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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
Mariners may use six-man rotation with Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(1:24 pm ET) Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon still hasn't decided between Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias in the battle for the final spot in the starting rotation. That may be because he doesn't have to. 

The News Tribune reported that "all signs point to" the Mariners using a modified six-man rotation, featuring both Walker and Elias, this season. The setup would save wear and tear on the starting staff, so they'd be fresher in the event the Mariners make the postseason. 

Team officials still haven't confirmed the plan. 


Athletics' Coco Crisp (elbow) may play catch Sunday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:24 pm ET) Athletics outfielder Coco Crisp may play catch Sunday as he continues to recover from an injured elbow, Comcast SportsNet California reports.

Crisp is also set to do other activity on the field to test the injured elbow. He's targeting a return to action Tuesday.


Yankees' Mark Teixeira diagnosed with right knee contusion
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(1:20 pm ET) Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira has been diagnosed with a right knee contusion after being hit by a pitch in minor-league action Sunday, MLB.com reports.

Teixeira is icing the knee and not scheduled to undergo any further tests. He has hit .261/.306/.391 with one home run in 46 spring at-bats.


Tigers' Ian Krol robbed at spring training
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(1:15 pm ET) Tigers reliever Ian Krol was the victim of a robbery at his apartment in Lakeland, Florida. 

Krol was not home at the time, but someone entered the front door of his one-bedroom apartment and stole $6,000 in cash. 

"At first, I didn't really think anything of it. I was just like, 'Oh, my cabinets are open,'" Krol told MLive. "My parents are in town, so I was looking for some money to go out to dinner, and I couldn't find my pile of cash."

Krol believes he left his front door unlocked.

"It was a mistake on my part," Krol said. "At the same time, what's wrong with people? Someone must have been watching me...That's the creepy thing. I think it probably happened right after I left my apartment. It's bizarre. At least I have everything else."


Indians option Josh Tomlin to Triple-A Columbus
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:15 pm ET) The Indians have optioned pitcher Josh Tomlin to Triple-A Columbus.

Tomlin was in the mix for one of the team's two open rotation spots but the Indians chose to roll with Zach McAllister and T.J. House instead. Tomlin gave up four earned runs in eight innings this spring.


Rangers name Nick Martinez to rotation Sunday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:11 pm ET) Rangers manager Jeff Banister announced Sunday that Nick Martinez has won the fifth spot in the team's rotation, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports.

Martinez was one of a number of pitchers in the mix for the final spot in the team's rotation this spring. He allowed just one earned run in 10 2/3 innings while striking out nine and walking one.


Indians' T.J. House, Zach McAllister win rotation spots
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:08 pm ET) The Indians have named Zach McAllister the No. 4 starter, lining him up to pitch the team's home opener, and T.J. House the No. 5 starter, USA Today reports.

McAllister and House were part of a heated competion for the team's two open rotation spots this spring and earned a leg up when Danny Salazar was optioned earlier this week. Manager Terry Francona announced the projected rotation before Sunday's spring game.


Homer Bailey to make two more minor league starts for Reds
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(1:07 pm ET) Reds pitcher Homer Bailey's schedule became a little clearer on Sunday. 

Bailey is recovering from surgery last September on a torn flexor mass tendon near his elbow. He has appeared in two minor league games so far this spring.

His schedule, per MLB.com, is to start two more minor league games in Arizona, scheduled for April 1 and April 6. He'll then break camp with either Triple-A Louisville or Double-A Pensacola, where he'll start at least one regular season game. 


Andrew Susac among Giants' spring cuts Sunday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:04 pm ET) The Giants optioned catcher Andrew Susac, first baseman Adam Duvall, pitcher Hunter Strickland and outfielders Gary Brown and Juan Perez to Triple-A Sacramento Sunday.

Susac was the favorite to open the season as the team's No. 2 catcher behind Buster Posey, but Hector Sanchez won the competition, leaving Susac to open the season as the team's starter in Triple-A.

The Giants also reassigned catcher Guillermo Quiroz, second baseman Brandon Hicks and pitchers Brett Bochy, Steven Okert and Juan Gutierrez to minor-league camp.


Royals' Joe Blanton unsure if he'll opt out of deal
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:55 pm ET) Royals pitcher Joe Blanton is unsure of whether he'll opt out of his minor-league deal with the team or not, the Kansas City Star reports.

"We’ll see when that comes," Blanton said. "I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it yet, to be honest with you."

Blanton can opt out of his deal on April 1 or on May 15 if he's not on the major-league roster. He has allowed three earned runs in 9 2/3 innings this spring.


 
 
 
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