Game 10, Astros at Mariners: Check-up on Offseason Plan
Yovani Gallardo vs. Mike Fiers, 7:10pm
There’ve been a number of games that felt pretty critical already in 2017, and that’s not a good thing. Neither is handing the ball to Yovani Gallardo in one of those “this feels important” games, but hey, stranger things have happened. Including Gallardo’s placement on this list of highest velocity gainers thus far in 2017! We’ll take our good news wherever we can find it, including in component stats that influence actual results obliquely. Yeah!
It’s early. I get that. The following examination of stats proves nothing, because it’s too early for anything to be provable. I know that, you know that, but these disclaimers still feel necessary…or maybe it’s just habit, like much of the writing on this ol’ website. We could either skip any kind of analysis until, I don’t know, late July, or we could just see what we see. I’m going to opt for the latter. OK, so to quickly summarize what I understood the M’s off-season plan to be, the M’s were going to improve – dramatically – their OF defense, and get more fly-ball pitchers to give the new defense more to do. An important byproduct of all of this was the baserunning would improve as well, as there’s a good correlation between lighting-fast OFs and lightning-fast baserunners. The cost of these moves was essentially twofold: first, it’d thin out the club’s minor league depth a bit, and second, it would come at a cost in offense.
So it’s early and all, but we can distill a few testable claims out of that and see how they’re going.
1: The M’s defense, and in particular their OF defense, will be better than last year (and waaaay better than 2015).
2: The M’s pitchers will yield more fly ball contact and less ground ball contact than last year.
3: The M’s will be much better baserunners.
4: The M’s offense will be worse than 2016.
So how’s the M’s defense been? There’s the handy “Defense” measure at Fangraphs which shows the M’s below average, and ranking 21st, but that’s a bit too vague. Let’s check defensive efficiency, or the percentage of balls in play that become outs. As I’ve mentioned, there are a couple of sources for these data – BP and Fangraphs – and both give you slightly different answers. BP breaks it down by component (infield vs. outfield), so we’ll start there. Here’s the page for Defensive Efficiency, and sort by the column labeled “DE.” You’ll find the M’s figure of .691 ranks them 22nd, and is more or less in line with the nebulous “defense” ranking at FG. Sorting by pitching BABIP at Fangraphs is supposed to be the same basic thing: in this case, you’re measuring the balls in play that fall in for hits, which is essentially 1/defensive efficiency. Using BABIP, the M’s rank…22nd, with an implied DE of .693, so everything we can see shares the same basic view of the M’s run-prevention crew: they’ve been worse than league average.
Leaguewide DE or BABIP or whatever you want to call it has moved somewhat dramatically in the early going of 2017: far more balls in play are being turned into outs. As you can see from this table, leaguewide BABIP’s been fairly stable in the mid .290s, but drops to .285 in the early going this year. That’s not just an April thing; BABIP was .298 in April last year, .291 in April of 2015, and .294 the April before that. That’s some odd context to the M’s defensive…I don’t know, slump? The league as a whole has found it much easier to convert balls in play into outs, whereas the M’s have found it much more difficult. Maybe the M’s have just given up much more well-struck contact – as a team, is their exit velocity much higher than average? Er, no, it’s below average, too.
Going back to BP, is this the result of infield sloppiness? Are the OFs to blame at all? BP’s measure of IF defensive efficiency does show that it’s been the primary culprit, as they rank 20th in IF DE. But their OF DE only ranks 16th, not at all what you’d expect. I’m not sure I would’ve expected that out of the IF either, to be frank, but that’s a concerning figure for the OF. At this point, and we’re already chopping up 1 week’s worth of BIP data into subcategories, the M’s have to hope that this is purely noise. Whether fluky pop flies (like Gattis’ “double” last night) or bad positioning, the M’s haven’t been able to convert as many fly balls into outs as their peers, and that this won’t continue. But even that implies that defense, pace the old saying, might slump. Or go through a rough patch of balls in play. Either way, you can’t count on defense suppressing BABIP all the time. You just have to hope to see evidence of it at the season level.
BP’s DE page also shows the distribution of balls in play. It shows Seattle with a GB% of 47.1%, or 10th highest in baseball. Last year, they were way down at 44.62%, or 22nd. This is just balls in play, so it avoids the shockingly high number of fly balls that have flown over the fence. Fangraphs’ shows the M’s with the 26th-highest FB% overall, and the 11th highest GB%. It’s not quite AS bad, but the M’s have absolutely NOT tilted their balls-in-play profile towards fly ball contact. Obviously, a big factor here is the health of Drew Smyly. As the most fly-ball-centric pitcher on the team, these numbers would look different if he was around, but the bullpen’s been the source of most of the ground balls. James Pazos got GB’d to death last night, as did Edwin Diaz a bit in the Unmentionable Game. This’ll be interesting to watch over the course of the season and see if this, too, is just a tiny sample blip, and not related to true talent. One would think that a team built around elevated contact would have a high launch angle, but statcast reports that the M’s average launch angle-allowed ranks *28th*, which of course fits with the batted ball numbers: the M’s have given up more GBs, rather than less.
