Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals and Their Love for Fly Ball Pitchers

The Royals play in Kauffman Stadium, which is a hitter-friendly park that suppresses home runs. You probably already knew that, but if you didn’t, now you do. Because of that, the Royals have shown an affinity for pitchers who induce a higher percentage of fly balls, as evidenced by the signings of Jason Vargas this winter and Jeremy Guthrie in 2012. On its surface, it makes sense to a degree. Fly balls become outs more frequently than any other batted ball type, and the spacious Kauffman outfield helps keep more balls in the park. While I tend to favor ground ball pitchers in theory (a ground ball is never going to be carried over the fence on a hot summer day), I can understand the logic behind the team’s decisions. But it’s not just a preference of fly ball pitchers at play here. It also seems that the organization has sought to avoid ground ball pitchers almost completely.

From 2002 through 2013, Royals’ starters have had a ground ball rate of just 41.7%, which ranks 29th in the league during that time. That’s not all that surprising, given the information above, so how about we break it down a little bit more? In that same timeframe, among starters with at least 150 innings pitched, there have been 209 seasons in which the pitcher had a ground ball rate of at least 50%.

The Royals have exactly zero of those seasons.

Granted, the Royals’ starting rotation has been a bit of a mess over the last 12 seasons, so they’ve only had 25 starters reach the 150 inning plateau. And, there were two seasons in which the pitcher had a ground ball rate in excess of 49% (Brian Bannister in 2009, Luke Hochevar in 2011), but I still think the organizational philosophy is very much apparent.

Another factor I wanted to consider here was the infield defense. A ground ball pitcher isn’t going to be very effective if the defense behind him is booting the ball around (Rick Porcello, for instance).

Since 2002, Royals’ first basemen have a UZR/150 of -2.8, which ranks 25th in baseball in that time. Their second basemen have a UZR/150 of -4.4, which is tied for dead last in the majors. At shortstop, the Royals have a UZR/150 of -2.2, which ranks 22nd. Finally, at third base, the team has a UZR/150 of -0.7, which is good enough for 16th in baseball. Obviously defensive metrics are far from perfect, but I think it’s safe to say that on the whole, the Royals’ infield defense has ranged somewhere between below average and atrocious. It, along with the rest of the defense, certainly hasn’t helped the starting pitching much, as shown by the largest gap between ERA and FIP in the league. That’s not all due to defense, of course, but in this case, one could make an argument that the team’s run prevention could have actually been worse if they employed more ground ball pitchers, at least in theory. This once again leads me back to the team’s love for fly ball pitchers.

Going back to 2002, there have been 274 seasons in which the pitcher’s ground ball rate was less than 40%. The Royals have 10 of those, which is about 3.6% of the total. That’s much closer to an even distribution, although when you remember that there have only been 25 Royals starters with at least 150 innings, you see that 40% of those 25 were fly ball pitchers. If you raise the arbitrary GB% cutoff to 42, another four Royals starters are added to the mix. That’s over 50%.

If it hasn’t been clear to you before, these numbers should now show the Royals’ preference for fly ball pitchers, and against ground ball pitchers. This isn’t to say that ground ball guys are always the best ones to go with. Of those 274 seasons from fly ball pitchers, 40 of them were worth at least 4 fWAR, and came from guys like Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Pedro Martinez, and Curt Schilling. Granted, nearly all of those seasons were accompanied by higher strikeout rates, but there is obviously more than one way to skin this proverbial cat. Unfortunately for the Royals, their choice to go for fly ball pitchers hasn’t really paid off. Only the Orioles have a higher starter ERA- than the Royals since 2002. Part of that is due to below average defense, and part of that is due to really bad pitching, both of which have improved significantly in the last few years, as evidenced by last year’s 3.87 starter ERA. The Royals have stuck to a similar strategy in acquiring starting pitchers in the last decade, and despite poor results for most of that time period, the team hopes that last year is a better indication of things to come.

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  • moretrouble

    I do not believe the fly ball/ground ball phenomenon is the result of a strategy on part of the front office to acquire that kind of pitcher. Rather, it’s that pitchers begin to throw to the park’s advantage. The trend is slight since half the games are on the road — but as you pointed out, it’s relevant.

    This pitching philosophy — go ahead and challenge hitters because they’re less likely to hit home runs — is something of a strategy of pitchers.

    Really great research Hunter — in identifying an important trend. Great use of statistics to back up your point of view and the scholarship is excellent. Nice job.

    • Brandon

      I think using the logic of going back 11 plus years doesn’t show a current sample size outside of second base the last 3 plus years we have had above average defense and even average defense at second and I don’t need metrics to see that just watch moose Escobar and hosmer field their positions so while we have had a love affair with fly ball pitchers recently I think that has to do with their price tags versus ground ball pitchers which are more valuable to teams across the league

      • moretrouble

        If you’re saying that KC has a great defense — I agree with you. That hasn’t been the case, historically, as Hunter pointed out in an article the other day, but the last couple of years, they’ve been quite good.

        Your point about the value of pitchers, though — pitchers are described in many ways and divided up into categories. When it comes to salary negotiations — pitchers are paid on how effective they are at their job, period. Do the best starters get paid more than the best relievers? Probably, but it depends on the team they play for. Mariano Rivera made 15 mil, James Shields 9 mil — so what? A pitcher’s value is in his performance. Was Dan Quisenberry better than Goose Gossage because Quiz got a lot of ground balls? It’s an argument without a point. They pitched differently, both were successful and both made a lot of money.

  • jimfetterolf

    Did a quick calculation and what the Royals seem to have targeted last year was BABIP, only 360 innings were thrown by pitchers with over a .300 BABIP, over half of them by Davis and Mendoza with Aaron Crow being prominent. That suggests pitchers are hitting their spots and pitching to their defense. Fly balls yield a low average when kept in the ballpark.