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BABIP, batted ball distribution, and defensive shifts: Why the Brewers are better than you think

FIP doesn't seem to like the Brewers pitchers very much. But fear not, there's a chance they're being underestimated.

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Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

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
2012 ..313 .293 29 -4.4 1.2 17
2013 .286 .294 6 0.0 0.8 16
2014 .289 .295 10 3.4 2.8 14

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.

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):

GB% .239 .020 .220
LD% .685 .190 .684
FB% .207 .378 .335

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%
2012 43.8% 36.6% 46.6%
2013 44.4% 44.5% 52.5%
2014 45.6% 44.8% 50.5%

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
2012 22.7% 20.8% 20.6%
2013 21.8% 21.2% 20.5%
2014 19.8% 20.9% 19.8%

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.

Beating their FIP

Now that we've established Wren's reasons for the Pirates being able to beat their FIP also apply, more or less, to the Brewers let's see what the outcome has been over the past 3 years.

Brewers ERA Brewers FIP Pirates ERA Pirates FIP
2012 4.22 3.82 3.91 3.94
2013 3.84 4.12 3.27 3.42
2014 3.67 3.89 3.49 3.80

Here we see that yes indeed both teams have been able to beat their FIP. Remember that in 2012 the Brewers rarely used defensive shifts. Once they started using a lot of shifts, they started beating their FIP. The Brewers haven't been as ground ball heavy as the Pirates so it's not surprising to see the Pirate's ERA-FIP has been more extreme. Therefore it might make sense for the Brewers to attempt to increase their ground ball profile.

The 2015 Season

Here is the Brewers projected pitching staff:

Rotation: Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers, Jimmy Nelson
Bullpen: Jonathan Broxton, Jeremy Jeffress, Will Smith, Corey Knebel, Brandon Kintzler, Rob Wooten, Michael Blazek

The highlighted players can reasonably be expected to have a ground ball rate above 50%.

Looking at that pitching staff, it's hard to see where they would be able to find any moderate to extreme increases in ground ball rate.

Jimmy Nelson may or may not be an upgrade from Yovani Gallardo in terms of GB%. This past season Gallardo had a 50.8 GB%, but it was the first time in his career going over 50%. Nelson does induce a high amount of grounders so it is possible he's an upgrade.

Mike Fiers is an extreme fly ball pitcher, but so was Marco Estrada. It'll be hard for Fiers to perform as poorly as Estrada. Going from Francisco Rodriguez to Broxton is probably close to a wash. Adding Jeremy Jeffress for an entire season could be a boost, but losing Zach Duke probably makes that a wash.

If the Brewers want to increase their ground ball profile anymore they'll have to do it at the bottom of their bullpen. Both Wooten (who is already a GB pitcher) and especially Blazek would be the ones to replace. Burke Badenhop and Paul Maholm come to mind. Each induces ground balls at an above 50% rate. Badenhop had a staggering 61.0 GB% in 2014. Of course the Brewers might decide they're better off just grabbing the best available talent if they think that's someone other than those two.

Regardless of whether the Brewers can increase their ground ball profile in 2015, they should still be able to continue beating their FIP. There is no clear area where they stand to lose any meaningful ground in GB%. If any players like Garza, Lohse, Broxton, etc can increase their individual ground ball rate, that should only help widen the gap between their ERA and their FIP. If the team can continue lowering their line drive rate they could even see a substantial increase in overall production.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs