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Beyond the Numbers: Why infield defense matters

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The Angels stole the offseason headlines when they turned their Big Three of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana into an Even Bigger Four by signing C.J. Wilson (and also by signing that Pujols guy).

The former move is already paying dividends, as the Angels' rotation currently boasts a 3.37 ERA, the lowest in the American League. However, it's a minor league callup from last August that may have had the biggest impact on starting pitching in the junior circuit.

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Fantasy owners have practically swooned over Brett Lawrie's potential for offensive production since his arrival in Toronto late last summer, but his presence in the Blue Jays' infield is helping owners who don't even have him on their roster. According to Fangraphs.com, Lawrie leads all major league third basemen in Ultimate Zone Rating, and he is well ahead of runner-up Mike Moustakas. He is just one part of a solid infield defense that has helped the Jays' rotation to a 3.53 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP, which rank second and third, respectively, in the American League. For comparison's sake, the Jays' starters posted a 4.55 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP just a year ago.

What is notable about the early achievements of Toronto's starters is that, as a unit, they have not been very good at striking out batters (5.8 K/9) or avoiding walks (3.2 BB/9). The key to their success is a collective ground ball rate in excess of 50 percent -- and what the infield has done with those frequent grounders. When opponents have put the ball on the ground against the Blue Jays, they have hit a major league-worst .156 this year. The Dodgers, who rank second, have held hitters to a .189 average on grounders, and the major league average is .226.

For those wondering how Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Henderson Alvarez and Kyle Drabek can all have ERAs below 3.60, even though none has sparkling peripherals, this is how they are getting it done. Even though each has shown some flaws, Romero (3.9 BB/9) and Morrow (6.3 K/9, 1.5 HR/9) are still gaining the trust of Fantasy owners. Both are owned in more than 95 percent of the leagues on CBSSports.com and started in at least 88 percent of our leagues, so their past successes have apparently reassured owners that they are worth using.

However, neither Alvarez nor Drabek is owned in even 60 percent of our leagues and neither is starting in as many as one-third of our leagues. Alvarez currently ranks 38th in Head-to-Head points and 63rd in Rotisserie value, so essentially, he is worth starting in any standard mixed league format. When you start Alvarez, you're punting on strikeouts, as he has just 12 of them over his first six starts. Despite all of the contact, his WHIP is just 1.04, as he lets the infield do all the work. Alvarez has induced grounders on 57 percent of the balls hit off him, and the infield has converted 86 percent of those into outs. Drabek continues to be plagued by horrid command, and having issued more than a walk every other inning, his WHIP is a bloated 1.46. However, having allowed a .200 average on ground balls, only Drew Hutchison has allowed ground ball base hits at a higher rate among Toronto's current starters. On most teams, owners would be expecting Drabek's WHIP to regress upward, but as a Blue Jay, Drabek could actually see his WHIP decrease without any improvement in his walk rate.

Going back to 2003, no team has ever finished a season allowing opponents to bat below .200 on ground balls, so the Blue Jays' incredible start in this area looks at least a little fluky. General manager Alex Anthopoulos told CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist Scott Miller, "I wouldn't put too much stock in (the low ground ball batting average). It's only five weeks into the season." On the other hand, Anthopoulos acknowledged, "We've done some shifts. We've got good infield defense." He singled out Yunel Escobar as a key contributor, saying, "His hands are unbelievable, and his range. It's a combination of things. Having a plus defensive shortstop helps. He's the captain of the infield." The metrics back up Anthopoulos' assessment, as Escobar ranks just behind defensive whiz Brendan Ryan as the AL's rangiest shortstop.

Because Alvarez allows so much contact, he will have to rely on his infield defense -- and probably some luck -- to maintain his standing in Fantasy. However, Alvarez possesses superb control, so between his strong ground ball tendencies and his low walk rate, he should be able to help owners with WHIP all season long. Drabek can't be counted on to help with WHIP, as owners shouldn't expect him to improve his control anytime soon. Anthopoulos noted that "sometimes it's hard for him to command the four-seamer because it has so much life," but because Drabek has been able to keep both his two-seamer and four-seamer down in the strike zone, he should be able to maintain the gains he has achieved in his ground ball rate, which now stands at 55 percent. That will enable him to strand runners at a high rate, so a sub-4.00 ERA is attainable.

