So in writing the FanGraphs piece for ESPN Insider this week, I ended up writing two pieces - one of which was used and one of which wasn't. I though some of this was kinda cool still, though, so I wanted to share. You can find the piece they took over at ESPN now, talking about why Dickey has struggled at times this year. Garik16, if you're out there, your pieces on Dickey's knuckleball are really great resources and I tried to link to them liberally in the piece. Thanks.
The Braves-Mets rivalry is, in many ways, totally unfair. One of the deeper seated rivalries, with its roots in the heated competition between the clubs in the 1990s, Mets fans have an utter disdain for the Braves - their dislike of the Braves only topped by their more recent hatred of the successful Phillies. But as it goes with the Mets, this rivalry has brought nothing but pain in recent years. Since their World Series berth ten years ago in 2001, the Mets have a .400 winning percentage against the Braves, winning only 68 games out of 170. That's their worst matchup record against any National League club over that time span.
Not only that, but while the Braves continued to be a model organization through the 2000s, rebuilding from within and constantly staying competitive, the Mets have had a bad few years. Their recent string of misfortunes and bobbles -late-season collapses, mismanaged player development, unlucky injuries, and, of course, Fred Wilpon - have resulted in two fourth place finishes in a row, while the Braves only seem on the way up with young stars Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman leading the way.
So it should no surprise that Sunday night's matchup between these two clubs looks to favor the Braves: veteran sinkerball pitcher Tim Hudson (3.75 ERA) facing journeyman knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (4.39 ERA). But looking below the surface, there are two main reasons why R.A. Dickey and the Mets should have an advantage in this game: park effects and batted ball splits.
To begin with, the Braves have not been a particularly strong offensive club. They have hit for a low average (.246, 21st in the majors), walked at a mediocre rate (8.8%, 11th), and scored only 226 runs (20th overall). And when it comes to power, they are also a middle-of-the-road club. Their team slugging percentage this season ranks 18th in the majors, and their Isolated Power - a statistic that measures a team's ability to hit extra base hits - ranks them 15th overall.
Citi Field has been around for a few years now, but it became clear even at the beginning that it was a power hitter's nightmare. Due to the park's deep fences and high right-field wall, almost every Met saw a decrease in their homerun total when moving to Citi, and left-handed sluggers in particular have struggled at the park. According to the site StatCorner.com, Citi Field decreases homerun output from left-handed batters by around 10%; this makes it one of the top three most difficult parks in the National League for left-handed power.
But the majority of the Braves' offense this season has come from left-handed hitters. Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman are currently the club's fourth and fifth hitters, two of the main power threats in their lineup, and both of them are left-handed. And as for the Braves' next two best hitters, Martin Prado and Chipper Jones, there's reason to believe they might not match up well against R.A. Dickey.
Dickey is a knuckleball pitcher, and when his pitches are knuckling well, he induces a high percentage of groundballs (56% groundball rate this season). Groundballs are a very good outcome for a pitcher to get, as they result in hits only around 23% of the time and have a very low likelihood of turning into an extra base hit. Also, it's been shown that batted ball splits can have as large an impact on a batter/pitcher matchup as lefty/righty splits; in other words, just as left-handed batters struggle against left-handed pitchers, groundball hitters struggle against groundball pitchers (and excel versus flyball pitchers). This split effect is not widely used in the game today, but you will see some managers like Joe Maddon take advantage of it on occasion.
And wouldn't you know, the Braves' offense has the third-highest groundball percentage in the major leagues (47%), and Martin Prado and Chipper Jones both have groundball rates north of 50%. The only extreme flyball hitter on the Braves is Brian McCann, and even if he gets a hold of one, the right field wall in Citi will likely slow him down.
On the flip side, the Mets are also facing an extreme groundball pitcher in Tim Hudson (58% groundball rate), but they have a mediocre team groundball rate (44%, 11th in the majors). While they have a few role players with high groundball rates - Josh Thole, Justin Turner, and Ruben Tejada - the heart of their order is filled with hitters with very even batted ball splits -Jose Reyes and Jason Bay. Oh, and that Carlos Beltran guy? Not only does he currently have the lowest groundball rate on the team (34%), but he has a career 1.040 OPS against Tim Hudson over 80 plate appearances in his career. You couldn't ask for a much better matchup for him.
Of course, one of the best parts about baseball is that anything can happen on any given day. Splits are predictive over the long haul, but odd, quirky things have been known to happen on a day-to-day basis. Dickey's knuckleball may not dance, and Brian McCann and Martin Prado could light him up despite all that facts just presented. Odds are, though, that this pitching matchup is a lot more even than it looks on paper. Mets fans, take hope - this looks like a good chance to stick one to the Braves.