With a short break from a so far successful (well, mostly) campaign for the Cobbers and Linear Algebra and Differential Equations behind me there is ample time to dissect a key to some of the success and pitfalls of the pitching in the AL Central. And with the weather snowing nearly all of North Dakota in right now my focus turns back to My Favorite Nine.
The Detroit Tigers were the only team in the AL Central in 2009 whose defenders and pitchers had an unwritten pact which read something along the lines of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”
The impact of defense on pitching has been widely underrated and unaccepted by nearly all of the baseball landscape until recent years in which Ultimate Zone Rating has allowed us to measure not just how well or poorly a pitcher is but how the defense behind him factors into the public’s opinion of the hurler.
UZR (definition from Fan Graphs) is a stat geek measurement which allows us to determine the real value of a pitcher and more importantly each individual defender who plays the field behind him. For baseball’s eternity the ERA stat has completely dominated the overall view of how every pitcher to throw in a big league game is rated.
There are many flaws of the ERA statistic and this doesn’t allow us to accurately judge a pitcher. First off ERA is extremely defensive dependent and that does not help a pitcher if his defense has difficulty turning batted balls into outs. Also, ERA is based on many factors a pitcher cannot control such as the players in the field or size of the alleys or amount of foul territory and this makes it a flawed statistic.
While it is extremely deceiving in the end the top pitchers almost always end up having the best ERA’s. And, the terrible pitchers end up having the worst ERA’s. Over time ERA, while not extremely accurate, is able to show us who the best pitchers are. For example, take a look at Pedro Martinez’s ERA’s and FIP’s (more on this later) from the late 1999-2003 period. There certainly were differences in each statistic but in the end both of them were extremely low and either could technically have been used to show that he was by far the most dominant pitcher of that era.
The Seattle Mariners, led by former Indian OF Frankin Gutierrez, easily outdistanced the rest of MLB for the highest UZR with an 85.5. Rouding out the top 5 were the Rays, Reds, Giants and Tigers, who measured 43.6. Seeing that Detroit rated 5th with just half the score of the Mariners shows how truly fantastic Seattle was in the field last season.
The rest of the AL Central did not fare so hot. Cleveland (26th, -33.5), Chicago (27th, -35.6), Minnesota (28th, 37.3) and Kansas City (30th, -49.9) were absolutely atrocious on defense. There is no question that the fact that Minnesota trotted out such an awful defense last season held them back when they had a team who should have won the division much easier than they did. This also shows how superior Seattle was to anyone else. They were way better than Kansas City was worse, if that makes sense. Yet it still was not enough for them to take down the Angels.
Fielding Independent Pitching, developed by Tom Tango, is a stat that was developed earlier in the decade which focuses on things that a pitcher can control such as home runs, walks and strikeouts allowed per inning pitched. It doesn’t factor in the rest of the balls put into play because in the end whether those balls are turned into outs depends on the skill of the defensive players.
When a staff has a superior defense it is much easier for them to have mistakes and over a long season the defense will cover up on many balls put in play that a shoddy defense such as any of those bottom Central teams would not make a good play on. A good defensive team therefore will often have pitchers who have better ERA’s than FIP’s because their defense was superior which allowed them to get away with giving up more hits, since a better percentage of the balls put into play were turned into outs.
On the other hand, many pitchers from poor teams are underrated because nearly everyone forms an opinion of a pitcher based on his ERA yet Cleveland, Chicago, Minnesota and Kansas City had terrible defenses last year which pretty much made most of the pitchers from those teams seem to the untrained eye much worse than they actually were.
Often times, the pitcher receives credit whether it is deserved or not based on things such as his ERA and Wins. We all know that giving credit based on those statistics is laughable because ERA depends on numerous things as mentioned and Wins factors in even more such as the offense, run support and the bullpen holding or giving up a lead.
Here is a breakdown team by team of the division and how the defense impacted the main pitchers on each team:
Defenders (measured by UZR):
Clete Thomas, RF, 11.6 (47 starts)
Placido Polanco, 2B, 11.4 (146)
Brandon Inge, 3B, 9.4 (157)
Adam Everett, SS, 8.9 (107)
Josh Anderson + Ryan Raburn, LF, 10.8 (74)
Magglio Ordonez, RF, -2.8 (102)
These ratings show that Detroit was, on a scale from 1 to freaking amazing, off the charts defensively on the infield in 2009. Also, the outfield was solid as well and Ordonez was the only really sub par regular. With such a great infield defense, Tiger pitchers were able to generate lots of ground balls were bailed out many times by their infielders.
