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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
Red Sox's Henry Owens impresses during camp
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(1:19 am ET) Red Sox pitcher Henry Owens impressed during batting practice recently, according to the Boston Herald

Owens hadn't faced big league hitters since last spring training, and had something to prove. While Owens didn't have great fastball command during the session, his changeup was spot on. 

"Great deception, hard to pick up," catcher Ryan Hanigan said. "He got me on the changeup today because you can’t see the spin. It looks just like his fastball. That’s a huge advantage."

Pitching coach Juan Nieves agreed, but said he wasn't sure whether Owens was ready for the majors just yet. "Is anybody ready to come to the big leagues?" Nieves said. "I don’t know. We don’t know until they get there and experience the competition."

The 22-year-old Owens enters the year as the team's second-best prospect according to Baseball America. He posted a 2.94 ERA over two minor-league levels last year. 


Brewers GM confident Jean Segura will bounce back
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Brewers general manager Doug Melvin expressed confidence Saturday that shortstop Jean Segura will bounce back after a subpar 2014 season, the Journal Sentinel reports.

"I'm pretty confident he's going to bounce back," Melvin said. "He had a very good September. He had a lot of stuff going on last year. But everybody says he's a much happier person and everything. He's a good, athletic player that we need."

After delivering a .294 average, smacking 12 home runs and stealing 44 bases in 2013, Segura hit just .246/.289/.326 with five home runs, 31 RBI and 20 stolen bases in 513 at-bats in 2014.


Brewers' Dontrelle Willis making a good impression in camp
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Brewers pitcher Dontrelle Willis has made a favorable impression during camp, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

In particular, Willis has impressed manager Ron Roenicke. "He's got a great attitude," Roenicke said. "The things he said are exactly what you want a player to say. He gets it." Willis has also made a strong impression on his new teammates.

Willis, 33, has not pitched in the majors since 2011. He's attempting to make a come back with the Brewers this spring. 


Blue Jays' Michael Saunders: 'No pain' day after surgery
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders said Saturday that he's feeling no pain one day after undergoing knee surgery, the Toronto Sun reports.

"I feel great," Saunders said. "I couldn’t believe it when I woke up this morning and I was walking around just fine. I walked out of surgery just fine. I actually started doing some exercises today and just got checked out by the doctor and he was pleasantly surprised with what he saw. There’s not as much swelling as he originally thought. Everything is checking out so far and everything is good news. No pain. It feels like I banged my knee on a pole and it’s a tiny bit swollen."

Saunders suffered a torn meniscus while tracking a foul ball Wednesday, tripping over a sprinkler head and hearing a popping sound. After initially being told he could need to have the meniscus repaired, a procedure that carries a recovery time of three-to-five months, Saunders had the torn portion of the meniscus removed, which places him on track to return to action within six weeks. While the outfielder is excited to be back on the field in a much shorter time, he indicated he'll be cautious with his rehab.

"I’m going to miss some spring training but it could be a lot worse," Saunders said. "My ligaments are intact. For me this is the best-case scenario. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I’m ready to go. I’d love to say that I’ll be ready opening day. That’s my goal. But we’re targeting more mid-April, on the safe side. At the end of the day I have to listen to my knee. It’s a long season. I’m going to get this right the first time and not rush back."


Athletics' Doolittle hoping to throw in a week or two
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Athletics reliever Sean Doolittle is hoping to be cleared to throw in a week or two, according to the San Francisco Chronicle

Doolittle was able to participate in strength tests on Saturday, and the results were positive. He has not been cleared to throw just yet, but is hoping that will come shortly. Doolittle has been sidelined by a shoulder injury during the start of camp. 

The 28-year-old posted a 2.73 ERA over 62 2/3 innings last year. 


Rays release OF Josh Sale
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) The Rays have released outfielder Josh Sale, Baseball America reports.

Sale was suspended for use of performance-enhancing drugs in 2013 as well as for conduct detrimental to the team that same season. He received a 50-game suspension last August for a second positive test for a drug of abuse. Before his most recent suspension, he hit .238/.313/.344 with four home runs and 46 RBI in 323 at-bats with high Class A Charlotte.


Yankees' Cashman downplays Bailey's chances of making team
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Yankees general manager Brian Cashman downplayed reliever Andrew Bailey's chances of making the 25-man roster, according to the Journal News.

