Stellar Starting Pitching
The Rays’ starting pitchers enter play on July 28th with a collective 1.92 ERA for the month. The next closest team to them would be the Oakland Athletics whose starters have combined for a 3.01 ERA. That 1.09 run gap represents the largest difference between the top two team starting pitching ERA’s of any month this season as well as in recent seasons. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the 1.92 ERA is one of the 50 best efforts of a starting staff in any month since the 1916 season. Most recently, the 2012 Washington Nationals’ starting pitchers had a collective 1.78 ERA during the month of September.
When reviewing the pitch results and outcomes of the starters in July compared to the previous three months, one particular area stands out. They have dramatically cut down on the free passes they were doling out to opposing batters.
Over the first three months of the season, the starting pitchers held opposing batters to a .242/.312/.392 slash line while striking out 21.7 percent of them and walking 8.5 percent. In July, that slash line has fallen to .197/.240/.302 and while the strikeout rate is down a bit to 19.5 percent, the walk rate has plunged four percentage points to 4.5 percent.
The starting pitchers are seeing the same number of swings from hitters while seeing slightly fewer swings and misses. The percentage of strikes thrown has jumped to 65.9 percent in July compared to 63.6 percent in the previous three months. Rather than lean on the strikeout, the pitchers are trusting the defense more as batters are putting the ball in play 13 percent more frequently now and are getting worse batted ball results while doing so. As Sandy Koufax once said, “I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it.”
In terms of pitch mixtures or batted ball outcomes, there has been very little change in terms of pitch mixture. but a combination of location and sequencing has reduced the line drive rate from 19.8 percent to 16 percent and the staff’s flyball percentage has risen from 34.7 percent to 37.8 percent. In 2013, batters hit .681 when hitting a line drive and .238 on groundballs versus just .190 off flyballs. From 2003 through 2012, the league hit .238 on groundballs, .730 on line drives, and .221 on flyballs. Thus, reducing the frequency of line drives and generating more flyballs than groundballs with a combination of effective pitching and defensive positioning is an effective process in limiting production by opposing batters. There is almost no correlation for limiting line drives as there is no year to year correlation with the stat, but the ability to generate groundballs and flyballs is a rather consistent stat.
Baseball continues to be a game of adjustments and the Rays’ starting pitchers have entered a process where less is more in that fewer strikeouts and walks are actually yielding more results. Certainly, the strength of schedule has been a part of this success but it has permitted the staff to get both healthy and regain its swagger and confidence on the mound which has had a permeating effect in the dugout.