Last night I finished my article about Jeanmar Gomez with a thought — should there be a debate between Jeanmar Gomez and Jeff Locke for the final rotation spot when Charlie Morton returns?
On one side you’ve got Locke, who has a 2.45 ERA in 58.2 innings, but has a 4.30 xFIP. Locke is due for a regression mostly due to a low BABIP (.224) and a high strand rate (84.1%). The league averages are usually .290-.300 and 70%.
On the other side you’ve got Gomez, who has a 2.30 ERA in 43 innings, but has a 4.27 xFIP. Gomez is a similar story to Locke. He has a .203 BABIP and an 85% strand rate.
I was thinking about those two today. I was thinking about how we give Locke priority, mostly because he’s been in the system longer and we’ve viewed him as a prospect for so long. Gomez was added in a minor deal this off-season, and didn’t have the prospect tag due to already throwing (and struggling in) over 200 innings in the majors. But Gomez is also a few months younger than Locke, and has a low 90s sinker that can touch 93-94 MPH. So there’s no reason to dismiss Gomez if you’re going to give any kind of credit to Locke. Right now they’re both looking like strong number four starters who are pitching well over their heads.
While debating between Locke and Gomez, I started thinking about a more important question. No, it wasn’t “should Charlie Morton just go to the bullpen for now?” like a lot of you asked on Twitter, in the comments, and via e-mail. I’ll get to Morton in a bit. The more important question is: why are Locke and Gomez out-performing their numbers?
On the surface we know the answer. They have low BABIPs and high strand rates, which will both normalize. But something caught my eye this morning. I looked at the Pirates rotation and noticed that every pitcher had average or better ground ball ratios. The league average this year is 44.5%. The Pirates starters, ranked from highest to lowest:
1. Jeanmar Gomez (57.0%)
2. A.J. Burnett (56.4%)
3. Jeff Locke (49.4%)
4. Francisco Liriano (46.0%)
5. Wandy Rodriguez (44.2%)
I also thought about Vin Mazzaro, who is in a very similar situation to Gomez. Mazzaro had some brief success in the majors, but overall his career has been poor. This year he’s got a 2.25 ERA in 20 innings, but has a 3.78 xFIP, mostly due to an 84.1% strand rate. While looking at Mazzaro, I noticed how many relievers had extreme ground ball rates. Mark Melancon (62.3%), Justin Wilson (56.2%), and even guys who hadn’t pitched much or who were no longer on the team like Chris Leroux (66.7%), Jose Contreras (56.3%), Jared Hughes (56.8%), and Bryan Morris (61%).
This led me to look at the league stats, and what I found wasn’t surprising. The Pirates as a team had allowed the second most ground balls in the league. Their pitching staff has combined for a 50.0% ground ball rate, second only to the 50.7% rate by the St. Louis Cardinals. Third place is a tie between the Rockies and Mets at 47.0%, which is a bit of a drop off.
While looking at the ground balls, I also noticed that everyone has a low BABIP. Once again, going to the rotation:
1. Jeanmar Gomez (.203)
2. Jeff Locke (.224)
3. Wandy Rodriguez (.259)
4. A.J. Burnett (.279)
5. Francisco Liriano (.338)
Well, almost everyone. You could say that Liriano could show improvements, but his numbers are also a small sample size that can be influenced by one start (like his last outing). After seeing the BABIP numbers I looked at the league totals. The Pirates had the second lowest BABIP in the league at .266. The lowest was the Cubs at .265. Tied for third was the White Sox and the Reds at .276, which is a bit of drop off. I feel like I’m repeating myself, only with a different stat.
Every time the “regression” topic for guys like Gomez and Locke is brought up, the idea floats around that maybe those guys are doing something special and they really can pitch with those extremely low BABIP numbers. First of all, no. They absolutely won’t continue with a .200-.225 BABIP. No starter has maintained a BABIP below .223 over a full season in over two decades. It will go up. But how much? A.J. Burnett is right there with them as an extreme ground ball pitcher and he’s got a .279 BABIP. The xFIP numbers assume a drop to .290-.300 for Locke and Gomez. If they only drop to .280, you can expect better results than their xFIP totals, which aren’t bad.
