Evaluating NL Team Quality Using Batted Ball Data

Earlier this week, we used granular batted ball data to calculate true-talent team records for American League clubs as of the All Star break. Today, it’s the senior circuit’s turn in the barrel.

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

National League – Key Team BIP Metrics
STL 0.345 0.592 0.328 0.531 21.3% 9.1% 21.8% 7.8% 104.0
CUB 0.320 0.549 0.329 0.531 21.8% 9.8% 23.1% 9.2% 97.0
MIL 0.336 0.561 0.328 0.532 25.4% 8.6% 21.1% 9.0% 99.5
CIN 0.322 0.527 0.327 0.545 21.1% 8.3% 20.7% 9.7% 97.4
PIT 0.318 0.498 0.328 0.528 18.6% 8.9% 19.4% 7.3% 107.3
WAS 0.339 0.565 0.331 0.552 20.1% 9.1% 23.9% 8.2% 95.8
MIA 0.329 0.526 0.327 0.546 20.5% 7.1% 20.0% 10.1% 97.0
NYM 0.323 0.560 0.331 0.555 19.7% 8.6% 21.9% 9.0% 109.4
ATL 0.329 0.517 0.325 0.539 19.7% 7.3% 19.1% 9.0% 99.6
PHL 0.326 0.521 0.333 0.568 22.9% 8.0% 20.1% 8.5% 102.1
LAD 0.343 0.596 0.312 0.500 22.7% 10.6% 26.0% 7.3% 97.2
AZ 0.333 0.559 0.328 0.533 23.7% 9.0% 24.5% 8.2% 92.2
COL 0.325 0.513 0.328 0.526 22.9% 7.5% 20.4% 9.1% 92.3
SF 0.314 0.498 0.335 0.554 19.2% 7.5% 19.4% 7.6% 107.7
SD 0.307 0.495 0.322 0.533 25.5% 7.7% 21.7% 8.6% 104.4
NL AVG 0.327 0.538 0.327 0.538 21.7% 8.5% 21.5% 8.6% 100.2

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) was 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 over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

Next, the above data is converted the into run values, Pythagorean magic performed, and a series of projected win-loss records are produced: (a) on only each club’s BIP hit/allowed, (b) further adjusted for K and BB for/against, and (c) further adjusted for 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:

National League – 2017 Actual/Projected Records
STL 51-37 52-36 50-38 43-45
CUB 44-44 46-42 47-41 43-45
MIL 49-42 44-47 44-47 50-41
CIN 42-46 40-48 42-46 39-49
PIT 41-48 43-46 40-49 42-47
WAS 46-42 51-37 53-35 52-36
MIA 42-45 40-47 41-46 41-46
NYM 42-44 44-42 40-46 39-47
ATL 42-45 40-47 40-47 42-45
PHL 39-48 35-52 34-53 29-58
LAD 57-33 62-28 63-27 61-29
AZ 47-42 49-40 52-37 53-36
COL 44-47 40-51 44-47 52-39
SF 37-53 38-52 35-55 34-56
SD 39-49 34-54 33-55 38-50

In the AL, our five projected playoff clubs were all in playoff position at the break. Not so in the NL; the projections have St. Louis as NL Central leader and Chicago in as the second wild card, and Milwaukee and Colorado out. Let’s make some broad observations about our five projected playoff clubs, as well as the Brewers and Rockies.

Seeing the Cards projected in first place might surprise you; despite my longstanding admiration for the product they place on the field, I was personally surprised. Their horrible record in close games has cost them to date, and might keep them out in the end. Very quietly, they have had a typically Cardinal-esque season at the plate.

They hit a ton of line drives, and have hit their fly balls harder than any NL club except for the Dodgers and Cubs. They “should be” hitting .351 AVG-.987 SLG in the air, compared to the NL average of .322 AVG-.883 SLG. Just when you think their pipeline is empty, Tommy Pham and Paul DeJong show up and put up serious numbers. Based on batted balls alone, the Cards were a 51-37 team at the break, second to only the Dodgers at the break.

Adding K and BB back into the mix helps the Cards a bit; their offensive BB rate was over one-half standard deviation above the NL average, and their pitching staff’s BB rate allowed was over a full STD below. This bumps their projected record up by a win to 52-36.

The Cards’ team Defensive Multiplier of 104.0 is the only worse than league average mark posted by the five projected playoff participants. Their fly ball multiplier of 117.9 is particularly poor, as newcomer Dexter Fowler and holdover Stephen Piscotty haven’t impressed with their gloves. The Cards are docked a couple wins for their defense, but their projected 50-38 record at the break is significantly better than their actual mark.

The defending World Champions treaded water for much of the first half; this method of evaluation sees them as three games better than their actual mark at the break. On balls in play alone, they grade out as almost exactly average on both sides of the ball. Interestingly, they hit the second hardest fly balls in the NL through the break, but their grounders were the weakest. They “should have” hit .207 AVG-.225 SLG on the ground compared to the NL average of .222 AVG-.240 SLG.

On the pitching side of the equation, average is a long way down from the exceptional contact management performance unfurled by their staff in 2016. One miscellaneous note; the Cubs hit the second fewest liners in the NL through the break; liner rates can be quite volatile, so positive regression could occur in the second half.

Adding K and BB into the equation is a net plus for the Cubs. Their offensive BB (over one STD above) and pitching K rates (over one-half STD above) were materially better than league average, though their pitching staff BB rate was over one-half STD higher. All in all, it’s worth another two wins, moving them up to 46-42.

The Cubs fare quite well in my defensive metric, posting a 97.9 team Defensive Multiplier. Interestingly, their best performance, an NL best 90.8 multiplier, is on line drives, the category most susceptible to random noise. Jason Heyward’s defensive prowess is likely a part of it as well. In any event, 97.0 is also a step backward from their golden season of 2016. Defense buys them one more win, up to 47-41, getting them into the playoffs. Bear in mind, this true-talent projection doesn’t take the Jose Quintana acquisition into account.

Next up, the Brew Crew. Offensively, they project as a comfortably above average offensive club on BIP alone. They hit the fourth-hardest fly balls in the NL, but tied for the third-weakest grounders. They didn’t get as much bang for the buck from their positive fly ball authority as the Cards and Cubs, as they hit the fourth fewest flies in the NL through the break. Their authority allowed was league average-ish; on BIP alone, this was a 49-42 club.

Adding K and BB back into the equation is a real problem for the Brewers. They weren’t strong in any of the four component measures, and their offensive K rate was fractionally behind the Padres for highest in the NL, over a full STD above league average. This lops a full five wins off of their projection, down to 44-47.

They graded out almost exactly league average in defense, with a 99.5 team multiplier, better than their ranks in publicly available defensive metrics. They graded out best on grounders, with a 94.9 multiplier. Emerging glove wizard Orlando Arcia is their foremost defender. This keeps their projection static at 44-47, six games worse than their division-leading mark at the break.

Their poster child might be the recently demoted Keon Broxton; he was a whiff machine who outperformed his exit speed/launch angle-adjusted BIP data in the first half. No matter how this all turns it out, 2017 is a success in Milwaukee; remember that they and the Phillies were often mentioned in the same breath prior to the season.

The Nationals continue to cruise along as the only truly viable team in the East. They’re a solid if unspectacular offensive club on balls in play; they don’t hit their flies particularly hard despite the presence of Bryce Harper. They do hit their grounders harder than any club in either league; their projected production on the ground is a strong .236 AVG-.256 SLG. They did hit the second most liners in the NL through the break; some regression downward is possible moving forward.

They do yield by far the most authoritative production on balls in play of any of the clubs we’ll discuss today. Their authority allowed on all BIP types, flies, liners and grounders, was harder than NL average. On BIP alone, the Nats are just a decent club, at 46-42.

The addition of K and BB back into the mix is a boon to the Nationals. They are better than league average in all four components, most significantly so in pitching staff K rate (over one STD above), thanks to the inimitable Max Scherzer. This adds five wins to their projection, up to 51-37.

The Nats fare much better in my defensive metric than in the publicly available alternatives, posting a 95.8 team Defensive Multiplier. They fared best on grounders, with a 93.3 multiplier, led by fine work from Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner on the left side of the infield.

The Astros and Nationals have both been really good this year, but the Dodgers are on another level. Their performance through the break was as dominant as I can remember, by any measure. On batted balls alone, they excelled on both sides of the ball. They ranked fractionally behind the Cards offensively, thanks to a lesser liner rate, though they hit the second hardest flies (projected .343 AVG-1.011 SLG) and liners (.665 AVG-.901 SLG compared to NL average of .652 AVG-.866 SLG).

Their authority allowed was truly amazing. Opponents “should have” hit .312 AVG-.500 SLG against them based on exit speed/launch angle. The next best team in baseball in that department was the Rangers at .325 AVG-.527 SLG. On BIP alone, this was a 57-33 club at the break.

And that’s before we get to their K/BB dominance, led by the peerless but injured Clayton Kershaw. Their offensive BB and pitching K rates were over two full STD better than league average, and their pitching BB rate was over one STD better. That’s five more wins added to an already strong base, raising their projection to 62-28.

Their team defense also gets solid marks, posting a 97.2 team Defensive Multiplier. They fare best on grounders with an 88.1 multiplier, second in the NL. That result was driven primarily by the fine work of Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Logan Forsythe. This adds one more win to their projection, up to 63-27. They were even better than their incredible record. They might slip a bit down the stretch, with their most dominant player missing, but they should have enough to hold the fort until Kershaw’s return.

When you think about it, the turnaround in Arizona might be the biggest story in all of baseball this season. On balls in play, they fared best on offense, as they’ve hit their flies, liners and grounders all a bit harder than NL average levels. Getting to average on the pitching side is a bigger story, however, as the D’backs as a group were horrific contact managers in 2016. This time around, they’re yielding more grounders, and have held fly ball authority within the league average range. On BIP alone, this was a 47-42 club at the break.

On balance, K and BB are the Diamondbacks’ friends. Though their offensive K rate was worse than average, their offensive BB and especially their pitching K rate were better. The latter was over one full STD higher than league average at the break. This adds two more wins to their projection, up to 49-40.

There is significant divergence between my method and publicly available metrics with regard to Arizona’s defensive performance. I’ve got them at #1 in the NL, narrowly ahead of the Rockies. They’re better than league average across all BIP types, but particularly so with regard to grounders, with an 83.1 multiplier. Both Jake Lamb and Paul Goldschmidt’s UZR numbers are negative, but why then did the club allow only nine ground ball doubles (in 30 more grounders) while hitting 21 through the break? This adds three more wins to their projection, up to 52-37, just a game short of their actual mark.

I was just as surprised at how poorly the Rockies fared in my method as I was at how well the Cards did. Their front office has finally figured out to build a club compatible with Coors Field, but some good fortune has been involved in their success. Offensively, they hit a lot of ground balls, and their flies are among the most weakly hit in the NL. On the positive side, their pitchers yielded the most grounders in the league at the break.

On BIP alone, they were a 44-47 club. I can sum their good fortune on BIP thusly. There were all of 27 ground ball triples in all of MLB at the break. Seven were hit in Coors Field, all by the Rockies — five of them by Charlie Blackmon.

K and BB are not the Rockies friend. They were materially below average in all four component measures, most significantly so in offensive BB rate, in which they were over a full STD worse than average. This costs them four wins on their projection, dropping them to 40-51.

Like the Diamondbacks, the Rockies fare much better in my defensive system than they do in the publicly available metrics (which I believe fall short of addressing the intricacies of extreme parks like Coors). The Rockies hit 574 in-play fly balls through the break, resulting in 219 total bases. Their opponents hit 530 in-play fly balls, resulting in just 168 total bases. That’s a huge Rockies’ advantage, an 80.2 fly ball multiplier. Yet none of their outfielders grade out well according to UZR. Something is amiss. And we haven’t even mentioned the defensive wizard at third base.

So, I’m expecting a Cardinal surge, decline for the Rockies and Brewers, and better, though not great play from the Cubs moving forward. Next week, we’ll take a look at BIP-based park factors through the break.

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5 years ago

“The Dodgers are great at everything” could be the subtitle to every analysis right now. It’s got to be crushing if you’re anti-Dodgers these days.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It’s not, because the playoffs are a crapshoot and teams that are the inevitable champions seem to have a particular knack for early playoff exits.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Too bad they’re not too good at that key stat “keeping your best player away from back trouble.”

5 years ago
Reply to  beatua

And yet somehow the gap between the Dodgers and the next best team are bigger than the contributions of Clayton Kershaw.