Jeff Locke, ground balls, and management’s rationale for wanting Kevin Hart in the rotation
One prospect who I feel has been mostly underrated by Pirates fans is Jeff Locke, acquired in the trade that sent Nate McLouth to Atlanta in June of 2009. That opinion is mostly due to a glance at his FanGraphs page, which displays the following stats.
|2006||Braves – R||4.22||3.01|
|2007||Braves – R||2.66||1.74|
|2008||Braves – A||4.06||3.04|
|2009||Braves – A+||5.52||3.64|
|Pirates – A+||4.08||3.16|
It is clear that Locke has consistently outpitched his ERA over his career. Again, this was just from a quick glance at his stats. However, I recently began looking deeper, and it dawned on me that the majority of his FIP-value came from an absurdly low home run rate. He allowed only five home runs in 127.1 total innings last season, and he has served up just 17 long balls in his entire professional career. In addition, he has allowed an unusually high BABIP every year, which has likely contributed to his higher than expected ERA’s. After noticing these two facts, I headed over to minorleaguesplits.com for some batted ball info. Specifically, I wanted to see his ground ball rate, and I found it to be 51% for his career. (For context, 51% would have been good for 11th place among 75 qualified major league starters in 2009.) That probably explains his high BABIP’s, as loads of ground balls + minor league quality infields + low minors defenders behind him = plenty of hits.
I decided to take a closer look at the ground ball rates of pitchers acquired by Neal Huntington, as this is something that I have come across with other pitchers he has obtained. Here is a list of those players, along with each pitcher’s career minor league GB% and inning total (Hat tip to Wilbur Miller’s estimated 2010 depth chart, which I used extensively to create this list). I excluded Huntington draftees due to limited data, as well as relievers. Some of these pitchers are pretty insignificant moving forward (such as Jimmy Barthmaier and Virgil Vasquez), but I wanted to show the type of starting pitcher that Huntington is targeting. According to StatCorner, the average major league ground ball rate is 43.2%. Take these numbers with a grain of salt, as minor league batted ball figures are not the most reliable.
According to Rich Lederer, ground ball rate is the third most important statistic for a pitcher, trailing only strikeouts and walks. It seems that Huntington follows that philosophy, as he clearly appears to be targeting pitchers with the ability to put the ball on the ground. If you are wondering why management seems overly interested in putting Kevin Hart in the starting rotation over Daniel McCutchen, the answer probably resides in the numbers above. The four other pitchers who have locked up rotation spots (Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Charlie Morton and Ross Ohlendorf) all have strong ground ball tendencies as well.
It will always be very difficult for the Pirates to acquire a prototypical “ace” starter, the type of pitcher who can dominate a game from start to finish. Moving forward, they will have to gain value by acquiring a large quantity of number three-type starters, and they must steal some hidden significance that teams fail to appreciate. All teams are looking for pitchers who can miss bats consistently. A high ground ball rate is not as sexy as a huge strikeout total, but it provides considerable value to a team.