I’ve been reading the book Big Data Baseball by Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. It’s a wonderful read and something that I have greatly enjoyed.
Sawchik notes that the Pirates used pitch framing as the reasoning behind signing catcher Russell Martin to perhaps the best deal the team has made in their recent years of success. Martin’s pitch framing allowed them to add runs saved on defense through an otherwise unknown way, in theory leading them to more wins.
As I continue to digest what I’ve read, I thought of another perhaps undervalued defensive adjustment: pitcher defense.
As we know, most of the value of a pitcher is through their ability to get strikeouts without allowing walks or hit batters. Hits and home runs allowed are usually based upon the defense the pitcher has behind him, the park he is playing in, and other luck factors.
But what about a pitcher’s ability to defend their position? Could that be a way to change a team’s thinking, or at least give that some thought in making a free agent signing? I don’t know. I do think it is interesting, and with FanGraphs.com right at my fingertips, the data is really easy to find and present.
First, I’ll take a look at individual pitchers. Here are the top 10 pitchers in defensive runs saved:
Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros: 12 defensive runs saved
Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers: 8 DRS
Jacob deGrom, New York Mets: 6 DRS
Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants: 5 DRS
Mark Buehrle, Toronto Blue Jays: 4 DRS
Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs: 4 DRS
Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves: 4 DRS
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds and Kansas City Royals: 4 DRS
Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals: 4 DRS
Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh Pirates: 3 DRS
Here are the bottom 10 pitchers in defensive runs saved:
Jon Lester, Chicago Cubs: -8 DRS
A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh Pirates: -6 DRS
Edinson Volquez, Kansas City Royals: -6 DRS
Jimmy Nelson, Milwaukee Brewers: -6 DRS
John Lackey, St. Louis Cardinals: -6 DRS
Tyson Ross, San Diego Padres: -5 DRS
CC Sabathia, New York Yankees: -4 DRS
Colby Lewis, Texas Rangers: -4 DRS
Ubaldo Jimenez, Baltimore Orioles: -4 DRS
Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers: -4 DRS
While defensive runs saved might not be the perfect indicator of exactly how many runs were saved via defense, it is interesting to look how, both good and bad, these pitchers’ ERAs have benefitted or have been hurt through their defense.
Dallas Keuchel: ERA: 2.37; ERA +12 runs (How many runs he saved via DRS): 2.97; Change in ERA due to his good defense (how much better his ERA is with DRS): -0.6
What this means is that Keuchel’s ERA is 2.37. If you add in the runs he saved through his defense, his ERA would be 2.97. Keuchel has shaved off over half a run thanks to his defense.
Zack Grienke: ERA: 1.58; ERA +8 runs: 2.01; Change in ERA: -0.43
Jacob deGrom: ERA: 1.98; ERA +6 runs: 2.33; Change in ERA: -0.35
Mike Leake: ERA: 3.52; ERA +5 runs: 3.84; Change in ERA: -0.32
Mark Buehrle: ERA: 3.45; ERA +4 runs: 3.68; Change in ERA: -0.23
Jon Lester: ERA: 3.58; ERA -8 runs: 3.09; Change in ERA (adding DRS back in): +0.49
A.J. Burnett: ERA: 3.06; ERA -6 runs: 2.66; Change in ERA: +0.4
Edinson Volquez: ERA: 3.20; ERA -6 runs: 2.84; Change in ERA: +0.36
Jimmy Nelson: ERA: 3.61; ERA -6 runs: 3.24; Change in ERA: +0.37
John Lackey: ERA: 2.87; ERA -6 runs: 2.53; Change in ERA: +0.34
A similar study to the one I did as an introduction was done on BeyondTheBoxScore.com a few years ago. But what I’m about to go into has never been even considered before.
Now here is where it gets interesting. Using the same data, I can determine how many runs per game each team has saved/lost thanks to pitcher’s defensive runs saved.
