Prior to the season, I was set to write about how the Cubs were gradually amassing a bunch of fly-ball heavy pitchers. I never ended up getting around to it, but I'm not one to let a mediocre (or wrong) idea die, so I'll give you the condensed version:
From 2010 to 2012, among pitchers with at least 280 innings pitched, Travis Wood had the lowest groundball percentage (32.6%) of anyone in the league. On the same list, Scott Baker ranked 9th (35.0%) and Carlos Villanueva 11th (35.8%). This isn't an accident, the Cubs like targeting guys with favorable strikeout to walk ratios and players of that ilk that are available for a reasonable price tend to give up a ton of fly balls. In large part, this doesn't bother me. If the choice is between taking a chance on big K/BB guys and groundballers who are incapable of generating swings and misses, I'll take the former most of the time. Further, if you believe the two idiots with a stats package, the whole fly-ball thing is no big deal, as extreme fly ball pitchers tend to yield lower home run rates. However, there is probably a large dollop of selection bias baked in to that observation, making it's application dubious to the marginal talents in question.
As we move into May, my "wisdom" from February looks downright silly. The Cubs groundball rate is third highest in the league at an astonishing 49%. Granted, this rotation has featured a lot less Baker, but plenty of Wood and Villanueva. And the uptick in groundball rates can be seen throughout the rotation.
The league average for ground-ballers is typically in the neighborhood of 44%, with the 90th percentile at around 52%. That's right, the Cubs have four starters currently generating ground balls at elite levels. The 2012 Indians are green with envy.
Of the five, Carl Newhouse's change is the most pronounced. I can't remember a pitcher who has changed his batted ball profile as drastically. Guys like Matt Garza and Brandon McCarthy get a lot of credit for increasing their ground balls, but they went from the high thirties to around the mid-fourties. In truth, that's probably not a bad bet for where Villanueva ends up settling, but even in a small sample the increase is impressive. Brooks's fancy pitchfx decoder shows that he has steadily increased in usage of his sinker since adding it to the mix in 2011.
Samardzija's rate is the other that jumped out at me. Unlike Villanueva, F7 doesn't seemed to have changed much in the way he mixes his pitches, nor is there a noticeable difference in the vertical movement on his pitches, so there's not an easy explanation for the increase. One thing to note, though, is that pitchfx thinks that his vertical release point has dropped this year. That change could result in him generating more groundballs based on pitch locations lower in the strike zone.
Last year I made the observation that Samardzija seemed to have transformed himself into Yovani Gallardo: lot's of K's, more walks than you would like, and an average ground ball rate. If Samardzija keeps pitching the way he has in 2013, I don't know that there's a good comparison available. Perhaps Yu Darvish, or even a wilder version of (gulp) Felix Hernandez. The peripherals have been outstanding for Samardzija thus far in his continuing drive for the big bucks.
Keep in mind that it is still early to look at these numbers. Ground ball rates tend to stabilize at around 200 batters faced, and none of the starters are there yet (Samardzija is closest at 157, while Feldman had only 99 prior to his outing on Wednesday). And the fact that the numbers are up for everyone on the team may indicate a bias in batters faced or the environment. Nonetheless, I am truly impressed by the changes thus far, and they definitely bear watching as the season goes on. The Cubs have said they want their pitchers to induce more ground balls, but they also want to take more walks, win more games, and all manner of assorted fantasies. In this case, it may be working.