The M’s are in fact better baserunners, woohoo!
Finally, let’s check if the offense has produced at a lower level than in 2016… ha ha ha!
Tying all of the above with what we talked about yesterday, I wondered if leaguewide BABIP had dropped BECAUSE of the increased offspeed/breaking ball usage. Remember that we found that pitchers now throw fewer FBs than they did 5 years ago, and that the percentage of FBs thrown has dropped incrementally every year. Whether this is because teams see throwing 96 MPH fastballs as every bit as risky as curve balls, or if it’s because breaking balls produce better results, I don’t know, but it certainly seems to be true. So are teams putting more of those bendy pitches in play? Is that why BABIP is down this year?
I fired up BaseballSavant and I looked at batting average (on contact, or BACON, rather than just balls in play, or BABIP) in 2015, 2016 and 2017. I looked at four-seam, two-seam and sinkers as my “fastball” category and most everything else as my bendy/slow category. You can include cut fastballs and even splitters in fastballs (that’s the default at Brooks and BaseballSavant), but in my mind a splitter is clearly a change-up; it’s a way of producing a change in spin/speed, so grouping it with fastballs doesn’t make sense to me. Cutters are admittedly more of a borderline, as some people use cutters as their fastball (Kenley Jansen) whereas others use them as sliders. I opted for lumping them in with sliders, but you should try this with a different grouping of pitches and see if it makes a difference. Anyway, a table!
So the not-fast pitches produce an eerily consistent gap in BACON- balls in play on non-fastballs are more likely to be outs. That’s fairly intuitive, I think, but we haven’t really tested the claim: are a higher percentage of batted balls coming off of non-fastballs? Let’s look at the percentage of balls in play on NON-FASTBALLS, and also the percentage of those balls that go for hits (and home runs):
|% of batted balls||% of hits|
Hmmm. There doesn’t appear to be anything there. The percentage of batted balls is oddly similar, and 2015 and 2017 look about identical in percentage that went for hits. I expected movement – some kind of trend – in these data, given what we’ve seen in fastball usage. But it’s not there. I did notice that the average exit velocity of all batted balls was down this year, which gets back to why league BABIP is lower as well. I checked this year’s average against the *April* averages in 2015 and 2016, and it’s down slightly this year on both FBs and non-FBs alike. Not sure what to make of that, but the more you look at it, the more 2016 looks like the outlier, not 2017.
I checked one final thing: the percentage of balls in play that came on pitches in and outside of the strikezone. Maybe the flurry of breaking balls caused batters to expand their zone, and maybe they were contacting more fastballs out of the zone. Here’s a table of the percentage of all batted balls coming on pitches outside of the strikezone, as measured by statcast:
|Percentage of Batted Balls|
Nope, batters are actually putting slightly fewer balls in play on, uh, balls. But the batting average on contact is down noticeably on BOTH in and out-of-zone pitches this year. Pitchers have induced more weak swings on essentially all of their pitches, and it’s caused leaguewide defensive efficiency to increase even comparing April-to-Aprils-past. That’s really interesting, and it makes the M’s slow defensive start even harder to take/understand.
OK, there’s an actual M’s game tonight. Danny Valencia gets a night off after a rough go last night.
1: Dyson, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Zunino, C
8: Freeman, 1B
9: Martin, CF
The Rainiers won their home opener with an easy 7-2 win over El Paso. Christian Bergman was sharp, with 5 scoreless and 7 Ks, and Tyler O’Neill hit his 2nd HR and added a double. Today, Sam Gaviglio faces off with ex-Dodger Mike Magill, who the Chihuahuas have converted back to the rotation. He was a Dodger SP prospect, then suffered a multi-year battle with wildness (in 32 big league innings, he walked 33), but looked OK in his season debut.
Arkansas…ahhh, Arkansas. The Travelers were swept in a painful double header yesterday, as San Antonio jumped on Lindsey Caughel in game one, but looked to have the nightcap in hand after another brilliant performance from Andrew Moore. Moore went 6 scoreless, scattering two hits, before turning it over to closer Thyago Vieira for the 7th (double headers in the minors are 2 7 IP games) with a 2-0 lead. Vieira…struggled, and by the time the inning was over, it was 6-2 Missions. Yikes. Max Povse tonight, though.
Modesto blanked Stockton 6-0 after an even more impressive performance from Nick Neidert. Neidert retired the first 17 hitters he faced, losing his perfect game with 2 outs in the 6th. He finished with 6 IP, just the one hit, and 8 strikeouts. Wow.
Clinton beat Beloit behind 5 strong IP from Ljay Newsome (7 Ks, 1 R allowed) and 3-4 nights from Luis Rengifo and Bryson Brigman. Danny Garcia starts today against Dakota Chalmers of the Snappers.