On Groundballs, and Those Who Hope to Field Them

After the Indians traded for Derek Lowe, Aaron Gleeman from Hardball Talk tweeted the following:

Which is sort of amazing if you think about it.  Here are the details on the probable five Indians starters going into the 2012 season:





Justin Masterson





Ubaldo Jimenez





Fausto Carmona





Derek Lowe





Josh Tomlin





For reference, the median groundball rate in 2011 was around 46%, so that’s four out of five starters with a better-than-average tendency to put the ball on the ground.

So after we account for the fact that Josh Tomlin is probably just a once-in-a-lifetime freak of nature, we’re left with four guys we could probably confuse for one another if we didn’t look too closely.

But it’s the offseason, and I don’t have anything else to do, so I’m going to look too closely.

For instance, judging by groundball-rate alone, Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson are basically indistinguishable: both hovering around 55%.  But once you recognize that Fausto’s strikeout rate is one of the lowest among AL starters* and his walk rate is slightly higher than Masterson’s, you start to realize they’re not so similar after all.  And sure enough, Masterson’s K/BB ratio—my favorite single metric for evaluating pitchers—is significantly better than Fausto’s.  Yahtzee.

*Other than Josh Tomlin, of course.  Who, as has previously been discussed, is a shape-shifter who eludes any analytical approach yet devised by mere mortals.

Judging by K/BB, Derek Lowe tends to look quite a bit like Fausto.  A serious groundballer who struggles with his control.  There are, however, some differences to take note of.   For one thing, Derek Lowe averaged only 0.67 home runs per nine innings pitched in 2011, while Fausto—despite his groundball tendencies—somehow managed to have the ninth highest rate in the AL at 1.05.  Also, never before has Derek Lowe walked as many batters as he did last year, whereas Fausto hasn’t had a walk-rate as low as he did in 2011 since 2007.  In other words, Derek Lowe will probably walk fewer batters than Fausto going forward.  Finally, it’s just not all that likely that a guy who has given up hits on balls in play at a .295 clip for his career is going to repeat the .327 line he had in 2011, which is what Derek Lowe did last year.

So what does any of this mean about Derek Lowe and our 2012 rotation going forward?  Well, for one thing, we’re going to be leaning more heavily than ever on the infield defense next season.  Which, if you’ve been paying attention, is kind of a scary proposition.  I don’t think anyone is quite ready to give a gold glove to either of the rookies; both Kipnis and Chisenhall have not been well-regarded defenders throughout their minor league careers.  Furthermore, while Asdrubal has a serious penchant for the amazing, most defensive metrics suggest his range and dependability aren’t quite what they should be.  And please, don’t get me started on first base.  In other words, if this staff is going to be successful, the defense will have to take a big step forward next year.

But there’s plenty of reason to think that’s possible.  Both Chisenhall and Kipnis are adjusting to new positions (Kipnis was an outfielder in college while Chiz played SS until going pro), so they have a real opportunity to continue to refine their defensive skills.  And while I’m not overly optimistic about adding an impact first baseman, there’s no reason that we can’t add a piece who’s above average defensively.  I heard Adrian Gonzalez just won a gold glove…

Either way, it would seem that the die has been cast by the Indians’ front office.  If you’re going to fill a rotation with guys who are among the best in the game at getting the batter to put the ball on the ground, you better make sure the guys behind them can field a little bit.

I can hear Jack Hannahan’s agent salivating now.

  • Harv 21

    So, Jon, beer me this: what do your stats say about the defensive impact a first baseman makes compared to the other infielders? My eyes, with no holy stats in support, say it’s more important to be strong up the middle, as the lion’s share of the grounders are between the hole at short and four steps to the left of the second baseman. Also seems that there are in any given era just a few really good defensive first basemen, but like left field it’s often used as a dumping ground to hide a big stick doofus.

    Any statistical insight?

  • Lyon

    I’d take having Hanahan around. Especially with all these groundballs we’ll have, if some of the youngsters struggle in the field, you’ll have him and Donald to fill the holes.

  • NJ

    @1- I don’t have specific stats to address the question, but Bill James wrote in his Baseball Abstract 1988:

    “The defensive spectrum looks like this:
    1B – LF – RF – 3B – CF – 2B – SS – C

    with the basic premise being that positions at the right end of the spectrum are more difficult than the positions at the left end of the spectrum. Players can generally move from right to left along the specturm successfully during their careers.”

  • I just ran the Standard Dev’s of the top 100 MLB starters ranked by WAR. Derek Lowe is well outside the second SD, placing him in the top five percent of pitchers in terms of ground balls – pretty insane, actually.

  • lstavole13

    Having a 1st baseman that can field is important, and one who can catch errant throws can sometimes make a seemingly impossible play possible. Its not as difficult a position defensively, but you see a lot of plays inherently. However, having a 3rd baseman that can throw it across the diamond successfully and consistently is better than having a 1st basemen that can catch the occasional crazy throw.

  • Pale Dragon

    Our defense wasn’t THAT bad last year, was it? It certainly was an improvement over 2010 (not saying much, granted).

  • NJ

    We had the third worst UZR in baseball.

    When you think about it, it really isn’t that surprising. Hannahan was great at 3B, but he was platooning. You had Ocab, ACab, and rookies up the middle. Santana, Laporta, and Duncan played first (meaning our best defensive 1B may have been a catcher). LF had Brantley and company (Duncan too). CF was mostly rookie Carera, hobbled Sizemore, and bad-angle Brantley. Choo played right and, cannon arm aside, he’s always good for one bonehead play a week.

    It wasn’t exactly an impressive group.

  • BisonDeleSightings

    Jon, you suggest that Lowe is likely to rebound this year based on his career-high walk rate and high BABIP last year. Personally, I think his decline is more due to his age (38) and the ever-so-popular “diminishing skills.”

    I think this situation closely mirrors the Indians’ signing of a 38-year-old Jack Morris in ’94. His BB/9 and BABIP numbers spiked in ’93. Turns out, it’s just because he was old and bad.

  • Karsten

    So many people mock us for grabbing Derek Lowe, but I don’t doubt the Indians, knowing that they are one of the first teams to incorporate Moneyball-style decisions, and here’s a good reason why.