How the Giants Beat the Royals at Their Own Game

Throughout October, several narratives have run through the national media coverage of the baseball postseason. The Royals became the media darlings, and their bullpen, team speed and defense were trotted out as examples of some sort of “new way” in baseball. The season ended tonight, with the “other” team – the San Francisco Giants – prevailing, on the back of a dominant starting pitcher and some pretty darned good defense of their own.

PanikDP

Joe Panik turned a potential first an third, no out, situation into two outs in the 3rd inning tonight, having arguably as much effect on the eventual outcome as that tall lefty the Giants brought out of the pen. In fact, I’d argue that the World Champions’ team defense as currently constituted belongs on roughly the same level as that of their Fall Classic opponents.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy watching the Kansas City Royals play baseball. Some of the things that they do very well have fallen out of favor in the game in recent years. Speed and defense are fun to watch, extremely valuable, and show up to work at the park each day. Excessive amounts of little ball – like what we saw from Alcides Escobar in the 5th inning of a one-run game, with the platoon advantage and a 2-0 count in his favor – aren’t quite as fun. The Royals played great down the stretch of the regular season and in October, were gallant in defeat, and would have been worthy champs, in the mold of the 1969 Mets. Instead, they fell a game short, in the mold of the less famous 1973 Mets.

The national media has had a much harder time describing how the Giants win ballgames. They don’t steal many bases, don’t bunt much, and their leading power hitter had 22 homers. Behind monolithic staff ace Madison Bumgarner, their rotation was in shambles as the Series ended, with the rest of the starters posting a 9.82 ERA against the Royals. It turns out, however, the Giants do a bunch of things pretty well.

First, their offense is greatly underrated, thwarted by their extremely pitcher-friendly home park. AT&T Park, based on my own park factors utilizing granular batted ball data, had the second lowest park factor in the majors this year at 84.7, higher than only Safeco Field’s 82.8. Its fly ball park factor is also second lowest at 67.3, ahead of only Safeco’s 66.2. Their home park made their pitching look better than it actually was this season, and did the exact opposite to the perception of their offense. Three clubs hit the ball significantly harder than the rest of their major league counterparts this season. Many would quickly pinpoint two of these clubs as the Tigers and Orioles, but not many would correctly identify the Giants as the third member of the group.

Then there’s their defense. Obviously, evaluation of defense has advanced by leaps and bounds in the recent past, and measures such as UZR and Defensive Runs Saved are both publicly available and quite valuable. FanGraphs aggregates available methods, and ranked the Royals 1st in team defense, and the Giants 16th this season. These established methods certainly have value, and I would argue are more accurate with respect to evaluating individual rather than team defense. The effects of other factors, like positioning, are largely lost in these methods.

I have established a method to evaluate team defense utilizing granular batted ball data, from a big-picture macro perspective, rather than the play-by-play micro perspective that DRS and UZR utilize. Simply compare each team’s offensive and defensive actual and projected AVG and SLG – what each team “should” have hit/allowed based on the speed/exit angle mix of all balls in play (excluding home runs), and convert those actual and projected events to run values. You are basically comparing each team’s defense to that of their opponents over 162 games. If a team’s defense was exactly as good as their opponents’ over 162 games, their team defensive multiplier would be 100. Better than average defenses have scores under 100, below average team defenses have scores over 100. In 2013, the Royals and Giants had very similar defensive multipliers at 94.9 and 95.4, respectively. How did they match up this season?

IN-PLAY SF KC
BAT ACT AVG 0.300 0.299
BAT ACT SLG 0.381 0.375
BAT PRJ AVG 0.290 0.289
BAT PRJ SLG 0.376 0.360
PIT ACT AVG 0.282 0.291
PIT ACT SLG 0.370 0.364
PIT PRJ AVG 0.290 0.288
PIT PRJ SLG 0.371 0.365
DEF MULTIPLY 95.7 96.8

You’ll notice that all of the actual and projected AVG and SLG figures bounce around in a narrow range, but over large samples of balls in play, a few basis points can make a difference. For a frame of reference, my method agreed with Fangraphs on 12 of the top 15 defenses in 2013, and didn’t have massive disagreements about any club.

