Team Ball-in-Play Analysis: AL East

Welcome to the third installment of our division-by-division look at team ball-in-play profiles, based on data accumulated through the All-Star break. In the first two pieces, we identified the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Dodgers as the best “true-talent” clubs in their respective divisions; their recent surges couldn’t have been timed better. Today, we take a macro-type view of the plate-appearance frequency and BIP exit speed/angle detail for AL East clubs.

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. Let’s use this information to project true-talent team won-lost records and compare them to their actual marks at the break, examining the reasons for material variation along the way.

Projected Team Records Based on BIP Data
BOS 5.51 5.88 0.468 4.65 4.38 0.530 4.65 3.79 0.601 52 35 49 38 -3
TOR 6.03 5.54 0.542 4.69 4.25 0.549 4.69 4.08 0.569 52 39 51 40 -1
BAL 6.57 5.32 0.603 4.77 4.38 0.543 4.77 4.48 0.532 46 41 51 36 5
NYY 4.70 5.76 0.400 3.89 3.99 0.487 3.89 4.11 0.472 42 46 44 44 2
TB 5.69 5.76 0.494 3.94 4.31 0.455 3.94 4.24 0.463 41 47 34 54 -7
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 East clubs.

An interesting three-club logjam exists at the top of the AL East standings. If we judged the three based on net contact quality on both sides of the baseball, the Red Sox would wind up third by far. They are helped greatly by their home park offensively: their offensive “ERA” on all BIP, at 5.51, falls fractionally short of the AL average. They hit the ball harder than the league average in the air, on a line and on the ground, but their BIP mix isn’t ideal: they have the fourth-lowest fly-ball rate in the league, and those other three clubs (Royals, White Sox, Yankees) arguably possess the worst offenses in the AL.

Fenway, next to Coors Field, inflates fly-ball offense more than any other park in the majors. It does so by increasing the number of doubles, thanks to the presence of the Green Monster. Through the break, Red Sox hitters “should have” hit .329 AVG-.921 SLG, close to the .331 AVG-.908 SLG AL average, in the air. They actually hit .393 AVG-1.021 SLG, due in large part to their home-park effects.

By contrast, their pitching staff managed BIP authority fairly well, while yielding a poor BIP mix. They allowed the third-highest fly-ball and liner rates in the AL. They were also the only AL staff with a higher-than-average fly-ball rate to post a lower-than-average pop-up rate. Add it all up, and the Sox staff’s projected ERA on BIP alone was 5.88, second worst in the AL to the Twins. On BIP alone, their projected winning percentage is a lousy .468 — worse than the Rays.

Next, let’s add back the K and BB, on both sides of the ball. This greatly helps the Sox, who were materially better than average in three of those measures (excepting pitching BB rate) at the break. Their offensive K rate was second lowest behind only the Angels at the break; this increases their projected offensive “ERA” to 4.65, a full STD better than the AL average, though narrowly third in the division, behind their two key competitors. Their well above-average pitching K rate does wonders for their pitching projection, dropping their projected ERA to 4.38, neatly in the league-average range. This, too, is a close third in the East.

Now, we only must adjust for net team defense. This is where the magic happens. The Sox’ team defensive multiplier of .866 is the best in the majors. They’re at their best on fly balls, with a ridiculous .646 multiplier. That Fenway effect that has puffed up their offensive fly ball performance? It hasn’t done the same when the other club has come to bat. Opposing hitters “should have” batted .336 AVG-.900 SLG on their flies against the Red Sox, but have actually hit .324 AVG-.872 SLG. The Sox are playing to their surroundings much better than their opponents.

They’ve also significantly out-defended on ground balls, with a .765 multiplier. Clearly, Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts in the infield — and Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. in the outfield — have all marked themselves as strong defenders by any measure, but the club’s ability to out-defend their opponents seems to transcend individual performance. Inclusion of their defensive multiplier drops their projected ERA to 3.79, best in the AL. This makes them a .601, or 52-35 club at the break, bettering their actual mark by three games.

Next up are two of three best ball-striking clubs in the AL, along with the Tigers. The Jays get it done with both authority (well harder than league-average flies and liners) and a quite optimal BIP mix (second highest fly ball rate in the league). On BIP alone, their projected offensive “ERA” of 6.03 is second in the East and third in the AL.

On the mound, the Jays also posted a highly optimal BIP mix, managing to simultaneously post an above average pop-up rate and the second-highest grounder rate in the league. Employing a contact-management ace like Marco Estrada alongside youthful grounder generators such as Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez will do that. There is one issue, however: those two kids allow lots of hard contact. The Jays as a club allowed by far the hardest liner contact, while allowing the second-hardest fly-ball and grounder contact in the AL. Put it all together, and on BIP alone the Jays projected ERA of 5.54 is almost exactly league average. Before adding anything else back to the equation, the Jays stand as a .542 club.

Adding back K and BB doesn’t help the Jays nearly as much as the Sox. The Jays’ offensive BB rate is their only strong plus. Their projected offensive “ERA” of 4.69 ranks second in the East and fourth in the AL, and their 4.25 projected pitching ERA remains squarely in the league-average range before net team defense is incorporated into the picture.

The Jays don’t match the Sox, but still fare quite well in this defensive metric, with a .959 team multiplier. They are quite consistent across BIP types, with their infield play (.958 multiplier on grounders) a chief strength. With the injection of Devon Travis into the lineup, a strong infield unit got stronger. The Jays’ run prevention creeps into the materially better-than-average range at this point, with a projected ERA of 4.08, second in the division, giving them a projected winning percentage of .569, or a 52-39 record at the break. That’s a single game better than their actual mark.

