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Pitching, The Dave Duncan Way

It’s the Dave Duncan philosophy – throw strikes and pound the bottom of the strike zone – and if you haven’t noticed… it works.

We saw it at its best last year when Joel Pineiro put up a 3.42 ERA, which was actually worse than his FIP of 3.27, and a WHIP of 1.15 on his way to a 15-12 record. To put this in perspective, Piniero’s career ERA before 2009 was 4.55 and his career WHIP was 1.38.

The big difference was his ability to induce ground balls, which he did 60.5 percent of the time (previous career high was 48.6). Not surprising, he was tops in the majors, beating second place Derek Lowe by 4.2 percentage points. He also threw first strikes 65.4 percent of the time, which was also a career high.

What Duncan saw was a pitcher who had a nice sinking fastball that topped out around 88-91 miles per hour, but he was only throwing it 55 percent of the time. Seeing as his sinking fastball was his most quality pitch, Duncan changed that in 2009 and Pineiro threw his fastball 71 percent of the time.

There are several reasons why ground ball pitchers have success and it’s because ground balls are less likely to turn into hits and can be very beneficial to pitchers with runners on base. Here are 2009’s average BABIPs based on batted ball type:

Ground balls: .237
Fly Balls: .138
Line Drives: .724
Bunts: .376

At first glance you will notice that fly balls are less likely to fall as hits, but they can also lead to home runs, which can be a killer if men are on base. In contrast, a ground ball with men on base is a double play more often than not.

We are just one month into the season, but it seems that this groundball inducing approach is working as six of the top 10 starters in ERA this season have induced ground balls over 50 percent of the time. Only Mike Pelfrey (47.8%), Livan Hernandez (43.9%), Barry Zito (43.8%) and John Danks (42.9%) failed to reach that mark. I already expressed my feelings on Zito in a previous blog post.

I decided to take a look at some of the hot starts in 2010 and give my two cents on whether I think they can sustain their performance deep into the season.

Jaime Garcia, SP, St. Louis Cardinals (4 GS, 26 IP, 1.04 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 17 K)

Good Signs: 3.69 xFIP, 69.9 GB%

Warning Signs: .221 BABIP, 80.8 LOB%, 47.6 F-Strike%

My Take: It’s only one month into the 2010 season, but 23-year old Jaime Garcia has put himself on a fast track to earn Rookie of the Year honors. He eventually will allow a home run this season, but it’s hard to hit home runs when the guy you’re facing has a ground ball rate of 70 percent. His BABIP (.221) and strand rate (80.8%) are better than average, so while we can expect a little regression that does not make Garcia a candidate to post a 4.00+ ERA. His xFIP is still a very good 3.69 and he has a good defense backing him up, so I’m all-in on Garcia this year. Just don’t rely on him for the playoffs because the Cardinals will look to limit his workload to around 170 innings.

Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, Colorado Rockies (5 GS, 34.1 IP, 0.79 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 31 K)

Good signs: 3.60 xFIP, 53.5 GB%, change-up use up 6.6 percent (4.7 RAA)

Warning signs: 91.7 LOB%, .251 BABIP, 3.67 BB/9

My Take: Jimenez has already thrown a no-hitter this season and has yet to surrender a home run en route to a 5-0 record. It’s been a good month for him and his owners can expect many more good months from the flame-throwing righty as he is finally making his leap into fantasy acedom. One red flag is that Jimenez’s current 91.7 percent strand rate is 20 percentage points higher than the league average, but his xFIP is still a very good 3.60 and it’s become more and more clear that Coors Field is no longer the home run-inducing park it used to be. Could Jimenez be the first Rockies pitcher to win a Cy Young? I say he’s pretty darn close.

Mike Pelfrey, SP, New York Mets (4 GS, 26 IP, 0.69 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 19 K)

Good signs: 47.8 GB%, 64.4 F-Strike%, new split fingered fastball valued at 2.36 RAA

Warning signs: 93.6 LOB%, .249 BABIP, 4.30 xFIP, 4.50 BB/9

My Take: Pelfrey is the third pitcher in a row who has yet to surrender a home run, but unlike the other two his home park could be a legit reason for it. Obviously there are some troubling signs for Pelfrey, mainly his ridiculous strand rate, and his 4.30 xFIP is not far off his 2009 season where he posted a 5.03 ERA. However, Pelfrey is a different pitcher, and with his new split-fingered fastball he is getting ahead of hitters more often. As he gets more comfortable with the pitch, his control will improve. Just two years ago Pelfrey posted a 3.72 ERA and a 2.87 BB/9 over 200 innings and I think he will only get better as the season goes on.

Francisco Liriano, SP, Minnesota Twins (4 GS, 29 IP, 0.93 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 27 K)

Good signs: 3.10 BB/9, 3.27 xFIP, 52.8 GB%, FB% down 12 percent, 62.7 F-Strike%

Warning signs: .247 BABIP, 89.3 LOB%

My Take: It’s clear that Liriano has a lot more positives going for him and that’s because I think he’s back to pre-injury form. The most encouraging sign to me is the drop in FB% as he is allowing fly balls only 29.2 percent of the time. Liriano is at his best when he is locating his slider and it’s clear he has it back as his walks are at a career-low and his F-Strike% is at a career-high. He might not strike out a batter per inning anymore, but he will be close and the improvements in both his control and ground ball rate are well worth the trade off. If he can keep these trends up and stay relatively healthy, there is no reason why he can’t be a top 20 pitcher in 2010.

Livan Hernandez, SP, Washington Nationals (4 GS, 31 IP, 0.87 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 10 K)

Good signs: N/A

Warning signs: .180 BABIP, 99.2 LOB%, 5.04 xFIP, 2.90 K/9

My Take: If Hernandez had any more red flags you would mistake him for a golf course. His LOB% is laughably (no, really – I actually laughed when I saw it) close to perfect and his BABIP hasn’t been lower than .300 since 2004 when he was on the Expos. Yes, it has been that long folks. You should really look no further than Hernandez’s xFIP, which suggest he should have an ERA over five. If you can sell anyone on Hernandez I would take the trade in a heartbeat because the future does not look bright.

Jonathan Sanchez, SP, San Fransisco Giants (4 GS, 24.1 IP, 1.85 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 33 K)

Good signs: 3.58 xFIP, 12.21 K/9, 66.3 Contact%

Warning signs: 4.81 BB/9, 82.1 LOB%, 50.0 FB% (0 HRA), 34.6 GB%

My Take: There’s no doubt that Sanchez is already an elite strikeout pitcher as he can make a batter swing and miss as well as anyone in the league. However, he has yet to show that he can fix his control issues and his 4.81 BB/9 is not much of an improvement from last year. He is also giving up more fly balls, but has yet to allow a home run this season. That won’t keep up and until he can get his walks per nine under four, Sanchez will struggle to maintain a good ERA. Sanchez gets a big boost in K/9 leagues, but he is still no better than a fifth starting pitcher in standard leagues.

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About the author: George graduated with a degree in Journalism, but instead of walking at his graduation, he walked down the aisle at his wedding. He’s been playing fantasy baseball for over a decade and his interest and knowledge in the sport is as big and growing as his eyebrows are bushy…and growing. (@BaseballProf)

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