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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
Rays 1B James Loney hits safely in first three games off DL
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:22 pm ET) So far, so good for Rays first baseman James Loney in his return from a fractured middle left finger, which forced him to miss six weeks. He has hit safely in all three games since he returned to the lineup Friday.

Loney drove in two runs on a single in the first inning Sunday against the Yankees, giving Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead. They won the game 8-1.

He is batting .308 (4 for 13) with three RBI, two runs and two strikeouts since his activation from the disabled list.


Cardinals LF Matt Holliday weighing ASG participation
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(12:15 pm ET) That invitation Cardinals veteran left fielder Matt Holliday received from the fans to start the All-Star Game? He might just have to reply, "thanks, but no thanks."

Holliday was voted in, but he's still dealing with a quad injury that has kept him sidelined for nearly a month. The news, however, is not all bad.

"It's getting better," he told MLB Network Radio.

Holliday added that he will take the next couple days to decide if he can participate.


D-Backs rookie SS Nick Ahmed batting .313 in last 23 games
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:14 pm ET) Diamondbacks rookie shortstop Nick Ahmed tied a career best with three hits Sunday against the Rockies. He has accomplished the feat twice this season.

Ahmed had two singles and his eighth double this season in the 6-4 loss. He also scored a run.

The rookie middle infielder has been on a nice run offensively since early June. He is batting .313 with a .360 on-base percentage, .475 slugging percentage and .835 OPS in his last 23 games. He has three home runs, four doubles, nine RBI, 11 runs, six walks, eight strikeouts and two stolen bases in that span.


Mariners SP Hisashi Iwakuma ready to go full tilt Monday night
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(12:10 pm ET) Hisashi Iwakuma will not be treated with kid gloves when he returns to the mound for the Mariners on Monday night for his first start since April 20.

"That's why we brought him back," Lloyd McLendon told the Tacoma News-Tribune. "I said he's not coming back until he's able to get up and down seven times. He's ready to go."

Whether he will perform significantly better than he did before going down with a strained back muscle is another matter. But McLendon is optimistic based on his velocity.

"He's back up to 91 (mph), which is a good thing," he added. "That makes his split better. He can't pitch at 86 and expect to have some deception on his split."

Iwakuma returns with an 0-1 record and 6.61 ERA, a far cry from his performance over the past three seasons, when he posted a combined 3.07 ERA.


Tigers' McCann getting increased PT again with Avila at first base
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:05 pm ET) Tigers catcher James McCann drew back-to-back starts Saturday and Sunday against the Blue Jays after Alex Avila started in his first game off the disabled list Friday. Avila started at first base the last two games after Miguel Cabrera went on the disabled list.

McCann went 1 for 4 with a triple, one RBI and one strikeout Saturday before going 2 for 3 with one run, one RBI and one walk Sunday. 

He has now hit safely in five straight games, batting .476 (10 for 21) with one double, one triple, two home runs, five RBI, five runs, one walk and three strikeouts.


Nationals C Wilson Ramos dedicates homer to daughter
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(12:02 pm ET) Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos didn't just blast off for his team Sunday night. His solo home run was a sort-of birthday present for his daughter.

"Soon as I hit the ball, I felt in my bat that ball is gone," he told masnsports.com. "...It made me feel good for this day I hit well. Especially this day, because my daughter have 11 months today. I did today for her. It made me really happy today."

It didn't exactly make Matt Williams sad. He was impressed not just by the home run, but by Ramos' RBI single in the eighth.

"That's vintage Wilson," Williams said. "Man on third, line drive back through the middle. He's got the ability to do that. That's why he hits in the middle of the order, because he's an RBI guy. He's a run producer. He stayed on a first-pitch slider and delivered."

Ramos is on a bit of a roll with five hits in his last 12 at-bats to sweeten his slash line to .266/.294/.411.


Mets SS Ruben Tejada ties season high with three hits
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(11:58 am ET) Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada tied a season high with three hits during an 8-0 win Sunday against the Dodgers. He has totaled three hits three times this season.

Tejada had singles in the fourth, seventh and eighth innings. He drove in a run with his single in the seventh.

Tejada, who had two runs and one strikeout Sunday, has multiple hits in two of his last three games. 

Since May 29, he is batting .252 with 10 doubles, nine RBI, 10 runs, eight walks, 24 strikeouts and one stolen base in 31 games.


Indians C Yan Gomes finally finding comfort level at plate
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(11:52 am ET) A knee injury and the struggle to find his stroke has pretty much cost Indians catcher Yan Gomes half a season. But he's finally showing signs of life.

Gomes is batting .333 (7-for-21) in his last five games to end a 4-for-37 slide. PITCHf/x reports that he has slammed seven balls with exit velocities of at least 100 mph since June 16 after managing zero before the injury that knocked him out for six weeks. He is simply trying to grind his way through it.

"This game is so frustrating and so hard," Gomes told MLB.com. "And the more and more I think about looking at the board and seeing if I'm getting there, or if I'm going to get talks from you guys where I'm struggling or something, it's just some stuff that I can't even worry about.

"It comes down to good at-bats or hard outs or bloopers - whatever. It's going to work out the way it's supposed to work out. From my career, I know I'm a good hitter. I know things are going to turn out."

Gomes added that he's feeling better at the plate.

"You've just got to take it and know it's a good sign," he said. "I'm seeing the ball well."


A's OF Sam Fuld connects for first homer in 2-1 loss
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(11:39 am ET) Athletics outfielder Sam Fuld started for the first time in five games and just the second time in the last seven games Sunday against the Mariners. He did his best not to let his rare start go to waste.

Fuld provided Oakland's only run during a 2-1 loss with his first home run of the season -- a solo homer off Mike Montgomery in the third inning. 

Fuld has gone 20 appearances (11 starts) without a multihit game. He is batting .250 (9 for 36) with a .372 on-base percentage, one home run, three doubles, six RBI, five runs, six walks, six strikeouts and one stolen base in that span.


Diamondbacks catcher Welingon Castillo hitting his stride
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(11:31 am ET) Things are looking up for Diamondbacks catcher Welington Castillo. Not that his season could have reached much greater depths.

Castillo is finally receiving significant playing time with Arizona and has responded. He has hit safely in 10 of his last 12 starts and walked twice in one of the others. The result is an average that has soared from .150 to .213 since June 10 with five doubles and three home runs.

His on-base percentage of .282 is at its highest point since May 7, when he was still playing for the Cubs.


 
 
 
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