Evaluating AL Team Quality Using Batted Ball Data

In recent off-seasons, I have attempted to ascertain team’s baseline true-talent levels utilizing batted ball data. This year, let’s do the same with current year data through the break. Today, let’s look at the American League.

Let’s start it off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

American League – Key Team BIP Metrics
CLE 0.331 0.559 0.344 0.570 18.5% 9.6% 27.1% 7.7% 97.7
DET 0.349 0.616 0.333 0.578 21.2% 9.2% 19.5% 9.0% 106.7
MIN 0.333 0.567 0.337 0.582 22.0% 9.7% 17.6% 8.5% 96.9
CWS 0.338 0.552 0.336 0.573 21.9% 6.7% 20.4% 9.9% 96.3
KC 0.321 0.543 0.324 0.554 20.2% 6.5% 20.0% 8.4% 104.1
NYY 0.342 0.585 0.330 0.555 22.7% 9.9% 24.5% 8.0% 96.3
BOS 0.329 0.528 0.339 0.589 18.6% 9.2% 24.8% 7.2% 100.8
TB 0.330 0.582 0.327 0.540 25.0% 9.1% 21.2% 8.7% 91.9
TOR 0.327 0.550 0.323 0.544 21.1% 8.8% 22.5% 9.1% 113.8
BAL 0.342 0.583 0.338 0.577 23.0% 6.8% 18.9% 9.2% 106.0
HOU 0.339 0.572 0.329 0.545 17.3% 8.3% 27.0% 8.4% 97.3
SEA 0.330 0.549 0.331 0.574 20.6% 8.0% 19.6% 8.3% 91.6
OAK 0.340 0.619 0.335 0.563 25.3% 9.2% 20.3% 7.9% 101.1
TEX 0.327 0.577 0.325 0.527 24.4% 8.8% 18.7% 8.9% 98.6
LAA 0.320 0.507 0.342 0.599 20.0% 8.3% 22.2% 7.8% 98.7
AL AVG 0.333 0.566 0.333 0.565 21.5% 8.5% 21.6% 8.5% 99.9

The first four columns indicate how each team “should have” performed at the plate and on the mound if each batted ball generated league-average results for its exit-speed and launch-angle “bucket.” The next four columns list each club’s offensive and defensive K and BB rates.

The last column represents each club’s Defensive Multiplier. This measures each club’s defensive performance compared to its opposition. Using granular BIP data, each team’s actual AVG and SLG (excluding home runs) were compared to the projected levels (as described in the previous paragraph) for such BIP, both on offense and defense. This essentially isolates the contributions of pitching from those of team defense. If a club out-defended its opponents, its Defensive Multiplier is below 100. If a club was out-defended, its multiplier is above 100.

Color coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells are over one-half-STD above, blue cells are over one-half STD below, and black cells are over one STD below league average. It was at this point that I ran out of colors. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

Next, let’s convert the above data into run values, perform some Pythagorean magic, and come up with a series of projected win-loss records: (a) on only each club’s BIP hits/allowed, (b) further adjusted for K and BB for/against, and (c) further adjusted for each team’s Defensive Multiplier. This third projection represents the club’s true-talent W-L record through the 2017 All-Star break. For comparative purposes, each club’s actual record at the break is listed:

American League – 2017 ASB Actual/Projected Records
CLE 41-46 52-35 53-34 47-40
DET 48-39 45-42 42-45 39-48
MIN 42-46 39-49 41-47 45-43
CWS 42-45 38-49 40-47 38-49
KC 42-45 40-47 38-49 44-43
NYY 47-39 50-36 52-34 45-41
BOS 38-51 49-40 48-41 50-39
TB 49-41 44-46 48-42 47-43
TOR 45-43 47-41 41-47 41-47
BAL 45-43 38-50 35-53 42-46
HOU 48-41 58-31 59-30 60-29
SEA 43-47 42-48 46-44 43-47
OAK 49-40 44-45 43-46 39-50
TEX 48-40 41-47 42-46 43-45
LAA 35-57 39-53 40-52 45-47

Let’s make some broad observations about each of the projected playoff clubs, as well as a couple others. Interestingly enough, the five projected playoff participants were all in playoff position at the break. The only difference is that this BIP-based method projected the Yankees as AL East leaders, with Boston and Tampa Bay in the Wild Card slots.

The Indians had a narrow 2.5 game lead in the Central at the break, though this BIP-based method sees the difference between them and their division-mates as a much larger gulf. It certainly wasn’t due to their contact authority/quality for and against; based on that alone, they were a 41-46 club at the break. Cleveland’s offensive fly ball authority was well below the league (projected .323 AVG-.908 SLG vs. .333 AVG-.932 SLG league average), while their fly ball authority allowed (.336 AVG-.950 SLG) was well above. One big difference in their favor, though; the Indians put a whopping 316 more balls in play than their opponents.

This is because of their massive K/BB rate advantage over the opposition. Their offensive and pitching K and BB rates are all materially better than league average; in fact, all four component measures are over a full standard deviation better than the AL average. This adds a resounding 11 games to their projection, raising it to 52-35, before taking team defense into account.

The Indians’ 97.7 team Defensive Multiplier is largely attributable to a sterling 79.5 multiplier on fly balls. The driving force behind this performance is rookie center fielder Bradley Zimmer. Their defensive multiplier would be much better if they weren’t playing a stone cold DH (Carlos Santana) at first base.

The Yankees’ 2017 resurgence has largely, and deservedly been credited to the ample contributions of Aaron Judge. With the way he destroys the baseball, it’s a bit surprising that the Yanks were surpassed by the Tigers, A’s and Orioles in offensive contact quality through the break. In fact, the ability of New York’s pitching staff to manage contact has been just as impressive as their bats’ ability to make it. On contact alone, they were a 47-39 club at the break.

Like the Indians, the Yanks got a boost from their performance in the K and BB categories. They were better than league average in three of the four component measures, with offensive K rate the exception. This raises their projection to 50-36 at the break.

This method also looks kindly on the Bronx Bombers’ defensive performance. Their 96.3 team Defensive Multiplier ranks third in the AL, and like the Indians, the performance is driven by strong work in the outfield. Aaron Hicks and Brett Gardner have been their best defensive outfielders, but the massive human being in right field has done solid work as well. I have always looked at defense in a team construct; placing good defenders next to one another compounds the positive effects, and the lack of defensive holes makes the whole stronger than the sum of the parts. The Yanks do not have a defensive hole.

The 2017 Boston Red Sox get it done much differently than many of their predecessors. This year’s edition makes relatively weak authority at the plate compared to the recent versions anchored by David Ortiz. If not for the Angels, the BoSox would be the AL’s least authoritative club at the plate this season. Their pitching staff allows thunderous contact as well. On fly balls, this is especially apparent; the Red Sox “should be” hitting .315 AVG-.826 SLG and allowing .337 AVG-.948 SLG on them. On BIP alone, the Red Sox were a 38-51 club at the break, worst in the East and second worst in the AL.

Luckily for them, strikeouts and walks still exist, and Chris Sale is on their team. They get every bit as much help from their rankings in the K and BB rate categories as the Indians. They are well above average in all four component measures, and over one full STD better in offensive and pitching K and pitching BB rates. This adds a full 11 wins to their projection at the break, boosting them to 49-40.

Publicly available defensive metrics rank the Red Sox’ team defense as the best in the AL. This method does not. It sees their defense as just about league average with a 100.8 team Defensive Multiplier. Their outfield has performed best, with a 96.2 multiplier on fly balls, led by a strong performance by Mookie Betts in right field. The difference in the metrics’ opinion regarding Boston’s defense is tough to pin down. It is a small sample, for one, but I would also submit that Fenway’s typical fly ball-friendly ways haven’t been as extreme as usual this season, so the publicly available methods’ park adjustments might be overcompensating.

The Rays are the third AL East team projected to join the playoff party. This is an interesting bunch, in a lot of ways. You can’t tell by looking at their middling offensive BIP numbers, but they hit their fly balls harder (projected .359 AVG-1.029 SLG) and their grounders weaker (.205 AVG-.223 SLG) than any AL club. That’s the mark of a streaky, all-or-nothing offensive club. Pitching staff contact management is a clear strength; they absolutely throttle fly ball authority, with a projected .307 AVG-.840 SLG allowed in the air. On BIP alone, this was a 49-41 club at the break.

This is the first club we’ve examined that is hurt quite a bit by the incorporation of K and BB into the mix. Their offensive K rate is the second worst in the AL, over a full STD higher than the AL average. This costs them five wins, down to 44-46, before team defense is taken into account.

They shine in this area, with a 91.9 team Defensive Multiplier, second best in the AL. They grade out better than league average on fly balls, liners and grounders, but fare best in the latter category with an 85.9 multiplier. Evan Longoria has led the way in the infield, and Adeiny Hechavarria’s ability to stabilize the shortstop position keeps them on an upward path. Toss in a healthy Kevin Kiermaier at some point, and this group could get really interesting with the leather.

Hats off to Jeff Luhnow and the Astros for constructing one hell of a club. They’re materially above average in just about everything. I think I found a potential flaw or two to monitor down the stretch, however. Offensive contact quality isn’t a particular strength. Overall, they’re just a tad above average, and that’s with an exceptionally high team liner rate that is likely to regress a bit down the stretch. They hit their grounders harder than league average, but their flies and liners both sit in the average range.

Their pitching staff’s contact management performance is strong, thanks to a combination of real and somewhat temporary reasons. They induce plenty of grounders, and they’re hit quite weakly (projected .217 AVG-.235 SLG, best in AL, compared to league average of .227 AVG-.246 SLG). That’s real. Their pitchers, however, have allowed a very low liner rate, and liner rates tend to be quite volatile. So, we’ve got offensive and defensive liner rates likely to regress in the wrong direction. Throw in some injuries to key players, and it could be a different experience in the second half.

But wait. Check out those K rates, on both sides of the ball. Remember, this is a team whose offense set unthinkable K standards not all that long ago. Now, they put 417 more balls in play than their opponents through the break. That is one heck of a margin for error. This transforms them from a somewhat ordinary 48-41 club on BIP alone to 58-31 once K and BB are added in.

Is the defense of Alex Bregman and his Astros teamates as good as it seems? (Photo: Keith Allison)

Publicly available defensive metrics don’t think much of the Astros’ defense; this method sees them as slightly above average, with a 97.3 team Defensive Multiplier. The strength of the club according to this BIP-based method is the infield, based on an 84.8 multiplier on grounders. UZR doesn’t like the corner infielders, Alex Bregman and Yulieski Gurriel; the Astros allowed nine fewer ground ball doubles (23 to 14) at the break, so I’m not buying it.

Among other clubs, the biggest differences between the actual standings at the break and their BIP-based projections belong to the Royals (+6), Orioles (+7) and Angels (+5). My method has consistently underrated the Royals, but until this year, it always liked their team defense. This year, they’ve posted an AL-worst 122.3 multiplier on grounders. I’ll sum it up thusly; their offense has 10 hits on 75 grounders between 85-90 mph, and they’ve allowed 24 hits on 69 grounders in that same velocity bucket.

The Orioles pitching staff might be even more horrific than it seems. They’ve allowed the most liners, the second-hardest fly balls, and their K-BB spread is the second narrowest in the league. Oh, and their team Defensive Multipliers on flies, liners and grounders are all worse than league average.

How on earth did the Angels hang around for so long, especially without Mike Trout? Their contact quality, both for and against, were by far the worst in the AL. On BIP alone, this was a 35-57 club, a true bottom-feeder. Their low offensive K rate and a respectable team defense allowed their projection to creep up to 40-52, within hailing range of their actual mark at the break.

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5 years ago

I know the Jays’ defense has been abysmal this season, but damn.

5 years ago
Reply to  Erik.T

I’d want to know how much of that is caused by the carousel in LF, and how much due to the long absence of Josh Donaldson.

5 years ago
Reply to  rockbard

It’s not just that though. Pillar’s been significantly worse in CF. The last few years he was elite in CF, this year he’s just average. Tulo was decent the last few years, and this year he’s been below average at SS. Pretty much everybody who has had meaningful innings took a step back except for Bautista.

And they really have to get Pearce out of the outfield. He’s so bad out there. Solid bat (141 wRC+ since mid May) but he’s a 1B/DH pretending to be an OF and it shows.