These numbers suggest that perhaps the Royals weren’t quite as dominant defensively as the publicly available advanced metrics suggest, and/or that the Giants are better than most people think. My gut and eye tell me that my method likely underrates the Royals a bit – they are quite adept at maximizing “hidden” bases at bat and minimizing them in the field. The Giants, however, are likely underrated by the publicly available metrics, and the likely reason for that is particularly good defensive positioning.

Let’s take a quick look at how these two clubs’ overall defensive multipliers break down for the major batted ball types:

IN PLAY SF KC
FLY MULTIPLY 100.6 93.3
LD MULTIPLY 99.9 96.9
GB MULTIPLY 88.2 98.6

The Royals clearly measure up as a superior defensive club with regard to fly balls and line drives using this method. This is clearly not a surprise, considering the superior speed and instincts of their four primary outfielders, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Nori Aoki and Jarrod Dyson. In the infield, however, the Giants have a very significant advantage, with a superior 88.2 ground ball multiplier, a better mark than any 2013 club.

It should be noted that the Giants’ defense improved significantly in the second half of the season. A number of factors caused this, and without any one of them, it is quite unlikely that they would have even made the playoffs. Panik replaced Brandon Hicks at second base, which turned out to be a major offensive and at least a slight defensive upgrade. The biggest change occurred in the outfield, however, and it was largely a matter of addition by subtraction.

Michael Morse may very well be the single worst defensive outfielder in baseball. He hits the ball really, really hard, but every advanced metric agrees that he gives back with his glove any offensive value that he provides. Less obviously, the loss of Angel Pagan actually turned out to be a defensive plus. The Pagan of a couple years back was a pretty solid defensive player, but even when healthy this season, wasn’t the same guy. Gregor Blanco turned out to be a defensive upgrade in center, and anyone they put in left – light-hitting Juan Perez, never-played-the-position before Travis Ishikawa – was certain to do less harm than would Morse.

Once safely ensconced in the World Series, with the DH now in play, the Giants were able to put their best offense/defense combo unit on the field for the first time all season. Their offense is plenty good enough to carry Juan Perez in left field when Morse is the DH. It is a near elite level offensive club, with a lights-out staff ace, and a surprisingly good defense, with no glaring individual weaknesses.

When you get down to it, defense is played by a team, not a group of individuals. The defensive strengths and weaknesses of each club’s individual members affect each player’s positioning. The Royals likely have superior individual defenders to the Giants – my eyes and the publicly available metrics say as much. The Giants’ individual defenders, however, are pretty solid in their own right, and the big-picture, macro level numbers suggest that their defense “plays up” as a unit.

There are a number of ironies surrounding the 2014 Giants. They signed Michael Morse to play left field, and wound up winning the World Series, in large part due to their team defense. Each of their championship clubs has featured highly paid mopup relievers such as Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum. Such imperfections cause one to lose sight of the big picture, though – they have quietly assembled a club that does lots of things very well, though you sometimes have to look a bit closer, and from a different perspective, to notice them. Hail to the victors – this was no fluke.





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Eric
7 years ago

I think Perez’s catch on Aoki’s line drive in the bottom of the fifth illustrates Tony’s point about team defense perfectly. Bumgarner hadn’t quite settled in, gives up a hit, the Royals (foolishly) bunt, and Aoki hits into what looked like a routine fly-out because Perez had played the hitter perfectly down the left field line. Had Perez been positioned at “normal depth” in left field, that goes for an RBI double and ties the game with the go-ahead run in scoring position and Cain-Hosmer-Butler coming to the plate. An absolutely huge play at that point in the game that won’t make any highlight tapes.

Blue
7 years ago
Reply to  Eric

Key play of the game, IMO.

Avattoir
7 years ago
Reply to  Blue

Certainly one of the two key POSITIVE defensive plays, along with the masterpiece displayed in GIF at the top of this article. (Nice piece, Tony.)

The third, and certainly least significant because it didn’t actually result in a run, was that Keystone Kops exhibition in left center by Blanco and Perez in the bottom of the 9th. Right after, there was a nice shot of Perez looking over to Pence and making a comically big shrug towards his own personal Mongo Santamaria, like, Shit happens, look we didn’t MEAN to screw up.