ESPN’s Christina Kahrl wrote a fascinating piece over at the SweetSpot that focused on the rise of the strikeout during the past few decades. In her article, she notes that some teams can get away with lesser defensive players if their pitching staffs have a higher strikeout rate. The logic is that if a team’s pitching staff allows fewer balls in play due to striking out more batters, fewer runners will reach base despite the team’s higher batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
It’s a great point. I wanted to get a more concrete sense of just how much strikeout rates and team defense/park might impact hits allowed in 2012. To do this, I took the ZiPS projections for all pitchers who are currently on the active roster of major-league clubs. The projections were then aggregated by team. Since the active rosters vary at this point, I calculated rates such as projected hits per inning, strikeouts per inning, etc. I then conducted two comparisons: the number of hits allowed relative to league average when BABIP is held constant; and the number of hits allowed, relative to league average, when the number of balls in play per inning is constant. The former gives us a sense of how strikeout rates impact hits; the latter tells us how defense/park impacts hits*. All calculations of hits saved/allowed used an innings pitched constant of 1450 for the year.
Here are the results:
|Team||Hits Relative to League Average Due to Defense/Park||Hits Relative to League Average: Per 9 IP|
Not surprisingly, the Rays are projected to save the most hits due to their defensive this year. Given their players’ defensive skills, their use of defensive strategy (e.g. shifts), and their park, the Rays project to save 49 hits relative to the league average in 2012. The Dodgers, Reds, Padres and Diamondbacks round out the top five. Seeing the Reds here is interesting. Cincinnati plays in the most hitter-friendly park, relative to the other top-five teams. That bodes well for their chances at making a run in the NL Central.
|Team||Hits Relative to League Average Due to K-Rate||Hits Relative to League Average: Per 9 IP|
In terms of hits saved due to strikeouts, the Brewers project to save 78 hits. The Braves, Dodgers, Giants and Phillies fill out the top five in this category. Not a whole lot of surprises here, given the power arms who populate those teams’ staffs. The Brewers will need to keep every run off the board they can to compensate for the likely decline in their run scoring in 2012.
When you combine each team’s projected strikeout rate with their BABIPs, you get the combined projected hits saved/allowed relative to league average for 2012:
|Team||Hits Relative to League Average Due to Defense/Park||Hits Relative to League Average Due to K-Rate||Total Hits Relative to League Average||Total Hits Relative to League Average: Per 9 IP|
The Brewers project to allow almost 100 fewer hits, which is based largely on their pitchers’ ability to miss bats. Combine that with a relatively improved defense (bye-bye Yuniesky Betancourt, hello Alex Gonzalez), and Milawuakee’s run prevention looks to be pretty good in 2012. The Brewers’ competitors in the NL Central, the Reds, also project very favorably here, with 62 fewer hits allowed. The Reds did work on improving both their starting rotation and their bullpen. Of course, the loss of Ryan Madson won’t help, but overall the data show that they should certainly see an improvement over their runs allowed from last year.
On the negative side, we find teams like the Royals and Blue Jays — who many project as breakout teams. Both clubs have done a great job building young, talented teams with above-average offenses. The question for both is their pitching and defense. The projections here show why it’s still hard to imagine either surprising in 2012. The offense should be there, but both clubs project to be below-average when it comes to allowing hits. Of course, in the case of the Blue Jays, we’re looking at roughly 21 hits over the course of the season (or roughly one every week), so this isn’t crippling from a run prevention standpoint. But, still, we’re talking about a club that has to compete against the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays just for the chance at one of the play-in playoff spots, so every little bit counts.
*Of course, strikeout rate and BABIP are not completely independent. Thanks to Mike Fast’s innovative work, we have some sense that pitchers with nastier stuff tend to suppress opponents BABIP, and those same pitchers also tend to strikeout more batters. In fact, the correlation between projected team BABIP and strikeout rate for 2012 is -.75 .
Bill leads Predictive Modeling and Data Science consulting at Gallup. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, has consulted for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. He is also the creator of the baseballr package for the R programming language. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @BillPetti.