Usually when I think about a ground-ball problem, it’s with a hitter that is hitting too many groundballs. Pitchers can have issues with groundballs too, but in a different way. A ground-ball problem for a pitcher is not inducing enough, not being very democratic as Crash Davis would say. This is a problem that Domingo German might be having in 2018.
Let’s start with the facts. Domingo German has a groundball rate of 38.2%, which is 91st of 115 pitchers who have at least 70 innings pitched. That puts him just outside the lowest 1/5 of the bunch. Which is not inherently bad, as here’s as some of the pitchers with lower groundball rates include James Paxton, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, and Justin Verlander.
There is one key difference between those four pitchers and German. He is the only pitcher out of that group that makes a majority of his starts not only in the cozy confines of Yankee Stadium, but also similarly hitter-friendly AL East ballparks.
However, fly-ball pitchers can succeed in Yankee Stadium. You need look only out to the bullpen to Chad Green, whose GB% is a minuscule 27.8%. Green is obviously having a perfectly fine season in spite of this, sporting a 2.23 ERA and a 32.2% K%. Green gets away with a large percentage of his balls in play being hit in the air because his fastball, which he relies heavily on, is a legitimate swing-and-miss pitch.
German can get swings and misses with the best of them though, which has helped offset his high rate of fly balls and kept him afloat so far in 2018. He ranks 4th among pitchers with 70 innings pitched with a 15.0% swinging strike%, within spitting distance of Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, and Jacob deGrom.
What separates German from that pack is that he gets a disproportionate amount of swing and misses from his curveball, which he throws 36.7% of the time. His four-seam fastball and changeup are not nearly as effective, leaving him wanting for a pitch to establish early in counts, and a pitch to put away lefties.
There is hope for German, as he wasn’t always so averse to groundballs. In the minor leagues, he was more consistently around 50% groundballs. It’s possible that what we’ve seen so far in 2018 is a sort of anomaly, a blip on the radar while German makes some mechanical adjustments that prevent him falling off in his delivery, resulting in more elevated and hittable pitches. If that is the case, I would expect him to regress to the mean and post an ERA closer to his xFIP and DRA (3.76 and 3.55 respectively).
German has already been a bit unlucky in the batted-ball department this season. His HR/FB% is sitting at 17.0%, nearly double the league average. If this groundball issue doesn’t get resolved, either on its own or as a result of an adjustment, German could be in for a rough second half.