Top 5 teams in pitchers DRS:
Houston Astros: 13
Kansas City Royals: 9
New York Mets: 8
Oakland Athletics: 7
Seattle Mariners: 7
Bottom 5 teams in pitchers DRS:
Philadelphia Phillies: -23
Baltimore Orioles: -9
Chicago White Sox: -8
Detroit Tigers: -6
Tampa Bay Rays: -6
Is it really true that the Astros are 36 RUNS BETTER than the Phillies just through pitcher’s defense? If you assume ten runs equals a win (which is what is generally accepted by baseball sabermetricians), the Astros could be almost FOUR WINS BETTER than the Phillies just through pitchers defense. Let’s compare the Astros to their AL West foes:
AL West, pitchers DRS:
Houston Astros: 13
Oakland Athletics: 7
Seattle Mariners: 7
Los Angeles Angels: -5
Texas Rangers: -6
Since the Athletics and Mariners are all but theoretically eliminated from the postseason, we can count them out. The two teams chasing the Astros, the Angels and Rangers, have already been at a 18 and 19 run disadvantage, respectively, purely due to pitcher defense. Again, if you assume that ten runs wins a game, that could be as many as two wins better than the two teams that are right on their heels. If that doesn’t give them a distinct advantage if it comes down to one or two games, I don’t know what does.
Now let’s go back and see how defensive runs saved have effected team ERAs. (Note: Due to a lot more innings pitched because this is encompassing their entire season, the change will be a lot less noticeable.)
Houston Astros: ERA: 3.41; ERA +13 runs: 3.52 ; Change in ERA: -0.11
Kansas City Royals: ERA: 3.54 ; ERA +9 runs: 3.61; Change in ERA: -0.07
New York Mets: ERA: 3.22; ERA +8 runs: 3.28; Change in ERA: -0.06
Oakland Athletics: ERA: 3.62; ERA +7 runs: 3.68; Change in ERA: -0.06
Seattle Mariners: ERA: 4.22; ERA +7 runs: 4.28; Change in ERA: -0.06
If you take a look at the “Change in ERA,” you can see that while teams aren’t saving very many runs per game through pitcher defense, over the course of a 162 game season, it can really add up. The Astros are saving about 11 runs per every 100 games they play; the Mets are saving about six. These totals could, as I’ve said before, make a difference when divisions often come down to the wire and teams are two or three games apart.
Philadelphia Phillies: ERA: 4.75; ERA -23 runs: 4.56; Change in ERA: +0.19
Baltimore Orioles: ERA: 3.82; ERA -9 runs: 3.74; Change in ERA: +0.08
Chicago White Sox: ERA: 3.97; ERA -8 runs: 3.90; Change in ERA: +0.07
Detroit Tigers: ERA: 4.49; ERA -6 runs: 4.44; Change in ERA: +0.05
Tampa Bay Rays: ERA: 3.61; ERA -6 runs: 3.55; Change in ERA: +0.06
As you can see above, the Phillies are allowing almost a tenth of a run per game due to bad pitcher defense. Again, over the course of a 162 game season, they would be out about 30 runs (!!!!). That could be the difference between three whole wins.
Is pitcher’s defense the next metric to be really looked into by professional baseball teams as a way to save runs and win games?
While it may not be a piece of data that effects free agent signings or offseason game plans, it could be used to try and make the pitchers on the current team more valuable in saving runs. Pitchers have many different ways of perhaps effecting the game on defense.
First, it is interesting that Jon Lester ranks last in defensive runs saved. Lester is always bashed for not having a good pickoff move and his inability to keep runners close. A stolen base carries a lot of value; it makes a player 90 feet closer to home plate without anything even having to occur with the batter at the plate. So, Lester’s horrible pickoff ways should have been worked on by the Cubs, or should be in the future.
Lester’s ERA could be 3.09. Instead, however, it’s 3.58. Is teaching pitchers that do a bad job of keeping runners close how to do just that a secret to saving runs and ultimately winning ballgames? I am going to say yes.
One other interesting factor here: The Astros by far are the best team in saving runs through pitchers defense. Do they know something we, as fans and writers, have never even thought of before? In other words, are the Astros quietly saving runs through pitchers defense even though no other team is noticeably doing it? Or are they just lucky they have Keuchel on their club?
Houston is in the thick of a pennant race. Thirteen runs is the difference between 2-4 wins. Could pitchers defense be one of the reasons they are leading the American League West?
While this seems like a lot, it’s barely scratching the surface. FanGraphs does not even include UZR ratings or other defensive metrics for pitchers. In short, it’s barren. If we continue to dig deeper into the subject, could we be finding another way to win games? That’s for you to decide.
Individual data from FanGraphs can be found here. Team data can be found here. A more detailed definition of defensive runs saved can be found here.