Raise your hand if you foresaw a Baltimore-Kansas City ALCS matchup back in April. Anyone? Anybody at all? No? That’s what I thought. It’s a matchup that’s 30 years in the making and it features ball clubs that find a way to win in vastly different ways. The Royals stole more bases than any other team in the league while the Orioles plodded along the base paths, finishing dead last in baseball, 12 behind the next slowest team. Instead the O’s mashed their way to victory, racking up a Major League best 211 homers in the process, more than double the number of dingers hit by Kansas City. Both teams feature solid starting staffs and deep bullpens that have been dynamite this year when protecting a lead. This series has all the makings of a barn burner. So who’s going to win? Let’s take a run-through at some of the more salient points:
Originally published on highheatstats.com.
The ascension of the Pittsburgh Pirates, from two decade of losing to 94 wins and the NL Wild Card, was not an easy one. The franchise had to completely revamp everything, from they way they do business on the international market to the way they play on the field. Gone were the frugal Pirates of the past. In 2011, GM Neil Huntington and his mates scoured the high seas, spending a record $17 million in the amateur draft in order to turn the franchise around. And while many of those players (top pick Gerrit Cole aside) have yet to make an impact on the big league level, the message was sent. Pittsburgh was here to compete.
That aggressive front office approach in the draft has bled over into other areas of the franchise as well. After decades of doing everything in their power to avoid spending money on free agents, Pittsburgh opened up the coffers for Russell Martin, who was brought in on a 2 year/$17 million dollar deal to fortify what had previously been an extremely weak catching position. Along with Martin, veterans AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and Justin Morneau among others have been traded for in an effort to raise the roster’s overall talent level. And perhaps most importantly, modern-day analytical analysis has been embraced.
Nowhere is that new, modern approach to baseball more evident than in the Pirates’ commitment to the defensive shift. Pittsburgh was one of the shiftiest teams in baseball this season, using one defensive maneuver or another over 400 times. That ranks 2nd among all of the franchises currently in the playoffs, trailing only the original super-shifters, the Tampa Bay Rays. That’s a huge jump from 2012, when Pittsburgh shifted just 105 times and the numbers back up just how effective all those extra defensive movements were. Pittsburgh ranked 3rd in baseball as a team in defensive runs saved and they finished tied for 7th in the league in defensive efficiency, which is the percentage of balls put in play that are then converted into outs.
Every season there are some players with some alarmingly large pull tendencies. These hitters, due to the fact that they show a dominant pattern of hitting the ball in one direction, should be shifted. Bill James and John Dewan, two major players in the MLB statistical community, have speculated that any hitter that pulls the ball in one direction 80% of the time or more should be shifted, but I tend to side with a more aggressive approach, and advocate shifting or shading the defense if a hitter exhibits a pull tendency 70% or more. Some classic examples of extreme pull hitters include David Ortiz, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Pena. All three of those hitters are classic sluggers who have put up big homerun numbers at some point in their respective careers. But other than those hitters, who in Major League Baseball is that pull-happy to warrant a shift on defense? Let’s take a look at a couple of players over the next few days, starting with right-handed hitters.
With the playoffs fast approaching, half of the teams in Major League Baseball are either looking at a playoff spot or still have fantasies of winning one. All that means is that we as fans have a smorgasbord of delicious games to watch between wanna-be playoff teams. Let’s take a look at the 3 best series of the weekend:
Toronto manager John Farrell is now in his 2nd season at the helm of a big league team, and has proven to be a very adept and talented manager, particularly when it comes to the deployment of his defense. For most of the season the Blue Jays have ranked in the top 5 as one of the shiftiest teams in baseball. In terms of defensive efficiency, which analyzes the percentage of balls put into play that are converted into outs, the Jays rank 7th in baseball, turning batted balls into outs an excellent 70.3% of the time. In terms of Defensive Runs Saved, which is calculated by the very smart people at Baseball Info Solution and used to determine Baseball-Reference.com’s formula for Wins Above Replacement, the Jays have saved the most runs in baseball and it’s not even close. Toronto is credited with 81 total defensive runs saved, while the two next closest teams, the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, have each been credited with 34 runs saved. Toronto has solid defenders all around the diamond, and John Farrell has been able to accentuate that with his shifts, particularly his use of Brett Lawrie.
Reigning AL Rookie of the Year, Jeremy Hellickson, is showing his success from a year ago was no fluke, and is now looking like one of the top pitchers in the American League. Hellickson is 4-1 on the season with a 2.73 ERA in 56 innings pitched and has struck out 38 batters against only 19 walks. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that he has made 6 of his 9 starts against elite offenses that rank in the top-10 in baseball in runs scored. Let’s take a look at how Hellickson has been able to have success during the 2012 season.
Hellickson, in his 2nd big league season now, has never been a dominant strikeout pitcher, possessing a mediocre K rate and a below-average K/BB rate. The Rays righty uses 4 pitches a fastball, cutter, change-up, and curveball, all of which are above average, with none being spectacular. When Hellickson does get his strikeouts he primarily uses his 90-93 mph fastball and baffles batters with his change-up, which is his most effective pitch. He accumulates only 6 outs per every 9 innings pitched from strikeouts, so Hellickson has to find another way to get batters out. This is where his ability to generate ground balls and the positioning of the Rays defense come into play.
For the 2nd straight season the Rays righty has had one of the lowest BABIPs in baseball. BABIP stands for batting average on balls in play and the league average most seasons sits around .295. Last season Hellickson posted the lowest opponent’s BABIP in baseball at .223, which means that the average batter turned into a deadball-era hitter when the put the ball in play. And this year its been more of the same as he has limited AL hitters to a .247 BABIP, another 50 points below league average. Some around baseball assumed that Hellickson is just getting lucky but he shrugs that off as well saying “I hear it; it’s funny,” Hellickson said. “I thought that’s what we’re supposed to do, let them put it in play and get outs. So I don’t really understand that. When you have a great defense, why not let them do their job? I’m not really a strikeout pitcher; I just get weak contact and let our defense play.”
Hellickson’s strategy is one of the most intelligent in baseball and he has become the master at manipulating batters to hit into one of Tampa Bay’s many shifts. A year ago the Rays had the best defense in baseball, turning a league leading 72.4% of all balls in play into outs. Tampa also had the best fielding percentage in the league, and was rated highest in defensive runs saved as well. This trend has carried over in 2012 as well.
Tampa Bay’s defense hasn’t been great this season, and while its too early to look at defensive statistics due to small sample size, the Rays have committed the most errors in baseball, ranking in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency. They do rate 3rd in baseball in defensive runs saved, and Joe Maddon’s shifts coupled with Hellickson’s pinpoint location can carve up opposing offenses, reducing hitters to meek ground outs and infield pop-ups.
A perfect example comes from his most recent win against the Boston Red Sox, when the shift took away multiple hits, including a couple from David Ortiz. Hellickson pounded Ortiz low and away repeatedly with his fastball and cutter, getting the Boston slugger to successfully roll over for groundouts into the overshift. The Rays young right-hander dominated most of the Red Sox lineup in a similar fashion, winning his May 16th outing 2-1.
Hellickson has also been able to up his ground ball rate so far this season. He currently generates ground balls on an excellent 40.3% of all batters he faces. This is a very important skill because ground balls are more easily turned into outs and far less likely to go for extra-base hits when they do get through the infield. This also allows Hellickson to keep his pitch count down and work deeper into games, because he can get hitters out earlier in at-bats, a tough skill for young, talented pitchers to master. This will pay dividends over the long season, and should keep Hellickson’s arm strong deep into September.
It should be no surprise that Jeremy Hellickson has been able to repeat his success from last season. Anyone who says that he is a lucky pitcher who only relies on his excellent defense to bail him out is missing the point. Instead of trying to get every hitter out himself, Hellickson allows batters to make weak or partial contact with the baseball, which generates easy outs, creating a very pleasing style of pitching to watch.
One trend I noticed and paid special attention to over the weekend was the use of defensive shifts by the Royals and Yankees. Both teams used a variety of shifts, mostly on left-handed hitters, successfully and frequently. These teams came into the series ranking in the top-5 in baseball in defensive shifts, using the tactic over 50 times apiece, nearly 100 shifts less the Rays. I was able to capture a few of the defensive setups and I want to discuss the variety of factors that go into playing shifts.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals frequently shifted on the Yankee lefties all series long. More than not they used the standard overshift, which looks something like this, which was used on Mark Teixeira:
The Royals played an overshift on Mark Teixeira every time he came to the plate. Teixeira was unfazed by the shift, although he had little success against it, drawing a walk and flying out a couple of times. The Royals’ defense isn’t shifted as severely as some teams shift Teixeira, (Tampa Bay would be one, playing their 2nd baseman about 20 feet deeper) but they place a fielder, in this case 2nd baseman Chris Getz, right in the hole and the shortstop plays up the middle. 3rd baseman Mike Moustakas was typically playing about 25-30 feet off the line against the lefty sluggers, and as you can see the base isn’t even in the picture.
Here’s another look at the shift they used against Nick Swisher, which was also somewhat effective:
The shift worked on Swisher once, taking away a ground ball single into hole on the right side of the infield. Swisher also hit a mammoth solo homerun in the game, so its evident that the shift didn’t bother him too much.
The shift the Royals used on Robinson Cano was even more drastic.
Kansas City played him very deep all around the infield, and pulled all of their fielders about 8-12 steps right. Cano has been a little more pull happy this season and defenses are catching on. The Royals took away a couple hits from Cano over the course of the series with the shift, but on Sunday he was able to get a fat pitch from Luke Hochevar and deposit it into the seats.
Hochevar’s poor performance, allowing 7 runs in less than 3 innings again proves that one of the most important aspects to the shift is a quality pitcher. Without one it just doesn’t work, just like on Sunday in Kansas City.
New York Yankees
The Yankees used the shift as well during this series, although not as much as Kansas City. The Yankees have used defensive shifts much more this season, ranking in the top-5 after finishing around the middle of the league last year. They have even begun to use the shift on right handed hitters like they did against doubles machine Billy Butler on Sunday.
The struggling Eric Hosmer also saw a form of a shift from the Yankees defense. When he came up to the plate the Yankees shaded him to pull the ball left. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter each moved about 5-10 feet left, giving Hosmer the 3rd base line and taking away more up the middle. Cano and Teixeira played fairly standard on the right side, and they Yankees were able to continue Hosmer’s frustrating season. Here’s an example of the shade the Yankees played:
Hosmer appears to be uncomfortable at the plate right now, so it was tough to tell if his struggles were due to a mechanical problem, or if the scouting report has caught up to his talent. The Royals should still continue to play Hosmer every day and let him work through his struggles in order to regain his .300 hitting ability.
Teams across the league seem to be catching on to what Tampa Bay has been doing for years. Its not just the little guys either. The most expensive baseball franchise, the Yankees, are also seeing the value in defensive positioning and is taking advantage of the new information available. It should also be a positive sign in Kansas City that the front office is using the information available and is actively trying to get the Royals back to the playoffs. It was interesting to watch in person how the defenses were moving and adjusting based on scouting reports, and its just another sign of the information age in baseball.