From 2009-2013, there were 651,340 outs recorded in major league baseball. Just 175,521 (26.95%) of them came via the strikeout. That leaves 475,521 outs to record on batted balls.
It stands to reason, then, that the ability to influence batted ball types (and provide good defense, for that matter) is a skill that is worth exploring. It's understood that different batted ball types have different BABIPs - line drives fall for hits most frequently, followed by grounders, fly balls, and infield fly balls, which are almost always outs.
The catch? Outfield fly balls that aren't outs are often extra-base hits, whereas most grounders that aren't outs are singles, not to mention that grounders can also become double plays. Beyond that, extreme ground ball pitchers often have a lower BABIP on ground balls, thanks to their ability to make sure that those grounders are weakly hit.
I had this in mind on Saturday night when I watched Kyle Westwood take the mound at the Hangar and generate ground ball after ground ball, right into the teeth of his defense.
Understanding that 73.05% of a team's outs come from batted balls, and understanding that of those batted balls, ground balls are the least damaging, I wanted to take a look at the Houston Astros minor league pitchers who have had the most success generating ground balls thus far in their careers.
[For this article, I looked only at players who have pitched on full-season minor league rosters in the 2014 season. To keep it clean, I used only players under the age of 27. All data is from Minor League Central.]
Of the forty-nine qualified pitchers, thirteen had career groundball rates over 50%:
- Albert Minnis: 64.71%
- Zach Morton: 64.09%
- Mike Hauschild: 61.01%
- Kyle Westwood: 59.20%
- Patrick Christensen: 57.50%
- J.D. Osborne: 57.47%
- Christopher Lee: 57.18%
- Jake Buchanan: 55.46%
- Mark Appel: 54.36%
- Brady Rodgers: 52.72%
- Lance McCullers: 52.37%
- Alex Sogard: 51.87%
- Adrian Houser: 51.00%
Infield fly balls are the easiest batted ball to field; they are almost always outs, and they are the king of weak contact. If we add those to our calculations, it actually changes things pretty significantly. Astros minor leaguers seem to show an uncanny knack for inducing infield flies. In fact, five pitchers - Tyler Brunnemann (16.3%), Jorge De Leon (12.22%), Aaron West (10.54%), Mitchell Lambson (10.53%), and Andrew Walter (10.23%) - were able to do it to more than ten percent of the batters they faced.
Of our 49 qualified pitchers, 35 of them (71.4%) had a GB+IFB% over fifty percent, with some familiar faces leading the way. The top twelve:
- Zach Morton: 67.96%
- Albert Minnis: 66.67%
- J.D. Osborne: 65.52%
- Mike Hauschild: 64.33%
- Kyle Westwood: 62.69%
- Patrick Christensen: 62.50%
- Christopher Lee: 61.58%
- Jake Buchanan: 59.14%
- Brady Rodgers: 58.49%
- Lance McCullers: 57.89%
- Mark Appel: 57.72%
- Adrian Houser: 57.17%
Of course, there's still one thing we haven't really discussed, and that's strikeouts. Zero percent of strikeouts go for extra bases. In fact, zero percent of strikeouts go for hits. As far as outcomes that a pitcher can control, strikeouts are king.
This strikes me as an outstanding time to say that I am not a mathematician. In fact, I just had to correct the way I spelled "mathematician" because it was underlined in red. This is the point where someone who was much smarter than I am would start investigating linear weights. Heck - you can go read almost anything by reillocity. He's done terrific work evaluating pitchers by batted ball types.
I'm not that guy. I'm just a guy trying to find some context after watching Kyle Westwood feed ground ball after ground ball to a hungry defense.
Still, it stands to reason that if a pitcher can strike guys out, that's a good thing. If, when he's unable to strike them out, he's able to induce weak contact - a popup or a grounder - that's almost as good a thing. So I took the total number of batters each of these pitchers have faced in the minors since 2011 (the first year Minor League Central has data for, and a reasonable-enough sample size, at any rate), and I figured out what percentage of those batters the pitcher struck out, popped out, or coerced a ground ball out of:
Top twenty Astros minor leaguers in K+GB+IFB/TBF: 2011-14
Yes, Patrick Christensen - the 2013 27th-round draft pick out of LaSalle University - has struck out, popped up, or induced a grounder from over 71% of the batters he's faced, which is certainly impressive. But there's something nagging at me...
The top names on this list are all in the low minors. This strikes me as a problem, and my instinct is that players in the high minors are being "penalized." First, by using their data dating back to 2011, and second because they're facing better hitters in Double-A and Triple-A.
I did a quick check on Mike Foltynewicz, who came in 41st, with a 55.86%. However, in Single-A Lexington in 2011, he fared worse, with just 49.23%. In fact, based on that year alone, he'd be last on this list, behind Jandel Gustave.
Still, for something more of an apples-to-apples comparison, I decided to look at the pitchers using just 2013 data:
Top twenty Astros minor leaguers in K+GB+IFB/TBF: 2013
Christensen is still hanging tough, but now Christopher Lee emerges as the leader. Lee was the 4th-round pick out of Santa Fe Community College in 2011 (for reference, that was five picks after the Royals took Kyle Smith.) After an inauspicious short-season debut, he fell off the prospect radar after being shut down early in 2012 with shoulder tightness. In 2013, the lefty exploded back onto the scene, flashing a fastball in the low nineties (touching 96), a hard slider, a changeup, and a curveball.
He's finally climbed out of Greeneville and into full-season ball, where it's been so far-so good in Quad Cities. He's still right around league-average age for a pitcher (B-Ref lists the Midwest League average as 21.9; Lee is 21.83. In fact, he's fourth-youngest on the Quad Cities staff, which boasts a lot of 2013 college draftees.)
And thus far in 2014? Who's been the best at eliminating hard contact so far this season? Eliminating Minnis, Urckfitz, and Perez, who have each faced fewer than ten batters on the season, here are the top twenty:
Top twenty Astros minor leaguers in K+GB+IFB/TBF: 2014
I'm inclined to trust the 2013 data over the 2014 data, but for safety, I'll add the two seasons' worth of data together. This isn't my preferred method, since I believe short-season debuts should hardly count. It's my opinion that prospect performance can only be fairly evaluated after a full offseason, including instructs and whatever private training the team offers. Drafting and development. Yin and yang.
However, it's early in the season yet, so we'll move forward with the data as-is and re-evaluate later in the season.
|Jorge De Leon||36||106||70||30||2||2||55||287||66.55%|
Too early to say much, though the data does seem to favor Jeff Luhnow draftees in these categories. Again, I suspect the data may be skewed towards pitchers in the low minors. I'll need to further evaluate to get league- and level-averages. Unfortunately, no data site seems particularly-well set-up for this endeavor.
A few things we can say for certain:
- Though Kyle Westwood is very good at generating groundballs, it would be incorrect to call him "elite" at the skill yet.
- Pat Christensen is someone to watch this season, if only to see whether he's able to continue to prevent hard contact.
- Maybe it's time to "unwrite-off" Christopher Lee. 2013 is just one season, but it was a promising one for the young lefty. He was able to strike out or induce weak contact from seven of every ten batters he faced.
- Maybe we're heading too fast down the #FreeJoseCisnero tunnel. Of all Astros minor league pitchers to have faced at least ten batters in 2014, he has been the worst at keeping balls out of the outfield over the past two seasons.