Using Sabermetrics For Fantasy Baseball Part 9: Pitcher Batted Ball Distribution

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The league average batted ball distribution in 2016 was 20.7% liners, 44.7% grounders and 34.6% 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 (.127 BABIP in 2016) consistently have lower BABIPs than worm killers (.239). 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.

Let's get to it!

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How to Interpret Pitcher Batted Ball Distribution

The reason for this is slugging percentage. Fly balls had a collective .715 slugging percentage in 2015 despite the lower BABIP, while grounders had just a .258 SLG. As Giancarlo Stanton hits more home runs than most in part by elevating the ball more frequently, fly ball pitchers are liable to give more up by allowing more airborne baseballs. 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 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 the ball leaves the yard, a fly ball pitcher has a greater probability of it being a solo shot instead of having to watch a crooked number go up on the scoreboard.

Toronto's Marco Estrada is an excellent example of an effective fly ball fantasy pitcher. He posted a 3.48 ERA and 1.12 WHIP last year thanks to a .234 BABIP that seems way too low to sustain. Yet his 48.2 percent FB% predisposes him to limiting BABIP, and he led baseball with an elite pop-up inducing skill (16.8 percent IFFB%). He can be a little homer prone when he is off his game, but his 9.9 percent HR/FB was significantly lower than the league's 12.8 percent mark. Estrada's fly ball game is effective even in a hitter's park.

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, we already saw how a guy like Keven Kiermaier can use his defensive prowess to help his team's pitchers suppress BABIP. Jake Odorizzi benefited from this last season, posting a .271 BABIP overall. Odorizzi is a fly ball pitcher (44.4 percent FB%), so he received the maximum benefit from the .103 BABIP he allowed on fly balls. Odorizzi can keep doing this as long as both he and Kiermaier are on the same team.

Kiermaier helped Tampa ace Chris Archer too, as his fly balls posted a .109 BABIP last year. Yet Archer's .296 overall BABIP was nowhere near as good as his teammate's. The answer is in Archer's FB%, which was only 34.5 percent last year. He does not use Kiermaier's platinum glove as effectively as Odorizzi does, and would likely benefit more from an elite infielder instead.

It should be noted that there are some limitations with this kind of analysis. Much like offensive support, defensive support can vary from pitcher to pitcher even if they have the same players behind them. It is a useful piece of the puzzle, but should never be the only thing you look at.

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.



Both ground ball and fly ball specialists have their uses in fantasy. Ground ball specialists offer lower slugging percentages against and can take full advantage of an elite defensive infield. Fly ball specialists 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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