Billy Beane is a pretty remarkable guy.
He helped bring sabermetrics to the masses through the book Moneyball. He’s made the low-budget A’s a consistently competitive through unearthing market inefficiencies. He’s made analytics cool and he’s been played by Brad Pitt. And he is apparently ahead of the pack again in finding what might be the next considerable market inefficiency: fly-ball hitters
Now Beane is hardly the first to understand there is a preference for fly balls. After all, there’s never been a ground ball home run, fly-ball hitters produce far fewer double plays, and fly-ball hitters match up better against the increasingly popular two-seam/sinkerball pitchers. But the A’s might be the first team to consciously try and collect as many fly-ball hitters as possible.
The Pirates have their own encouraging fly-ball case study in Pedro Alvarez.
Alvarez has rare power as evidenced by his home run/flyball percentage, which ranks among the best in the game. Any HR/FB number of 15 percent is considered very good and Alvarez’s rate of 26.3 percent is elite.
Part of Alvarez’s problem earlier in the career — beyond his swing-and-miss and pitch identification — was that he was pounding the ball in the ground too often, eliminating his power. His flyball-groundball ratio has increased each of the last three seasons, and so have his home run totals.
Year GB/FB ratio
2011 – 2.18
2012 – 1.36
2013 – 1.18
I asked Alvarez about this trend during the season and is typically for the reticent third baseman he did not reveal much about his approach, and didn’t seem to think the increase in flyballs was due to a conscious approach. Still, Clint Hurdle thought it was indicative of growth and if Alvarez can again increase his ability to hit flyballs he might have a 40-45 home run campaign in 2014.
There’s one other point I want to discuss regarding fly-ball tendencies.
A lot of characteristics in baseball are innate and cannot be taught – or are at least very difficult to acquire: plate discipline, batspeed, pitch velocity, breaking ball depth, etc. But perhaps flyball/groundball tendencies can be learned.
Alvarez is an example. Atlanta’s Jason Heyward is another player who has changed from a dramatic groundball hitter to a flyball hitter. Jose Bautista learned to better lift the ball. Players can learn to hit more flyballs throughout their careers.
Just as the Pirates had a comprehensive approach in becoming a more groundball-oriented staff in 2013, perhaps Jeff Branson and Hurdle could, if they chose, create more of a fly-ball profile. We think of baseball as a team game played by individuals but there are times when a collective, planned approaches can be implemented and can impact.
THE MYSTERIOUS QUALITY OF PNC PARK
We know PNC Park is a pitcher-friendly park.
We know its deep dimensions in left-field make it an awfully tough place for right-handed power hitters. It’s also the seventh most difficult park for left-handed hitters to homer in over the last five years. It’s not on the Pacific Coast. It doesn’t have the marine layer. But it’s still one of the game’s more run-depressing environments.
What’s interesting about Jeff Sullivan’s five-year Three True Outcome (Homeruns-Walks-Strikeouts) park factors study is that PNC Park has collectively reduced those three stat rates more than any other park.
The low home run totals make sense, they are tied to dimensions. But the low strikeout and walk rates? Perhaps we can explain the low walk rate by surmising that pitcher’s are more comfortable throwing strikes – and not nibbling – because of the park’s dimensions. The strikeouts? That’s harder to explain and somewhat mysterious. Keep in mind this was a five-year study and Francisco Liriano and AJ Burnett and the Shark Tank bullpen represent only a portion of the data collected.
While some of the walk-strikeout numbers are mysteriously tied to park factors what is clear is PNC Park is a pitcher’s dream and it should continue to be a recruiting tool for front office’s present and future.