Justin Verlander: 36.0 GB%, 3.45 ERA, 2.80 FIP (no surprise, not a lot of GB)
Edwin Jackson: 39.1%, 3.62, 4.28
Rick Porcello: 54.2%, 3.96, 4.77 (huge benefactor, wildly overrated in 2009)
Armando Galarraga: 39.9%, 5.64, 5.47
Zach Miner: 45.1%, 4,29, 4.83
Fernando Rodney: 57.9%, 4.40, 4.56
Brandon Lyon: 47.2%, 2.86, 4.06
Ryan Perry: 41.5%, 3.79, 4.52
Overall, 10 of Detroit’s top 16 pitchers looked better (ERA) than they actually were (FIP) due to the defense which was led by Inge, Polanco and Everett on the infield. With even an average defense Detroit would not even have been in the division race in September.
Chicago White Sox
Jayson Nix, 2B, 4.4 (48)
Gordon Beckham, 3B, -2.0 (102)
Scott Podsednik, LF, -2.0 (67)
Josh Fields, 3B, -4.7 (47)
Chris Getz, 2B, -4.9 (100)
Carlos Quentin, LF, -15.0 (87)
Jermaine Dye, RF, -20.0 (133)
With no elite defenders it is no surprise that the White Sox struggled in 2009. When the combination of Quentin and Dye were in the corners it especially hurt to be the starting pitcher for Chicago. And, there really isn’t a lot to get excited about since the South Siders probably won’t have an elite one in 2010 either. Remember, they added stone glove 3B/OF Mark Teahan from Kansas City and that will not help one bit.
Mark Buehrle: 3.84 ERA, 4.46 FIP (is there a correlation between him working fast and the solid defense behind him?)
John Danks: 3.77, 4.59
Gavin Floyd: 4.06, 3.77
Jose Contreras: 5.42, 4.13
Clayton Richard: 4.65, 4.42
D.J. Carrasco: 3.76, 3.46
Matt Thornton: 2.74, 2.46
Octavio Dotel: 3.32, 3.88
Scott Linebrink: 4.66, 4.61
Jake Peavy: 1.35, 2.85
Overall, just 6 of the 10 top White Sox pitchers (including Peavy) actually looked worse than they pitched. That might actually mean things could tick downward even more next year unless they get defensive help somewhere in the outfield. And they are kidding themselves if they think Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones and Alex Rios (why did they take on all that money?!?!?) are going to patch things up.
Joe Crede, 3B, 12.5 (84)
Carlos Gomez, CF, 7.3 (86)
Denard Span, LF, 6.0 (45)
Nick Punto, 2B, 3.3 (58)
Span, CF, -3.3 (75)
Matt Tolbert, 2B, -3.4 (31)
Jason Kubel, RF, -4.8 (28)
Brendan Harris, 3B, -5.0 (34)
Orlando Cabrera, SS, -6.2 (57)
Alexi Casilla, 2B, -9.6 (64)
Delmon Young, LF, -16.4 (93)
Michael Cuddyer, RF, -16.9 (112)
One of the biggest myths in baseball is that the Twins win with defense and that they are one of the top defensive teams in MLB. They are a team full of fly ball pitchers and they started Young 93 times, Span 75 times and Cuddyer 112 times at positions they cannot play close to average at defensively. The middle infield and outfield were as bad as any in baseball in 2009. In 2010 they hands down will have the worst outfield defense in baseball as they let Gomez go and are going with Young in LF, Span in CF and Cuddyer in RF with Kubel filling in at the corners when need be. They are going to need to really mash next year.
Scott Baker: 47.1 FB%, 4.37 ERA, 4.08 FIP
Nick Blackburn: 36.5%, 4.03, 4.37
Francisco Liriano: 41.2%, 5.80, 4.87
Glen Perkins: 38.7%, 5.89, 4.66
Kevin Slowey: 48.0%, 4.86, 4.26
Brian Duensing: 39.8%, 3.64, 4.13
Carl Pavano: 38.9%, 4.64, 3.50
Joe Nathan: 47.1%, 2.10, 2.88
R.A. Dickey: 34.9%, 4.62, 4.99
Matt Guerrier: 39.7%, 2.36, 4.35
Anthony Swarzak: 44.5%, 6.25, 5.71
Jose Mijares: 50.6%, 2.34, 4.01
With this collection of arms (14/24 look worse than they really are) who don’t keep the ball on the ground much it should be pretty interesting to see the Twins outfield run after fly balls in 2010. I don’t see how that outfield defense will work out. But, I guess they must know something I don’t. I still certainly expect to see Minnesota win the division by 5-7 games, but the defense won’t be the reason why.
