Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense, Part 2 (and other notes from 8/17/15)

Embed from Getty Images

A couple months ago on June 23 in part 1 of “Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense,” I took a look into the high BABIP’s (and subsequently inflated ERA and WHIP numbers) that several of the Cleveland Indians starting pitcher possessed and made the correlation that it was largely in part due to a poor defense that was playing behind those pitchers. At the time, the Indians had a very porous defense that was ranked 27th in DEF rating (a measurement system to reflect how many runs a team’s defense saves). But since then, the Indians have crawled all the way up to be right around a league average defense at 16th in DEF rating and out of the red and into the green with 0.5 runs saved on the season.

Surely there has to be some sort of underlying reason for the Indians improvement in defense, and one of the apparent factors was a player promotion. On June 14, the Indians promoted their top position prospect, Francisco Lindor, to the Majors to become their everyday starting shortstop in place of Jose Ramirez. Lindor had widely been known for his defensive wizardry coming up through the Indians Minor League system and he has most definitely brought that with him to the bigs as a 21-year old rookie. Out of all shortstops in the Majors (minimum 450 innings played), Lindor has the 8th highest DEF rating with 7.4 runs saved — and what makes this even more impressive is that he wasn’t even in the Majors for the first 2+ months of the season. For comparison, fellow top shortstop prospect, Carlos Correa of the Astros, was called up a week before Lindor and he ranks just 19th on the list with 2.7 runs saved despite making the highlight reel on a regular basis.

Another reason for the improved defense of the Indians on a more recent note has to be with the slew of trades that they made. At the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31, the Indians dealt away both Brandon Moss and David Murphy, and then they also traded Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. Swisher was mostly used as a DH for the Indians so he’s not very relevant in this conversation, but Moss, Murphy, and Bourn are all players who played a good amount of games in the outfield for the Tribe and they all had negative scores in UZR/150. UZR/150 measures the runs above average per 150 defensive games. So surely, none of these players were doing anything of significance to earn a steak dinner from any of the Indians starting pitchers, and just removing them from the picture altogether has had to have been a nice change of pace on the defensive side of things for this ball club.

So with Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Danny Salazar having pitched another very solid game on Monday (7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K with the W), the three Indians pitchers (Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco being the other two) who were battling inflated BABIP’s and poor overall statistics early on in the season have all been on a roll lately and have seen big improvements in their ERA, WHIP, and BABIP. Let’s take a look at each pitcher’s numbers in those categories since through June 23 (when I first wrote about this situation) and since June 23.

Danny Salazar — Through June 23: 4.06 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, .323 BABIP / Since June 23: 2.03 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, .176 BABIP

Corey Kluber — Through June 23: 3.65 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, .335 BABIP / Since June 23: 2.92 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, .259 BABIP

Carlos Carrasco — Through June 23: 4.35 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, .347 BABIP / Since June 23: 2.80 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, .238 BABIP

So as you can see, each of the three pitchers performed pretty similarly through June 23 and have also been in sync since June 23. That’s rather remarkable and is likely not all a coincidence. A good portion of the credit for their improvement since June 23 has to be given to the pitchers themselves for persevering through some rough times and for their skills as pitchers with great K/BB ratios, but this type of a turnaround likely would not have occurred without the improvement in their team defense. With the Indians’ new defensive arrangement going forward, these pitchers should be receiving a lot of help for the remainder of the season and make for elite fantasy plays.

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Monday’s action.

Continue reading

Fantasy Impact of MLB Trades (Part 2)

Embed from Getty Images

The trade deadline has come and gone and it was actually very exciting with lots of action leading up to the deadline and coming in right at the deadline itself. I’ve already examined the Scott Kazmir trade to the AstrosJohnny Cueto heading to the Royals, Cole Hamels to the Rangers, Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Reyes trading places, the 3-team/13-player mega deal between the Dodgers/Braves/Marlins, and a slew of other trades, so follow the links for analysis on those. Now I will take a look at all the other impact trade deadline deals and what they mean for the teams involved and for fantasy purposes. Continue reading

Fantasy Impact of MLB Trades

Embed from Getty Images

Previously discussed were the trades that sent Scott Kazmir to the Astros and Johnny Cueto to the Royals. But there have been some other notable trades that have taken place since then, so here’s a look at what impact they may have on fantasy.

Mets receive Tyler Clippard. A’s receive Casey Meisner.

Analysis and Fantasy Fallout: With Clippard heading to the Mets, he is going to be put into a setup role to primarily pitch in the 8th inning in front of Jeurys Familia. As the closer for the A’s, Clippard had a decent 2.79 ERA and 1.19 WHIP while saving 17 of 21 games, but he has been experiencing diminished velocity over the last three seasons. That probably has some correlation to his strikeout rate being at an all-time low under 9.00 K/9, and his walk rate is at an all-time high at an ugly 4.76 BB/9. He has a SIERA of 4.46 and xFIP of 5.30, so he hasn’t exactly been very sharp. However, he should slot in just fine ahead of Familia, and this helps out the Mets a lot considering that Jenrry Mejia just got slapped with a 162 game suspension after testing positive for PED’s yet again, just weeks after coming back from his initial suspension (what a doofus).

Clippard clearly loses value since he will not be closing games anymore. However, Familia has not been as sharp lately. So should Familia falter, Clippard presumably would step in to close games for the Mets. For the A’s, they lost their closer and will now likely turn to Edward Mujica for 9th inning work. Mujica had a good run as the closer for the Cardinals in 2013 with an increased usage in his splitter, but since then he has been unspectacular with the Red Sox and now the A’s. This season he has a 4.13 ERA and 1.16 WHIP and he’s not much of a strikeout artist with just 6.35 K/9. Mujica hasn’t done much to inspire a lot of confidence in him, and it’s interesting that he’s shied away from his splitter more and more since his breakout 2013 season (56.6% in 2013, 40.7% in 2015), and that could feasibly be the reason for a subpar performance. He should be owned in fantasy leagues for the save potential, but just know that he could lose the job to poor performance at any time. In that case, Fernando Rodriguez and possibly even Drew Pomeranz could be given a look. Continue reading

Car-Car Finally Goes Vroom-Vroom With a Near No-No (and other notes from 7/1/15)

Embed from Getty Images

My pre-season love for Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco was no secret as I tabbed him to be “This Year’s Corey Kluber,” but it just has not been happening for the 28-year old.  Despite elite strikeout (9.85 K/9) and walk (1.93 BB/9) rates that were the big factors toward his great SIERA (2.89) and xFIP (2.85) entering Wednesday’s action, Carrasco was the owner of a mediocre 4.16 ERA and 1.22 WHIP.  So he was hardly Kluber-izing the baseball nation and there is one key reason with a couple of causal secondary reasons that was preventing him from the big breakout.

The main reason that he’s been underwhelming and not meeting expectations this year lies in his BABIP (batting average on balls in play — measures the rate at which balls in the field of play go for hits), which sat at .336 coming into Wednesday. Then there are two reasons why his BABIP has been so high.  The first reason being that his 32.8% hard hit rate entering the day was the 12th highest in baseball and much higher than his mark of 24.6% last season, which would suggest that he has been struggling with hitting his location a lot and the batters just mash it hard somewhere.  The second reason why his BABIP has been so high is that the defense behind him rates very poorly as the 27th ranked team in both DEF and UZR. With a poor defense behind him, a pitcher is more likely to have a higher BABIP as balls get by defenders with lack of range, hits get by defenders because of the failure/misuse of a shift, or some combination of both.  And this can be seen in more detail in “Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense.”

On Wednesday though, Carrasco finally had his big breakout game of the season where he came within one strike of completing a no-hitter before Joey Butler roped a single over the second baseman’s head that drove in a run for the Rays. Carrasco ended up being removed from the game after the hit since his pitch count was pretty high, but he finished the game with a spectacular line of 8.2 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 13 K with the W.

