Charlie Morton Pittsburgh Pirates

In general, ground balls are much more beneficial to a pitcher than a fly ball or line drive. Ground balls can’t go over the fence. More ground balls = less fly balls = less home runs. Furthermore, FanGraphs explains, “Line drives are death to pitchers, while ground balls are the best for a pitcher. In numerical terms, line drives produce 1.26 runs/out, fly balls produce 0.13 R/O, and ground balls produce only 0.05 R/O.”

Well, the 2013 Pirates – who maintained one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball throughout the season – pulled this off better than any other team in the last decade, and it could be a key to their resounding success.

As a whole, the Bucs posted a ground ball rate (GB%) of 52.5% … League average was 44.5% … Not too bad. In fact, it’s rather amazing. FanGraphs records batted ball rates back to 2002, as tracked by Baseball Info Solutions. Here are the best team ground ball rates in that span:

GB%
2013 Pirates 52.5
2005 Cardinals 50.7
2010 Braves 49.9
2009 Cardinals 49.8
2008 Dodgers 49.6
2010 Cardinals 49.5
2007 Blue Jays 48.7
2013 Cardinals 48.5
2012 Cardinals 48.5
2008 Braves 48.3

They easily set the record for best ground ball rate, and became just the second team to post rate over 50% since 2002.

As you look at the numbers a little more, you’ll see that the five members of the 2013 team’s rotation all finished with a top 25 GB% among National League starting pitchers (minimum 100 IP) – all clearly above league average:
1) Charlie Morton – 62.9
5) A.J. Burnett – 56.5
8) Jeff Locke – 53.2
18) Francisco Liriano – 50.5
23) Gerrit Cole – 49.1

The Shark Tank was brilliant as well, with Mark Melancon, Jeanmar Gomez, Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, and Vin Mazzaro all finishing in the top 20 among NL relievers (minimum 40 IP).

Considering all this, you can see one reason why they might be willing to take a chance on Edinson Volquez. The 30-year-old righty has put up above-average ground ball rates throughout his career. I checked it out by setting FanGraphs’ filter like this: qualified pitchers with a GB% > 50% since 2010 — finding that Volquez (50.3%) was one of 27 pitchers (along with Morton and Burnett) to accomplish that. 

Between current players and other arms they’ve acquired (not just Volquez), it’s clear that the team has put a strong emphasis on ground balls. The club’s recent trend towards increasing defensive shifts even furthers the effectiveness. If they can continue to pair above-average ground ball rates with strong defense, they’ll keep the opposition’s damage at a minimum again in 2014.

Go Bucs

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.com

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  1. HiddenVigorish on January 7, 2014

    A big reason the GB rate is so important is because it suppresses home runs. Bucs gave up just 101 dingers last year. That was 52 less than in 2012, and was second lowest total by any pitching staff since 1994. http://hiddenvigorish.com/2013/10/impact-of-pirates-defensive-shifts-has-been-overstated-2/

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