in order. "Greek God of Grounders" isn't nearly as catchy, though.