Fly balls & the pitching-batting balance

If you pitched in an extreme home run park, and you had the ability to change your approach to go for fly-ball outs or ground-ball outs, most people would assume that the obvious choice would be to keep the ball on the ground in your home park.

I mention this because the Swallows’ pitchers are an extreme ground-ball staff when Yakult is the visiting team, and an extreme fly-ball staff when they are at home, where most of their games are played at home run-friendly Jingu Stadium.

I noticed this first in the 2022 data, but it’s been consistent, and points to an important thing about baseball that is frequently glossed over—that hitters have more influence in how plate appearances turn out than pitchers do.

Through Saturday, the Swallows’ ground ball-to-fly ball ratio at home has been 0.85, their ratio as visitors 1.15, both pretty extreme figures. Since 2018, it’s been .996 at home and 1.098 as visitors – which is a little lower than where the Central League average has been since then.

As an aside, the flyball revolution in the States has been more non-violent resistance in Japan than revolution. Delta Graphs informs us that from 2014 to 2020, the CL’s GB/FB ratio averaged 1.14, since 2021 it’s been 1.07.

My kneejerk reaction was to think Swallows’ pitchers were being weird, but while the Swallows pitchers’ fly ball-to-ground ball ratios shrink by 9 percent at home, their hitters’ shrink by 12 percent, meaning their fly ball rates also shoot up.

Look at the CL’s other extreme parks regarding home runs, Nagoya Dome and Tokyo Dome, you see the same thing played out. The Chunichi Dragons’ GB/FB numbers increase by 13 percent at home, which makes sense if hitters are not trying to reach the seats in Nagoya as often in Nagoya.

The Yomiuri Giants show a similar shift to the Swallows, but not as extreme, their GB/FB numbers shrinking by about 5 percent from what they are on the road without any fear of giving up those Tokyo Dome Special opposite-field home runs over the invitingly close power alleys.

What this tells me is that pitchers are not as in control of at-bats as is many people think. If pitchers had the same influence that batters had, we absolutely would not see these results.

I think that if you have a pitcher who really pounds the zone and gets ahead in LOTS of counts, you’ll see those guys have a larger influence.

Nobody on the Swallows staff is as dogged about throwing strikes and challenging batters in the zone as Cy Sneed, and his GB/FB ratio is virtually the same at home or away, but he’s the exception.

This is also supported by the fact that the Swallows’ most beneficial home-road ground-fly splits were in 2019 and 2021, when Yakult led the CL in throwing strikes.

If you really look at the issue, it becomes fairly clear that the quality and character of the batter appears to be the single largest determinant of each batting outcome.

That belief colors my opinion of Wins Above Replacement, where the best pitchers in this era of five-man rotations and six-inning starts are assigned similar values to the best everyday position players.

I can’t speak ill of WAR because I don’t know exactly how it’s calculated. But if you divide up a team’s wins between the hitters, fielders and pitchers, there is only so much to go around.

It’s hard to see how one can give the best pitchers the same credit as elite hitters with some defensive value — unless one begins from the point of view that the pitcher and the hitter have about the same amount of influence over each at-bat.

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