Kansas City Royals
David DeJesus, LF, 14.9 (138)
Coco Crisp, CF, 4.5 (49)
Mike Aviles, SS, -2.7 (33)
Willie Bloomquist, SS, -3.4 (29)
Mark Teahan, RF, -4.7 (31)
Billy Butler, 1B, -6.7 (143)
Teahan, 3B, -6.9, (99)
Alberto Callaspo, 2B, -7.3 (142)
Yuniesky Betancourt, SS, -13.0 (70)
Jose Guillen, RF, -16.0 (64)
There really is little here other than DeJesus (since Crisp is already gone) that is a positive defensive player. I’m not sure if the Royals will ever figure things out and I don’t really care. They are pretty much irrelevant so I’m not going to analyze them too much.
Zack Greinke: 2.16 ERA, 2.33 FIP (stud no matter who is playing behind him)
Brian Bannister: 4.73, 4.14
Luke Hochevar: 6.55, 4.84
Gil Meche: 5.09, 4.76
Kyle Davies: 5.27, 5.31
Rob Tejada: 3.54, 3.60
Jamey Wright: 4.33, 4.83
Bruce Chen: 5.78, 5.55
Sidney Ponson: 7.36, 4.72 (needs more plays behind him)
Juan Cruz: 5.72, 4.92
Again, not much to say about the Royals. Due to porous defense 6 of their 10 pitchers suffered because nobody could help them out defensively.
Ryan Garko, 1B, 4.4 (47)
Mark DeRosa, 3B, -3.7 (41)
Jhonny Peralta, 3B, -3.7 (102)
Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, -4.3 (99)
Ben Francisco, CF, -4.9 (31)
Luis Valbuena, 2B, -5.1 (75)
Michael Brantley, CF, -7.3 (19)
Ben Francisco, LF, -7.9 (43)
A few things stand out about these numbers. Ryan Garko, never one to be thought of as a solid defender was the best we had until he left town. Ben Francisco, the so called “defensive thrown in” in the Cliff Lee trade was about as far from a defensive ace as one can be. Let’s hope Brantley’s struggles are because he was adjusting to center (he is a natural left fielder) and simply adjusting from AAA to Cleveland. Also, Asdrubal Cabrera really didn’t play any better defensively at short than Peralta did and the young, quick Cabrera-Valbuena duo that looks good really wasn’t in 2009.
Joe Smith: 3.44 ERA, 4.01 FIP
Chris Perez: 4.32, 4.12
Kerry Wood: 4.25, 4.15
Tony Sipp: 2.93, 4.20
Jess Todd: 7.40, 4.26
Justin Masterson: 4.55, 4.35
Aaron Laffey: 4.44, 4.54
David Huff: 5.61, 4.69
Jeremy Sowers: 5.25, 4.77
Rafael Perez: 7.31, 4.81
Jensen Lewis: 4.61, 5.18
Fausto Carmona: 6.32, 5.36 (who is least accurate, Derek Anderson, Shaq on free throws or Carmona?)
Anthony Reyes: 6.57, 5.60
Carlos Carrasco: 8.87, 7.08
All of these players are potentially options in Cleveland in 2010 and 10 of the 14 looked worse than they actually were in 2009. If the Indians had defenders such as Inge, Polanco and Everett a few of these guys would look like rising stars. None of these pitchers has shown enough to be considered a sure lock for a long term rotation job, things would look much brighter for them all if the defense was better.
Whether it is fair or not for these pitchers personally, the difference between them having a good and bad defense can end up costing that pitcher millions of dollars in contract money during their career.
Overall, with all of the Central teams middling in defensive mediocrity at best and Detroit slipping down to the pack with Polanco gone the division will be won with hitting and who can avoid the most defensive mistakes in 2010.
Even though the Twins, Royals, White Sox and Tribe had difficulty catching the ball in 2009 it is safe to say Braylon Edwards had more trouble in that department.
With casual baseball followers earned run average functions much like batting average does for hitters. The typical fan notices a .310 average or a 3.22 ERA and immediately believes that the player boasting those numbers is a star.
The real question lies in how the player attained those numbers. A .310 average with few walks and extra base hits is much less valuable than a .270 hitter with tons of walks and many extra base hits. The same can be said for pitchers. A pitcher with a 3.20 ERA and 3.90 FIP is less valuable than a pitcher with a 3.90 ERA and 3.20 FIP even though to the untrained eye this may be difficult to swallow.
In a related note, is a player more valuable who scores 20 points on 10-24 shooting or a player who gets 14 on 7-9 shooting? I’d take the 7-9 player but most people only look at the “money” stats such as points, home runs or touchdowns.
While OPS is finally becoming a mainstream baseball stat, as it should be, FIP has yet to capture the eyes of American baseball fans. OPS is a much more telling way to measure the total value of the batter while he is in the box and FIP is one that measures the pitcher on the bump given only factors he can control.
It’s time the defense’s from the Indians, White Sox, Twins and Royals started scratching the backs of the hurlers they play behind.