The Blue Jays' pitchers are getting the most extreme bump from their infield defense to be sure, but there are other defenses that are giving their rotations some love with the glove. Here are four other teams who have been converting ground balls into outs at unusually high rates for at least some of their starters.

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Nationals (.194 opponents' ground ball Avg.): Some owners may doubt the staying power of Gio Gonzalez's 0.90 WHIP, but it's supported by improved strikeout and walk rates and a .167 opponents' batting average on grounders. Some regression is to be expected, but given the quality of the Nats' infield defense and Gonzalez's greatly improved strike-throwing ability, he may no longer be just an average pitcher for WHIP. If you're a Gonzalez owner, resist the impulse to sell him at what might look like peak value. Jordan Zimmermann (.182 opponents' ground ball Avg.) didn't really need WHIP help, but this is just one more factor that makes him far more valuable than his 61 percent activation rate would indicate.

Mariners (.205 opponents' ground ball Avg.): With the aforementioned Ryan anchoring their infield, the Mariners' starters should stand to gain from the potential for ground ball outs. However, Felix Hernandez doesn't allow a lot of balls in play, and Hector Noesi and Blake Beavan have been generating more flyballs than grounders. That leaves Jason Vargas (.153) and Kevin Millwood (.269) as the most likely candidates to benefit from the team's solid defense, particularly on the left side of the infield. Millwood's command has been so poor that he won't be worth using in most leagues, even if he starts getting more ground ball outs, but Vargas' 1.03 WHIP may not be as much of an outlier as it appears to be.

Diamondbacks (.215 opponents' ground ball Avg.): The Diamondbacks' opponents' ground ball batting average is just a little below the major league norm, but given how well Aaron Hill and Willie Bloomquist have performed in the field, it's a rate that is sustainable. Trevor Cahill (.189) and Wade Miley (.136) have both been reliable ground ball producers, and a high rate of ground outs has helped both to low WHIPs despite mediocre walk rates. Miley is the stronger candidate to regress, but he and Cahill both can continue to have success, even though neither has a history of strong command. With an unusually-low 1.13 WHIP, you would think Joe Saunders would be getting some help from his "D," but that hasn't been the case. Batters are hitting .237 against him on grounders, but while that rate should drop, that doesn't mean that Saunders is due for better times ahead. He is not a good bet to maintain a 16 percent line drive rate, so ultimately, the numbers you're getting from Saunders now represent his upside.

Rays (.232 opponents' ground ball Avg.): Despite an infield defense that has not performed well, at least according to UZR, the Rays have been close to average in opponents' ground ball batting average. The team's frequent use of the shift is likely to have something to do with that, and Jeremy Hellickson (.180) and Jeff Niemann (.184) have been the biggest apparent beneficiaries so far. Matt Moore's .333 mark is bound to shrink, but he has been allowing so many flyballs as to render his infield defense almost irrelevant. Even with the Rays deploying the shift on a regular basis, Hellickson and Niemann will likely give up ground ball base hits at a higher rate going forward, but they may not be the BABIP liabilities that you would expect, given their infield's defensive woes.

Glossary
xFIP: Also known as Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. It is an estimate of what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based on factors that a pitcher can control, such as strikeouts, walks and flyballs. xFIP is a derivative of FIP, which was developed by Tom Tango.
Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
GO/AO -- Ground out-air out ratio
GB/FB -- Ground ball-fly ball ratio
Batting Average per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Al Melchior at @almelccbs . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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Player News
Diamondbacks' Addison Reed makes adjustments, may return to closer
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(7:28 pm ET) Diamondbacks pitcher Addison Reed lost the closer's job after giving up a grand slam on May 13.

Since losing the job, Reed has worked with Diamondback coaches to fix flaws in his mechanics. Among the most noticeable adjustments, Reed got rid of his leg kick and instead uses a slide step. 

"Everything feels good," Reed said, per MLB.com. "Each time I've gone out it's felt better every time. Now I'm not thinking about anything other than trying to throw strikes. Not thinking anything about mechanics, just going out there trying to throw strikes."

Manager Chip Hale is satisfied with what he's seen and indicated that Reed would get to pitch in save situations again in the near future.  


SS Zack Cozart's double helps Reds rally to win
by Elliott Smith | Staff Writer
(7:27 pm ET) Shortstop Zack Cozart's lone hit of the day was a big one, as his eighth-inning double proved to be the difference as the Reds rallied to beat the Nationals 8-5 on Saturday. 

