Five Numbers: Troy Tulowitzki's Crazy September, Evan Longoria's Fan-Pleasing Defense, And More

Each week, SB Nation's Jeff Sullivan provides commentary on five up-to-date statistics you'll probably want to know. They are not the five most important statistics in baseball, but much like SB Nation's Jeff Sullivan, they're kind of a big deal.

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Rafael Betancourt Is Back To His Dominant Ways

5)     59.1%

And we'll end this piece with something lighter, and something else about the Rockies, since they seem to be all the rage right now. Think about the Rockies. Put them in your head. And now try to name some players. Ubaldo Jimenez. Carlos Gonzalez. Troy Tulowitzki. Todd Helton. Maybe Huston Street. These are the names that come to mind when most people sit down and think about Colorado for a little while.

For a greater challenge, now try to think of players in the Rockies bullpen. If you already got Street, then that's one. But who else?

Maybe that isn't fair. Middle relievers and setup men can be difficult to remember even when they play in major markets that get a ton of coverage. To be honest, I was just going the long way of saying, hey, nobody remembers Rafael Betancourt, and, hey, Rafael Betancourt is amazing.

You might kind of recall that Betancourt had some dominant days in the Indians bullpen back in 2007, but he's doing it all over again in 2010. Nevermind the 4+ ERA. Over 65 appearances and 55.2 innings, Betancourt's racked up 82 strikeouts to just six unintentional walks. Everybody's familiar with K/BB, but if you look at K/uBB - the same ratio, but excluding intentional free passes - Betancourt comes out at 13.7, which is the top mark in the league.

And that isn't the only thing that stands out about Betancourt's season. See, batters have swung at 59.1% of the pitches he's thrown, and that's a rate that's also tops in baseball, well ahead of Matt Thornton's 54.8% and Scott Baker's 53.1%.

Betancourt is no stranger to the top of the Swing% leaderboard. He's just kicked it up a bit this season. Batters have swung at his pitches more than they've swung at anyone else's pitches because Betancourt is always around the zone and attacking. 54.3% of Betancourt's pitches have been in the strike zone, fourth-highest in the bigs. And he's thrown strikes with 69.2% of his first pitches, fifth-highest in the bigs. Betancourt comes right after hitters. He doesn't dick around. So batters have little choice but to swing.

And when they swing, they don't do so well. That Betancourt has the league's highest swing rate, but also one of the lowest contact rates, is nothing short of remarkable, and a true testament to the quality of his stuff. He primarily just works off his fastball and slider, but they're such good pitches that hitters still have trouble putting wood on the ball.

You have to figure this is a byproduct of batters being kept on the defensive. Betancourt seldom falls behind, and is frequently working from ahead in the count. And when a pitcher's ahead in the count, the pitcher's in control. Batters have to expand their zones and kick up their aggressiveness, and Betancourt has most certainly been able to take advantage.

For a team that might not make the playoffs, the Rockies have an astounding number of interesting players.  

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Derek Jeter's Struggles, And Pitchers' New Plan Of Attack

4)     54.3%

Derek Jeter is finding himself in the news these days for a couple reasons - neither of them good. For one, his acting job on a near-hit-by-pitch against the Rays on Wednesday has stirred a bit of controversy over the matters of honesty and sportsmanship. And for two, as he heads into an offseason in which the Yankees will have to give him a new contract, he's having the worst year of his career, batting just .262 with a .698 OPS that is a full 139 points below his career mark.

Derek Jeter is getting the wrong kind of attention right now, and though the HBP controversy will blow over in time, at 36 years old, there's no knowing whether he might be done as a plus bat. It is possible, if not probable, that we've seen the last of Derek Jeter as the effective, consistent Derek Jeter.

What's going on? We've touched on this before. The biggest change for Jeter this season, relative to past seasons, is in his groundball rate. 65.8% of Jeter's balls in play this year have stayed on the ground - a rate that leads the league by a big margin, and a rate that's a great deal higher than his career rate of 56.9.%. Derek Jeter is hitting grounders. He's hitting more grounders than anyone else in baseball. When you hit a bunch of grounders, you aren't hitting many fly balls or line drives, reducing your chances of singling or hitting the ball near the wall.