Bailey, 30, is attempting to come back from a shoulder injury. He has not pitched in the majors since 2013 due to the issue. While Bailey has been able to participate in bullpen sessions this spring, Cashman took a more realistic view of the situation. "It’s one of those things where, non-roster situation, it’s a flyer, and the odds are against it," Cashman said. "And it didn’t work out for us last year. But because of who he is, his makeup, his work ethic, all those things, it made it easier to say, 'All right, let's keep trying,'" he added. 

Cashman stressed that while things look good now, the team wants to see how Bailey will respond in game situations. Bailey, meanwhile, has been optimistic during camp, saying he feels like he's finally over his injury.

Bailey posted a 3.77 ERA over 28 2/3 innings back in 2013. 


Hinch: Astros' Torreyes has 'earned every chance to get a look'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Astros infielder Ronald Torreyes checks in at about 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds, but his success at avoiding strikeouts has manager A.J. Hinch ready to give him a chance at showing what he can do this spring, the Houston Chronicle reports.

"You like to see these guys play," manager A.J. Hinch said. "He can look to our starting lineup at the top or hitting first or second and he’ll see a guy who is pretty successful who is not the biggest guy in the world. I see a unique size for this level, but the way he’s hit and the way he’s performed he’s earned every chance to get a look."

Torreyes was added to the team's 40-man roster in November after hitting .298/.345/.376 with two home runs, 46 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 460 at-bats with Triple-A Oklahoma City in 2014.

"He doesn’t look like a ballplayer because he’s little like me, but he’s a young bull," Astros second baseman Jose Altuve said. "He hits a lot and plays good defense. Last year they put him on the 40-man roster because he has a good chance to help us. There aren’t many players like him so skinny and little in the big leagues, so when you see him for the first time you say, 'You know he has to be good to be here.' Then when you see him hit you realize the organization has a good reason to give him this opportunity."

Torreyes will look for an opportunity to latch on as a utility player this spring. He's capable of seeing work at second base, shortstop and third base as well as in left field and center field.


Yoga has Twins' Trevor May 'much fresher than ever before'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Twins starting pitcher Trevor May has looked to improve flexibility coming into his competition for a rotation spot this spring by turning to yoga to help repeat his delivery, the Star Tribune reports.

"I’ve been doing yoga for 30 or 40 minutes every morning, and I’m much fresher than ever before," May said. "Every scouting report I’ve ever seen on myself says, 'Has trouble repeating his delivery.' Well, yoga is literally repeating moves, keeping your body under your control. I do the warrior pose, which is [the same as] striding and throwing a baseball. It has to help."

May initially struggled in his major-league debut last season, but he hopes the perseverance he showed and his improvements near the end of the season help set him apart in the battle for a rotation spot this spring.

"Obviously I don’t know exactly what the people who are making decisions are thinking, but showing I can be successful after having my face beat up for two months, showing I can work through it, it’s a trait you have to have," May said. "I take pride in the fact that I didn’t give up. I didn’t let it get me down."


Twins 1B Joe Mauer happy with 'normal' offseason
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Twins first baseman Joe Mauer was happy to have a "normal" offseason after dealing with concussion-like symptoms the previous year, MLB.com reports.

"I had a very productive offseason," Mauer said Saturday. "The last couple years I had a lot of things to deal with, especially last year with the concussion. I didn't really get a good base heading into the year. I feel great this year and I hope it stays that way."

Mauer believes that his vigorous stretching exercises this offseason will help keep him healthy in 2015.

"You have to pay attention to your body. I'm getting older," Mauer said. "I'm finding out what works and doesn't work. Trying to make adjustments."

Manager Paul Molitor indicated that he's noticed a difference in Mauer this spring.

"I think it means a lot for him," Molitor said. "I think coming back last year after what had happened the previous season, you always have those questions. He's got friends that have gone through it with Corey Koskie and Justin [Morneau]. We all know how validated our concern is over concussion issues. I'm sure there was a little hesitancy there. Like I said when I had a chance to visit with him this winter, he's excited to be back and not have to be concerned about those type of things."

Mauer endured a down offensive performance last season, hitting .277/.361/.371 with just four home runs in 455 at-bats.


 
 
 
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