Tipping Pitches: SPs Getting a Major Defensive Boost in 2016

Hey, I’m naming my Wednesday piece now! It’s going to be called “Tipping Pitches”. It’s just a snazzy new name, it doesn’t mean I’m only going to be writing about Eduardo Rodriguez every week. But it will be my pitching-focused column whereas my other offerings at RG won’t necessarily always revolve around the mound. 

Whenever we see offseason movement for pitchers, we immediately analyze the park and league fit for the pitcher in question. And that’s understandable, those are big factors in how he might perform for the upcoming season, but one aspect that doesn’t always get its due as a factor is defense. It gets more attention when a pitcher joins a team with a good defensive reputation, but when a team adds a plus defender, I don’t think it’s always factored in for the pitchers on that team. Three pitchers stand out as major beneficiaries of defensive moves this offseason. Two saw their team add a defensive stud who should impact their bottom line while the third joined a team with a great defensive crew that is tailored to his game.

Garrett Richards gets Andrelton Simmons at SS

Richards probably doesn’t get enough credit for his 2015. He came in off the knee injury that cut his breakout 2014 short and was expected to miss upwards of a month at the outset. Instead, he didn’t miss any time and took 32 solid turns through the rotation. He wasn’t nearly as good as 2014, but regression was expected even with full health so the fact that the knee was likely playing a role at least early in the season should get him some benefit of the doubt. He still managed an above average 207.3 innings of work, a career-high.

Erick Aybar is a capable MLB shortstop who has ranged from a bit below average to well above in his seven full major league seasons, but even in his best seasons by the metrics (2008 and 2014), he couldn’t hold a candle to Simmons. Simmons has been transcendent at the position. Going by UZR, his last three seasons all fit in the top six of the last decade at shortstop with only Adam Everett topping him on an individual basis.

That kind of defensive wizardry is going to help the entire staff because even the flyballiest (new word!) guys still put the ball on the ground 30% of the time. In fact, Richards’ teammate Hector Santiago was the flyballiest guy in the majors last year and still registered that 30% groundball rate. But Richards is unquestionably the prime beneficiary here. His 55% groundball rate was 6th-highest last year and he’s reached as high as 58%, back in 2013.

Richards allowed 100 groundballs to the left side last year and batters hit .280 on those, up from a disgusting .127 on 63 chances in 2014 (Aybar’s second-best UZR ever) and easily the highest of his career. Coming into the season, batters hit just .196 on groundballs to the left side of the infield so the .280 really stands out. In fact, up the middle and to the right, batters only hit .210 off of Richards, so that left side was a major sore spot.

The Angels also moved from David Freese to Yunel Escobar, though Escobar hasn’t been as sharp defensively the last two years after establishing a reputation as an above average fielder. Additionally, Freese is better than you probably think, so that’s not necessarily a huge upgrade, but any third baseman gets a boost playing next to Simmons as you just don’t need to be as rangy.

Richards unquestionably has the stuff to regain that 2014 strikeout rate of 24% after dipping to 20% last year and paired with that groundball rate and Simmons installed at short has a chance to yield a full season of numbers in that 2014 realm (2.61 ERA, 1.04 WHIP). The 28-year old righty is a sneaky Cy Young candidate, even if the Angels aren’t contending all year.

Andrew Cashner gets Alexei Ramirez at SS

While he only threw 123.3 innings, it was hard not to get excited about Cashner after his 2014 season. He posted a 2.55 ERA and 1.13 WHIP with wicked stuff that had many thinking he could add strikeouts to those gaudy ratios in 2015. Well, he added strikeouts with a career-high 165 (and 21% K rate that was his best as a starter), but the ratios weren’t the right kind of gaudy.

gaudy, adj.

  1. brilliantly or excessively showy: Cashner’s 2014
  2. cheaply showy in a tasteless way: Cashner’s 2015

Cashner had a 4.34 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 2015 thanks in large part to a .330 BABIP that ranked 5th-worst among qualified starters (min. 162 IP). Teammate Tyson Ross wasn’t far behind at .320 (8th) and the trio of shortstops who got the bulk of the time for the Padres were a major reason why. Alexi Amarista, Jedd Gyorko, and Clint Barmes were all well below average by the defensive metrics at shortstop and it really stung their starters.