So we've established that Jeter's become extraordinarily groundball-prone. As a follow-up, here I propose a possible contributing factor. Courtesy of Sportvision and MLB.com, we have public access to the PITCHfx information made available every day in MLB Gameday. Included in this PITCHfx information is pitch location data for pretty much every pitch thrown in a season. What I was curious about is whether Jeter is being pitched any differently in 2010 than he was in 2009 or 2008, which is as far back as the data goes. As a rough means of investigation, I split location into quadrants and identified each pitch as being low and in, up and in, low and away, or high and away. These are Jeter's results, for 2008-2010:

Location

2008

2009

2010

Low In

23.5%

24.5%

27.7%

High In

25.7%

25.2%

26.6%

Low Out

29.2%

30.6%

27.1%

High Out

21.6%

19.7%

18.6%


We see some changes. 27.7% of pitches thrown to Jeter this year have been located low and inside, as compared to 24.0% over the previous two seasons. We also see a slight uptick in pitches high and inside. Accordingly, there's a dip in pitches both low and away and high and away.

To make it a little simpler, 54.3% of all pitches thrown to Derek Jeter this year have been inside. In 2009, it was 49.7%. In 2008, it was 49.2%.

Does that explain it? I don't think that explains it in full. I do think it's a contributing factor. Jeter's famous for his ability to hit up the middle and the other way. If pitchers are trying to bust him inside more often, he'll have a more difficult time of spraying, and he'll end up hitting balls low on the bat, or rolling them over. In other words, I do think that Jeter's different pitch locations have in some way had a negative effect on his productivity.

Which, if true, is bad news for Jeter if he doesn't learn to adapt. But I don't want to speculate too much. We'll see how confident the Yankees are in Jeter going forward. We'll see whether Jeter's really finished, or whether he rebounds from this slump to excel in the future. That we can sit here and wonder about Jeter's bat, though - really wonder - is new, and, in a way, it's kind of uncomfortable. Jeter's supposed to be one of the game's great constants. I don't know if I'm ready for the variables.

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Evan Longoria May Be The Best Defensive Player In Baseball

3)     88

We've talked about defense around here a few times before. We've talked about measuring individual player defense, we've talked about measuring team defense, and we've talked about some of the questions and limitations. To be sure, evaluating defense continues to be baseball's most hotly-contested issue in many fan circles, as few are very satisfied with the metrics we have at our disposal.

A problem is that the metrics themselves are based on an iffy foundation. They depend on things like batted ball location and batted ball speed, and these end up being subjectively recorded on the fly. That subjectivity introduces great error into the results. Throw in the fact that current defensive metrics don't account for player positioning and you have all the ingredients for a raging debate.

In large part for those reasons, statistical wizard and published author tangotiger set up what he calls the Fan Scouting Report. In the Fan Scouting Report, fans grade defensive ability based on their own visual observation. Here is a sample ballot. Fans are asked to grade each player's reaction, acceleration, velocity, hands, release, throwing strength, and throwing accuracy by choosing a number 1-through-5 from a pulldown menu in each category.

This sounds kind of weird at first. Why should we believe what fans have to say about player defense? The key isn't in the individual ballot. It's in the collection of ballots. The project is founded on the principle of the wisdom of crowds. According to this principle, the belief is that, if you collect the input of enough intelligent and frequent observers of player defense, then by averaging all of their results, you approach the true answer.

Whether or not you believe in the Fan Scouting Report is entirely up to you. However, it is not without merit, and the results are most definitely interesting. By looking at the results, we can see which players fans believe have the best hands. We can see which players fans believe have the worst first steps. We can see which players fans believe have the most accurate arm. And, of course, we can see which players fans believe are the best and worst defenders in baseball.

The 2010 Fan Scouting Report is still going on. Ballots are still being submitted, so some of the results may change a little bit. Enough ballots are in, though, that we can take a look to see how people are thinking. And, without further ado, these are the players that the fans think are the best defensive players in the league:

Evan Longoria, 88 rating based on 79 ballots
Ichiro Suzuki, 87 rating based on 112 ballots
Carl Crawford, 86 rating based on 72 ballots
Troy Tulowitzki, 86 rating based on 33 ballots
Brandon Phillips, 85 rating based on 60 ballots

The Fan Scouting Report is positionless. Fans are asked to vote independent of position. What we can interpret from this, then, is that, among the ballots submitted so far, fans believe that Evan Longoria has the best blend of defensive skills in baseball, narrowly ahead of Ichiro and a pack of other talents.

