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Inside Groundball/Flyball Ratios

   by Bryan Leonard - 06/14/2008

Stats don’t mean anything if you don’t know how to understand them. A basketball team that averages 103 ppg on the road might appear impressive, but not if they allow 110 per game! A pitcher who averages 11 strikeouts per 9 innings might stand out as dominant, but if he also averages 9 walks per 9 innings, his ERA would probably be closer to five than 2.5.

One angle that causes many to scratch their heads with major league pitchers is ground ball to fly ball ratio. On the one hand, it gives you an idea what type of stuff the guy throws. A fastball pitcher like Curt Schilling is known as a flyball pitcher, working the zone, throwing strikes and challenging guys. Yes, he will give up long fly outs – or homers. A guy like Ching-Ming Wang of the Yankees is a ground ball pitcher because he has a biting sinker that dies as it approaches the plate.

It doesn’t mean that one style of pitching is better than the other. Schilling, for instance, led the league in home runs allowed one season, but also led the league wins. What’s important for handicappers to take away from ground ball/fly ball pitchers is where they are pitching and who they are facing.

The Red Sox, for instance, are a patient offensive team with a philosophy of drawing walks. They can give ground ball pitchers fits by laying off sinkers and drawing free passes. They did this in the ALCS last October against Cleveland ace Fausto Carmona. A more free swinging team, like Kansas City or Florida, would be more likely to struggle.

The other factor is the ball park. Fly ball pitchers can have it made in parks with huge outfields, like Shea Stadium, Oakland or San Diego. They can then turn around and give up a lot of home runs when they go to small parks, like in Philly, Cincy, Minnesota, and Wrigley Field.

I used this in a game recently where the Marlins played the Phillies: “The Marlins have hit right-handers much harder at home than lefties. They should be able to tee off on the overrated Brett Myers. He has a 7.15 ERA on the road this year and he has yet to win when he takes to opponent soil. Many will think that he has turned the corner after the last two starts, allowing just four earned runs in 15.1 innings of work, but we're not buying it. In those games he allowed 21 fly balls to only five groundballs.

“Despite 21 shots in the air he did not give up a single home run. Major League averages state that 10% of fly balls end up going over the fence, so he was a bit lucky in those starts. He is also coming off his highest back to back pitch counts of the season throwing 232 pitches the past two outings. While he was a starter earlier in his career he worked out of the bullpen last season, he may not be fully acclimated to high pitch counts. Based on his ERA thus far that could be a problem.

“Florida’s Ricky Nolasco has held seven of his last nine opponents to three earned runs or less. He has also faced some of the toughest lineups in the league as of late with his last five starts coming against Atlanta, New York, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Arizona. His last outing against the Phillies was a good one as he held the Phils to just two earned runs in 6.2 innings of work. There is value here with the Marlins as a home underdog and we will take advantage.â€쳌 Myers was terrible again, giving up 5 runs in 5 innings. The Marlins led 3-0 in the first on the way to a win as a home dog.

Fenway Park is a small place, but a young Red Sox righty is 6-foot-6 Justin Masterson, who is slinging the ball behind that large frame with a devastating sinker. When they played the Mariners I noted, “The Red Sox send young Justin Masterson to the hill in Fenway Park. He has been impressive in his first three starts. By producing a very high groundball to fly ball ratio, it is very important in this building. He has been fortunate to have all of his four starts thus far be at home and he takes on a Seattle offense that has struggled all season to hit right-handed starters.

“Seattle counters with big free agent signing Eric Bedard. The veteran lefty has been very inconsistent for the Mariners especially as of late where only two of his last five starts were considered quality. He has really struggled as of late on the road where in his last two starts he has gone just 6.1 innings while allowing 15 earned runs. He faced the Red Sox less than two weeks ago in Seattle and he shut them out through seven innings. But with Boston getting another quick look at him we expect the Sox bats to fare much better this time around. The Red Sox are on a 42-11 streak as home favorites in Fenway and they are 17-5 hosting the Mariners. With Seattle getting their first look at Masterson we expect the youngster to match Bedard every step of the way. That leaves the far better offense and home field advantage in our favor. Cheap price to play the best team in baseball on their own turf.â€쳌 Masterson allowed one run as the Sox won again at home.

One final aspect to take into account with ground ball pitchers is infield defense. A pitcher like Masterson or Wang can get ground balls, but that is no good if he has lousy fielding at shortstop or second base behind him. With fly ball pitchers, especially in big parks, you want to see how their outfield defense is. Do they have speed? Or some lumbering left fielder, like Barry Bonds or Matt Stairs? A slow outfield with a fly ball pitcher on the hill is a bad mix. Understand pitching styles and how to incorporate into handicapping each game.

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