Like Richards, Cashner saw a spike in BABIP to the left side, going from .225 to .269, but it was up the middle that really burned him. Batters hit just .157 on grounders up the middle in 2014 (57 PA), but soared to .301 in 93 PA last year. Enter Alexei Ramirez. He isn’t coming off of his best year, in fact 2015 was his worst by the metrics, but he was still better than both Barmes and Gyorko by a wide margin and they played 51% of San Diego’s shortstop innings.

Prior to 2015, Ramirez had five well above average seasons and one right at average. He also offers consistency. We already covered that SD ran through three shortstops last year. Ramirez hasn’t played fewer than 154 games since 2009 (148). If Cory Spangenberg develops as expected, he should be manning second base everyday as well, giving the Padres a locked-in double play combo in quite a while. The last time both ends of their DP combo played at least 120 games was 2006 with Josh Barfield (150 at second) and Khalil Greene (121 at short).

Even if Cashner doesn’t quite get back to the .275 BABIP he had in 2013-14 combined, the addition of Ramirez should help him cut a big chunk off of that ugly .330 mark from last year.

Ian Kennedy joins KC and gets their excellent OF defense with Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Jarrod Dyson (once healthy)

Kennedy is a perfect example of what I mentioned in the open. Once he was traded to San Diego, we assumed the park would fix his woes and help him regain that 2011 form that resulted in 222 IP of a 2.88 ERA and a top-5 finish in Cy Young voting. Alas, his 3.97 ERA as a Padre was actually a few ticks worse than his 3.82 with the Diamondbacks. His flyball-heavy approach was supposed to be right at home in San Diego and instead his 1.7 HR/9 from last year was a career-worst.

Some of that was Petco Park morphing into less a pitcher-friendly ballpark and of course some of it was just poor pitching by Kennedy, but another major factor was the wretched outfield defense the Padres constructed last year. And it wasn’t a surprise. Even those who bought in on the Padres big offseason acknowledged that a Justin UptonWil MyersMatt Kemp outfield was going to be problematic, to put it lightly.

Myers only needed 298 innings in center to be the fourth-worst by UZR (-8.7) and if you use the UZR/150 (or per 150 games) to check the pace, he was quite easily the worst at -42.5. Gerardo Parra kept him company down at the bottom with a -40.3 in 289 innings while Angel Pagan was the worst full-timer at -19. Kemp was also easily the worst rightfielder at -17.2 and he played all year. Jose Bautista was second-worst at -9.9 for those curious.

So it’s no surprise that Kennedy had the 6th-worst OPS on flyballs and line drives that weren’t homers (so outs, 1B, 2B, and 3B) at .956. That was among 98 starters with a minimum of 200 qualifying batted balls. Cashner was 9th-worst at .923. If you lower the threshold to 175 batted balls, both Kennedy and Cashner move down a little bit (to 13th and 18th, respectively), but Ross slides into 5th-worst at 1.010 so everyone was feeling the effects of that awful outfield defense.

By team, the Padres were 28th (or 3rd-worst) at .885 while Kennedy’s new team was 6th at .773 including Chris Young lapping the field for the lowest mark at a .440 OPS on 242 batted balls. It wasn’t automatic in KC, you don’t just show up and it works as Yordano Ventura was actually 2nd-worst with a 1.053 OPS on 199 batted balls, but there’s no way this change in outfield defense isn’t a major boon for Kennedy.

Generally speaking, BABIPs are supposed to be lower for flyball pitchers compared to their groundball counterparts, yet Kennedy has been north of .300 or right near it since 2012 with marks of .306, .295, .315, and .301. His .304 combined BABIP since 2012 is 8th-highest in the league (min. 600 IP) and yet he’s just one of two guys in the top 20 with a groundball rate south of 40% (Phil Hughes 34%). I wonder if he just went up to Gordon, Cain, and Dyson and just hugged them once he signed with the Royals. It’s tough to make a bigger jump in outfield defense quality than going from SD to KC, even with Myers wisely nowhere near centerfield this year.

We hoped you liked reading Tipping Pitches: SPs Getting a Major Defensive Boost in 2016 by Paul Sporer!

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Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Jackie T.
Jackie T.

I realize there’s a lot of other reasons to dislike him this year, but for this specific exercise doesn’t Jeff Samardzija deserve a mention?