Is it bulletproof? It isn't bulletproof. Longoria, for example, finished well in the 2009 Fan Scouting Report, but he didn't finish at the top. There's always the question of fan bias, as Rays fans or Mariners fans might be a little more biased in favor of their players than, say, Mets fans, or Orioles fans. And there's the matter of visual observation being subjective, and therefore unfalsifiable. These ballots aren't proof that Evan Longoria is the best defensive player in the league.

But they do serve as evidence. For Longoria, and for all players rated, these ballots are evidence. The statistical metrics we have for defense these days are riddled with holes. The Fan Scouting Report helps contribute to a better understanding of just how good or bad some players really are.

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Roy Oswalt Trade Has Given Phillies Rotation Major Boost

2)     3.6

Last week, we talked about how midseason acquisitions can be unpredictable, and don't always go the way a team plans. This week, we talk about one midseason acquisition that may have been just what a team needed to get a push to the playoffs.

The Phillies were 2.5 games back of the Braves when Roy Oswalt made his debut in the uniform. They were, unquestionably, already on a hot streak, having won their last eight games to gain considerable ground, but they were still behind, and in need of a boost. Momentum doesn't seem to be a critical factor in baseball. As the Braves were in first in the division, it was the Braves who had the highest odds of making the playoffs.

And then Oswalt arrived. Yeah, the Phillies lost his first game. But they haven't lost one since, going 8-1 when Oswalt's pitched. Oswalt's allowed just 15 runs over 63.2 innings for Philadelphia, four times keeping the opposition off the board, and that's provided the team with a tremendous lift.

How tremendous? This is less scientific and more for fun, but let's use the date of Oswalt's Phillies debut as a somewhat arbitrary endpoint. Let's look at the Philadelphia pitching staff pre-Oswalt, and the Philadelphia pitching staff post-Oswalt, and see what we get.

Pre-Oswalt: 3.94 ERA, 2.6 K/BB, 4.23 FIP
Post-Oswalt: 3.42 ERA, 3.6 K/BB, 3.48 FIP

That's a pretty stark difference, and so it should come as little surprise that, while the Phillies were 56-46 before Oswalt showed up, they've gone 30-15 ever since. He's helped to raise their pitching staff from good to great, and remember they've performed like this despite pitching half their games in a hitter-friendly park.

The more you look at that post-Oswalt stat line, the more impressive it becomes. The top ERA in baseball belongs to the Padres, at 3.38, but the Padres play in a batter cemetery, while the Phillies play in a snare drum. The top FIP in baseball is a tie between the Padres and the Braves at 3.66, a mark the Phillies have recently exceeded. And, perhaps most impressively, the top K/BB in baseball, outside of Philadelphia, belongs to the Twins, at 2.8. The Phillies, overall, are number one at 2.9, but since Oswalt arrived, they've come at a 3.6 clip, which just blows the Twins away.

It's plain to see what makes the Phillies so terrifying. Nevermind that their offense is so potent. They have a rotation fronted by Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt - three of the absolute top starting pitchers in baseball. That's a difficult rotation to crack in the regular season, and should the Phillies go on to qualify for the playoffs, it'll put them at an incredible advantage in October. Yes, their pitching staff is unbalanced. But as the Yankees demonstrated a year ago, you don't need to have a balanced pitching staff to succeed in the postseason. You can lean very heavily on your top arms, and the Phillies' collection of top arms is as good as any in the league, if not better.

 We laughed when a peculiar series of events led to Ruben Amaro having to trade away Cliff Lee to get Halladay. No matter what the more distant future might hold for the Phillies, though, there's no denying the position they've gotten themselves in in the present. The Phillies, again, look like the top team in the National League, and one of the very top teams in baseball. Good luck to anyone who has to get through this team the rest of the way, because luck might be the best recipe for success.

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