We tend to operate with certain assumed axioms in the world of fantasy baseball, one of which is that pitchers who generate ample groundball contact and avoid the tightrope of excessive flyball contact are preferable. And the risk-reward is certainly apparent in the numbers: Last year big-league hitters mustered just a .144 average on flyballs but slugged .443, compared to a .243/.263 line on grounders. Sure, you give up more base hits on the ground, but they tend to be singles with limited potential to really do stand-alone damage. Flyballs, on the other hand, leave yards and lead to runs.
But all pitchers, and all pitching contexts, are not created equal; there are some guys whose stellar groundball rates mean less because they pitch in front of porous infield defenses, while others who walk on the wilder side in the sky are better bets on account of stellar fly-catching troupes patrolling the grass behind them. Now, the variance here isn’t extreme for most pitchers, but it isn’t insignificant either. Major-league leader Brett Anderson induced 380 grounders last year, and had he done so in front of the most efficient infield unit (the Giants) he’d have benefitted from an extra 26 out conversions over the course of his 180 innings relative to the worst unit (Philadelphia).
So with the caveat that for the most part we’re not talking about huge value swings, let’s take a stroll through a few names who are more likely than most to bend the conventional wisdom and either lose a tick of value as a groundballer or gain some as a flyball guy based on the defensive and park contexts in which they pitch.
The Bad Groundball Guys
Aaron Nola, PHI – I lightheartedly brushed off his profile and context in my predictions piece last week, but much to my chagrin as an unabashed booster, the supporting factors for Nola are really not great. His above-average groundball rate is wasted in front of a defense that was the worst in the majors at converting groundballs into outs last year. The club returned its infield intact to start the season, and they’re picking right up where they left off, checking in 21st in an obviously limited sample out of the gate. He has struggled with left-handed hitters, long balls, and long balls hit by left-handed hitters in his young career, and his home park doesn’t offer any relief for those tendencies either.
Carlos Rodon, CHW – Rodon managed to survive more than just wonky control in his rookie season, as his above-average groundball rate sent worm-burners hopping around a White Sox infield that finished 26th in team defensive efficiency against grounders for the year. The front office remade that infield over the winter, but the left side of Todd Frazier and Jimmy Rollins should inspire little confidence. Both are off to poor defensive starts, rating 39th of 40 and 28th of 36, respectively, in FRAA at their positions so far. Rodon has induced a 52 percent groundball rate in his career to date against right-handed hitters, making his tendencies more of a liability than they should be.
Chris Archer, TAM – The Rays finished 2015 as the second-least-efficient infield defense on groundballs, and they’ve since swapped out Asdrubal Cabrera for Brad Miller (marginal upgrade per FRAA) and James Loney for Logan Morrison (significant downgrade). While they’ve managed to build a rotation that largely caters to their large park and outstanding outfield defense (fourth-best efficiency on fly balls last year), Archer is the mold-breaker who induces grounders at a nominally above-league average rate. Adding to the problem is that batters who put the ball on the turf against Archer last year did so with an exit velocity that ranked 22nd out of the nearly 300 hurlers for whom Statcast charted triple-digit grounders. Suffice it to say, hard groundball contact to a poor-fielding unit is a less-than-ideal combination.
Steven Matz, NYM – Matz has shown above-average grounder-inducing ability in his young career, and right-handed hitters in particular tend to pull his stuff. That’s not the best news given the defensive state of the left side of the Mets’ infield. David Wright’s chronic back issues turned him into a well below-average defender when he was on the field last year, and while Asdrubal Cabrera has always rated poorly by FRAA he took it to the next level last year in costing his team north of eight runs above-average and finishing 53rd out of 55 qualified shortstops.
The Good Flyball Guys
Drew Smyly, TAM – As noted above, the Rays excelled at tracking down flyballs last year, a team triumph overwhelmingly driven by Kevin Kiermaier’s absurd defensive metrics. To this end, Smyly’s top-20 flyball rate last year among pitchers to log his number of innings tracks well with his below-average BABIP, and while he has notoriously struggled with the long ball against opposite-handed hitters, the Trop plays as one of the best homer-suppressing parks in the game against righties. At the very least, Smyly’s positive BABIP fortune looks more sustainable than most, and he’s in a fairly ideal setting for his skill set to play.
Hector Santiago, ANA – Both Mike Trout and Kole Calhoun made strong contributions defensively last year according to FRAA, and it helped drive the Angels to the third-best defensive efficiency in baseball against fly balls. The significant impact of Santiago’s contact control on that effort should not be overlooked, however. Santiago was in the top 20th percentile in exit velocity on balls in the air in 2015, and he posted a top-30 season in terms of average fly ball distance. Add in a favorable park for homer suppression, and it’s a more interesting mix than his draft position probably gave him credit for this sping. His fourth-best-among-qualified-starters BABIP of a year ago may not replicate in full, but as pitchers with positive supporting contexts go, Santiago’s up there with anyone.
Colby Lewis, TEX – As someone who got burned multiple times streaming Lewis last year I’m not going to pretend that he makes for a particularly safe investment outside of very deep mixed and even kind of deep AL-onlies. When homeboy lays an egg it’s a rotten one. But he showed a tremendous ability to induce weak, well-directed contact last year, and while it’s unclear what Nomar Mazara will bring to the defensive table in trying to replicate Shin-Soo Choo’s stellar metrics in right field, the early returns on Desmond in the outfield have been reasonably encouraging and the Rangers finished third in the league in defensive efficiency against fly balls last year. The skill set is fairly stable, and he’s a decent bet to remain a useful-if-inconsistent piece in the right league context.