I think that Carrasco learned in order to avoid all the hits and high BABIP, he had to take things into his own hands and that the best way to combat having a bad defense is to just record a strikeout for half the outs to limit the defense’s opportunity to mess things up.  And that’s what he did with exactly half of the 26 outs he got being of the strikeout variety.  The 1-hit performance brought Carrasco’s BABIP down from .336 to .323.  Carrasco figures to continue to improve his overall numbers over the second half of the season and be a fantasy asset, but it may not be to the extent that we hope for if he keeps on getting some bad defense behind him.  Carrasco is now 10-6 with a 3.88 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 110 K/21 BB in 97.1 IP.

Let’s take a look at the rest of Wednesday’s notables:

Continue reading

Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense (and other notes from 6/23/15)

Embed from Getty Images

After Danny Salazar suffered a meltdown in the 5th inning against the Tigers on Tuesday and I was simultaneously being asked by my brother what is wrong with Carlos Carrasco this season, I thought about both of those Indians pitchers, as well as rotation mates Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, and did a little digging and and discovered some interesting things.

Here is a look at each of these four Indians starting pitchers numbers in line drive rate (LD%), ground ball rate (GB%), fly ball rate (FB%), hard hit rate (Hard%), BABIP, ERA, and xFIP this season (I’m not including a 5th Indians SP because that 5th spot for them has been in flux all season long):

Salazar: 18.8 LD%, 45.2 GB%, 36.0 FB%, 30.7 Hard%, .323 BABIP, 4.06 ERA, 2.81 xFIP

Carrasco: 20.8 LD%, 46.6 GB%, 32.6 FB%, 33.5 Hard%, .347 BABIP, 4.35 ERA, 2.87 xFIP

Kluber: 22.2 LD%, 46.2 GB%, 31.6 FB%, 27.7 Hard%, .335 BABIP, 3.65 ERA, 2.80 xFIP

Bauer: 18.1 LD%, 37.2 GB%, 44.7 FB%, 29.4 Hard%, .283 BABIP, 3.86 ERA, 4.27 xFIP

So what we see here is that Salazar, Carrasco, and Kluber are all more on the ground ball side of things while Bauer is a flyball pitcher.  So we would expect the first three guys to to have higher batting average on balls in play (BABIP) marks because ground ball pitchers tend to almost always have higher marks than fly ball pitchers, because balls that are hit in the air for fly balls have a greater chance of being recorded for an out as long as it doesn’t leave the park.  But what is odd is how high those marks are for those first three pitchers listed and it poses the question if there is something outside of their control that is affecting them since it is odd to see three pitchers from the same team with such inflated BABIP marks.

The league average BABIP is usually around .300 and the league average hard hit rate is around 30%.  Salazar, Carrasco, and Kluber all rank in the top 20 in highest BABIP, but it is only Carrasco that appears in the top 20 highest hard hit rates and none of them appear in the top 20 highest line drive rates.  Line drives account for a good portion of hard hit balls, and hard hit balls have a greater chance to fall in for hits, which would increase a pitcher’s BABIP.  But if none of these three guys are really giving up a ton of line drives and it’s only really Carrasco who is getting hit harder than the average pitcher, why are their BABIP’s so much higher than the league average?

The answer here is the Indians team defense as a whole is just not very good and is costing these pitchers in ERA and WHIP.  According to ratings, the Indians rank 27th in the Majors in defensive efficiency as their defense has cost them 13.8 runs so far this season, and their defense is likely the reason why the Indians have the 3rd highest team BABIP in baseball. It’s not that the Indians defense makes a lot of errors, but it’s more the fact that they lack range, defensive prowess, and the ability to prevent hits from getting in and runs from scoring.  It could be attributed to poor defensive players, but it also could be attributed to poor defensive alignments set by the coaching staff and/or inefficient use of defensive shifts. Whatever it may be, the Indians had the same bad defense last year, but this year it seems to be affecting their starting pitchers more negatively.

