Five Numbers: Jose Bautista's Other League-Leading Statistic, Oakland's Magnificent Infield 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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Well hello there. If you're reading this, you're either lost, or you still care about baseball. If you're lost, you can find an exit here. If you're here on purpose, bless you. You're a strong person, and as a reward for your strength, I present you with five goodies:

  • A discussion on how hard Jose Bautista hits his home runs
  • A discussion on how well the Oakland A's scoop up grounders
  • A discussion on how Johan Santana's ERA hides a troubling trend
  • A discussion on how midseason additions like Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick are hard to predict
  • A discussion on how Brandon Morrow is better than even his most ardent supporters may think he is

Hopefully those topics whet your appetite. If they don't, then, well, this is awkward for me.

1)      107.2

Jose Bautista, as many are undoubtedly aware, currently leads the Major Leagues in home runs. By a lot, actually. He's got a seven-dinger lead over his closest competitor, and a ten-dinger lead over his closest competitor in the American League. Jose Bautista could get hurt or retire or just go on a month-long vacation today and he'd probably still finish the year as baseball's top homer hitter.

Somebody will always end up leading the league home runs. What makes Bautista so unusual is that he's Jose Bautista. He's hit 42% of his career home runs in 19% of his career games played. After slugging 59 over a four-year period between 2006-2009, he's come out and hit 43 so far this season, just far and above what any reasonable person could have ever expected. To this day, even after five months of proven performance, hearing what Bautista's been doing still raises eyebrows.

And to make it all even more impressive than it already is, I feel like it's important to understand that Jose Bautista isn't going out there and hitting cheapies. Via Hit Tracker Online, we can get our hands on all kinds of information pertaining to home runs. We can get distance numbers. We can get distance numbers adjusted for things like wind and elevation. We can get angles. We can get apexes. And we can get speeds off the bat.

What I like about Speed Off Bat is that it's the most direct measure of how hard a guy hit a pitch. Distance is a function of speed and angle. To get a lot of distance, a batter needs to both hit a ball hard, and hit it with a certain elevation. Batted ball speed depends on one thing and one thing only. While distance might be the more impressive statistic, speed off bat might be the more meaningful.

And, of the 87 hitters with at least 15 home runs this season, Jose Bautista leads the pack with an average speed off bat of 107.2 miles per hour.

It's a narrow lead. Carl Crawford, for example, comes in at 107.0. Other guys, like Josh Hamilton, Ryan Braun, Jose Guillen, and Jonny Gomes are in the 106 range. Bautista isn't by any means running away with this. But it's a telling stat nevertheless. The average speed off bat for a home run is 103.3mph. Bautista averages 107.2, and has hit 31 of his 43 home runs with better-than-average velocity.

Oftentimes, when a player comes out of nowhere to emerge as a slugger, what can happen is that his numbers will reflect a bit of good luck. Maybe he's hit a lot of wall-scrapers. Maybe he's hit a lot down the line. Jose Lopez stands as one example of a guy who, a year ago, hit a lot of dingers that just barely got out. We don't see that with Bautista. With Bautista, we see bat speed and strength. He's hit 29 home runs at least 400 feet. Yeah, he's pulled almost all of them. No, he hasn't shown any power to the opposite field. But he's killing the ball to left and left-center. He's swinging hard, and he's hitting hard.

It'll be interesting to see what the perception of Bautista will be after the year. As a guy approaching 50 home runs after never before reaching 20, 2010 stands out as an exceptional season, and it won't be fair for people to expect a repeat performance. However, he's earned these homers. He's swinging from the heels and he's hitting his homers harder, and more consistently hard, than any other slugger in the league. And knowing that tempers the temptation to call his season a fluke. Sometimes, it's possible to fake a high dinger count. It's a lot harder to fake a high speed off the bat. All the signs are there that Jose Bautista's 2010 may represent the birth of a beast.

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2)       .196

The Oakland A's are a fairly unexceptional team. They don't have a potent offensive lineup. They don't have an ace-heavy rotation, or a shutdown bullpen. They don't have any big-name stars, or any big-name personalities. Their best players may be completely unknown east of the Sierra Nevadas. The A's are a low budget project, and the team itself reflects its position in the team salary leaderboard.

While you might be quick to dismiss the A's entirely, however, I do think it's worth pointing out that they do one thing really well. They've done one thing better than any other team in the league. And that's play defense. Or, more specifically, infield defense.

There are a lot of different ways to analyze and evaluate a team's infield defense, from the simple to the highly complex. For our purposes here, I'm going to keep things easy. Not because keeping things easy is always the best way to go, but because, in this circumstance, I don't see any reason to make things more complicated. What's one easy way to measure a team's defensive performance in the infield? By looking at their batting average against on groundballs.

The leaderboard:

Oakland, .196 BAA on groundballs
San Diego,
.204
Toronto,
.208
Washington,
.211
Colorado,
.214

1686 groundballs have been hit off A's pitchers, and only 331 of them have gone for hits, for a .196 batting average. The league average batting average on groundballs is .234, which, over a 1686 grounder sample, would correspond to 395 hits allowed. By looking at this, we can say with some degree of certainty that the Oakland infield has been something like 64 plays above average on groundballs.

