Using Sabermetrics for Fantasy Baseball Part 8: Batted Ball Distribution for Pitchers

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The league average batted ball distribution in 2015 was 20.9% liners, 45.3% grounders and 33.8% flies. Last time, we took a brief look at how pitchers may specialize in either grounders or fly balls. Fly ball pitchers have a BABIP advantage over their ground ball-inducing counterparts, since fly balls (.129 BABIP in 2015) consistently have lower BABIPs than worm killers (.236). Yet most fantasy owners prefer to roster ground ball pitchers, to the point that GB% is frequently cited as a peripheral stat to determine fantasy viability.

The reason for this is slugging percentage. Fly balls had a collective .666 slugging percentage in 2015 despite the lower BABIP, while grounders had just a .255 SLG. As Giancarlo Stanton hits more homers than most in part by elevating the ball more frequently, fly ball pitchers are liable to give more up by allowing more batted balls into the air. Fantasy owners can live with the odd single through the infield if it means fewer homers allowed.

This line of thinking makes intuitive sense, but I feel it may be overstated at times. Good fly ball pitchers tend to post HR/FB rates a little better than the 10% league average, somewhat limiting the long balls they allow. Many fantasy owners also already know that ballparks play a big role in determining HR allowed. If a park is going to limit the negative consequences, fantasy owners may reap the benefits of a lower WHIP by investing in a pitcher that makes his living in the air. By contrast, ground ball specialists are less likely to benefit from a park's pitching friendly dimensions. Even if a homer is struck, the fly ball guy has a greater probability of it being a solo shot as opposed to a crooked number on the board.

To be clear, pitchers in homer happy locations such as Milwaukee's Miller Park, Yankee Stadium and The Cell in Chicago should absolutely be ground ball guys if they are rostered in fantasy. It is also a useful metric to look at when trying to determine if a given pitcher should be active for a road start at these locations. Still, a high GB% alone should not make a guy fantasy relevant.

A specialty in either grounders or flies may allow a pitcher to maximize the team behind him and beat FIP. For example, pitcher Chris Young posted a 3.06 ERA in 123.1 IP last season despite a FIP of 4.52 and an xFIP of 5.33. Normally, we would label him a clear candidate for painful regression. Young is an extreme flyball pitcher (57.9% FB%), and he does a good job limiting liners (16.6% LD%, 18.5% career) and inducing popups (14.8% IFFB%, 15.2% career). Still, the .209 BABIP he allowed seems too low. Beating the league BABIP by nearly 100 points is not usually sustainable.

Yet Young has two sustainable advantages that FIP doesn't know about. First, Kauffman Stadium is a terrible place for power hitting, helping Young compile a 7.7% HR/FB. His career mark is 8.1%, buoyed by past home addresses like San Diego's Petco Park, New York's Citi Field and Seattle's Safeco Field before any of them moved their fences in. Second, he is pitching in front of a team that simply does not allow fly balls to drop.

Kansas City left fielder Alex Gordon produced 7 DRS last season despite losing significant time to injury. His last healthy season produced an elite 27 DRS in 2014. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain and his 18 DRS are also back in the fold. Right field was something of a mess despite the Royals' title, but Jarrod Dyson figures to secure the lion's share of the playing time in 2016. He was worth 11 DRS in just 560.2 defensive IP in 2015, and could well break 20 with regular work.

Young's extreme fly ball tendencies maximize his ability to use these guys to suppress his BABIP, while his home park helps to ensure that most fly balls remain in play. As long as he's a Royal, Young should be able to post above average ERA and WHIP numbers. The lack of strikeouts hinders his overall fantasy value, but he's an acceptable end game pick in deep or AL Only formats.

While Young is an extreme example, any team with elite infielders or outfielders will help a specialist beat FIP. Research also indicates that extreme pitchers gain a small platoon advantage against like bats, so GB pitcher vs. GB hitter favors the pitcher. The effect isn't quite as large as the more traditional handedness platoon split, and is tough to use in weekly formats or daily leagues that cap transactions. Still, it can be useful for DFS and may be cited as a reason to avoid pitchers with an average batted ball distribution.

To conclude, both ground ball and fly ball specialists have their uses in fantasy. Groundballers offer lower slugging percentages against and can take full advantage of an elite defensive infield. Flyballers offer superior WHIP and make the best use of an elite defensive outfield. Both gain a minor platoon advantage against hitters that share their specialization, an advantage never enjoyed by arms with no extreme tendency. Next time, we'll look at a tool that can forecast and confirm spikes in everything from GB% to K%: PITCHf/x.


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