Last week I took a look at some groundball pitchers whose tendencies are wasted to a degree in front of poor infield defenses, as well as some flyball pitchers built fairly well for their outfield defenses and park contexts. This week (and with the added benefit of more current data!) we’ll turn the tables and look at the other half of the equation: groundball guys in good places and flyball guys in bad places. The additional week-plus of games allows us to at least peak at some of the early season trends that, while far from definitive, are at least starting to take some shape now. This won’t be nearly as helpful of a list, from the standpoint that a lot of the grounder guys are well-known and the fly ball culprits are all pretty comfortable on “Do Not Start!” lists near and far. Still, with the clearer early-season trends I think there’s some value in incorporating these returns into a list of fringier guys who may be somewhat more or less interesting given how their particular skills set jive with their supporting contexts.
Groundball Guys with Good Infield Defenses
Jarred Cosart, RHP, MIA – What an interesting little start to the season for the Miami defense. They’ve returned intact a unit that performed dramatically better against groundballs last year—they upgraded from the bottom of the 2014 pack to the middle of the field in 2015. They’ve been the most efficient infield in the early going at converting groundballs into outs, though that comes with the caveat that they run one of the lowest rates of infield shifts and feature a cast of three “meh” defenders surrounding emergent defensive star Adeiny Hechavarria (currently third among six-spotters in early FRAA). That suggests some potential good fortune of grounders hit at guys so far, but Cosart’s generating an absurd amount of them to the pull side, and the exit velocity on them has been accordingly better than average so far. It’s only 10 innings, and he’s walking the field so far, but the early returns suggest a potentially good fit if he can harness the control.
Kyle Hendricks, RHP, CHC – The Cubs’ young infield last year emerged as one of the best units around at converting groundball outs, and that has continued without missing a beat in the early going. Interestingly, the Cubs are another team that has barely shifted thus far. That’s not entirely true about the non-missing beat, actually: the Cubs defense has missed one, and it happened to be Hendricks’ last start. Hendricks has bumped his changeup usage in his first couple starts, and it has helped contribute to a nice uptick in worm-burners. An exit velocity on the higher side thus far gives a second of pause, but given the skills of the infield behind him it would appear to be a very positive early step in the right direction.
Jeff Locke and Jon Niese, LHPs, PIT – These two work in tandem, as Pittsburgh’s groundball efficiency has been a hallmark of recent vintage (and has continued to be so at the season’s outset). Niese has used more four-seamers to set up his two-seam in the early going, though his cutter hasn't yielded the same results yet. Still, the groundball profile remains intact and he’s been generating a dramatic uptick in pull-side rollovers in his first three starts. And Locke has appeared to be doing something similar with his fastball mix, and has maintained his traditionally strong groundball tendencies as well. The Pirates’ defensive reputation is well known, but it’s certainly worth confirming that it is an earned and valuable reputation for these down-ballot hurlers.
Flyball Guys with Bad Outfields
Mike Fiers, RHP, HOU – This is an interesting one, because if FRAA is to be believed Houston’s outfield defense should be damn near elite. The trio of Carlos Gomez, George Springer, and Colby Rasmus all graded out well above-average last year, and are doing so again this year. Yet the ‘Stros finished 27th in defensive efficiency on fly balls last year and currently sit dead last. That suggests potential positioning issues may be at play, or bad luck, or both, or neither. Whatever it is, it’s brewing into a consistent pattern across multiple seasons, and Fiers is—at least until McCullers comes back—the one flyball-oriented hurler in Houston’s rotation. He also tends to give up harder-than-average aerial contact, along with fly balls that travel greater distances. It’s not a great combination, and adding to the issue is a home park that doesn’t contain balls in the air very well at all. He’s certainly not going to give up a dingers on every third fly ball as he has in three starts so far, but the unduly inflated BABIP may be more symptomatic, and that’s bad news for a guy who relies on heavily suppressing that metric.
Chris Tillman, RHP, BAL – Tillman worked hard in the last couple years to move away from a fly ball-inducing arsenal, and he’s continued to move away from his four-seamer in favor of more sinkers. It hasn’t had the desired effect in his three starts so far this year, however, as batters have been getting under his pitches like they used to. That’s not a good trend, as the Orioles remain a bottom-of-the-barrel collection of fly-catchers. Adam Jones’ defense tumbled precipitously in 2013, and after a partial recovery last year he’s off to a poor start next to Mark Trumbo’s cement block-feet. Baltimore is one of the worst parks in baseball for homerun suppression, and the added dent of poor outfield defense should have the AL-only and hella deep league owners who roster Tillman watching his next couple starts in search of more groundballs.
Nate Karns, RHP, SEA – Karns has shown swing-and-miss stuff in his first two Seattle starts, largely on account of a filthy changeup he’s deployed with much greater frequency. He’s always tended towards more fly ball contact than average, and he’s given up more of it than usual in the early going, and with poor results. While his .385 BABIP is 100 points north of his strong career mark, there’s reason to believe the hit suppression that’s been a hallmark of his profile may be prone to more volatility this year. Seattle was a bottom-tier outfield last year, and as long as they continue trotting Nelson Cruz out there they’re likely to continue on that path. Neither Aoki nor Leonys Martin have graded out well either, and the unit currently checks in 24th in defensive efficiency on flyballs.