The Pirates have the second best ground ball rate in the league. They have the second lowest BABIP in the league. I didn’t have to think hard for a theory on why these two things were happening. It wasn’t luck. It was the system the Pirates are built on.
There have been two areas the Pirates have prioritized with this team. The first is defense. We saw that when they paid $10.5 M for two years of Clint Barmes. I’ve asked many times over the last two years when they might give someone like Jordy Mercer more playing time, and the answer is always the same: Clint Barmes is our shortstop. We saw the priority on defense when they spent big on Russell Martin. We’ve seen it in the past when they’ve taken guys like Lyle Overbay who have had good historical defensive value. We see it on the bench with the addition of guys like Brandon Inge and John McDonald.
The second area is in having ground ball pitchers. If you’ve followed the transactions over the last six years, you’d already know this trend. If there’s a draft pick, he probably throws on a downward plane, throws a sinker, gets a lot of ground balls with his breaking pitch, or a combination of any of those things. I can’t count how many pitchers have been converted to sinkerball pitchers over the last few years. When it comes to minor league free agents, it’s usually guys with not so inspiring numbers and limited upsides, but high ground ball rates. Kyle Waldrop is the poster child for this. In his brief time in the majors he had a 3.34 K/9 (usually around 4-6 in the minors), but had an extreme 72.2% ground ball ratio (in line with his minor league numbers).
The system is defense, and the best way to play to that system is to get extreme ground ball pitchers. After thinking about this, I consulted James Santelli, wondering if he knew of any articles that measured whether BABIPs can be lowered due to good ground ball rates and good defense. All I had was the FanGraphs glossary, which provided the following:
Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) measures how many balls in play against a pitcher go for hits. While typically around 30% of all balls in play fall for hits, there are three main variables that can affect BABIP rates for individual players:
a) Defense - Say a player cracks a hard line drive down the third base line. If an elite fielder is playing at third, they may make a play on it and throw the runner out. However, if there’s a dud over there with limited range, the ball could just as easily fly by for a hit. Pitchers have no control over the defenses behind them; all they can do is minimally affect if a ball is more likely to be in the air or on the ground.
Groundball pitchers have a lower BABIP on groundballs than other pitchers. In other words, if a pitcher has an extreme groundball rate, they also tend to be extra good at making sure those grounders are hit weakly and turn into out.
That last part is a key point, and the research done by Matt Swartz shows that ground ball pitchers have more control over their BABIP, and can have a lower number than fly ball pitchers. I think if you combine that with a good defense, which the Pirates have, then you could definitely make an argument that the BABIP ratios should be lower than the .290-.300 range for guys like Gomez and Locke.
Looking at the defensive metric UZR, here is where the Pirates rank in the league at each infield position. We’ll also look at the Cardinals, since they have a good ground ball rate, but not as good of a BABIP.
SS: 16/11 (Pirates are ironically being dragged down by defensive specialist John McDonald)
The Pirates have been getting strong defense from Clint Barmes (14.3 UZR/150) and Pedro Alvarez (6.8 UZR/150), which has been huge for the pitching staff. The Cardinals are getting a lot of ground balls, but the Pirates have been better defensively at every position, except shortstop. When you compare starter vs starter, Barmes (14.3 UZR/150) comes out ahead of Pete Kozma (10.8 UZR/150).
You don’t really think of systems in baseball that often. On offense it’s one hitter against one pitcher. On defense you can have a strategy, but it’s not like football where every player is involved in every play. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have a strategy. The Pirates definitely seem to have one, prioritizing defense and ground ball pitchers. Based on the studies and comments above, if executed correctly that could lead to better than expected results. You could argue that the Pirates are executing that strategy correctly. And it could be creating a system.
I know you’re not supposed to compare the Steelers and the Pirates, but I’m going to do a comparison. One of the reasons the Steelers have been successful over the last decade (although maybe not as successful the last few years) is because they employ a system. That system allows them to ignore big-name free agents, and add guys like James Farrior, James Harrison, or Larry Foote. While the Washington Redskins are spending big on name players, the Steelers are adding system players. And that’s why they win. They don’t buy the name, they buy the skill that matches their system.
For the Pirates it could be the same thing. They’ve got a system set up with strong infield defense and ground ball-heavy pitchers. And that last part is all you need. A.J. Burnett is a ground ball pitcher, and is considerably more valuable than Jeanmar Gomez. But you only need ground balls for this system, which means Jeanmar Gomez is going to have value. With any other team, I don’t think a guy like Gomez would have more value than a 5th/6th starter. With the Pirates he could put up numbers similar to a number four starter. All you have to do is look at his numbers with Cleveland to see that. They were a below average defensive team the last few years, and each year Gomez’s xFIP was lower than his ERA. You could make the same argument for Vin Mazzaro, or any other ground ball pitcher on the team who doesn’t dominate with strikeouts like Burnett.
That’s where we come back to Charlie Morton. In his career, Morton hasn’t had the best ERA. He’s got a 5.06 ERA in his career, but a 4.31 xFIP. He also has a 53% ground ball rate, which has been 56-58% since he converted to being a sinkerball pitcher. People have been pointing to his career ERA as evidence that he shouldn’t be a lock for the rotation. But you could have made the same arguments about Jeanmar Gomez, who had a horrible ERA coming into the year, and the only thing he had going for him was a low 90s sinker that produced a lot of ground balls. Morton has a low-to-mid 90s sinker and a higher strikeout rate.
My feeling is that Gomez and Locke will regress. There’s no way they’re going to maintain their .200-.225 BABIP and 85% strand rates. But I don’t think they’ll regress all the way to a league average BABIP. The studies linked above show that ground ball pitchers and good defense can lower a BABIP. The Pirates have both working for them. With the system they’ve set up, they can put any ground ball pitcher on the mound, and he’s going to most likely out-perform his advanced metrics. That won’t work for everyone. It didn’t work for Jared Hughes or Chris Leroux. But I think that’s the other side of the pendulum swing. Locke and Gomez are getting really lucky numbers, and out-performing their skill.
I think the Pirates have a good system going. Build a good defense and then add ground ball pitchers to play into that defense. I think because of that, guys like Gomez and Mazzaro and any other heavy ground ball pitcher will have success pitching for this team, while playing above their advanced metrics. Guys like Gomez and Locke will regress, but maybe not as far as you’d expect. It’s also for that reason that I’m not concerned with Morton. He learned the sinker in 2010, and it was really effective in 2011. He was hurt last year, to the point where he couldn’t even throw the pitch, or his curveball. When healthy, the sinker is a good pitch and generates plenty of easy ground outs. With this defense, that’s a great thing. Add in the advantage Morton has with the extra strikeouts, and that’s why I automatically place him over Locke and Gomez.
I don’t think you can dismiss what Locke and Gomez have done on an individual level this year. But they owe part of their success to the system. If either pitcher is with a team that has poor infield defense, they’re not seeing the same results, and definitely not playing above their metrics. For that reason, I don’t think the individual players matter. I think the only thing that matters is adding the right players for the system. In this case it’s guys with high ground ball rates and strikeout rates to go along with that. Those guys are going to have success with this defense behind them, and will probably even put up lower BABIP numbers than the league average. So I wouldn’t be hesitant to remove Gomez or Locke from the rotation, despite the strong numbers. I think the same thing that is helping them exceed their advanced metrics will also help Charlie Morton, and even more with Morton because of his added strikeouts.
Links and Notes
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**The newest Pirates Prospects Podcast is up and available for download or streaming. P3 Episode 5: Polanco the Top Prospect? Can Pirates Keep Winning? Mark Melancon Interview.
**The podcast will have some changes starting this week. Each week the podcast has been about 70 minutes, and has included minor league and major league talk. Starting this week we’ll be running two smaller shows per week. We will still have an episode each Friday, talking about the major league team. This show will consist of the segment with myself, Tom Bragg, and James Santelli. We will also have a second episode each week talking about the minor leagues. That will include input from our minor league writers, as well as draft and international signing discussions. Each episode will be about 30 minutes on average. So it will be the same content each week, just broken up throughout the week to make things easier for everyone. You don’t have to carve a little over an hour of time out of your day. I don’t have to spend an entire day editing one long podcast (instead editing over part of several days, which I think will be better). Right now I’m thinking the second show will go up on Mondays.