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Alex Speier

Will the Red Sox’ groundball pitchers strategy work?

Joe Kelly’s career groundball rate is 53.8 percent.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Did the Red Sox miss the memo?

At a time when strikeouts are at an all-time high in baseball, the Red Sox zagged to their industry’s zig. In the span of less than five months, from last July 31 through December, the team performed an almost complete starting rotation overhaul that emphasized pitchers who work to contact rather than the increasingly common swing-and-miss velocity monsters.

The result? If career form holds, Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley, and Joe Kelly have a chance to elicit one of the highest groundball rates in big league history.


Led by Masterson, against whom 56.9 percent of balls in play have yielded a groundball (the third-highest rate among big league starters in the last 10 years), the entire Sox rotation features pitchers whose career groundball rates are in the top 25 percent of all big league starters for the last decade. There is a very real chance, based on career patterns, that more than half of all balls in play against the Sox this year will be groundballs. In the last 10 seasons, only eight teams have accomplished that feat.

So what gives? And can it work?

“I heard somebody quote [longtime player and manager] Felipe Alou one year saying he has never seen a groundball leave the yard yet,” said Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves. “So let’s keep the ball on the ground.”

There is evidence that a rotation overhaul to emphasize groundball contact can prove effective. The Pirates rotation, for instance, has led the majors in groundball rate in each of the last two years – both of which included trips to the postseason.

The success of the top groundball-inducing staffs of the last decade has been considerable. Eight of the 10 teams with the top groundball rates since 2005 have reached the postseason, their teams averaging 88-74 records. By way of comparison, the teams with rotations featuring the top 10 strikeout rates (as measured by strikeouts per nine innings) over the last 10 years likewise have played to an average record of 88-74, though with just four of the 10 reaching the playoffs.


Groundball vs. strikeout starting pitching staffs
A look at results based on rotation characteristic, from 2005 to 2014
Average record Reached playoffs Won WS
Top 10 groundball staffs 88-74 80% 0%
Top 25 groundball staffs 83-79 44% 0%
Top 10 strikeout staffs 88-74 40% 0%
Top 25 strikeout staffs 87-75 40% 4%
DATA: FanGraphs
Alex Speier/Globe Staff

That said, there’s been a noteworthy dropoff beyond that top 10 list for groundball staffs that doesn’t exist for strikeout staffs. The rotations that ranked 11th through 25th in groundball rate over the last 10 years led their teams to an average record of 79-83, and just three of those 15 teams made the playoffs. Of the rotations that ranked 11th through 25th in strikeout rate, the average record (86-76) and likelihood of making the playoffs (6 teams; 40 percent) was virtually unchanged.

Those contrasts suggest that the ability to get groundballs as a staff is not a guarantee of success, but it can be part of a playoff formula. Nieves believes that’s particularly true in the American League East, where potentially routine flyballs can turn into doubles and homers.

“Our division is [one that is tough on flyball pitchers], other than Tampa,” said Nieves. “New York is a very challenging flyball park, Baltimore the ball carries well, Toronto the ball flies, and Fenway has its angles that are tough. Pesky is a short porch and in left field, is a flyball a double or a home run?”

Red Sox starters 2014 groundball rate
Based on 183 MLB starters, minimum 80 innings pitched. (MLB rank in parentheses)
Justin Masterson (3)
Joe Kelly (9)
Wade Miley (26)
Rick Porcello (44)
Clay Buchholz (61)
DATA: FanGraphs
Alex Speier/Globe Staff

The idea of a rotation model tailored to a home ballpark and division is intriguing. The value of working to contact down in the strike zone, particularly at Fenway, has been impressed upon Buchholz ever since his first two big league starts, when he was either too polite or too scared to cross his veteran catcher.


“First sinker I ever threw was to Jason Varitek in my first start in the big leagues. … He said, ‘Here, throw a two-seam.’ I guess he thought I threw one. So I just gripped it and threw it,” Buchholz recalled. “I wasn’t going to tell Jason Varitek I didn’t throw a two-seam fastball. It was pretty funny.”

Over time, Buchholz went from obedience to his catcher to a place where he understood and appreciated the significance of “X-ing” the plate with a combination of two-seam fastballs and cutters. The pitcher whose rookie season of 2008 unraveled in no small part based on his terror in the face of contact learned to embrace the idea of mixing and locating pitches in a way that got quick outs on bad contact.

Based on his own career evolution, Buchholz sees logic in what his team has done with its rotation.

“We’ve got four righties and a lefty who get a lot of groundballs. Fenway, it can be a good pitcher’s park if you stay away from left field. It seems like that’s what they wanted,” Buchholz said. “A lot of hitters come to Fenway and light up to left field. They swing really hard at pitches they can’t do anything with. That’s why I think pitching inside to righties is so important to pitching at Fenway. Doing it with a sinker is even better than doing it with a straight four-seam fastball.”


Red Sox starters career groundball rate
Based on 157 MLB starters 2005-2014, minimum 250 innings pitched. (MLB rank in parentheses)
Justin Masterson (3)
Joe Kelly (14)
Rick Porcello (17)
Clay Buchholz (35)
Wade Miley (37)
DATA: FanGraphs
Alex Speier/Globe Staff

But while the Red Sox may have built a model that can fit Fenway, the team didn’t enter last year’s trade deadline or the offseason with the intention of cornering the market on groundball pitchers. In a vacuum, the team would prefer pitchers who produce strikeouts – outcomes of no contact – to those whose pitching style results in some contact.

But the cost of strikeout pitchers can be exorbitant, at times even prohibitive. Max Scherzer led all free-agent starters with 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings last year. He received a seven-year, $210 million deal. Jon Lester ranked third with just over a strikeout per inning. He landed a six-year, $155 million deal with the Cubs that was $20 million more than what the Red Sox were willing to pay him.

It was inventory and opportunity, more than anything, that led the Red Sox to build their groundball-heavy rotation.

A case can be made that the baseball industry, through the salaries it offers, undervalues groundballs relative to strikeouts, particularly at a time when umpires’ increasing tendency to call low strikes has forced hitters to try to hit pitches that are nearly impossible to hit in the air. The Red Sox were aware of this possibility.

Still, they would have been thrilled to bring back Lester, a strikeout pitcher with middle-of-the-pack groundball rates, or other pitchers whose repertoires yield frequent swings and misses. Their interest was in getting pitchers whose stuff can allow them to beat opposing hitters in the strike zone, whether with swings and misses or bad contact that frequently results in grounders.


“The track record of these guys is [they are] overall strike throwers who give you a chance to not get beat with the terror of baseball, which is walks,” said Nieves. “The concept of the organization was let’s get guys who throw the ball over the plate and have stuff. They all have marvelous repertoires.

“If we’re not attacking the strike zone, what are we doing?” he added. “That’s our goal: To attack the strike zone, make the best pitch this pitch, and worry about the next one after that. It sounds very simple, but that’s a formula to pitch 200-plus innings every year.”

That, at least, is the hope of a team whose rotation, if effective, should keep their infielders busier than has been the case at any other point in recent years.

Related coverage:

■  Justin Masterson’s perfect outing boosts confidence

■  Red Sox satisfied with Wade Miley as only lefty starter

Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.