Sitting on an 0-for-3 day, Cozart connected with two outs, driving a ball deep to center to help erase a 5-4 defict and spark a four-run eighth that propeled the Reds to their first back-to-back wins since May 12-14. 

Cozart now has 21 RBIs on the year and is hitting .271.


Marlins SP Tom Koehler gets no-decision on Saturday vs. Mets
by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
(7:24 pm ET) Marlins starter Tom Koehler struggled in a no-decision on Saturday, as the Marlins topped the Mets 9-5. Koehler was unable to get out of the fourth, as he went 3 1/3 innings, allowing five runs on seven hits. Koehler had trouble with his control, as he walked four and struck out just one. Just 39 of his 66 pitches went for strikes on the afternoon.

Most of the runs against him came as part of a four-run fourth inning. Koehler's ERA rose to 4.01 with the sub-par performance. He'll look to right the ship in his next start, scheduled for Friday in Coloardo. 


Mets SP Jonathon Niese gets roughed up by the Marlins Saturday
by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
(7:19 pm ET) The struggles for Mets starter Jonathon Niese continued on Saturday. Niese managed to go just four innings in a no-decision against the Marlins. It was his shortest start since July of last season. The left-hander surrendered five runs (four earned) on seven hits. He struck out three and did not issue a walk. Niese labored in this one, needing 82 pitches to get through the four innings.

Niese gave up a solo home run to Giancarlo Stanton in the third inning, and a two-run shot to J.T. Realmuto in the fourth. His offense was able to get him off the hook, as Niese picked up the no-decision in the eventual 9-5 loss.

Niese (3-5) has now allowed 20 earned runs in his last four starts, watching his ERA climp from 2.49 to 4.42 over that stretch.

He'll try to turn things around in his next start, scheduled for Friday in Arizona. 


Orioles SP Bud Norris to pitch in Triple-A on Tuesday
by Elliott Smith | Staff Writer
(7:11 pm ET) Orioles starter Bud Norris, who is still recovering from a nasty case of bronchitis that caused him to lose 10 pounds, will make a rehab start at Triple-A Norfolk on Tuesday, per CSN Mid-Atlantic. 

Norris, who made a rehab start last week at Double-A, was considered for a start on Wednesday, but the Birds decided that he could use another outing to build up his stamina. Norris went 1-4 with a 9.88 ERA in six starts before going on the disabled list.


Rangers pitcher Neftali Feliz to throw off mound on Sunday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(7:10 pm ET) Rangers pitcher Neftali Feliz is scheduled to throw off the mound on Sunday, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Feliz, who has been on the 15-day DL since May 20 with an abscess near his arm pit, has begun throwing, but has not been on the mound since going on the disabled list.


Phillies' Cesar Hernandez knocks pinch-hit home run on Saturday
by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
(7:09 pm ET) Phillies infielder Cesar Hernandez launched a pinch-hit, three-run home run on Saturday, but it was not enough as the Rockies won by a score of 5-2. Hernandez came on in the eighth inning to pinch-hit for the pitcher, and took the Rockies' Rafael Betancourt deep for his first home run of the season.

His solo shot on Saturday was his first home run in over a year, as his last home run came on May 17, 2014. In limited playing time this season, Hernandez is hitting .250 over 78 at-bats.


Rockies closer John Axford closes out Phillies for ninth save
by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
(7:03 pm ET) Rockies closer John Axford nailed down his ninth save of the season in the 5-2 win over the Phillies on Saturday. Axford worked around a pair of singles to lead off the inning, as he got the next three hitters out in order to close out the game. 

The veteran right-hander has been stellar, as he is a perfect 9-for-9 in save opportunities this season.  


Astros 1B Chris Carter connects for eighth home run of the season
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(7:02 pm ET) Astros first baseman Chris Carter went 1 for 3 at the plate in Houston's 3-0 win over the White Sox on Saturday. Carter, who also drew a walk in the game, did his damage in the eighth when he blasted a solo home run off of Dan Jennings, his eighth of the season.

Carter is now hitting .188 with 27 RBI on the year.


Astros DH Evan Gattis blasts 11th home run of the season
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(7:00 pm ET) Astros designated hitter Evan Gattis went 2 for 4 at the plate in Houston's 3-0 win over the White Sox on Saturday.

Gattis did his damage in the eighth inning when he crushed a Dan Jennings pitch out of the park for a solo home run, his 11th of the season. Gattis is now hitting .230 with 31 RBI on the season.


 
 
 
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