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The Indians and Pitcher-Defense Optimization

The Indians team construction is a constantly fascinating topic which requires an attuned focus on many layers of information. At times optimization of the pitcher-defense interaction occurs more based on the delightful luck of circumstance rather than any brilliant design, which brings us to the 2016 Cleveland Indians.

First, for the sake of this analysis I must establish defensive strengths of the Indians. Three Indians grade as above average defenders for DRS(defensive runs saved) purposes in 2016: Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, and Lonnie Chisenhall. Of course others have had positive grades in non-existant samples but those are the best defenders.

This is the second consecutive season Kipnis has graded out just a tick above average, something I find surprising but will accept. Lindor will win multiple gold gloves in his career so there is no surprise, and finally Chisenhall visually and objectively is a plus defender in right field. Juan Uribe and Mike Napoli have both been competent defensively, and visually Napoli is a massive upgrade over the Indians first baseman defensively of the past few years.

With an elite SS, an average to above second baseman, and average to above defenders at first and third, it is easy to surmise that infield defense is above average for the Indians. Whereas, tyler Naquin, Rajai Davis, and Jose Ramirez have been passable outfield defenders but likely a tick below average. The Indians infield defense is a clearly an above average unit.

Which brings us to the second branch of the optimization analysis, if one was to structure a pitching staff around a roster with plus infield defense, and below average outfield defense, it would prioritize strikeouts and ground balls. Thereby limiting the impact of the outfield defense and maximizing the impact of an above average infield defense.

Indians ranks:

K% 22.4% (10th in baseball).

GB% (ground ball percentage) 46.4% (Tied for 8th).

This is fantastic as the Indians are first limiting balls in play at an above average level and second turning them into ground balls at an above average level. This has value for two reasons first ground balls are valuable for the Indians because of their infield defense and second because ground balls are far less likely to be extra base hits, an obvious conclusion.

To demonstrate the Indians infield defenses success they have allowed a batting average on balls in play against on ground balls of .215, good for third best in the American League.*

The Indians ground ball leap in unison with their defensive upgrades is particularly valuable. In 2015, the Indians were 19th in GB% at 44%. So where are the changes coming from? Let's focus on the starters.

Groundball Percentage

Player Career 2016
Kluber 45.60% 49%
Carrasco 51.30% 53.60%
Salazar 41% 50.30%
Bauer 39% 47.70%
Tomlin 37.70% 40.5%

Every single starter has seen a spike in ground ball percentage which as previously detailed is a hugely valuable improvement.

However, most importantly we must talk about the two big leapers in ground ball percentage, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer.

How have Salazar and Bauer improved their ability to induce ground balls? Simple, pitch usage.

Salazar has thrown his sinker/two-seamer nearly 20% of the time in 2016 an increase over 2015, and vast increase over his previous season. His two-seamer is inducing 75% ground balls in 2016! A large reason Salazar has taken a step forward in 2016 despite his walk issues has been the ground ball spike limiting extra base hits and hits in general due to superb infield defense.

Bauer pitch usage has also changed in a dynamic way, using the two-seamer around 30% of the time and significantly decreasing his four seam fastball usage. 

Both Bauer and Salazar struggled with home run issues in the past due to fly ball frequency but now with ground ball percentage spikes they are limiting home runs and extra base hits, further they are inducing contact in the areas of their best defenders.

In a smaller but not moot impact, the Indians best outfielder by far is Chisenhall. The Indians entire rotation is right handed and thus faces a lot of left handed hitters, these hitters tend to pull fly balls in his direction more than to straight away. Once again the composition of this team limits contact and when it allows contact it travels in the area of its best defenders.

Well you reached the end of this pedantic exploration but I do suggest that the Indians ground ball percentage spike is at the heart of its run prevention success. Ultimately, Bauer and Salazar being transformed into ground ball pitchers has created a staff with four ground ball leaning starters which plays incredibly well in front of a strong infield defense. The Indians may not have foreseen these transitions but they are certainly reaping the reward.


*Shoutout to Adam Burke's outstanding play index skills for this nugget.
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