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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
Royals' Omar Infante taking Toradol to fight off shoulder pain
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(12:42 pm ET) Royals infielder Omar Infante, who is fresh off a signature Game 2 performance in the World Series, is taking increased doses of Toradol to fight off shoulder discomfort, the Kansas City Star reports.

"I feel better, because I'm taking strong pills," Infante said. "That’s helped me a lot. I feel it a little bit in B.P., and I still feel sore in the front of my shoulder. But yesterday I felt more comfortable."

Infante has a .229/.300/.343 line with one home run and three RBI over 10 postseason games. He may opt for offseason surgery to repair his nagging shoulder injury.


Tigers 1B Miguel Cabrera goes under the knife
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(12:35 pm ET) Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera underwent right ankle surgery to remove bone spurs and to repair a stress fracture in a bone at the top of his foot on Wednesday, the team announced on Friday, per MLB.com. Cabrera, who was plagued by the injury throughout the season, batted .313 with 25 homers and 109 RBI over 611 at-bats. Cabrera is expected to be re-evaluated in three months.

Giants believe Tim Lincecum will be fine
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(10/23/2014) The Giants believe Tim Lincecum will be fine, according to CSN.

Lincecum injured his back during Wednesday's game, and was sent for an MRI Thursday. The MRI was considered precautionary, and the Giants don't expect to receive bad news. If there is an issue, Lincecum would be replaced on the roster. 


Royals could start Jarrod Dyson Game 3
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(10/23/2014) The Royals could opt to start outfielder Jarrod Dyson Game 3 against the Giants, according to the Kansas City Star.

Manager Ned Yost confirmed he's considering the move. In this scenario, Norichika Aoki would sit. Yost said he's considering the move because Aoki has more value as a pinch hitter than Dyson would late in the game. 


Athletics' Brandon Moss has hip surgery
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(10/23/2014) Athletics first baseman Brandon Moss had hip surgery, according to the San Francisco Chronicle

Moss had surgery to repair a torn right hip labrum. He's expected to be on crutches for four weeks following the procedure. Moss should be ready for spring training. 


Southpaw Cesar Jimenez signs one-year deal with Phillies
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(10/23/2014) The Phillies have avoided arbitration with left-hander Cesar Jimenez by agreeing to a one-year contract for next season.

The 29-year-old Jimenez pitched just 16 innings for Philadelphia in 2014 and compiled a career-best 1.69 ERA.


OF Grady Sizemore sticking around with Phillies
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(10/23/2014) Outfielder Grady Sizemore has received a one-year deal worth $2 million to remain with the Phillies. Various reports claim that the contract includes performances bonuses.

In his first extensive play since a spate of injuries began to curtail his career in 2010, Sizemore compiled a .233/.299/.354 stat line with Boston and Philadelphis this season. He ended the season on a 3-for-37 slide.


Report: Mets targeting free agent OF Michael Cuddyer
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(10/23/2014) The Mets are quite interested in potential free agent Michael Cuddyer, according to the New York Daily News. They are contemplating a two-year deal for Cuddyer, who will be 36 years old when the 2015 regular season begins.

Cuddyer is coming off an injury-plagued year, but still batted .332 with 10 home runs in 49 games. However, he hit .400 with six homers and 23 RBI in hitter-friendly Coors Field and .282 with four home runs and eight RBI on the road. Citi Field is considered far more of a pitcher's park.


Pablo Sandoval likely to receive qualifying offer from Giants
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(10/23/2014) The Giants are expected to extend the qualifying offer of $15.3 million to potential free agent third baseman Pablo Sandoval, sources have told CBSSports.com MLB Insider Jon Heyman.

The two sides broke off contract talks in spring training. The team claimed its unwillingness to sign Sandoval for more than three years while he was seeking a nine-figure contract, per Heyman.

Several teams appear interested in Sandoval, including the Red Sox and Yankees, both of whom are seeking major upgrades at that position, as well as the Marlins.

Sandoval rebounded from a .171 start to the season to bat .279 with 16 home runs. He owns a .333 postseason batting average and is again thriving in that role in 2014.


Red Sox LHP Craig Breslow feels destined for free agency
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(10/23/2014) Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow is pessimistic about the team picking up his $4 million option for 2015 after a poor season.

The left-hander pitched 54 1/3 innings in 60 games for Boston and compiled a disturbing 5.96 ERA. He believes that last statistic will preclude the Sox from moving forward with him and will result in free agency.

"If you were to strictly look at 2014 with blinders without what had happened previously and what you might expect going forward, $4 million is probably a hefty price tag," he told WEEI.com. "But I think if (you) look at the body of work from 2008-13, you can better appreciate the pitcher I've been and the pitcher I will (be)."

Breslow, who yielded five runs without retiring a batter in his last appearance, performed well in the title season of 2013, compiling a 1.81 ERA in 61 games.


 
 
 
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