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Hook, Line, and Sinker

houstoncardinal is away for the weekend, celebrating his anniversary. so he e-mailed me this post during the week. nlcs game thread to come later today. --- lb

by houstoncardinal

During Braden Looper's hot start (a 1.91 ERA in April), he was very distinctly a ground ball pitcher, with a GO/AO ratio of 1.5/1. His May wasn't nearly so good (5.35 ERA), though his ground ball rate increased to 2.2/1. Soon thereafter he tired and spent a couple weeks on the DL. In his initial start upon returning, he registered 10 groundouts to 8 flyball outs. At that point, however, his pitching pattern changed: he became much more of a fly ball pitcher throughout the rest of the year. The numbers below reflect his stats during the time in which he was a groundball pitcher, and the time in which he was a flyball pitcher.

More ground balls 88 85 48 29 44 15 4.91 4.50 1.53 146 72
More fly balls 86.2 96 47 22 43 7 4.88 4.47 0.73 84 132
Avg Game Score Median Game Score
More ground balls 47.93 51
More fly balls 46.60 55

Clearly, there's not a great deal of difference between the starts. The top row gasically reflects Looper's first half, while the bottom row reflects the second half. As the season went along, as I said last week, he began to throw more sliders, but he also clearly began working up in the strike zone more frequently. A couple of things really stand out to me, aside from the similarities, and those are a) his walks were fairly significantly lower when he was getting more fly balls, and b) his HR/9 was cut in half. The walks can perhaps be explained by surmising that when he was trying to get ground balls, he was likely to miss low frequently, thus leading to more walks. I can only guess that his home run rate is lower b/c, when trying to get ground balls, if he didn't miss low and out of the strike zone, he missed thigh-high where he could be drilled. When he changed his pattern, perhaps he was able to miss up where hitters couldn't make good contact. Perhaps they were looking for pitches at the knees and couldn't adjust to them just above the belt. In any case, it's an interesting development.

Looper's pattern distinctly changed beginning with his July 7 start in San Francisco. It's such a marked change in his pattern that it's impossible to believe that it was anything but purposeful. In 11 of his final 15 starts he had more fly balls than ground balls --- and, interestingly, 7 of those 11 starts were at home. Here are Looper's numbers for the 11 starts in which he had more fly balls than ground balls after his pattern changed:

64.3 64 29 14 35 4 4.06 4.90 0.56 58 100

His average game score for these 11 starts was 50.73 and his median game score was 61. It is, of course, not a tremendously large sample size, but it is enough to determine a noticeable trend.

So, is Looper really a better pitcher when he gets more fly balls? Maybe. But guess what....Dave Duncan seems to think so. This isn't a random back-and-forth. The fact that 11 of his first 15 starts had more ground balls than fly balls and 11 of his last 15 starts had more fly balls than ground balls tells me that a conscious decision was made to alter his pattern (add to it the increased use of the slider) in order to have more success. It seems to contradict everything we know about the Cardinals organization, but it is unimaginable to me that this distinct change in Looper's pattern could have occurred w/o Duncan's tutelage.

If it can work for Looper, why can't it work for others? I first noticed that this might work when I was perusing pitchers' stats and noticed that Chris Young of the Padres was having a sensational year on the mound and had the lowest GB% of any starting pitcher in baseball. Coincidence? Maybe, but intuitively, it makes some sense. Young pitches in one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball - Petco Park. B/c Petco is so tough on homers, it makes sense that a Padres' pitcher could get away with throwing so many fly balls. What become homers in other parks are medium-deep fly balls in Petco. Ground balls find holes (thus the luck component of BABIP). Chris Young's BABIP this year -- .246. His HR/9 was 0.52, despite having the 2nd highest FB% in baseball.

Maybe Chris Young is an aberration? Here are the numbers from some of baseball's best pitchers this year:

Peavy 77.0 2.80 45.4
Webb 66.1 3.19 63.6
Sabathia 65.2 3.27 47.6
Carmona 64.0 4.05 64.8
Penny 61.7 3.63 50.6
Oswalt 59.8 3.54 54.4
Beckett 58.6 3.22 47.9
Santana 57.7 3.96 39.5
Smoltz 56.7 3.10 47.0

Looper's GB% this year was 44.4%. Certainly one thing that separates these pitchers from Looper is their K/9. Looper's was 4.47, considerably lower than anyone else on the list. I'm not at all trying to suggest that, with a full year of pitching up in the zone as well as down, Looper will become one of the top pitchers in the game. But this list does demonstrate that throwing every pitch at the knees is not mandatory if one is going to be successful. It is possible to be a fly ball pitcher and be successful. In fact, only 3 of the top 10 pitchers in VORP were also in the top 10 in baseball in GB% -- Carmona, Webb, and Tim Hudson.

