This article, like so many articles I write, was originally about Henderson Alvarez. I am absolutely fascinated by the way that Alvarez blends a hard, tailing sinker with one of the lowest swinging-strike rates in the league. If you were to watch Alvarez throw a bullpen, you'd come away thinking "that right there is a developing ace." Since breaking into the majors, Alvarez has posted the same contact rate as Brad Bergesen and Blake Beavan. So far in 2012, he's posted the same contact rate as Kevin Correia. Henderson Alvarez throws some neat-looking pitches and doesn't miss bats with them, and that interests me.
But this article isn't about Henderson Alvarez. I mean, that paragraph is, right there, but once I find a topic I go searching for more information, and the information I found caused me to pull away from Alvarez in particular and focus more on the Toronto Blue Jays in general.
A week ago, we looked at the Detroit Tigers' infield defense. Coming into the season pretty much everybody expected the Tigers' infield defense to be something of a wreck, and, to date, it's been something of a wreck. Their infield has done a lousy job of converting grounders into outs, and that's been one of the reasons for the Tigers' ordinary record.
This article is the opposite of that article. That article was about how the Tigers' infield defense has been bad. This article is about how the Blue Jays' infield defense has been amazing.
Henderson Alvarez, see, owns a pathetically low strikeout rate. Over seven starts, he's struck out 14 batters. But as you'd guess from watching his sinker, he's also an extreme groundball pitcher, and to go with his strikeout rate, he's got a 2.61 ERA. That is a very good ERA to have! Some of it is just unsustainable luck on Alvarez's part, but some of it is the group of guys behind him.
We're going to go mathematical now. To cover ground we covered in the Tigers article, so far, on average, batters have hit .226 on groundballs. If you include batters who reach base on errors, then three-quarters of groundballs have been turned into outs. To be needlessly precise, 74.7 percent. For every one groundball that has not been an out, there have been three groundballs that have been outs.
We can break this down team by team. If you glance at the top of the leaderboard, you see the Seattle Mariners in third place. The Mariners have turned just under 78 percent of grounders into outs. In second place, you find the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers have turned just over 78 percent of grounders into outs. At the very top are the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays have turned over 80 percent of grounders into outs. Their batting average allowed on grounders is .166. Include errors and it increases to .196. These are very low numbers.
Grounders just haven't been getting through. And there's precedent. A year ago, the Blue Jays had the lowest batting average allowed on grounders in baseball, at .213. Adam Lind is still the guy at first base. Yunel Escobar is still the guy at shortstop. Second base has been turned over from Aaron Hill to Kelly Johnson. Third base is now entirely in the hands of Brett Lawrie, instead of Jayson Nix, Edwin Encarnacion, and a host of others. The numbers love Brett Lawrie. The numbers might love Brett Lawrie more than Blue Jays fans do, and more than non-Blue Jays fans don't. I assume that people who don't like the Blue Jays really don't like Brett Lawrie.
Here's some fun math. According to Baseball-Reference, Blue Jays pitchers have generated 465 groundballs. The infield has converted 374 of those into outs. Applying the league-average rates yields a total of 347 outs. Based on this quick and approximate math, the Blue Jays have been 27 plays better than average on groundballs. Already. That works out to something like 20 or 25 runs.
The Blue Jays' pitching staff has the second-highest groundball rate in baseball, between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Diego Padres. Alvarez is a groundballer, Ricky Romero is a groundballer, Kyle Drabek is a groundballer, a handful of the relievers are groundballers ... that's playing into a strength. The Jays' outfield defense isn't outstanding, but they're taking advantage of a strength and giving less work to what isn't a strength.
One can expect some regression to come the Jays' way, simply because their performance so far has been almost too good. The lowest batting average allowed on grounders by a team in recent memory is .200, by the 2006 Houston Astros. As more time passes, extremes in all statistical categories will regress toward the mean. But even as regression takes place, the Jays could and should remain where they are ahead of everyone else. No, Henderson Alvarez doesn't generate enough strikeouts. No, Kyle Drabek doesn't throw enough strikes. No, these things don't matter as much as they might in front of another team's defense. The Blue Jays' infield has a way of making up for shortcomings.