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The Rockies should not avoid fly ball pitchers

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Over the past 13 seasons, the Rockies have been among the best teams at inducing ground balls and minimizing fly balls, but it hasn't translated to success on the diamond.

Byron Hetzler-USA TODAY Sports

Last Sunday, I ran a poll that asked readers if would rather have the Rockies sign James Shields or Max Scherzer. I included qualifications about money and contract time because my goal was to get a sense of the preference regarding each player’s skill set rather than peripheral matters such as desired contract and potential cost. In other words, I wanted to get a sense of the preference regarding the types of pitchers Shields and Scherzer are. I added the following information as a guide:

Max Scherzer: 30 years old; 3.58 ERA; 3.39 FIP; 86 ERA-; 38.8 GB%; 41.6 FB%; 18.1% K-BB

James Shields: 33 years old: 3.72 ERA; 3.77 FIP; 91 ERA-; 44.7 GB%; 34.1 FB%; 14.8% K-BB

Here’s the final poll tally:

Reader Poll, January 4, 2014

The fact that more of you voted for Scherzer is not surprising. His numbers are better across the board. The fact that Shields garnered a not insignificant number of votes is also not surprising. It is, however, interesting, because I think if this poll ran on the other 29 SB Nation team sites the preference for Scherzer over Shields would be overwhelming. The reason being is that Scherzer is by just about any metric you choose a better and more talented pitcher than Shields. Based on the conversation about the poll in the comments section, at least some of the votes given to Shields were based on the ground ball and fly ball percentages of each. Shields gets most of his outs with ground balls, while Scherzer gets his outs through the air and by strikeouts.

I remain unconvinced that fly ball pitcher can’t succeed on the Rockies. I think that ground ball dogmatism might hurt the team more than it helps. And I maintain that in drafting and development the Rockies should actively pursue players with Scherzer like potential—that is, those with a high fly ball and high strikeout tendency. Not at the expense of other types of pitchers, but as a complement to them. This article is a starting point, and I offer it with the hope that it can generate more granular perspectives from others. (Update: Ryan Hammon at Rockies Zingers wrote one such granular perspective on this topic back in November. You can find the highly recommended reading here--EGM)

Let’s start with success. Since 2002, Baseball Info Solutions has collected batted ball data for every Major League plate appearance. Conveniently, 2002 was also the year the Rockies installed the humidor at Coors Field, so we have 13 seasons worth of batted ball data, and for each season Coors Field was not quite the launching pad it originally was. For those 13 seasons, the Rockies have the second highest groundball rate in all of baseball. They also have the lowest fly ball rate. Thus, the Rockies have successfully implemented a high ground ball and low fly ball pitching philosophy. Yet, during this same period of time, the Rockies rank 20 in baseball in ERA-, clocking in at about six percent below league average. The relevant leaderboards, all via FanGraphs, are below.

GB% LEADERBOARD, 2002-2014

GB% Leaderboard, 2002-2014

FB% REVERSE LEADERBOARD, 2002-2014

FB% Reverse Leaderboard, 2002-2014

ERA- LEADERBOARD, 2002-2014

ERA- Leaderboard, 2002-2014

These tables demonstrate that there is no single answer to team success. Having pitchers that induce ground balls can lead to success. The St. Louis Cardinals are the second winningest team in baseball since 2002, and they’ve induced the most groundballs. But pursuing ground balls doesn't necessarily mean success—the Rockies have the fourth worst record in baseball over that span of time, and they’ve induced the second most grounders.

Trying to get batters to hit ground balls or fly balls to induce outs is a bargain. More fly balls turn into outs than ground balls, but while more ground balls result in hits, the outcome is rarely extra bases and almost never a home run. So there’s more risk for immediate damage for fly balls but with a greater likelihood of an out, while ground balls result in more traffic on the bases but with less chance for immediate runs against. Inducing a lot of fly balls is not a bad outcome. To wit: the Angels. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California, have the third best regular season winning percentage in baseball since 2002, and in that time they have both the highest fly ball rate and the lowest ground ball rate.

We could point to the park. The Angels play in a dinger suppressing environment. But I don’t find that explanation satisfactory. In Baseball Prospectus’s 2014 annual, Russell Carleton used #gorymath to argue compellingly that while a park such as Coors Field might be subject to allowing more home runs, balls don’t just randomly fly out of the park. The pitchers who give up a lot of home runs at Coors Field would do so anywhere. And last February, Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs isolated the outcomes of fly ball and ground ball pitchers in home run friendly, neutral, and non-home run parks. He found a difference in player value, but it’s not much. "Most fly balls wouldn’t be homers anywhere," Sullivan posited, "many homers would be homers everywhere. It’s a fraction of all fly balls that depend on the ballpark." Sullivan’s conclusion aligned with Carleton’s: talent matters above all.

Indeed, there’s even reason to speculate that populating the Rockies with ground ball pitchers is counter-productive. Last February, Jeff Zimmerman wrote that "fly balls are not created equal" (I wrote about it here, which also includes the core of the following argument). What he meant is that what he terms "sharp fly balls," those that stay in the air 2.5-4 seconds, result in an out about 12 percent less frequently as fly balls that stay in the air longer. Not only that, but they also result in extra base hits about 18 percent of the time, as opposed to 10 percent of the time for all other fly balls. The kicker is that ground ball pitchers are more prone to allowing sharp fly balls. Given Coors Field’s spacious outfield, that could mean a lot more extra base hits that stay in the ballpark, which can really hurt the home team with traffic on the bases—which is a by-product of emphasizing ground balls. Finally, I recognize that each pitcher is a snowflake, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s advantageous to have pitchers with varied profiles—that it might be useful to have flakes from different sorts of snowstorms.

Before the start of the 2014 season, Mike Cranston of the Associated Press wrote that "in the dry, thin air of Colorado, fly balls are folly." The real folly is the ground ball shibboleth. As a whole and over an extended period of time, Rockies pitchers have been ground ball machines that have limited balls in the air. So—mission accomplished. And yet, that hasn’t translated to a whole lot of success on the field. It’s time for the Rockies to broaden their horizons.