It isn't the perfect measure. Infielders also have to deal with line drives, fly balls, and bunts. However, they get far more grounders than anything else, and how an infield does on grounders strikes me as the most important part of its skillset. Additionally, it's possible that Oakland's grounders have been, on average, easier to field than, say, Detroit's, or Florida's. Yet, over such a large sample, we can assume that the grounders generated by each pitching staff across the league kind of even out. In other words, we don't have any compelling reason to believe that the A's allow a bunch of medium-speed grounders, or grounders right at the fielders.

.196. It's a testament to the work of Daric Barton, Mark Ellis, Cliff Pennington, Adam Rosales, and Kevin Kouzmanoff, each of whom has made a positive contribution to the league's best infield defense. Yes, Pennington has made a bunch of errors. But he's also run a lot of balls down to each side, as have the rest of his teammates around the diamond. This is one area of their game on which the A's can hang their hat.

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3)      81.6%

Ordinarily, when a starter's running a 2.98 ERA, it can be hard to find too much reason to be concerned. Most of the time - although certainly not all of the time - if you're working with a 2.98 ERA, you're doing a big number of things right, and a small number of things wrong. In other words, a sub-3 ERA typically isn't followed by "yeah, but".

I've got my concerns about Johan Santana, though. I know I'm not the first. Nor am I the hundredth, or the thousandth, or the ten-thousandth. Plenty of people, at some point this season, have voiced their worries over Santana's present and his future. But I don't really care if I'm late to the party. One look at that strikeout rate and it just screams for further investigation.

So far this season, Johan Santana has struck out 17.6% of the batters he's faced. That's a pretty good rate. It isn't, however, up to his usual standard. For his career, Santana comes in at 24.2%, and just a year ago he whiffed more than a fifth of his opposition. Over the past several years, Santana's strikeout rate has dropped from elite to good to average, and given that he's still under contract for $77.5 million over the next three years, it's worth figuring out what's going on.

Santana just isn't inducing the swings and misses that he used to. Batters have taken 1529 swings against Santana this season. 81.6% of them have made contact, either by fouling the ball off or putting it into play. The league average is 80.8%. Santana's career average is 74.4%. Santana, a year ago, came in at 78.4%. Clearly, batters are having an easier time putting wood on the ball.

Why? Well, let's break this down further. What follows is a comparison between contact rates from 2010 versus contact rates from 2008, which is as far back as the data allows me to go. I have some questions about the validity of the data from 2009.

Year

Fastball

Changeup

Slider

2008

88.0%

61.0%

76.6%

2010

88.1%

69.9%

77.2%


In 2008, Santana struck out more than 21% of the batters he faced. Comparing that year to this one, batters have made an equal amount of contact against his fastball, and they've made an equal amount of contact against his slider. The big difference is apparent under ‘changeup'. The contact rate has climbed nearly nine percentage points.

That's troubling, given that Santana is famous for his changeup being unhittable. Bear in mind that that table only goes back to 2008. 2008 was the first year of Santana's strikeout decline. What I'd really be interested in investigating are Santana's numbers from his time with the Twins, when his strikeout rates were through the roof. I can't do that, though, so I'm left to work with what we've got.

And what we've got suggests that something about Santana's changeup is making it easier to hit than it used to be. A contact rate of 69.9% is still very good for an offspeed pitch, but it isn't otherworldly. It isn't up to par with what people have come to expect from the Mets' lefty ace.

We'll see where things go from here. What's encouraging is that Santana posted strong numbers in August, with 47 strikeouts and a good number of swings and misses over 46.1 innings. However, we can't ignore what he's done over the full season, and over the full season, he's struck out a lower percentage of batters than Wade LeBlanc. Yeah, Johan has a spectacular ERA. Yeah, he's still a good pitcher. But if those strikeouts don't pick up, then the runs will instead. It's only a matter of time.

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4)      .763

It's a funny thing about midseason trades. You can trade for a player you know to be great, or you can trade for a player you know to be okay, and that's fine. Midseason trades are all about probability, and the better the player you acquire, the better the odds are that he delivers a big performance that helps boost your team to the playoffs. But with so little time left in the year once trade season picks up, predictions become difficult, and actual performance is less likely to match up very well with expectation. It's a classic example of small sample sizes allowing weird things to take place.

Consider the San Diego Padres. The Padres made two moves at the deadline to address team needs. They added Ryan Ludwick from St. Louis to serve as a potent bat in the middle of the order, and they added Miguel Tejada from Baltimore to energize the clubhouse and bring some depth to the infield. Ludwick was supposed to be the major addition, while Tejada was supposed to be the veteran role player.

How have they worked out?

