A look at pitcher groundball rates and how it impacts the Orioles

The Orioles led the American League in one pitching category last year that they would have preferred not to. The club gave up more homers than any other AL staff.

The Orioles allowed 202 gopherballs while Toronto was second with 195. Both were way above the AL average of 167 homers allowed.

We often hear about the appeal of a groundball pitcher - that is, a pitcher that gets the majority of his outs, or close to 50 percent of balls put in play, on the ground. The obvious theories are that a good defense can turn many of those ground balls into outs and ground balls don’t go over the fence. Fly balls, though, turn into a higher percentage of outs because many are easily tracked while even some slow grounders find a hole for a base hit. Plus, fast runners can beat out grounders and of course have no impact on a caught fly ball.

How this all relates to homers allowed is probably a lot more complex than simply looking at groundball rates and homer rates, but for the 2013 Orioles, there was a strong correlation. Pitchers that gave up more fly balls tended to give up more homers.

Among O’s starting pitchers last year, Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez got more outs in the air than on the ground. Tillman had a 0.83 ratio of ground-to-air outs and a rate of giving up 1.4 homers for every nine innings pitched, the highest rate on the team. In fact, Tillman allowed 33 homers on the year to rank third in the AL in homers allowed. Of course, we can also point out Tillman was the O’s best starter, so the longballs didn’t keep him from having a good year.

Gonzalez had a 0.83 ratio of ground-to-air outs and he yielded 1.3 homers per nine innings. Chen had the worst ground-to-fly ball ratio of 0.69 and he gave up 1.1 homers per nine.

On the other end of the spectrum were the groundball pitchers. Scott Feldman had a 1.63 ratio and allowed 0.9 homers per every nine innings. Zach Britton (in just 40 big league innings) had a 1.61 ratio and allowed 0.9 homers per nine.

Now, these stats are for just one team over one season and the O’s staff gave up many more homers at Camden Yards than on the road with 117 to 85. They allowed 58 percent of those homers in 50 percent of their games. Ballparks, of course, factor in here.

With Tillman, Gonzalez and Chen - three of the O’s current projected starting five - are the O’s taking a risk with pitchers that get more flyouts? The O’s ranked 12th in the AL last season in groundball rate.

By the way, the O’s staff gave up 18 fewer homers in 2012 - a total of 184 - and finished seventh in the league then, not first, in homers allowed.

Here are the homers-per-nine-inning rates for some current free agent starters:
* 0.5 - A.J. Burnett
* 0.8 - Ubaldo Jimenez
* 1.0 - Paul Maholm
* 1.1 - Ervin Santana
* 1.4 - Bronson Arroyo

We know the O’s have interest in Burnett, amid the reports yesterday that he plans to play in 2014. Burnett is open to signing with a team other than the Pirates. Among qualifying pitchers from 2013, Burnett ranked second in the majors in groundball percentage (56.5 percent) and fourth in strikeout rate (9.85 per nine innings).

Some fans remember how Burnett pitched his last two seasons in New York, but he certainly pitched very well his last two seasons with the Pirates. A lot of people in the game love to see a pitcher with a strong groundball rate and a high strikeout total. Burnett was strong in both last year.

So how do you view groundball rates for pitchers and how it does impact the Orioles?

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