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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
Dodgers' Friedman on Juan Jaime: 'He can really miss bats'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:46 am ET) Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman spoke Wednesday about pitcher Juan Jaime, who was acquired from the Braves along with three others players in a six-man deal earlier in the day and assigned to extended spring training, MLB.com reports.

"He can really miss bats," Friedman said. "The limiting factor with him is the control. So we'll send him to Camelback and really attack the problem. If he can harness that even a little bit, we feel like we've added a really good player."

Jaime has posted a 5.93 ERA and 19:13 K:BB ratio in 13 2/3 innings with the Braves over two seasons. He has also walked nine batters in 5 1/3 innings in the minors this season after dishing out 36 walks in 41 innings with Triple-A Gwinnett in 2014.


Angels' Collin Cowgill likely headed to disabled list Thursday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:39 am ET) Angels outfielder Collin Cowgill is expected to be placed on the 15-day disabled list on Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Cowgill is dealing with a joint sprain in his hand after sustaining an injury during batting practice on Sunday and a subsequent MRI. He has hit .180/.231/.295 with one home run, two RBI and one stolen base in 61 at-bats. The Angels added a replacement bench outfielder in a trade Wednesday, acquiring Kirk Nieuwenhuis from the Mets.


Angels option Marc Krauss to Triple-A
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:37 am ET) The Angels optioned first baseman Marc Krauss to Triple-A Salt Lake after Wednesday's loss to the Padres, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Krauss loses his 25-man roster spot to outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who was added in a trade earlier in the day. The first baseman was just 5 for 35 with one home run and five RBI with the Angels. He returns to a .281/.405/.458 line with two home runs and 17 RBI in 96 at-bats with Salt Lake.


Diamondbacks' Brad Ziegler blows save, takes loss Wednesday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:33 am ET) Diamondbacks closer Brad Ziegler was saddled with his second blown save and first loss of the season on Wednesday, allowing two runs (one earned) on two hits and two walks in two-thirds of an inning in his team's 4-3 loss to the Cardinals.

Ziegler entered the ninth inning looking to protect a one-run lead but opened the frame by serving up a game-tying home run. He gave up a single before recording the first out of the inning, then walked two batters (one intentionally) to bring up Jhonny Peralta. The shortstop grounded into a fielder's choice, with the lead runner getting thrown out at home, but a throwing error by the catcher trying to record a double play brought the winning run home.

Ziegler owns a 1.25 ERA and 14:8 K:BB ratio in 21 2/3 innings.


Dodgers' Alex Guerrero knocks ninth home run Wednesday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:21 am ET) Dodgers left fielder Alex Guerrero went 1 for 4 with a solo home run in his team's 3-2 loss to the Braves on Wedensday.

Guerrero was hitless on the day before connecting on a ninth-inning homer off closer Jason Grilli, but his shot only reduced the lead to one run before the Dodgers eventually fell. It's the third home run in four games for Guerrero, who has hit .310/.344/.701 with nine homers and 21 RBI in 87 at-bats.


Braves' Cameron Maybin slugs fifth home run Wednesday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:18 am ET) Braves center fielder Cameron Maybin went 2 for 4 with a solo home run in his team's 3-2 win over the Dodgers on Wednesday.

Maybin put his team up 1-0 with his homer to center field in the third inning, his first home run since May 2. He has hit .261/.361/.435 with five home runs, 19 RBI and six stolen bases in 115 at-bats.


Braves' Jason Grilli surrenders homer, earns 14th save
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:16 am ET) Braves closer Jason Grilli served up a homer on Wednesday but was able to record his 14th save in his team's 3-2 win over the Dodgers.

Grilli needed 24 pitches to escape the outing, getting a quick out before surrendering a solo home run to cut his team's lead to one run. He then gave up a single and recorded another out to bring pinch-hitter Alberto Callaspo, making his Dodger debut after opening the season with the Braves, to the plate. The closer got Callaspo to fly out to end the game.

Grilli owns a 4.41 ERA and 23:7 K:BB ratio in 16 1/3 innings.


Angels' Matt Joyce slugs second homer Wednesday vs. Padres
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:12 am ET) Angels left fielder Matt Joyce went 1 for 3 with a walk and a solo home run in his team's 5-4 loss to the Padres on Wednesday.

Joyce was able to tie the game with his sixth-inning homer, though the Angels would immediately fall back in a hole by giving up two runs in the top of the seventh. The outfielder has hit .176/.253/.282 with two home runs and 13 RBI in 131 at-bats.


Cardinals' Matt Holliday reaches base in 43rd consecutive game
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(1:10 am ET) Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday reached base in his 43rd game played in a row during Wednesday's 4-3 win over the Diamondbacks. 

Holliday hit a single in the fifth inning, which vaulted him ahead of Albert Pujols for the club's record of consecutive games reaching base to start a season.

It also set a National League record in the same category, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"Yeah, that’s cool," Holliday said. "A lot of players have played in the National League. That’s pretty good, I guess."

Only five players have started a season reaching base in more consecutive games — Derek Jeter (Yankees, 53, 1999), Frank Thomas (White Sox, 52, 1996), Mark McGwire (Athletics, 48, 1996), Alvin Davis (Mariners, 47, 1984), Harry Heilmann (Tigers, 44, 1923). 


Dodgers' Zack Greinke strikes out nine in no-decision vs. Braves
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:08 am ET) Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke wasn't a factor in the decision on Wednesday, allowing one earned run on three hits and two walks in six innings while striking out nine in his team's 3-2 loss to the Braves.

Greinke, whose only run allowed came on a third-inning homer by Cameron Maybin, also went 1 for 2 at the plate and stole a base for the first time this season and the fourth time in 244 career at-bats. He has yet to be caught on the basepaths.

Greinke owns a 1.48 ERA and 58:14 K:BB ratio in 67 innings. Although he's allowed just one run in each of his last four outings, he hasn't recorded a win since May 5. Greinke's next start is slated for Tuesday against the Rockies in Colorado.


 
 
 
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