What this means for the Indians pitchers (not named Bauer) going forward is that even though they have excellent xFIP marks (expected fielding independent ERA — measures what a pitcher’s ERA should be if defense was not a factor), huge improvements in ERA and WHIP in the near future are not necessarily a given.  Yes, they all should receive some better fortune and see their numbers regress at least somewhat toward the mean, but a complete 180 turnaround may not be in the cards and it cannot be expected that their ERA’s get as low as their xFIP’s.  However, something that may help is the recent promotion of defensive wizard Francisco Lindor to play shortstop for the Indians.  One player isn’t likely to turn around the whole defense, but Lindor has always been praised for his glove work and can at least provide some positive value in helping to prevent hits and runs.

Two other teams that have high team BABIP marks that also rank very poorly defensively are the White Sox and Padres. The White Sox have the highest BABIP in all of baseball and have the lowest defensive rating to coincide with it.  So this hurts guys like Jose QuintanaJeff Samardzija, John Danks, and Carlos Rodon who all are more on the ground ball side of things.  However, ace Chris Sale and his .283 BABIP appears to be skating by just fine (and should continue to) because he has been getting a lot of fly balls.  As for the Padres, we knew going into the season that their defense would be questionable all around with a completely revamped outfield that consisted of some poorly rated defensive players, and an infield that also looked like it was going to have some issues.  The Padres currently have the 6th highest team BABIP and rank 29th in defensive rating, so it should come as no surprise that heavy ground ball pitchers Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner are having such abysmal seasons so far.

So these are examples of how a poor defense can affect a pitching staff, or more specifically individual pitchers with ground ball tendencies, and it should give some pause to whether or not these aforementioned pitchers can truly turn things around and post numbers to what their “expected” stats say that they should.  I like Salazar, Carrasco, and Kluber, but this revelation does shine some poor light on their outlooks for the remainder of the season.

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Tuesday’s action. 

Continue reading

Can Zach McAllister Be the New Tribe Chief?

Embed from Getty Images

At times, veteran left handed pitcher Bruce Chen, the “Panamaniac” (I just made that up because he’s from Panama, nobody really calls him that I don’t think — but maybe) shockingly mystified lineups with his soft-tossing ways.  When there was a need for a starting pitcher a couple weeks ago in the Cleveland rotation, the Indians summoned Chen from their AAA affiliate in hopes that he could string together something pretty by lullabying hitters to sleep with his 84-85 MPH fastballs (don’t be jealous Jered Weaver).  After two disaster starts versus the Twins and Rangers that left him with a 12.79 ERA and 3.94 WHIP, the Indians gave Chen the good ol’ DFA (designated for assignment) boot on Saturday.  With the vacancy in the rotation, who will the Tribe turn to next?  It’s hard to say at the moment, but let me introduce you to Zach McAllister.

McAllister is a big righty listed at 6’6″ 240 lbs. and he began his professional career with the Yankees before being the player to be named later that the Indians received as compensation for trading Austin Kearns to New York in 2010.  McAllister was never a glamorous prospect, but the Indians gave him extended looks in their starting rotation in each year from 2012-14.  In all his starts from those seasons, McAllister compiled a 4.36 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 7.33 K/9, and 3.06 BB/9 over 332.2 IP, which by most regards made him a below average starting pitcher.  At the end of July of 2014, the Indians decided they had seen enough of him as a starting pitcher and sent him down to the Minors before recalling him in September to be a bullpen arm.

Upon being used out of the bullpen, McAllister proved to be pretty useful as he had a 2.57 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 14 K/2 BB in 14 relief innings in September.  As it usually tends to happen when starting pitchers get moved to the bullpen since they don’t have to “save” their arm to go more than a couple innings usually, McAllister experienced a bump in his velocity.  And during that bullpen stint, he actually did make one good spot start where he maintained the velocity gain throughout that game too, which was a pleasant surprise. Continue reading

This Year’s Dallas Keuchel Will Be T.J. House

When preparing for a new season, fantasy baseball enthusiasts are always wanting to know who is going to be the next big breakout player.  Drafting or picking up a player on waivers for his breakout season gives fantasy owners a feeling of superiority, a feeling of omniscience in some sense.  Whether that feeling is justified or not is another question.  But even if your team comes in last place, you can take ownership that you “knew” Jose Bautista would bust out for 54 HR, or that your hunch that R.A. Dickey would knuckle his way into a Cy Young Award panned out.  So at The Backwards K, there is a series of posts titled “This Year’s…” where I will tell you who I think this year’s version of a 2014 breakout player will be, providing some background and analysis.

