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Lucas Giolito
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Digging In

Digging In: On The Defensive

by Nathan Grimm
Updated On: May 19, 2019, 12:55 am ET

On the heels of discussing the importance of strikeouts to a pitcher’s success, let’s turn 180 degrees and talk about what happens when the ball is put in play.

It still is the most likely outcome of a plate appearance, after all. Strikeouts are becoming more prevalent every year, and patience has also been stressed with the emphasis in getting on base, but even with those numbers on the rise a ball is still put in play roughly two-thirds of the time. That’s a lot of chances for things to go wrong.

Knowing what a pitcher is working with behind him is important, then. Understanding that the Cardinals’ corner outfielders, Marcell Ozuna and Jose Martinez, are both poor defensively adds concern for fly ball pitchers on the Cards. (Even with Ozuna and Martinez in tow, the Cardinals are, surprisingly, one of the better-scoring defensive teams in the league this year.) Recognizing that the Blue Jays’ infield defense is suspect at virtually every position -- let alone the track they play on in Toronto -- should be a warning about rostering ground ball Jays starters. (Even though Marcus Stroman is having a wonderful year for the Jays).

Let’s take a look at some of the best and worst defenses in baseball to date, and what it might mean for the pitchers relying on them.

 

Dodgers

 

The Dodgers’ defense, by Fangraphs’ Def metric, is the best in the league at plus-26.4 runs. A number of players lead the way, including shortstop Corey Seager, center fielder Cody Bellinger and catcher Austin Barnes. That’s noteworthy, considering that all three play up the middle, points of emphasis for teams when considering defense. Only A.J. Pollock, who’s currently sidelined, rates as even mildly below average relative to his position. As though the Dodgers pitchers -- guys with wipeout stuff like Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling and Rich Hill -- need the help. The combination of the strong stable of pitchers and the stellar defense behind them helps explain why the club is fourth in the league in team ERA with a 3.50 mark, and why their 1.07 WHIP is tied for second-best behind the juggernaut Astros. Fantasy owners can feel safe running a Dodgers pitcher out there this year.

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Mariners

 

Fantasy players can feel less safe about entrusting their pitchers’ ratios with the M’s. The team, making headlines for its offensive prowess, doesn’t have a single player who’s played more than half their games that rates as a positive defender by the Fangraphs metric. It’s the regulars -- Domingo Santana, Ryon Healy, Tim Beckham, Edwin Encarnacion, even Mitch Haniger -- who are the worst offenders, leading to an MLB-worst -39.9 Def rating. One would think that kind of defense would artificially inflate the ERAs of guys like Marco Gonzales, Felix Hernandez and especially a ground ball pitcher like Mike Leake, but their FIPs suggest they’ve actually still enjoyed some better luck than they’ve deserved, likely aided by pitching in a pitchers’ park and in a division that features a handful of pitcher-friendly environments. Just imagine how much better those numbers might look with even a competent defense in support.

 

Giants

 

The Giants’ success in the first half of this decade was predicated on great pitching, great defense and a great ballpark for both of those things. The pitching is mostly gone by now, but the ballpark is still a pitcher’s dream, and the defense is surprisingly good this year, too. The Giants’ plus-20 runs is behind on the Dodgers, led by field general Buster Posey, whose 7.6 runs is behind only fellow catchers J.T. Realmuto and Austin Hedges across baseball. And while the outfield is where fly balls go to die, it’s the infield defense, paced by Joe Panik, Evan Longoria and Brandon Crawford -- only first baseman Brandon Belt rates poorly, and boy, does he ever -- that carries the water for the club. Starter Jeff Samardzija in particular has enjoyed a boost from his environment, boasting a 3.69 ERA that’s well below his 4.93 FIP in his nine starts. It’s still hard to get excited about Giants pitchers not named Madison Bumgarner these days, but perhaps someone like the recently promoted Shaun Anderson can provide mixed league value with some help from his natural talent and beneficial surroundings.

 

White Sox

 

If not for the Mariners’ potentially historically bad defense, we might look more askance at the White Sox defensive numbers to date. The team is -21.3 runs thanks in part to the fact that Eloy Jimenez’s bat is far ahead of his glove, and also that veterans like Jose Abreu, Yonder Alonso and Tim Anderson haven’t helped the cause. A number of part-time players have also contributed to that failure, with Daniel Palka, Ryan Cordell, Jose Rondon and Nicky Delmonico all at least -2 runs despite none having appeared in more than 30 games this year. A number of Sox pitchers’ ERAs are notably higher than their FIPs as a consequence, and even a guy like Lucas Giolito, who appears to be enjoying a post-hype breakout, has a 3.55 ERA and 3.06 FIP that suggests that days could be even rosier with a better-fielding club behind him. Whether he reaches the full potential of that breakout could be dependent on the performance of the other eight guys on the field when Giolito is on the bump.

 

Padres

 

It’s hard to overstate the impact Manny Machado’s signing has had on the Padres. Not only has he been a positive offensive performer, with nine homers and 23 RBI, but he’s also second on the team with plus-3.3 runs on defense. That success offensively has also manifested itself in another way, as Machado’s presence has allowed the team to primarily roll with defensive whiz Austin Hedges, and not the more offensively-gifted Francisco Mejia, behind the plate. Hedges’ plus-7.9 runs is, as already mentioned, second only to Realmuto throughout the league, an asset for a young pitching staff like the Padres’. Add in the pitcher-friendly locale, and you can see why guys like Matt Strahm, Nick Margevicius and reliever Craig Stammen, among others, enjoy better numbers than their fielding-independent metrics would indicate. Also among that group is phenom Chris Paddack, but his success, like Strahm’s to a degree, is as much based on his arm talent as it is on his environment. The strong defense and hospitable digs are just bonuses.

 

Orioles

 

Which came first, the Orioles’ bad defense, or the Orioles’ bad pitching? They go hand in hand together this year, as the team’s 5.53 ERA through Friday’s games was the worst in the league by a wide margin, and their -13 runs on defense tells a similar story. Two infielders, third baseman Rio Ruiz and shortstop/second baseman Jonathan Villar, are the only regulars who rate as above average on defense, and their gains are outweighed by the struggles of Trey Mancini, Dwight Smith Jr. and others. Of course, what came before both the pitching and the defense was Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a notorious hitter’s haven. In all those ways the odds just seem to be stacked against Orioles pitchers this year. The good news is that few O’s pitchers have even raised an eyebrow in the fantasy community, but fantasy players should be careful trusting guys like John Means knowing the factors he’s battled to put up that 2.33 ERA in 38 2/3 innings of work to date. Sometimes there are just less volatile places to look for fantasy help.