Team Ball-in-Play Analysis: AL Central

Our series of divisional team BIP analyses rolls on. Most recently, we examined the NL East. Today, the AL Central. We’ll use granular data such as plate-appearance frequencies and BIP exit speed/angle as of the All-Star break to project “true-talent” club records.

About 90 games’ worth of balls in play is a fairly substantial sample size, one that enables us to make fairly educated guesses about the true-talent level of each team. We’ll compare our projections to club’s actual records at the break, examining the reasons for material variation along the way.

Projected Team Records Based On BIP Data
CLE 5.46 5.48 0.499 4.24 4.04 0.525 4.24 3.83 0.551 49 39 52 36 3
DET 6.48 5.30 0.599 4.74 4.29 0.549 4.74 4.58 0.516 46 43 46 43 0
KC 5.02 5.76 0.432 3.87 4.37 0.440 3.87 4.05 0.477 42 46 45 43 3
CWS 5.09 4.89 0.520 3.89 3.97 0.489 3.89 4.11 0.472 42 46 45 43 3
MIN 5.56 6.01 0.462 4.20 4.68 0.446 4.20 4.89 0.424 38 50 32 56 -6
AL AVG 5.54 5.52 0.500 4.29 4.29 0.500 4.29 4.30 0.499 44 44 45 44 0

The left two-thirds of the table is broken into three sections, projecting team winning percentages solely via projected runs scored/allowed based on BIP exit speed/angle (first three columns), and then by first adding in actual offensive and defensive K and BB (next three columns), and lastly, by adding in net team defense vis-à-vis their opponents (next three columns).

Net team defense is measured by comparing both clubs’ actual vs. projected runs scored and allowed to the projected run-scoring environment based on exit speed/angle of all BIP in those games. It encompasses not only individual player defense, but the impact of extra bases taken on batted balls, the impact of overshifting for and against, and, alas, random chance. The amount in the “PIT ERA” column in the “+ K & BB” section is multiplied by the team defensive factor (under 1.00 is good, under 1.00, not so much), resulting in the “PIT ERA” value in the “+ TM DEF” section.

Team projected and actual won-lost records as of the All-Star break are listed in the rightmost columns, along with the difference between the two. Now, let’s dig a little deeper into the BIP portfolios of the AL Central clubs.

First and foremost, outside of Detroit’s offense and Minnesota’s pitching staff, almost nothing going on in the AL Central inflates offense. If contests were decided based on contact quality alone, the Indians would not be a very good baseball club. They are a thoroughly average ball-striking team; as of the break, they hit no BIP type harder than league average, and their liners were the second weakest in the AL (projected production of .645 AVG-.842 SLG vs. league average of .663 AVG-.880 SLG). Their near league-average projected offensive “ERA” of 5.46 on BIP alone, third in the Central, is only as high as it is because of a reasonably solid batted-ball mix, featuring above average fly ball and liner rates.

On the mound, the story is very similar with regard to contact management. Their 5.48 projected ERA on BIP alone, also third in the division, also features near league-average authority across BIP types (a bit weaker on LDs, bit harder on GBs) along with a solid BIP mix (below-average liner and above-average grounder rates). On BIP alone, the Indians project as a .500 (actually a .499) team. Nothing special.

Adding back the K and BB is a big help to the Indians on the run-prevention side. Offensively, they’re quite close to league average in both K and BB rate, and their projected offensive “ERA” of 4.24, while moving up to second in the Central, remains very close to league average. On the mound, their K rate was second in the AL at the break, and their BB rate was also better than league average. This drops their projected ERA before adjustment for net team defense down to 4.04, second in the division and fourth in the AL. This increases the Indians’ projected winning percentage to .525.

The Indians’ net team defense grades out as well above average using my metric, corroborating the findings of publicly available metrics such as UZR. Their team multiplier of .948 ranks second in the division and third in the AL, and is consistent across BIP types with fly ball, liner and grounder multipliers of .961, .934 and .959, respectively. Obviously, their clear defensive standout is shortstop Francisco Lindor. After adjustment for defense, the Indians’ projected winning percentage increases to .551, or a 49-39 record, three games worse than their actual mark at the break.

