Rob Neyer expounded on a Bill James piece (here, behind a paywall) at SB Nation in which James says that proponents of Sabermetrics have “horribly overstated” the case for ground ball pitchers. He cites a handful of elite pitchers — Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson, Justin Verlander, among others — and points out that they weren’t very good in the ground ball department. He also cites a handful of ground ball pitchers — namely Chien-Ming Wang and Brandon Webb — who have had serious issues with injuries.
What I have never understood about ground ball pitchers, and do not understand now, is why they always get hurt. Show me an extreme ground ball pitcher, a guy with a terrific ground ball rate, and I’ll show you a guy who is going to be good for two years and then get hurt.
They’re great for two years, and then they blow up. Always.
The one exception to James’ analysis is, of course, Derek Lowe, who made at least 32 starts in each season from 2002-11.
I don’t think we have the capability to make a strong conclusion one way or another based on the quality of data we have right now. Presently, there is no differentiation between types of batted balls. There is a vast difference between a dribbler down the third base line and a screamer up the middle. FanGraphs differentiates between infield and outfield flies, which has helped us to better appreciate pitchers like Matt Cain and Jonathan Papelbon. No such distinction is made for ground balls.
There is no way of knowing now, of course, but there may be a link between injury risk and the types of ground balls a pitcher induces. Basing analysis on data that utilizes binary qualitative groups — “on the ground” and “not on the ground” — is far too broad.
(Tip of the cap to David Schoenfield at ESPN Sweet Spot for directing me to Neyer and James.)