Before “Gomez-gate” turned a pleasant Easter Sunday into knock-down, dragout 14 inning 3-2 victory, there was a very interesting piece on ESPN.com from Keith Law and Mark Simon examining the usefulness of shifts in MLB. The post (sorry, it’s insider only) makes the case that the teams that are doing a pretty good job of shifting are picking up a notable advantage in balls-in-play turned into outs, especially once we account for how much hard contact their pitchers are giving up:
Bearing in mind that the sample size for 2014 remains quite small, here are some points that jump out: If you rank all MLB teams by the number of shifts they’ve employed this year, four of the top six teams are in that lower-left quadrant (allowing relatively little hard contact and generating a low BABIP rate): Houston, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Pittsburgh.
If you’ve been watching the Brewers since Ron Roenicke took over as manager in 2011, you probably have noticed how much the Brewers shift, so that isn’t really news to the already well informed fan. What struck me was the other side of the graph presented in the article, how much hard contact the various pitching staffs are giving up. This is measured in a proprietary ESPN statistic called Well Hit Average or WHAV for short.
|1. Atlanta Braves||2.40||.581||2.77||.282||.101|
|2. San Diego Padres||2.75||.590||2.58||.264||.114|
|3. Los Angeles Angels||4.21||.718||2.23||.287||.116|
|4. Oakland Athletics||2.48||.589||3.14||.255||.117|
|5. Tampa Bay Rays||3.78||.656||2.57||.283||.117|
|6. Cleveland Indians||4.23||.735||2.25||.339||.119|
|7. Milwaukee Brewers||2.69||.630||3.31||.271||.122|
|8. Los Angeles Dodgers||2.85||.643||2.74||.289||.123|
|9. Washington Nationals||3.66||.710||3.32||.322||.123|
|10. San Francisco Giants||3.14||.717||3.85||.307||.123|
|11. St. Louis Cardinals||3.16||.645||2.95||.285||.125|
|12. Houston Astros||4.68||.755||1.64||.296||.127|
|13. Cincinnati Reds||3.50||.685||2.32||.260||.129|
|14. Pittsburgh Pirates||3.79||.729||2.66||.287||.129|
|15. Chicago Cubs||4.06||.711||2.17||.303||.130|
|16. Kansas City Royals||3.20||.642||2.51||.274||.135|
|17. Colorado Rockies||4.19||.719||2.69||.290||.136|
|18. Miami Marlins||3.62||.721||2.56||.308||.138|
|19. Boston Red Sox||3.52||.719||3.41||.321||.141|
|20. Seattle Mariners||3.48||.691||2.20||.270||.141|
|21. Detroit Tigers||3.59||.704||3.02||.300||.142|
|22. Arizona Diamondbacks||5.70||.793||2.11||.317||.145|
|23. Texas Rangers||4.11||.720||2.27||.304||.149|
|24. Minnesota Twins||4.90||.760||1.76||.303||.152|
|25. Toronto Blue Jays||3.85||.719||2.01||.309||.155|
|26. New York Mets||4.20||.752||2.42||.295||.165|
|27. Chicago White Sox||5.18||.760||1.44||.305||.166|
|28. New York Yankees||4.21||.733||3.26||.297||.167|
|29. Philadelphia Phillies||4.88||.807||2.27||.331||.171|
|30. Baltimore Orioles||3.92||.767||2.22||.313||.171|
Seventh place may not seem like a major accomplishment, but it is quite an improvement from their 0.168 mark last year that ranked 23rd in baseball. It’s also a good thing to keep in mind when looking at the fact that they’re 25 points below the league average in batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which often suggests that regression back towards the league average is likely. While they’ll almost certainly see a higher rate of balls in play fall for hits than what we’ve seen so far, avoiding hard contact can’t hurt the cause.
It’s important to remember that we’re currently less than one eighth of the way through the season now, so sample size issues always apply and drawing too firm of conclusions is never a good idea in these cases. That being said, they’ve also posted the fourth best strikeout to walk ratio (3.31) in MLB thus far, which is generally a very good measure of the quality of a pitching staff. Taken along with the WHAV numbers, and the picture emerges of a team that has largely earned their 2.69 ERA to this point.
Going forward, it’s very likely that both the Brewers percentage of hard contact allowed and their ERA will go up. This defense is never likely to excel at turning balls in play into outs, and the pitchers are probably throwing about as well right now as they will all season. If they can continue to strikeout many more batters than they walk and stay at least around average in terms of hard contact allowed, though, the defensive shifts should go a long way and keep the team’s run prevention low enough for the offense to win games.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, the offense is currently ranked 19th in MLB in with a 0.125 WHAV. That is a bit concerning, but then again, remember that so far the Brewers have faced some really good pitching staffs. In fact, 16 of their 19 games played thus far have been against teams with ERA’s better than the MLB average.