Pitchers at all levels of the game are told to locate their pitches in the bottom half of the zone so they can get hitters to swing over the top of the pitch and produce ground balls. As everyone knows, ground balls are the best way to prevent runs, since you can’t hit ground balls over the fence and it’s tough to hit them into the gaps for extra bases. Apologies to all coaches of youth, high school, and many college pitchers, but: You’re wrong. Pitchers should locate their fastballs and breaking balls in the top half of the zone to get the most success when competing against average youth, high school, and most college hitters.
Ground Balls: Be Careful What You Wish For
It’s happened to everyone – including me - you get a ton of ground balls, your defense boots the ball around, you end up giving up 1 or 2 earned runs but a plethora of unearned runs. When your coach comes and pulls you from the game, he says: “Nothing you could have done, kid. Defense just didn’t play behind you,” pats you on the butt, and tells you to get your running in.
Your teammates apologize for booting that easy ball in the hole, for not picking that ball at first base, and dropping that easy double play opportunity. Being a good teammate, you say “Ah, it happens. Get ‘em next time.” Then while running your poles, you reflect on how particularly unlucky you were that day. If only Bobby hadn’t lost that ball in the sun and Roger didn’t sail that ball from shortstop, you would have gotten out of that long inning. But were you unlucky? Think about it: You did everything you were supposed to – get a few strikeouts, not walk too many, and got a lot of ground balls. And what were you rewarded with? Hasn’t this happened before? What if you got fly balls instead? Don’t hitters swing and miss on your fastballs up in the zone – and when they make contact, don’t they often go for fly ball outs? How many home runs does the entire school have, anyway? Four? But what’s the team batting average – .380? Here are the two major reasons you want to get ground balls at the MLB level:
- Sluggers often hit fly balls over the fence.
- Defense at the MLB level is insanely elite.
Think about those reasons for a minute. Do either of those reasons apply to your high school league? What do you think the average HR rate on fly balls is in your league? I guarantee it’s not 11%. (MLB Average HR/FB rate.) We’ve already established defenders at the HS/College level are orders of magnitude worse than the Dominican and Venezuelan infielders of MLB (to say nothing of the local product), so why are you applying a heuristic to a completely different game?
Tons of data and a shattered myth after the jump…
Show Me the Data
I took the 2011 hitting stats from the largest local amateur league here – Puget Sound Senior Baseball League – and took the division (Adams) that fields teams that are most like your average varsity high school team. If you didn’t know the players in the league were too old to be in high school and could objectively watch the quality of their play, I’d argue that the average team in this league would fit right into a large high school conference. Most of the players in the league played Varsity HS or college baseball (with some ex-pros in there). Since we don’t have batted ball data, I made the folllowing big assumption:
- Batted ball type is identical to MLB averages (unlikely; LD% is likely lower while GB% and FB% go up).
At any rate, here’s the data: (IFFB is subtracted from FB in the bottom right chart but not in the raw totals in the top right.)
What conclusions can we draw from this?
Fly Balls Don’t Turn into Home Runs
HR/FB ratio in the big leagues averages just about 11% as we stated above. However, HR/FB ratio in this league is 4.76% – less than half of the MLB average! (We’re assuming all the HRs hit were on fly balls, which is generally accepted as true when looking at stringer data from Baseball Info Solutions.) This means that the run value of a fly ball should dramatically decrease! Shorthand is to say that fly balls produce 0.13 runs/out while ground balls product 0.05 runs/out, but if HR rate is halved on fly balls, runs produced will be cut significantly AND outs per fly ball will go up significantly.
Ground Balls Turn Into Errors
David Gassko showed us that grounders account for 85% of all errors at the major league level, and that 2.23% of all grounders hit are scored as errors. It’s obvious that more errors will be produced on ground balls when the fielders are markedly worse, and that the first percentage will likely go up as a result!
Batting Average on Balls in Play – Earned Runs Go Up Too!
If you look at the chart above, you can see the Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is .380. MLB average is about .290 – no surprise here, the fielders are not only going to commit more errors, but simply won’t get to more balls leading to hits falling in. As we see, Predicted Average using BABIP of MLB batted ball types is .292, while in reality the real batting average of the league is .318 – a difference of 26 points of batting average! Though BABIP obviously increases across the board as the defense of the league gets worse (and batted ball speed does not exceed that factor; which I feel confident in saying since they mostly used BESR metal bats in 2011), I’d argue that it’s not a normal distribution and that ground ball BABIP goes up by a larger factor than the other batted ball types. Evidence for that is simply due to decreased range, worse reaction speed, worse hands, and weaker throwing arms – all of these factors impact fielding ground balls far more than they do line drives and fly balls. As stated above, ground balls produce 0.05 runs/out at the MLB level, but this will certainly go up – and I’d argue, surpass - the runs/out value of fly balls when you factor everything together!
The Uncomfortable Truth: You Aren’t Playing the Same Game as MLB Players
Trevor Bauer made a splash when he made these tweets: Bauer is a very smart individual, and he’s followed the work of people who have done studies on pitch location and batted ball types like Perry Husband. Sabermetric studies have been done on MLB pitching/hitting to try and uncover what Bauer was saying, but they missed out on a critical factor: Adjusting for environment! Bauer is almost certainly right when he talked about his experiences in high school and college (even in the Pac-12), and he may very well be correct when it comes to the minor leagues as well!
Fastballs Up in the Zone: Strikeout Machines
Fastballs up in the zone reach the catcher faster than fastballs down in the zone do, and fastballs up and in to a same handed batter as you reach the catcher the fastest. Additionally, hitters are typically able to take fastballs down in the zone with more regularity but have higher swing percentages on fastballs up in the zone. In the same article about Bauer’s comments, you can see that MLB swing and miss % on fastballs up in the zone far exceeds swing and miss % in the bottom half of the zone. You don’t need a rocket scientist to tell you that a higher whiff rate on your pitches will lead to increased strikeout totals, right?
So, What Do I Do About it?
Fortunately, this one’s easy – there are a few factors that produce more fly balls over ground balls:
- Locating up in the zone.
- Throwing outside.
It’s About The Money did a great study of right-handed pitchers and ground ball effects, and those were the two main conclusions they came up with (reverse, since they were investigating what causes ground balls). If you can consistently locate your pitches up and out of the zone, you can get more fly balls, as evidenced by these graphs/heat maps:
And then ground ball / fly ball rate by heat map location for all hitters combined:
“But,” you say, “fastballs up in the zone get pounded for line drives!” Study of MLB hitters doesn’t seem to indicate this is the case – it’s pitches down the pipe that get the laser show treatment. Here’s a heatmap of line drives hit by Joey Votto (source: Baseball Analytics):
Inescapable Conclusion: What Your Coaches Told You is Wrong
If you’re playing below the MLB level, you probably don’t want ground balls if you want to make the most amount of outs. You definitely want to stay out of the middle of the plate, but pitch up in the zone (and outside) to get fly ball outs. Unless, of course, you like getting ground balls, watching your fielders kick it around the infield, and leaving the game early with a lot of unearned runs. You’ll have “done your job,” but your team will win less games. Remember, unearned runs still count as runs on the scoreboard.