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 Quintana, Jeff 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.