Now for the third head of the East’s three-headed monster, the Orioles. They just bash. If things were decided on BIP quality alone, here are your AL champs. They combine authority (their projected production on flies, liners and grounders are all over one STD above league average) with a quite optimal BIP mix (well above-average fly-ball rate). Their projected offensive production on fly balls (.367 AVG-1.054 SLG) is by far the best in the AL. Overall, their projected offensive “ERA” on BIP alone of 6.57 is best in the AL.

They very quietly have done a nice job of managing contact on the mound, as well. Their projected production allowed on fly balls of .324 AVG-.855 SLG was third best in the AL at the break. That factor alone drops their projected ERA on BIP alone safely below league average at 5.32. Stifling fly-ball contact into that 75-95 mph “donut hole” is pivotal: it outweighs other staff weaknesses such as their AL-high marks in liner-rate allowed and average grounder authority. On BIP alone, the O’s are the AL’s best, with a .603 projected winning percentage.

The adding back of K and BB is not very kind to the Orioles. They are well below average in three of the four measures, all except for offensive walk rate. Their projected offensive “ERA” of 4.77 narrowly remains the best in the East (and in the AL), still over one STD above average. Their projected pitching ERA takes quite a hit, moving up to 4.28, in the league-average range and tied for third in the division with the Sox. Their AL-high walk rate is a big reason for that move. Their projected winning percentage of .543 before inclusion of net team defense is a close second behind Toronto.

Their team defense doesn’t grade out so well, with an overall multiplier of 1.022. This is a shame, as their infield defense (.892 multiplier on grounders) is quite good. Their fly-ball multiplier of 1.349 is an abject disaster, worst in the AL by miles. Yes, Mark Trumbo is having a great year with the bat, but they simply have to find a way to get him out of the field. The problem is, Hyun Soo Kim, Joey Rickard and even Adam Jones haven’t been very good, either. I guess it’s just the cost of all that thump. True-talent wise, the O’s posted a projected winning percentage of .532 at the break, equivalent to 46-41, five games shy of their actual mark.

Now for two of the more oddly constructed clubs in recent memory, with clear strengths more than offset by fatal weaknesses. First, the Yankees. How bad an offense must one have for its raw numbers to be so meager despite the inviting homer porches down both lines of Yankee Stadium? This is a bad offense on multiple levels; it hits the weakest fly balls (projected .296 AVG-.760 SLG) and the most ground balls, not a very inviting combination. Their projected offensive “ERA” on BIP alone was worst in the AL at the break at 4.70.

The pitching staff wasn’t so strong at managing contact, either. They allowed the loudest fly-ball contact, with projected production of .348 AVG-.995 SLG, though their BIP profile was quite strong, featuring the highest grounder rate in the league. Hard contact in the air packs a punch, however: on all BIP, the staff’s projected 5.76 ERA is well worse than league average. Their projected winning percentage of .400 on BIP alone ranks as the very worst in the AL.

Adding back K and BB works to the Yanks’ benefit, as they are well above league average in three of the four measures, especially the two on the pitching side. Offensively, a better-than-average K rate slightly softens the offense’s negatives, fractionally moving them out of the AL cellar, just ahead of the Royals, with a projected 3.89 “ERA”. On the mound, they were runaway league leaders in both team K and BB rates at the break, and their resulting projected ERA of 3.99 moves to over a full STD better than average, best in the East and third in the AL. Before taking team defense into account, the Yanks are now a .487 club.

Though the club is in the middle of the AL pack defensively, they rank last in the East by my metric with a 1.030 multiplier. Fly-ball defense (1.127) is the biggest issue, with the usage of Carlos Beltran in the field a primary driver of that performance. Overall, the Yanks’ projected winning percentage of .472 translates to a 42-46 record, two games short of their actual mark at the break.

Now, a club that might be even odder than the Yanks. When it comes to batted-ball authority/quality, there’s lots of it when the Rays are at bat, and on the mound. The Rays hit their flies, liners and grounders harder than league average, and posted the AL’s highest fly-ball rate at the break. On BIP alone, their projected “ERA” of 5.69 is narrowly above league average and third in the East, ahead of the Sox. On the mound, the Rays allowed the second-hardest liner and third-hardest grounder contact in the AL at the break, while allowing the second-highest fly-ball rate. Not a pretty picture, as the club’s projected staff ERA on BIP alone of 5.76 was comfortably higher than the AL average, tied with the Yanks. On BIP alone, the Rays were a .494 club.

Though the Rays’ pitching staff’s K rate was above league average at the break, the club is killed by their huge offensive K rate once K and BB are introduced into the mix. Their solid ball-striking is crushed by that K rate, being forced nearly down to the Yankees’ level, with a projected 3.94 offensive “ERA”. Their projected pitching ERA improves a bit thanks to the Ks, into the average range at 4.31. Before team defense, the Rays’ projected winning percentage is .455.

The Rays’ overall team defensive multiplier of .983 ranks third in the division. Their fly-ball multiplier of .747 is second to the Red Sox in the AL, thanks to virtuoso Kevin Kiermaier, who has missed a bunch of time. Inclusion of defense improves the staff’s projected ERA to 4.24, still in the league-average range. The club’s projected winning percentage of .463 translates to a 41-47 record, seven wins more than their actual total at the break. The Rays are better than their record, but it’s awfully difficult to overcome such a massive team K rate that doesn’t brings walks or Oriole-type thump along with it.

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Jetsy Extrano
Jetsy Extrano

Do your projections regress the team defensive multipliers? What’s the 50% ‘stabilization’ point for those? Must be a lot quicker than for individual UZR, but I don’t know how much.

The K-BB and batted ball metrics stabilize quickly, so it’s an interesting situation when Boston is middling on those, but great on defense. How much of the defense should be projected forward?