Wilson examines a few worm-burners who benefit from the glovemen behind them and a few flyball hurlers whose outfielders cramp their style.
Last week I took a look at some groundball pitchers whose tendencies are wasted to a degree in front of poor infield defenses, as well as some flyball pitchers built fairly well for their outfield defenses and park contexts. This week (and with the added benefit of more current data!) we’ll turn the tables and look at the other half of the equation: groundball guys in good places and flyball guys in bad places. The additional week-plus of games allows us to at least peak at some of the early season trends that, while far from definitive, are at least starting to take some shape now. This won’t be nearly as helpful of a list, from the standpoint that a lot of the grounder guys are well-known and the fly ball culprits are all pretty comfortable on “Do Not Start!” lists near and far. Still, with the clearer early-season trends I think there’s some value in incorporating these returns into a list of fringier guys who may be somewhat more or less interesting given how their particular skills set jive with their supporting contexts.
Groundball Guys with Good Infield Defenses
The rest of this article is restricted to Baseball Prospectus Subscribers.
Not a subscriber?
Click here for more information on Baseball Prospectus subscriptions or use the buttons to the right to subscribe and get access to the best baseball content on the web.
Examining the pitchers whose worm-burning and flyballing styles mesh best and worst with their clubs.
We tend to operate with certain assumed axioms in the world of fantasy baseball, one of which is that pitchers who generate ample groundball contact and avoid the tightrope of excessive flyball contact are preferable. And the risk-reward is certainly apparent in the numbers: Last year big-league hitters mustered just a .144 average on flyballs but slugged .443, compared to a .243/.263 line on grounders. Sure, you give up more base hits on the ground, but they tend to be singles with limited potential to really do stand-alone damage. Flyballs, on the other hand, leave yards and lead to runs.
But all pitchers, and all pitching contexts, are not created equal; there are some guys whose stellar groundball rates mean less because they pitch in front of porous infield defenses, while others who walk on the wilder side in the sky are better bets on account of stellar fly-catching troupes patrolling the grass behind them. Now, the variance here isn’t extreme for most pitchers, but it isn’t insignificant either. Major-league leader Brett Anderson induced 380 grounders last year, and had he done so in front of the most efficient infield unit (the Giants) he’d have benefitted from an extra 26 out conversions over the course of his 180 innings relative to the worst unit (Philadelphia).
A look at the relationship between defensive quality and pitcher BABIP, particularly as it relates to James Shields and his unfortunate team change.
One of my favorite things to do with baseball statistics is to pick two of them and see what kind of relationship they have. Many pitchers have changed locations this off-season and will have to get accustomed to the new team defense behind them. Some have made the move to strong defensive teams while others have moved into situations that are a step down from what they have been accustomed to having around them.
This year's Pirates haven't crumbled like last year's Pirates, and the reasons why start with team defense.
With a 7-6 win over the Diamondbacks on Wednesday night, the Pirates ran their record to 63-47, pulling within 2 ½ games of Cincinnati in the NL Central. They remain tied with Atlanta atop the NL Wild Card standings. If the season ended today, the Pirates would be a playoff team. That’s not something we’ve been able to say very often after April in the last 20 years.
Last year at this time, the Pirates were in mid-free fall, fresh off a 10-game losing streak that put them under .500 for good. This year, that collapse isn’t coming. Pittsburgh’s 2011 team had a -39 run differential on this date last season, but this year’s edition has outscored its opponents by 35 runs. The Pirates haven’t played as well as their record would indicate, which explains why their playoff odds still sit below 60 percent. But even if their two-decade postseason appearance drought does go on a little longer, their streak of consecutive sub-.500 seasons is about to end.
There has been a major shift in the team-wide defensive rankings this season from last, but what does this mean?
Although early sabermetrics treated defense somewhat dismissively, better metrics for estimating defensive performance have emerged over the last few years. One of the oldest metrics is Defensive Efficiency (DE), created by Bill James, and this was improved by James Click in 2003 when he created Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE). This metric does a good job at evaluating team defense, and other metrics such as BP's FRAA, John Dewan's Plus/Minus system with Fielding Runs Saved (FRS), and Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) became available to evaluate individual player defense. However, I've begun to look at DE and PADE, and I discovered a rather peculiar observation.
Analysts have made tremendous progress in the effort to quantify individual defensive performance. Since there's often noise in the data, a gap still exists between the accuracy of advanced defensive and offensive metrics. As technology improves, though, the aforementioned gap will continue to shrink.
Last year, before his team's magical 2008 season began, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon gave his players t-shirts featuring an unlikely mathematical message: "9 = 8." Nine players, playing hard for nine innings each game, could make the Rays one of the eight clubs to reach the post-season, he told the team.
Can finding the guys who can pick it help pick your team up?
What Moneyball did for on-base percentage, the Rays' 2008 triumph may have done for defense—even if the book on the latter has yet to be written (although it's reportedly on its way). Of course, the importance of avoiding outs at the plate, and of accumulating them in the field, was as clear to Lane and Chadwick, respectively, as it is to Beane and Friedman; the rest of the class merely needed a little prodding to send it plunging past the tipping point. Unfortunately for those prematurely in the know, these watershed moments often mark the end of their salad days, as other prospectors make inroads on their fertile claims. The rubes are growing scarce: just ask Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn, Bobby Abreu, and the other defensively challenged sluggers who failed to douse themselves with eau de Ibañez before seeking long-term relationships this winter.
An appreciation for on-base percentage could have yielded a competitive advantage at any point in the game's history, but until fairly recently, fielding skills remained relatively impenetrable, even to those with the inclination to evaluate them. However, as defensive metrics improve and become increasingly reliable (a process which the imminent arrival of the Hit-f/x system promises to accelerate), the leathery component of run prevention will assume an even greater significance in player evaluation and analysis (while remaining an area in which scouting insight can elucidate persistent quirks in the numbers). In order to determine just how large a slice of the run-prevention pie defense deserves to consume, we might take a quick look back at an earlier investigation.
Evaluating defensive play in college baseball leads to some solid conclusions about its importance in the standings.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that college baseball is an offense-oriented game: the ping of the ball off of the bat testifies to that. There have been great strides made in reducing the number of games ending in football scores-only five times did a team score in double digits in Omaha-but as I watched the 19-10 slug-fest in Game Two of the College World Series championship, it was a frustrating reminder of how easily aluminum can shrink a ballpark.