Embed from Getty Images

Before the 2014 season, you have to go to back to 2010 to find a Houston Astros starting pitcher that was worth owning in fantasy leagues.  That pitcher was Brett Myers who went 14-8 with a 3.14 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 180 K in 223.2 IP.  But even then, did you really want to own a player who uses his wife as a punching bag and who once also ignorantly and insensitively called a reporter the “R-word.”   (Spread the word to end the word HERE!)  Something strange happened in 2014 though, as not only one Astros starting pitcher was beginning to produce positive results, but two of them were!  Those pitchers were Dallas Keuchel and Colin McHugh.  The fantasy world seemed affected by the recency bias toward the Astros as an awful team over the past few seasons, and more specifically the Astros pitchers, so many fantasy owners shied away from touching them when they were producing early on, in fear of them turning back into big ol’ pumpkins.  But there of course were the fantasy owners who were bold enough, and perhaps knowledgeable enough, to pick up Keuchel and/or McHugh off waivers.  For now, let’s focus on the southpaw Keuchel and see how he was able to put together a breakout 2014 season.

Keuchel, a 7th round pick out of the University of Arkansas by the Astros in 2009, did not put up any numbers that “wowed” anyone at the collegiate level, as his personal best season at Arkansas consisted of a 3.92 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 5.75 K/9.  Similarly, in his Minor League career, he compiled a 3.74 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 5.90 K/9.  And then in his 1 and ½ seasons in the Majors prior to 2014, he was a pitcher that looked absolutely lost, as he was literally one of the worst pitchers in the league during that timeframe.   Out of pitchers with a minimum of 200 IP from 2012-13, Keuchel had the third highest ERA at 5.20 and the highest WHIP at 1.54.  Part of the ugly stat line could be attributed to some poor luck as his xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching mark) during that time was 4.17, which was over a full run lower than his actual ERA, suggesting his defense was doing him no favors.  However, there was still no denying that Keuchel had a lot of work to do to become anything more than an eventual mop-up man in the Majors.

A part of Keuchel’s game that was a positive aspect in his time in the Minors but was not prevalent at all during his first 1 and ½ years in the Majors was his great control.  In the Minors his walk rate was well below average at 1.90 BB/9, but in 2012 with the Astros it ballooned to 4.11 BB/9.  Perhaps that 2012 mark can be attributed to the rookie jitters though, as Keuchel was able to trim that to 3.05 BB/9 in his sophomore season in 2013.  Even so, that was still a far cry from his Mark Buehrle-esque type of control that he had in the Minors.  But in 2014 things started clicking for Keuchel, and he was getting ahead in the count much more often, as his first pitch strike % increased from 62.9% in 2013 to 65.4% in 2014.  Working ahead in the count is obviously a lot more comfortable for pitchers, and it should lead to fewer walks issued.  In Keuchel’s case, it led to a lot fewer walks as his 2014 walk rate was very pretty at 2.16 BB/9.  Another factor in Keuchel’s breakout was the fact that he was pounding the bottom of the zone, as evidenced in this great article written by Scott Strandberg at Fangraphs.  Keuchel always was a groundball pitcher, but by pounding the bottom of the zone even harder, he took his groundball inducing ways to a whole new level.  At 63.5%, Keuchel easily led the Majors in groundball rate.  Groundballs often turn into easy outs, and if the ball is being hit on the ground a lot that means the ball is not leaving the park for 3-run dingers.  So as you can see, Keuchel’s formula to success in his age 26 season was improved control and inducing a ton of groundballs, which led him to a season of 12 W-9 L, 2.93 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 6.57 K/9, and 2.16 BB/9 in 200 IP.

Continue reading