Here is the one team in the division that impacts the baseball in a clearly better-than-average fashion. The biggest reason is their MLB-high 22.4% liner rate at the break, which is over two full STD higher than the AL average. In smaller samples, liner rates are quite volatile, so regression in the wrong direction would be expected moving forward. In reality, however, the Tigers employ multiple hitters — such as Miguel Cabrera and the injured Nick Castellanos — who consistently maintain high liner rates, so this is no fluke. The club also hits plenty of fly balls, and hits them hard (projected production of .353 AVG-.992 SLG vs. league average of .331 AVG-.908 SLG). Their projected offensive “ERA” of 6.48 on BIP alone laps the division by almost a full run, and is second only to the Orioles in the AL.

The Tigers do a fairly nice job of managing contact as well. Their team liner rate allowed is tied for second lowest in the AL, but this is more anomaly than true talent, unlike their offensive scenario. Their AL-best team pop-up rate at the break was very real, however. Justin Verlander and friends are quite adept at inducing pop ups. The staff’s projected ERA of 5.30 on BIP alone is over one-half STD better than AL average, ranking second in the Central. On BIP alone, this is a really good club, with a projected winning percentage of .599, best in the Central and fractionally behind the Orioles for best in the league.

The introduction of K and BB into the mix is not a positive for the Tigers. Their offensive K rate was quite a bit higher and their pitching staff K rate quite a bit lower than league average at the break. Their projected offensive “ERA” of 4.74 remains second in the AL, over a full STD above league average, while their projected staff ERA drops into the league-average range at 4.29, dropping their projected winning percentage before net team defense to .549, better than the Indians and still tied for second best in the AL.

Team defense, alas, is not the Tigers’ strong suit. Their team defensive multiplier of 1.067 ranks worst in the Central and second to last in the AL. Outfield defense is the largest issue, thanks to the less-than-stellar work of J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton on the corners, as the club posted 1.034 and 1.109 multipliers on fly balls and liners, respectively. If not for Jose Iglesias, this would be a historically bad defense. Overall, the club’s projected winning percentage drops to .516, translating to a 46-43 record, identical to their mark at the break.

It looks like the projection systems are getting a small measure of revenge on the Royals. They project as the second-worst club in the AL on BIP alone, with projected offensive and pitching ERAs of 5.02 and 5.76, respectively, both clearly worse than league average. Offensively, their contact-oriented problems are many: they hit the fewest fly balls in the AL as of the break and hit their liners with particularly limited authority (projected production of .643 AVG-.837 SLG).

On the mound, it could have been even worse, as the Royals’ staff allowed by far the fewest liners in either league at the break, a reality that begs for regression. They allowed a well higher-than-average fly-ball rate, and the flies and liners allowed were hit much harder than league average. On BIP alone, the Royals’ projected winning percentage of .432 is by far the worst in the Central, and better than only the Yankees in the AL.

Introduction of K and BB into the mix helps the club only modestly. A very low offensive K rate was one of the club’s hallmarks in recent seasons; this year, it’s in the league-average range, while their offensive BB rate is last in the majors, over two full STD below league average at the break. It’s a mixed bag on the mound, with both their K and BB rates over one-half STD higher than average. This slightly improves their projected winning percentage to .440 before adjustment for net team defense.

As usual, this is where the Royals shine. They posted a team defensive multiplier of .928 at the break, with strength on all BIP types: .858, .949 and .949 multipliers on fly balls, liners and grounders, respectively. Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar remain the outfield and infield anchors, with strong support from Salvador Perez behind the dish. This bumps up the Royals’ projected winning percentage to .477, or a 42-46 record, three games worse than their actual record at the break.

A very interesting group here. Offensively, the White Sox are a less-than-imposing ball-striking club. Their team fly-ball rate is very low, as is the authority on those flies, with their projected production of .307 AVG-.790 SLG in the air ranking among the worst in the AL. Their team offensive “ERA” on BIP alone of 5.09 is well worse than league average, and noses out the Royals for fourth in the Central.