It seems to me that, like Chris Young, teams are more able to get away with having fly ball pitchers in parks like Petco - that reduce homers. In fact, only 1 park suppressed homers more than Petco - Washington's RFK stadium. Guess which stadium was 3rd in baseball in suppressing homers - Busch III. Busch III's park factor for home runs is .717; Petco's is .685. AT&T Park in San Francisco, long noted as a pitcher's park, had a park factor for homers of .808. Shea Stadium's was .900; Dodger Stadium's (long thought of as a pitcher's park - and it is...for everything except homers) was 1.052. (Anything below 1.000 favors the pitchers.) Think this was an aberration? In 2006, Busch III's park factor for homers was .887 (19th in baseball).

So it's clear that Busch III is a pitcher's park that suppresses homers. Shouldn't we attempt to build a pitching staff with that in mind? Before the '07 season we considered several pitchers in the free agent market - the three most notable were Jason Schmidt, Miguel Batista and Jeff Weaver. As we all know by now, none of them had a good year at all. Schmidt got injured, Batista was mediocre, at best, and Weaver was simply craptastic. One pitcher we could have pursued but didn't was Ted Lilly, who ultimately signed with the Cubs for a relatively sane 4 years, $40 million. As it turned out, Lilly had a very good year. His biggest problem prior to this year was his inability to throw strikes consistently but in '07 he walked a paltry 2.39 batters per nine innings. The other problem, of course, was that he is a fly ball pitcher - thus, we had no interest. His groundball % this year was 36.2% -- right in line with his career numbers. Nevertheless, he finished '07 as the Cubs' best pitcher, with a VORP of 46.7 and a FIP of 4.16, 16th in the NL. Is he a star? Certainly not, but he is better than all but one of the starters on the Cards' staff right now.

Pitching exclusively at the knees does seem to make sense if you have a fastball like Looper's -- between 87-90 with some sink. But while his fastball has nowhere near the velocity of Carmona's fastabll, his sinker has nothing approaching the quality of Webb's sinker. If Looper stays exclusively at the knees, hitters can adjust, go get the ball, and hit it hard. They figured out the book on him and had much greater success after his first few starts - thus, the need for a change in Looper's approach. If he also pitches at the top of the zone occasionally, those pitches at the knees become much tougher to hit. Likewise, if they're looking to hit the pitch at the knees, hitters get under the pitches at the top of the zone and pop them up. In Philadelphia or Cincinnati, this probably isn't that good an idea. Medium fly balls become homers in those parks. In St. Louis, they're as good as a bouncer to short.

This is really about the bigger picture - it's not about Looper or Reyes so much as it's about Adam Ottavino, the pitchers the Cards will draft next summer, and the pitchers they'll pursue in free agency this offseason and in the future.

This summer the Cards (arguably) reached when they chose Clayton Mortensen in the supplemental round of the draft. He's got a very good sinker and has had a very good start to his minor league career. But the fact that he was probably chosen 2-3 rounds too early is an indicator of the importance the organization places on the sinker. Adam Ottavino had a rough 1st half this year as he was trying to adjust to throwing the sinker. I've mentioned the fact that the Cards' brass basically ignored Ted Lilly last year on the free agent market b/c he didn't throw it.

It would seem that there are teams who should place a greater emphasis on throwing sinkers and keeping the ball down. However, I'm not certain that the Cardinals are one of them. In fact, considering that it is so difficult to hit homers in Busch III, perhaps the Cards are one organization that can eschew the conventional wisdom toward looking for sinkerballers and seek pitchers who can also pitch up in the zone. If we develop a sound defensive OF, there's no reason to think that getting fly balls can't be as good as, or even better than, ground balls. Ground balls find holes far more often than fly balls do. That's one reason Looper's BABIP went down as he began working up in the zone more often.

So this post is meant to challenge the organizational philosophy that throwing sinkers is always best. The Cards have a park that suppresses homers. We should take advantage of it. Sinkers are OK, but they shouldn't be the organizational focus --- the sine qua non, as Matthew Leach described it two spring trainings ago. The Cards, more than most, should be able to take advantage of pitchers who pitch up in the zone - fly balls that are homers in Philadelphia are outs in St. Louis, whereas ground balls may become hits anywhere. Of course, we will have to pitch on the road 81 times, but so do the Padres. They won 89 games despite playing a bunch of them in homer havens such as Coors Field, Dodger Stadium, and Chase Field. And you could hardly blame their pitching for their failure to make the playoffs.

The best part of this change in philosophy would be, of course, that it would open the door to pitchers that the Cardinals aren't currently considering. Why are we shutting the door on so many pitchers when we can make use of them, either as free agents, trade targets, or potential draftees? Who will be next year's Ted Lilly? Or 2009's? In 2009, Oliver Perez will be a free agent. He'll be 28. This year he had the highest fly ball % in the big leagues, but his VORP was 37.2, his SNLVAR was 4.0, and his FIP was 4.36. He's not a star, but he's young, left-handed, and above average --- and he does have a high K rate. But will we completely ignore him simply b/c of his low GB%? Hopefully the next GM will insist on changing this organizational philosophy. We may have fallen for it - hook, line, and sinker - but an outsider won't have.