While drinking my morning quart of coffee I happened upon an article by Miles Wray of Fangraphs. It is titled "Why Jung-Ho Kang Doesn't Need to be a Brilliant Fielder." As you might guess from the title, it's about why Jung-Ho Kang doesn't need to be a brilliant fielder. But the article is also about how the Pirates' usage of defensive shifts allow their pitchers to beat out their FIP, even if they employ below average fielders.
One part of the article really jumped out at me. Wray highlights the four teams in the NL that utilize defensive shifts the most according to "The Bill James Handbook 2015". It probably won't surprise Brewers fan to learn their team was first in 2013 and second in 2014. That made me wonder if perhaps the same criteria Wray applies to the Pirates also applies to the Brewers.
In his article, Wray points out the Pirates have had a below average BABIP for the last three years and compares it to the quality of their fielders by UZR. Over that same time frame the Brewers have also (mostly) had below average fielders and BABIP.
|BABIP||Lg Avg||Rank||UZR||Lg Avg||Rank|
It's really interesting how similar the Brewers' BABIP was in rank to the Pirates over the last two years. By looking at Wray's article you'll see the Pirates were just one rank ahead of the Brewers in 2013 and one behind in 2014. Their actual BABIP was almost identical. In 2013 it was .285, in 2014 .290.
Their defensive ratings were rather similar as well. In 2014 the Pirates kind of fell of a cliff according to UZR but their BABIP was unaffected.
The Brewers' 2012 BABIP was worse than league average but there are reasons to believe that enforces the idea that the Brewers will continue to have better than league average BABIP going forward which I'll discuss in the next part of the article.
The point here is that despite mediocre or even bad defenses, these teams somehow enabled their pitchers to produce below league average batting averages on balls in play. It's Wray's assertion this ability is related to ground ball rates and the employment of defensive shifts.
Wray's argument for a Jung-Ho Kang's defensive ability not being important (and by extension the entire Pirates team) hinges largely on the amount of shifts the Pirates deploy. Once again, that argument could be made in favor of the Brewers too.
According to the Bill James handbook, the Brewers led the National League with 544 defensive shifts in 2013. The Pirates were 4th with 500. In 2014 the Brewers came in second to the Pirates with 576 shifts. Even though their rank dropped (thanks to a huge jump by the Pirates) they still employed more shifts than the previous year and in general, a large amount.
Look back at the table above which shows BABIP. You'll notice the Brewers had an above average BABIP in 2012. That could be related, in part, to their poor fielders. However, I think it is much more directly related to the number of shifts they used: 46. Yep, just 46. And that was still good for 8th highest in all of baseball and 1st in the NL. It's pretty incredible to see such a drastic change and the impact was obvious.
Batted Ball Distribution
The general rule of thumb is that line drives go for hits most often and do lots of damage (think doubles and triples), ground balls result in higher batting averages than fly balls but lower slugging (singles), and fly balls result in the fewest hits but do more damage than ground balls when they do go for hits (doubles and home runs). Take a look at this table from Fangraphs' discussion on batted balls (the numbers are from 2014):
Clearly everyone wants to limit line drives. In general it also makes sense to try to limit fly balls as they can have a tendency to leave the ball park. The Brewers specifically are driven to not allow fly balls because of the park factors at Miller Park. There is less room for error than at PNC or Marlins Park for example.
By increasing the GB% they're also decreasing the raw numbers of line drives and fly balls. What they're really doing is attempting to lower that opponent wOBA.
As you can see in the table below the Pirates pitchers have been much better at inducing ground balls. However the Brewers have been increasing their GB% to the point where it was slightly above league average in 2014.
|Brewers GB%||League Average||Pirates GB%|
There is some risk in increasing GB%. Namely, it could also increase opponents' batting averages. Here's where the defensive shifts come into play. Since the Brewers (and Pirates) utilize a high number of defensive shifts, that should theoretically allow them to counteract the potential increase in opponent batting averages. Judging by their BABIP it's working.
I'm going to make one quick departure from Wren's argument now. He's saying the Pirates are benefiting from constructing a ground ball heavy pitching staff. The Brewers are doing that too, but another thing that's really interesting is their downward trending line drive rates.
|Brewers LD%||League Average||Pirates LD|
The Pirates seem to have hovered just under league average for the last three years. And while the Pirates and the Brewers share the same LD% in 2014, the Brewers have been trending downward since 2012. This might not have anything to do with beating FIP, but it's a pretty good trend to have. And it does stand to reason, since line drives go for hits most often and result in the highest opponent wOBA, that by lowering that rate you're giving your fielders better opportunities to field balls for outs thereby increasing the effectiveness of your pitchers.
|Brewers ERA||Brewers FIP||Pirates ERA||Pirates FIP|
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs