This Week In The Minors: Breaking Down Grounders

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This Week In The Minors: Breaking Down Grounders

Cubs Minor Leagues and Prospects

kyle hendricks iowa cubsI’m in the process of locking down my minor league trips for this summer, and I should have final dates soon. Right now it looks like I will not get to Tennessee until the very beginning of August, and that probably means I’ll miss seeing Kris Bryant in a Smokey’s uniform. Jorge Soler should still be there, though, along with some of the best pitching prospects in the organization.

It also looks like I will finally be making a trip to Iowa, likely sometime in June. Hopefully I’ll accidentally time it perfectly and hit the prospect lottery of seeing Bryant, Javier Baez, Arodys Vizcaino, and Kyle Hendricks all on the same trip. If John Andreoli and Rafael Lopez are in Iowa by then as well, I won’t complain a bit. One guy I do not expect see: Tsuyoshi Wada. At the rate Wada is pitching, he will either be in Chicago or will be with another team by then.

Both Iowa and Tennessee are playing very good baseball, but as we’ll see as we survey the system, Kane County is just blowing everyone away.

Iowa Cubs : 18-15

The Cubs are clinging to first place in the division, leading by a few percentage points over Oklahoma City. The RedHawks have played four more games than the Cubs, and they split those games. As a result the Cubs trail by two in the win column, and lead by two in the loss column.

This looks to be a tough week for the Cubs. They are at home all week, but this team actually has a better road record than they do a home record. The first half of the week they face Nashville, a twenty win team that is leading the American Southern division, and the second half of the week the Cubs get Round Rock, the team trailing Nashville by just a game and a half.

Tennessee Smokies : 21-15

The surging Smokies have a solid grip on second and now lead third place Jackson by six games. Despite having the second best record in the Southern League, though, they still trail first place Huntsville by three games.

Tennessee is in the midst of a lengthy stretch of consecutive games, a stretch that will have them on the road all next week. They stay in Jackson through Wednesday, and then travel to face Mississippi for five. Next Tuesday they finally get an off day, but the dates to watch are in the following week. On May 26 through May 30 the Smokies face the (currently) first place Huntsville Stars in Alabama.

Daytona Cubs : 10-23

The Cubs looked good for a short stretch, but now they are back to sputtering. They have lost six in a row, nine of their last ten, and are only spared last place because Clearwater (Phillies organization) is just outlandishly awful.

Daytona is off today. Tomorrow they begin a four game against Charlotte, a team that is four games under .500 on the road. If the Cubs can get themselves back on track in that series, they will still have a tough challenge awaiting them. Next weekend Daytona visits Fort Meyers, the team with the most home wins in the entire Florida State League.

Kane County Cougars : 26-10

Kane County is rapidly pulling away from the pack. Even Peoria, the Cardinals affiliate that managed to stay with the Cougars for much of the past two weeks, has fallen to six games behind the Cubs Low A team. This squad now boasts a winning percentage of .722, the most home wins, the fewest home losses, and the fewest road losses in the Midwest League. Currently they are riding another three game winning streak.

After an off day today the Cougars travel to hapless Beloit, a last place team with fewer total wins than Kane County has home wins. After that the potentially future Cubs return home to play Quad Cities in four starting on Thursday. If you live within a few hours of Kane County and have not yet gone to see them play, you might consider making the trip while the Cougars are at home next weekend and the following weekend.

For those of us who live too far away for that trip to be viable, circle May 19 through May 21 on your calendars. Those three games are in Wisconsin, one of the few teams in the Midwest League that participates in MiLB.TV. Those three games should be available to subscribers of the service.

Ground Ball Stats

While we should never evaluate a minor league players purely on stats, the simple reality is that we do have to lean heavily on stats to learn about these players. It just isn’t possible to see all the players, and both video and quality scouting reports are too sparse to provide useful information for large swaths of the various minor leagues. The stats are tracked equally (more or less) for all players, though, and regardless of how sparse the other information is, the stats will be there.

One of the pitching stats I watch the most closely across all levels of professional baseball as well as, when it is available, when I am looking over draft candidates is ground ball rates. In general, the more ground balls a pitcher induces, the better off that pitcher is.

Why are ground balls a good thing? Because ground balls almost never lead to home runs, rarely lead to extra base hits, and generally speaking do not produce many runs. According to FanGraphs:

Line drives are death to pitchers, while ground balls are the best for a pitcher. In numerical terms, line drives produce 1.26 runs/out, fly balls produce 0.13 R/O, and ground balls produce only 0.05 R/O.

With numbers like that, I’d love to have a pitching staff that does little more than give up ground balls. And if I want a pitching staff that produces ground balls, then I want a farm system that contains lots of ground ball pitchers. As a result, ground ball rates is one of the first stats I look at when studying pitching prospects.

Not convinced that grounders are all that good? Let’s take a look at the spray charts for Edwin Jackson.

Here is the chart for all batted balls allowed by Jackson as a Cub (his 2013 and 2014 seasons) coded by hang time. Focus on the ground balls around the infield.

Source: FanGraphs

Now let’s take a look at the outcome of those pitches.

The second chart looks at the outcome of those same Jackson-allowed batted balls in the same time period. Again, look around the infield where you saw all the grounders.

Source: FanGraphs

A whole lot of those ground balls converted into outs, and virtually none of the ones that weren’t turned into extra base hits. And that band of singles across the middle of the outfield? If you compare that to the hang time chart you’ll notice a lot of balls with hang times between 1.5 second and 3 seconds in that area. That’s line drive land; line drives are not kind to pitchers.

So now that we’ve established that grounders are a very good thing, where can we get minor league ground ball data? I use two sources.

First, there is the player page. This page, which is linked for each player off the box score that I link to in the Minor League Daily, displays the GO/AO for pitchers. For example, if we pull up that page for Corey Black we can see he has a GO/AO of 1.21. Generally speaking if this stat, the ratio of Ground Outs to Air Outs is greater than 1.20 or so you’re looking at a decent ground ball pitcher. If you see a number higher than that, particularly a number that starts with a two or a three, you’re looking at a pitcher who is amazingly adept at inducing grounders. Kyle Hendricks, for example, has a GO/AO of 2.45.

The second place to look is at Minor League Central. This site appears to compile their stats from the play by play style game report data  provided along with the box score for every minor league game, and as a result they are able to track ground ball (and line drive) rates for minor league pitchers. Those numbers are only going to be as accurate and complete as the person doing the scorekeeping (which, as you can see from the linked example, is not always all that complete) and are not as robust as anything based on PitchFX data, for instance, but they are some of the only minor league stats available for this sort of thing.

Taking a look at the page for Corey Black, we can see his GB% is reported at 39.5%. Kyle Hendricks clocks in at 57.6%.

There are plenty of other stats I use as well, but ground ball rates, particularly as measured by GO/AO, is one of my favorites. As the season progresses I’ll take a similar look at some of those other stats I use to evaluate prospects. If there are any stats in particular you would like to see examined, feel free to call them out in the comments.


Author: Luke Blaize

Luke Blaize is the Minor League Editor at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @ltblaize.