Ludwick: .619 OPS, 143 plate appearances
Tejada: .763 OPS, 155 plate appearances

You'll recall that, when the Padres acquired Ludwick, he'd posted an .827 OPS with the Cardinals, while Tejada had posted a .670 OPS with the Orioles. There was every reason to believe that things would play out as they were supposed to play out. Instead, they have - at least to date - gone in opposite directions, with Tejada serving as the big impact piece.

From the day he was acquired, Tejada has been the Padres' regular shortstop, and he's hit either second, fourth, or fifth. We all laughed at the prospect before, but look where we are now. Tejada's hit, and over a few weeks of action, he's played well in the field, too. Tejada's been huge, and he's a major reason why the Padres remain in first place.

This is just one of those things you always need to keep in mind come midseason. Tejada has provided a boost. Ludwick has been a disappointment. Kerry Wood has been effective with the Yankees. Edwin Jackson's been an ace with the White Sox. Jhonny Peralta's been a beast with the Tigers. Cliff Lee has scuffled with the Rangers. Justin Smoak has struggled with the Mariners. Scott Podsednik's been awful for the Dodgers.

At any given time, we have a pretty good idea of who's a solid player, and who's a weak one. As such, we can be pretty confident that, over a long enough period of time, the solid players will look solid, while the weak players will look weak. When you're only talking about a month, or two months, or three months, however, the range of possible outcomes is just incredibly wide, which leads to things like Padres fans rallying behind Miguel Tejada while Rangers fans turn against Cliff Lee. Tejada was a low-value bench player. Lee was arguably baseball's top starter. Who's a hero? Who's a goat, just hoping to win people back in the playoffs?

Midseason additions can be important, and it's not like they never work out as planned. The Angels are pretty happy with Dan Haren. The Phillies are certainly thrilled with Roy Oswalt. It's not that they're unpredictable. It's that they're hard to predict, and while the best thing a team can do at any point is maximize its odds of winning a championship, funny things happen to probability over limited windows of time. Players will fluctuate around their established mean performances. And they can fluctuate a lot.

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5)      .385

Brandon Morrow is among the league's most interesting starting pitchers. Following years of going back and forth between the Majors and the minors and the rotation and the bullpen with Seattle, Morrow got sent to Toronto and promptly posted one of the best strikeout rates in baseball. Before shutting things down a few days ago, Morrow struck out 178 batters in 146.1 innings, and his contact rate of 74.9% put him in the company of guys like Tim Lincecum and Josh Johnson. Morrow reached a new level, a level few thought he would reach after seeing him with the Mariners, and the Blue Jays are most certainly thrilled with his development.

When you look at his season line, however, what catches your eye is the 4.49 ERA. Morrow's strikeout rate was absurd. He only allowed 11 homers all season long. How is it that his ERA wound up behind those of Kevin Slowey and Jake Westbrook?

ERA is a cherished statistic. People trust ERA. Too many people trust ERA. And in this instance, when it comes to talking about Brandon Morrow, ERA may steer people in the wrong direction. Morrow posted remarkable peripheral statistics. He also posted a mediocre ERA. Who's right? Is Morrow a developing ace, or an inconsistent headcase who doesn't pitch up to his stuff?

I think all we really need to do here is look at one split.

Bases empty: .312 batting average on balls in play
Men on:
.385
Runners in scoring position:
.420

When Brandon Morrow pitched with the bases empty, 31.2% of the balls in play he allowed fell in for hits. When he pitched with runners on, that rate jumped to 38.5%, and when he pitched with runners in scoring position, it jumped to 42.0%. As you can imagine, hits with runners in scoring position are far more damaging than hits with the bases empty, and so, because Morrow allowed a lot more hitters with runners on base, his ERA rose accordingly.

And, more than anything else, what this comes down to is pure bad luck. You might be tempted to suggest that Morrow was allowing balls to be hit harder with men on than when the bases were empty, but the data doesn't reflect this at all, as Morrow's line drive rate was the same in both situations. Morrow wasn't allowing the ball to be hit much harder. It's just that more of those hits were coming down without finding gloves.

Maybe ‘luck' isn't the right word, but ‘unsustainable' probably is. Remember that an average batting average on balls in play is about .300. The Blue Jays defense has allowed a batting average on balls in play of .297. There's no reason for Morrow to have posted numbers as high as he did, and what that reflects is simply unfortunate batted ball location, and maybe some uncharacteristic bad work by the Blue Jay defense in some bad spots.

With runners on base, Brandon Morrow threw more strikes than he did with the bases empty. With runners on base, Brandon Morrow struck out more hitters than he did with the bases empty, and he walked fewer. The evidence suggests that Morrow actually pitched better in run-scoring situations than he did otherwise. The evidence, that is, other than BABIP. And when that's the case, you have to conclude that Morrow just got it in the shorts.

Brandon Morrow had a very successful 2010 season, ERA be damned. Sure, he wound up allowing a good number of runs. Should he repeat the same performance in 2011, though, the runs will almost certainly come down to something more in line with his ability. This past season, Brandon Morrow pitched better than his ERA. Next season, if he ends up in the mid- to low-3s, try not to act surprised.  

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