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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
Athletics' Billy Butler snaps hitless skid Monday vs. Twins
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:23 am ET) Athletics designated hitter Billy Butler ended an 0-for-20 slump by hitting a single in the first inning Monday but couldn't find another hit across his final four at-bats in his team's 8-7 loss to the Twins.

"I got one, but I had other pitches to hit," Butler said after the game, per the Bay Area News Group. "It’s just not working out for me right now, you know? I got pitches from (Twins’ starter Phil) Hughes after that, pitches to hit from other guys, too."

Butler was unable to find success late against closer Glen Perkins, popping up with a man on base and his team down two.

"I got a pitch from Perkins," Butler said. "I was just swinging, and I’m not getting the results for reasons I can’t see right now."

Butler, who sported a .377 batting average and 1.023 OPS on April 22, is hitting .257/.318/.396 with three home runs and 12 RBI in 101 at-bats due to his recent struggles.


Angels' David Freese collects fifth home run Monday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:18 am ET) Angels third baseman David Freese went 1 for 3 with a walk and a solo home run in his team's 3-2 loss to the Mariners Monday.

Freese delivered the fifth solo homer of the game in the bottom of the ninth inning to close the gap to one run, but the Angels were unable to complete the comeback, with a pinch-runner getting caught stealing for the final out of the game. The third baseman has hit .220/.262/.420 with five home runs and 19 RBI in 100 at-bats.


Angels' Matt Joyce knocks first home run Monday vs. Mariners
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:15 am ET) Angels left fielder Matt Joyce went 1 for 3 with a walk and a solo home run in his team's 3-2 loss to the Mariners Monday.

Joyce answered a pair of solo home runs in the top of the seventh with one of his own in the bottom half of the inning. He was then pulled for a pinch-runner after drawing a two-out walk in the bottom of the ninth inning with his team down one run, but the runner was caught stealing to end the game.

Joyce has hit .148/.195/.222 with one home run and seven RBI in 81 at-bats.


Mariners' Seth Smith hits second home run Monday vs. Angels
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:11 am ET) Mariners designated hitter Seth Smith went 1 for 4 with a solo home run in his team's 3-2 win over the Angels Monday.

Smith pushed his team's lead to 3-1 with his eighth-inning home run, and the insurance run would prove vital, as the Angels slugged a solo homer of their own in the bottom of the ninth. Smith has hit .274/.329/.516 with two home runs and seven RBI in 62 at-bats.


Mariners' Logan Morrison slugs fourth home run Monday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:09 am ET) Mariners first baseman Logan Morrison went 1 foe 3 with a walk and a solo home run in his team's 3-2 win over the Angels Monday.

Morrison was the only Seattle player to reach more than once on a day in which his team managed just four hits and one walk but scored three runs, all on solo homers. His home run was his third in his last four games and extended his hitting streak to six games.

Morrison has hit just .222/.271/.389 with four home runs and seven RBI in 90 at-bats, but he sported a .149 batting average less than a week ago before his recent offensive success.


Giants OF Angel Pagan gets two hits in victory
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(1:05 am ET) Giants outfielder Angel Pagan went 2 for 4 from the plate during Monday night's 2-0 win against the Padres. 

Pagan hit an RBI single in the third inning, which scored Nori Aoki. He also hit a single in the first inning. Pagan now has a slash line of .350/.373/.447. 


Mariners' Nelson Cruz keeps slugging, nabs 14th homer Monday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:04 am ET) Mariners right fielder Nelson Cruz went 1 for 4 with a solo home run in his team's 3-2 win over the Angels Monday.

The Mariners were only able to collect four home runs Monday night; incredibly, three were solo homers, with the first coming from Cruz, the major-league home-run leader. He broke a scoreless tie with his seventh-inning shot over the left field wall. It was his fifth home run in the last six games.

Cruz has hit .340/.382/.796 with 14 home runs and 26 RBI in 103 at-bats. He'll look to keep rolling as the series against the Angels continues Tuesday.


Giants' Santiago Casilla earns save against Padres
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(1:02 am ET) Giants closer Santiago Casilla earned his eighth save of the season in Monday night's 2-0 win over the Padres. 

Casilla pitched the ninth inning, struck out one batter and held the Padres without a hit. He now has an ERA of 2.13. 


Red Sox's Allen Craig 'ready' in case Hanley Ramirez misses time
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:01 am ET) Red Sox outfielder Allen Craig could be facing an increase in playing time after Hanley Ramirez suffered a shoulder injury while crashing into an outfield wall Monday. Craig said he'll "be ready" for the challenge if needed, the Boston Herald reports.

"I enjoy playing the game as much as possible," Craig said Monday night. "Like I said before, you never want to get an opportunity because of someone’s injury, but I don’t want to jump the gun on anything. I hope Hanley’s OK. If my name’s called, I’ll be ready."

Craig replaced Ramirez in Monday's game and went 1 for 4 in his team's 5-1 loss to the Rays. He has hit .146/.222/.220 with one home run and two RBI in 41 at-bats.


Padres P Tyson Ross goes 7 innings in loss to Giants
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(12:59 am ET) Padres pitcher Tyson Ross gave up only two runs but earned a loss in Monday night's 2-0 defeat against the Giants. 

Ross went seven innings and struck out five batters. He surrendered seven hits and walked three batters. Ross now has an ERA of 4.15 for the season. 

Ross' next start is projected for Saturday against the Diamondbacks. 


 
 
 
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