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The Big Rotowski

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I stand before you today in praise of fly-outs.

From time immemorial, fantasy baseball players have genuflected at the temple of the ground ball. To be a "ground-ball pitcher," or to have "ground-ball tendencies," was always among the highest praise for a starter (right up there with, "Dude, your back acne from all that HGH is totally clearing up," or "Your ex-stripper wife is hot, Mr. Benson"). Guys like Derek Lowe, Brandon Webb and Tim Hudson regularly post seasons where they record three or more times as many outs via the grounder as via the fly-out. More good things can happen, the logic goes, when the horsehide never leaves the infield.

Yes, to be a major-league pitcher and love fly-outs is a dangerous game. Extra-base hits, home runs, sacrifice flies … all, theoretically, are potential collateral damage for the men who live up in the strike zone. But is "Ground-Ball Pitchers Are Best" just another adage that deserves to fade, like: "Middle Relievers Are Useless In Fantasy Baseball" or: "Never Draft A Guy Whose Last Name Rhymes With Foo-Holes"? Other things being equal, should we fantasy players seek out starters with higher GO/FO ratios? Or does a starter's fantasy value sink or swim independent of the manner in which he retires batters?

For this analysis, I've looked at the 96 pitchers who (as of Sunday) qualify for their respective league's 2006 ERA title, which is to say, pitchers who have logged at least one inning pitched for each game his team has played so far this season. Let's take a look at the top and bottom 20 in the supposedly crucial GO/FO stat about 40 percent of the way through 2006:

Ground-Out To Fly-Out Ratios
Top 20 Starters GO/FO Y! Rank %-Owned Bottom 20 Starters GO/FO Y! Rank %-Owned
Brandon Webb 3.61 4 100% Chan Ho Park 0.95 62 4.2%
Derek Lowe 2.95 37 95.1% Rodrigo Lopez 0.92 83 10.1%
Jake Westbrook 2.81 51 79.8% Joe Blanton 0.91 78 63.3%
Mark Mulder 2.77 70 96.9% Johan Santana 0.89 7 100%
Chien-Ming Wang 2.75 55 25.7% Tim Wakefield 0.89 49 71.2%
Roy Halladay 2.72 19 100% Jeff Weaver 0.86 87 53.2%
Jason Johnson 2.67 94 4.4% Jake Peavy 0.85 31 100%
Aaron Cook 2.65 60 25.9% Brandon Claussen 0.85 75 1.4%
Jamey Wright 2.56 61 17.0% Tony Armas 0.84 29 76.8%
Corey Lidle 2.13 52 30.8% Seth McClung 0.84 93 0.1%
Andy Pettitte 2.11 63 96.7% Brett Tomko 0.82 65 53.8%
Paul Maholm 2.04 90 1.6% Paul Byrd 0.81 68 46.5%
Roy Oswalt 2.00 35 100% Livan Hernandez 0.78 57 76.3%
Felix Hernandez 2.00 25 96.8% Curt Schilling 0.77 3 100%
Jeremy Bonderman 1.98 20 99.6% Ervin Santana 0.71 28 87.4%
Tim Hudson 1.93 23 99.8% Jason Schmidt 0.67 8 100%
Dontrelle Willis 1.81 74 98.8% Pedro Martinez 0.64 2 100%
Kameron Loe 1.77 92 1.3% Chris Young 0.55 14 98.3%
Clay Hensley 1.77 69 4.0% Cliff Lee 0.52 64 89.8%
Miguel Batista 1.72 54 48.1% Scott Elarton 0.48 95 0.5%
Averages 2.34 52.4 61.1% Averages 0.78 50.1 61.6%

When I refer to "Y! Rank," I mean where the pitcher ranks among the 97 current ERA qualifiers in a standard, 5x5 Yahoo! league, and when I say "% Owned," I mean the percentage of leagues within the entire Yahoo! universe where the pitcher is owned. It's worth noting that the average ground-out/fly-out ratio among starting pitchers is most decidedly not 1.00; in fact, among '06 qualifiers to date, the average is 1.37, while the median is 1.20.

What can we discern from all this information? Well, so far in 2006, taken just about any way you like, there doesn't seem to be a decided fantasy advantage owning your average "ground-ball pitcher" over your average "fly-ball pitcher." The 20 "best" ground-ball pitchers actually average a slightly lower ranking then the 20 "worst" fly-ball pitchers. And if we include only the top and bottom 10 on each list, the situation grows even murkier: the 10 "best" ground-ball pitchers average a Yahoo! rank of 50.3, while the 10 "worst" fly-ball pitchers average a Yahoo! rank of 40.4. Heck, without getting too overly statistical here, let's just say the picture looks the same whether you evaluate only players who are more than one standard deviation from the mean, or if you look at everyone above and everyone below the median GO/FO ratio. On average, so far this year, the fly-out pitchers look slightly more attractive.

For sure, much like Alfonso Soriano's fielding, this is a somewhat ham-fisted approach. First of all, our sample set is small – we're looking at not even half of one season – and begs a wider lens. We're not factoring home ballparks into the equation (it behooves Livan Hernandez to encourage fly-outs in RFK quite a bit more than it would, say, at Ameriquest Field), and neither do we consider strikeouts here (and of course, strikeouts are the ultimate "safe result" for a pitcher). But my point here hasn't been to convince you that fly-out pitchers are the best and safest fantasy bet. Rather, I'm exposing what I now consider to be a fantasy myth: that ground-ball pitchers are preferable to fly-outers.

Is it remarkable that excellent pitchers like Martinez, Schilling, Santana and Schmidt are well below the average GO/FO ratio? Anecdotally speaking, not really. Pedro's career GO/FO ratio is 1.07, but he's been below 1.00 for each of the past three seasons. Schmidt's been below 1.00 in four of the past five seasons. Schilling was 0.78 last year; Johan Santana hasn't had a year above 1.00 since he's been Johan Santana. Friggin' Scott Elarton won 17 games for Houston back in 2000 with a 0.77. Robert Person won 15 in '01 with a 0.59 – of course, sometimes the exception proves the rule: as an extreme fly-out pitcher (lifetime GO/FO: 0.66) Person only posted one season with an ERA below 4.00. Something else Martinez, Schilling, Santana and Schmidt have shared over their careers is a propensity for major whiffage, implying maybe it's okay to get a majority of outs via the air, provided you're minimizing hitter contact.

What's the fantasy lesson here? First of all, who'd have thunk Scott "Mr. 1-8" Elarton actually won 17 games once upon a time? Second, the next time I read that a scout says of a prospect, "He doesn't get enough groundball outs," I'm approaching with a certain amount of skepticism, and looking at some peripheral numbers. Does he log a bunch of strikeouts? What's his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio look like, or his batting-average-on-balls-in-play? Most of all, I'm going to show less love for a guy like Jake Westbrook, who probably gets too much fantasy attention based on his ground-ball propensity, and fear guys like Cliff Lee, Jarrod Washburn and Tim Wakefield a little less.

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