The Indians and Pitcher/Defense Interaction

(Gene J. Puskar/AP)  
Roster construction.

If there is one topic that has plagued the Indians in the first half of 2015, roster construction is it.

The Indians returned to 2015 with the same defensive composition as 2014, a season which very well may have been playoff bound if not for that pesky reality of defense.

Yet, there were obvious improvements  which could in many ways alter the composition and outlook of the Indians. 

Further, it appeared that significant improvement at the margins could be made if the Indians organized their roster around the interaction of pitching and defense, which Indians have seen occur over the past month. 

First, the importance of defense, if we can for a moment free ourselves of wins and losses, it will help us understand its importance. A positive run differential correlates strongly with positive win/loss records, thus achieving a positive run differential is essentially the goal of roster construction.

How this is achieved, either focusing on run prevention or run scoring is not central, merely the achievement itself.

After two months, the Indians were struggling with run prevention despite owning perhaps the best rotation in baseball, the issue being, defense.

Now,  it is important to note a positive, the Indians pitching staff has the highest K% in Major League Baseball, striking out 25% of batters faced. 

This is important because by limiting balls in play, the Indians diminish the negative impacts of its defense.

Now, we can move to the past month, where the Indians made three call-ups that have very specific goals in terms of roster construction and pitcher/defense interaction.

First, we will discuss the pitching move to Cody Anderson. Anderson does two things well, limits walks and induces ground ball contact. Ground balls will be a theme of importance for this article.

So far, Anderson has induced 50% ground balls, and for those curious anything over 40% is ground ball leaning, 50% is ground ball dominant in terms of batted ball profiles.

For the Indians rotation, here are their ground ball percentages:

Cody Anderson 50%
Danny Salazar  44.8%

With Anderson aboard, everyone but Bauer is ground ball leaning or ground ball dominant, which when combined with the devastating K rates, emphasizes the importance of infield defense for the Indians and further diminishes the impact of the Indians wretched outfield defense.

The other two call-ups that occurred recently are Giovanny Urshela and defensive wizard Francisco Lindor.

So far, Lindor has been worth 2 defensive runs saved above average, and projected over a year compares well to Gold Glover Andrelton Simmons, this married to glowing scouting reports of Lindor's defense makes for significant improvement over Jose Ramirez, who struggled defensively before his demotion.

Urshela, has appeared average to above average using the eye test but has been worth -1 DRS but his scouting report is also exceptional defensively.

Let's attempt to see if the Urshela-Lindor tandem has has a noticeable impact other than wowing us with plays like these:

In order to peek at Lindor and Urshela's impact beyond DRS and fan scouting reports, I compiled batted ball data of interest.
A few notes: this data obviously has some sample issues which are too be considered before relying on it too heavily as Lindor and Urshela don't quite have a month worth of action.

The premise to the data, is that different ground balls have different value; ground balls slower than 70 MPH are virtually useless, from 70-90 MPH hitters produced more favorable outcomes and ground balls exiting the bat at 95+ MPH resulted in a batting average of .532 (Courtesy of Tony Blengino) in 2014. 

Thus, I took a look at the Indians infield defenses ability to convert these different types of ground balls into outs before and after the Indians called up Lindor-Urshela.

The blue columns represent the batting averages on ground balls before the call-ups and the red columns represent batting averages on ground balls of those velocity ranges after the call-ups.
Again, these are limited samples and must be taken with a grain of salt, however, except for ground balls traveling less than 70 MPH, the Indians infield defense has significantly improved in converting ground balls into outs.

The additions of Anderson, Lindor and Urshela have not only increased the frequency of ground balls but also the rate at which they are converted into outs.

Though, the outfield defense is in need of improvement, specifically center field, as discussed insightfully by Mike Brandyberry of Did The Tribe Win Last Night, the Indians have already made significant strides defensively that will improve their run differential.

With this information, I will state quite simply that a high strikeout rate paired with more ground balls to a good infield defense makes for excellent run prevention.

Pitching and defense are perhaps the most interactive aspect of baseball, with the moves of the past month the Indians have made huge strides in improving that interaction and bettering their odds at making a playoff run.
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