The Sox, led by Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, excel at contact management, however, and they did so despite allowing an above-average liner rate at the break. Their staff absolutely throttled fly-ball authority, yielding projected production of .297 AVG-.768 SLG at the break, best in the league and over two STD better than league average. Their projected staff ERA on BIP alone of 4.89 at the break was by far the best, also over two full STD better than league average. On BIP alone, the Sox were a .520 club, with the lowest combined offensive/pitching run-scoring environment in the AL.

Adding back K and BB is not a positive for the Sox. They are above average in none of the four rate categories on both sides of the ball, though they are materially worse than league average in only one, pitching staff BB rate. They retain lowest-run-scoring-environment honors, with their projected offensive and pitching ERAs both over one STD lower than league average after adjustment for K and BB at 3.89 and 3.97, respectively. Before adjustment for team defense, their projected winning percentage drops to .489.

Team defense is not the Sox’ friend, with their team defensive multiplier checking in 1.035, third in the Central. Some interesting stuff is in the background behind that number, however. Adam Eaton singlehandedly makes the outfield a positive, with fly-ball and liner multipliers of .985 and .928, respectively. The infield grades out as a disaster, however, with a grounder multiplier of 1.314, by far the worst in the AL. Grounders hit by the White Sox and their opponents were hit with almost the exact same authority in the first half; the Sox batted .209 AVG-.227 SLG on theirs compared to .277 AVG-.302 SLG for their opponents. Another way of looking at it: Sox opponents hit 44 more singles on 21 fewer ground balls. There’s more than random chance at work there. Jose Abreu is the worst of a poor-fielding Sox infield group. At least Tim Anderson has made them a bit better.

After adjustment for defense, the Sox projected winning percentage drops to .472, translating to a 42-46 record, three games worse than their record at the break.

Very quietly, the Twins are the second-best ball-striking club in the Central, with an almost exactly league-average offensive “ERA” of 5.56 on BIP alone. This is largely a byproduct of a solid BIP mix marked by high fly-ball and liner rates, as club authority levels are near average across all BIP types. On the mound, the Twins allowed the loudest contact in the AL at the break, with myriad issues serving as root causes. There’s the high fly-ball and liner rates, the low pop-up rate, the materially harder-than-average authority across all BIP types: you name it. The Twins “pitch to contact” philosophy has worked out horribly for them in recent seasons, and their 6.01 projected ERA on BIP alone is living proof. On BIP alone, the Twins’ projected winning percentage checks in at .462.

Adding back K and BB only adds to the Twins’ problems. They are materially worse than average in three of the four measures, offensive K rate and pitching K and BB rates. Their projected offensive “ERA” remains squarely in the league average range at 4.20, while their projected staff ERA remains over a full STD higher than league average at 4.68, though it does crawl one spot above the AL cellar. Before adjustment for net team defense, the Twins’ projected winning percentage stands at .446.

The Twins’ defensive multiplier of 1.046 ranks fourth in the Central and 11th in the AL. They have issues with both fly-ball (1.089 multiplier) and ground-ball (1.128) defense. The latter mark ranks second worst in the league. The Twins did allow harder grounders than the ones they hit, but the performance differential (Twins hit .229 AVG-.244 SLG on their grounders vs. their opponents’ .267 AVG-.293 SLG) was still daunting. One intriguing reason: the Twins allowed three ground-ball triples in the first half; there were 19 hit in all of baseball. After adjustment for team defense, their projected winning percentage falls to .424, or a 38-50 record, six games better than their actual mark.

One division to go, but all of you Cub and Cardinal (not to mention Pirates, Brewers and Reds fans) will have to wait a couple weeks, as I’ll be on vacation for a short spell.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

Two things caught my eye:
1- Cleveland’s offense grading out average despite a black hole at C and a big issue at 3B for the first half.
2- Characterizing Iglesias as the only thing keeping the Detroit defense from “historically bad”. And Iglesias is currently on the shelf. Ouch.

Big Daddy V
6 years ago
Reply to  fjtorres

It’s a bit of an exaggeration. Cabrera has become a pretty good 1B, Kinsler is still great at 2B, and McCann has been either above-average or fantastic behind the plate, depending on how you feel about pitch-framing stats.

The outfield, though, there hasn’t been a lot of good there since Anthony Gose was sent down. Not just the regulars, but there have been so many injuries that they’ve had to use utility infielders out there for a large number of innings.