The results are mixed, and yet the D-backs have had plenty of success getting ground balls out of their pitchers. It’s not that they’ve cultivated a ground balls staff through acquisition; it’s more that they’ve changed some of the pitchers they have. With some, like Josh Collmenter, that didn’t work out too well. With others… well, Zack Godley wasn’t on anyone’s radar at the beginning of the season, at least not outside of the team’s front office.
The team knows ground balls, though. They know that while reliever after reliever has has only fits of success, and while closer after closer has flamed out, ground balls can play at Chase Field. Andrew Chafin has been flat-out dominant, with iffy control (3.67 BB/9) and a middle of the road strikeout rate (7.09 K/9) — but a 58.1% GB% that ranks 18th among 136 qualified relievers. Brad Ziegler has set a new standard for his own excellence, bouncing back from his worst season in a D-backs uniform (and lowest GB% in that span) to post a 1.91 ERA thus far. He’s back up over 70% in ground ball percentage, and if the season ended now, his 72% GB% would be the second-highest in his career, the seventh time in the last ten seasons that a qualified reliever has surpassed 70% (Ziegler would own three of those).
So even though as of yesterday it was just 11 innings, Silvino Bracho is already becoming interesting. Two earned runs gives him a 1.64 ERA. 16 strikeouts and the filth he’s flinging make him look dangerous. The man’s ground ball percentage: 20%.
Over a season, few relievers survive with a 52% fly ball percentage — and yet some definitely do. Tyler Clippard has always been on that extreme, and once acquired by the Athletics in the winter, he ended up even more on that extreme (same, now that he’s with the Mets). Yimi Garcia was entrusted with an important role by the Dodgers, and he’s seemed to hold up his side of the bargain. And sidearmer Pat Neshek has fared reasonably well with the Astros after rehabbing his career with the Athletics and dominating the National League for the Cardinals.
Few relievers like this year to year. And yet it’s nearly all the same teams: the Dodgers with Garcia and Kenley Jansen, the Mets with Clippard and Hansel Robles, the Astros with Neshek and Josh Fields, and also the Pirates with Antonio Bastardo, the Rays with Steve Geltz and Brandon Gomes. Progressive front offices, all of them. We’ve known for some time that extreme ground ball pitchers seem to repeat certain kinds of success, and that certain types of extreme fly ball pitchers also maintain success year to year. Have we overlooked fly ball relievers?
Things seem to deteriorate once you slip to 47% fly ball percentage and below, but above that, things look absurdly good. MLB’s top eight qualified relievers in fly ball percentage:
Not a single BABIP higher than .271, and if you average them up… .242 BABIP is outstanding. That’s Brad Ziegler territory. And that, I guess, is the point: this extreme can be as friendly as the other. Those extra infield fly balls definitely help — they become outs almost every time, and for Jansen, that’s meant easy outs on 8% of all balls in play (whereas the league average pitcher could count on only 3.23%).
There is still a cost that BABIP doesn’t capture: home runs. Clippard has yielded a home run slightly more often than once per nine innings, and most of these other pitchers can say something similar, by and large. Ziegler’s HR/9 is just 0.41 (and, hey, Chafin ranks 12th in baseball at 0.37 HR/9). In broad strokes, the home runs look like they can alter ERA by a good half run between the extreme ground ballers and extreme fly ballers. But the fly ball pitchers still find success; half a run in ERA isn’t so bad if the starting point is somewhere around 2.00 or 2.50.
This isn’t a new thing for Bracho. From the excellent mlbfarm.com, his batted ball breakdown from all of 2015:
That’s a 49.2% fly ball rate, not quite as extreme overall as we’ve seen in this last month in the majors, but still within the rarefied air occupied by those top eight by fly ball percentage. Bracho’s line drive rate is a little high, but when you add those 14 popups to the 89 strikeouts he’s recorded in his total 65.2 innings (12.3 K/9!), that’s a lot of outs that don’t depend on the defense. And for what it’s worth, the line drives were not even close to a concern in 2014 (11 in a similar number of innings), when he also had an unusually high fly ball percentage: 54.2%.
At least in the majors, Bracho has relied almost exclusively on fastballs, throwing his four-seam about three quarters of the time. The slider also oozes movement, though, and while he’s thrown only eight changeups in the majors per the PITCHf/x algorithm… four balls (including two in the dirt), but also four whiffs. This month, it’s been a 16.79 whiff rate on the four-seam, and a 22.86 whiff rate on the slider. The man can put them away, and so far, hitters have had a ridiculously hard time just putting the ball in play. Hitters have fouled off the four-seam almost one quarter of the time, which is very high.
And yet — Bracho is not getting these fly balls on his four-seam, but on his slider. Despite being so fastball reliant, Bracho leans ground ball with that pitch, making up for it because hitters put the slider in play so much more often (250% as often). In our very small MLB sample, hitters have put the slider in play ten times — and hit it on the ground just once.
It may be that we need a lot more tracked information on Bracho before we can figure out what’s really going on here, but if his extreme fly ball ways have been caused by his slider and not his four-seam, what we’re looking at is totally bizarre. The thing is, though: it’s working. And so the other thing we have to wait to see is whether the D-backs will let Bracho be Bracho, or whether they’ll find a way to rope him into the ground ball scheme the team has so readily embraced.
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