Here's a Thought: Colorado Rockies' Matt Daley Succeeds Despite Flyballing Ways
You've probably never heard of Matt Daley, unless you're a fan of an NL West team.
Heck, I'd never heard of him until the Rockies called the right-handed relief pitcher up early last season. Given that I know about 2000 active players, Daley's failure to merit a blip on my radar reflected his anonymity. He didn't get a big league look until he was nearly 27.
In his first season in the majors, Daley certainly showed one pronounced trend: he allows a ton of fly balls. Fifty-five percent of batted balls off the righthander were outfield flies in 2009, with another 16.7 percent registering as infield flies. Both of those numbers rank among the highest in the majors.
Now, conventional wisdom correctly states that groundball pitchers are better than flyball pitchers, because while a grounder is about 70 percent more likely to be a hit, outfield flies have the potential to leave the ballpark, ultimately creating more runs than grounders.
This is particularly important for Daley, because he pitches half of his games at Coors Field, which is pretty much death to flyball pitchers. The thin air in Colorado makes it difficult to keep those flies in the park consistently, routinely bloating ERAs. Thus, the best pitchers in Colorado history—guys like Aaron Cook and Jason Jennings—tend to be sinker-oriented ground-ballers.
And yet, this nondescript Daley posted a respectable 4.24 ERA last year, as well as a 3.65 FIP. He certainly looks like a nice middle reliever for the Rockies...which begs the question: How does he make it work?
One way to look at it is that Daley had a low homer-to-outfield fly ratio of 8.3 percent. The average is a bit higher (around 10-12 percent), and given that Daley is a Rockies pitcher, it would seem likely that his would ultimately settle around 12-15 percent.
But I don't think it will. I think his 2009 HR/FB ratio may stay right where it is.
While HR/FB ratios are largely luck-based, one simple fact remains true: you have to hit a ball hard to get it over the outfield fence.
"Wait, Nathaniel, did you, stat geek and all, just ditch the cold statistical truth for some simple, obvious, overused phrase that Tim McCarver might say in a broadcast?"
Strange as it feels to do that, yes, I did. But back to the point...
It's reasonable to say that a batter has to make some measure of hard contact to hit a homer in all but the wackiest conditions (inside-the-park HRs and gale-force winds would do it, I suppose). Therefore, if a pitcher had a way to induce very weak contact consistently (whatever the reason for that may be), their HR/FB rate would be lower than someone who often throws an 86-mph fastball right down the middle.
Now, none of us had heard of Daley for a reason: his "stuff" isn't particularly exceptional. He throws a 90-mph fastball (yawn) and an 80-mph curveball, occasionally mixing in a poor low-80's changeup. If the curve were a slider, he'd have about the most generic relief pitcher repertoire out there.
For whatever reason, Daley is able to get an above-average number of swings and misses with his stuff—22.7 percent of swings against the righty came up empty in 2009, compared to the 19.5 percent MLB average. This led to a strong strikeout rate of 9.71 K/9.
Looking deeper into the numbers, I found even more interesting stuff. Batters made contact on Daley's out-of-the-zone pitches 68.1 percent of the time, which is actually much higher than the 61.8 percent average.
It's in the strike zone that Daley's pitches did better than those of his peers. His in-the-zone contact percentage was 80.3, much lower than the 87.8 percent average.
What this means is that when batters made contact of the Rockies' righthander, it was often on reaches and jams (the latter explains the sky-high popup rate, which is great to have in any park) where it was difficult to really square the ball up and drive it. On pitches in more hittable locations (in the zone), Daley found a way to generate far more empty swings than most pitchers.
We can test this hypothesis quite easily. When a batter squares a ball up, the result is usually a line drive. Liners are scorched so hard that they fall in for hits over 70 percent of the time, compared to about 24 percent for grounders and 17 percent for outfield flies.
Looking at a pitcher's line drive rate can thus tell us how often batters "squared up" his pitches in a season. Used in tandem with the contact rates I just looked at, this creates an accurate picture of a pitcher's "hittability."
An average line drive rate is about 19-20 perecent. Above 21.5 percent is a problem for a pitcher. Below 16.5 percent is outstanding.
Matt Daley's 2009 line drive rate...drum roll please ...was 11.5 percent, second out of 340 pitchers with at least 50 innings.
That's a pretty resounding endorsement that the righty's Brand X repertoire is tough to square up, whatever the reason for that may be.
Returning to my McCarver-esque "Ya gotta hit it hard to hit it out" idea, it would thus make sense that Daley's HR/FB rate would stay fairly low, even at Coors—if his in-the-zone pitches are more difficult to hit than most pitchers', and his pitches in general are among the hardest in the bigs to square up, batters are going to have a tough time hitting Daley's offerings 350 or more feet, even in the thin Colorado air.
So, you got that, aspiring Rockies hurlers? You can allow as many flies as you want—just have some sort of way to make your pitches near-impossible to square up, and while you're at it, make your in-the-zone pitches more difficult to hit than your out-of-the-zone pitches...
Yeah, I doubt too many guys are going to succeed in Colorado like this. But that doesn't take anything away from the rather bland-seeming Matt Daley, whose garden-variety pitches and boring track record belie some interesting and otherworldly statistics.
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