I’d been thinking about this idea for quite some time, and now that some of the offensive pieces around Andy Dalton are faltering, mainly the playcalling and the offensive line, this is the right time for this piece. I’m no baseball scout, but I believe there are a lot of parallels between the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and a prototypical ground ball pitcher.
Per the pundits at FanGraphs, “a ground ball pitcher is usually someone who doesn’t allow a lot of extra base hits, but gives up a fair share of singles”. He also relies on his infield defense to limit the opposing batters, inducing weak contact and keeping the ball in the ballpark. Nothing too fancy.
Well, Dalton might be football’s ground ball pitcher. I’m not opposed to the term “game manager”, but that is a different concept in my opinion, and doesn’t reflect well the strengths and flaws of the former TCU playcaller. The Red Rifle, amid the worst start to a season in his seven-year NFL career, has four interceptions and zero touchdowns in two home losses to the Ravens and Texans. When you think about it, he has a lot in common with guys like Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello, Yankees pitcher Jaime García and former Reds pitcher Mike Leake.
For one, they lack the ability to produce as many strikeouts as protypical aces do. Of course there are ground ball pitchers who are among the best in the league and lead their rosters, but usually the players that come to mind when you think of aces are the ones that can miss bats frequently. If we relate strikes to throws in tight windows when the quarterback needs a good pass to complete a play, Dalton is also nowhere near the top of the ladder.
In contrast, both ground ball pitchers and Dalton need help from their teams to thrive. See, a guy like Dallas Keuchel is uber effective because, in part, he’s got an extremely talented infield defense behind him that can capitalize on his high 66 percent ground ball rate - an elite mark. Dalton’s best efforts, until 2017, have occurred with the likes of A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones Jr., Giovani Bernard or a monster offensive line led by Andrew Whitworth, around.
As ground ball pitchers usually can’t overpower opposing hitters, they don’t have a plus fastball or a plus slider or curveball, they induce weak contact so their shortstop or third baseman can complete the out. When Dalton has the one-on-one matchup he wants—and in 2015 he had plenty of those thanks to the offense around him—he can give the ball to that guy and the receiver can complete the catch. I’m not saying that is not an elite ability, but it’s certainly different from what a guy like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees can do, and it’s the same as what somebody like Corey Kluber can do in a ballpark.
Without the deliveries to make batters miss at any given time, ground ball pitchers try to avoid the middle of the strike zone to limit home runs, something even more important now that ballparks are tinier and the balls are juiced. Dalton will usually avoid the difficult throws into tight spaces or deep - unless Green is open, because he will be prone to interceptions, which can be football’s home runs for pitchers. Those pass attempts, unless your quarterback can zip it into a tight window, often provide no chance for the receiver to help his passer. In baseball, a fastball or a hanging slider in the middle of the strike zone won’t be in play for a defender because it’ll probably leave the ballpark, unless that fastball has enough juice or movement that it can fool the hitter.
Defenses play a great role in the play of a ground ball pitcher, but they’ve usually been undervalued because teams want to load their lineups with stronger bats and sometimes tinker with guys out of position, or just weak or bad defenders, to produce offense. The Cardinals tried Matt Adams at left field this season, and the Hanley Ramírez experiment at left field in Fenway Park went just as badly last season. Offensive lines are being neglected the same way in football nowadays, with teams like the Bengals, Seahawks and Giants trying to get away with horrible protection for their quarterbacks. Ground ball pitchers will get exposed without a good infield and Dalton is fighting for his life with Cedric Ogbuehi, Russell Bodine and company as his linemen.
Dalton can be a factor in his line play, of course, as he’s unable to go to his second read and he’ll often get happy feet if that desired receiver is not open. He won’t take throws into tight windows, and he’ll overthrow or underthrow guys here and there. Ground ball pitchers can also make their defense look bad if they keep the ball in the strike zone and allow line drive after line drive.
Good playcalling can and will help a guy like Dalton, scheming his receivers open and giving him easy reads to ease his burden. Shifting in baseball has become the new sensation, helping pitchers against pull hitters. There’s also been some studies that point out how shifting is actually working against defenses now that batters have adjusted.
It’s really hard to find and develop a guy like Mike Scherzer, Noah Syndergaard or Stephen Strasburg, who can toy with opposing batters and can almost win a game by themselves. It’s equally difficult to find somebody like Russell Wilson or Tom Brady, who produce consistently with a motley crew of receivers and linemen. Getting a guy who isn’t as good but can still be a mid-rotation arm for plenty years is easier and has its value, too. You surround him well and he keeps you in the game. Dalton has his value and if you surround him with top talent and he can keep you in the game. Don’t ask him to get you the win if you can’t score three or four runs often, though, because his flaws will surface.
It would also be interest to add Joe Goodberry’s common and uncommon rivals model, as I once said that Dalton might be like those pitchers that are very good the first time through the lineup, but will start losing efficiency the second time and will often get humbled the third time. I don’t have data for ground ball pitchers the second or third time through the lineup, though, and those numbers can vary a lot from pitcher to pitcher to actually establish a clear correlation.
In short, this is about a player and his flaws and strengths. Ground ball pitchers are good when they’re used correctly and take advantage of the tools around them. Dalton can be pretty good, as he was before suffering a season-ending injury in 2015, when the system fits him and he can throw to the right matchup. We’ve seen guys like Keuchel struggling because of a declining ground ball rate - 10% worse in 2016, for example, and Dalton had tough seasons in 2014 and 2016 when the weapons around him were missing or the offensive line didn’t help him much.
Some people will take this is as ill-timed criticism, as Dalton is dealing with fans calling for AJ McCarron to take over and there are reports of players being interested in the team signing Colin Kaepernick. That’s not my intention here. Ground ball pitchers are not worthless and, in fact, can be pretty good. They won’t look as flashy and fielding independent numbers won’t be as good, but they can get the job done and look dominant in plenty of games.
Now that the Bengals made the move to replace offensive coordinator Ken Zampese with former quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor, there’s an opportunity for the team to correct some of its mistakes and right the ship with Dalton in the driver’s seat. The key will be to play to his strengths and hide his limitations. The first chance to showcase that will be in Green Bay against the Packers on Sunday.