FanPost

Ask Not What Your Pitchers Can Do for You – Ask What You Can Do for Your Pitchers!

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As the dust settles from the whirlwind that was the 2014 MLB Winter Meetings, a lot has already been said about the Tigers’ recent pitching acquisitions, Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene, and how they will help the Tigers in 2015 and beyond. What some people haven’t thought about, though, is how the Tigers will help those pitchers.

As fans, we tend to look at a new pitcher’s previous stats and compare them with the stats of the pitcher we’re losing to see how the new pitcher will perform with our team. This won’t give us the whole story, though, because it assumes that all of the other factors affecting the pitchers’ performances last year will remain unchanged. We know that lots of things will change. One of the most important factors for pitchers will be the defenses backing them up. For ground ball pitchers, like Porcello, Simon, and Greene, the middle infielders are arguably the most important defenders. To get a more complete picture of how our new guys could replace Porcello, let’s first compare the new guys’ tendencies with those of Porcello to see how similar they really are. Second, let’s look at whether our new guys will be getting an upgrade in the defense behind them. If the pitchers themselves are similar, an upgrade in defense should mean increased (or at least maintained) success for Simon and Greene.

I think we all know by now that Porcello is a ground ball pitcher. He won’t blow you away with his stuff, but he keeps the ball down and inside the park. The metrics for both Simon and Greene are pretty comparable:

Player

Team

Season

IP

K/9

GB%

ERA

FIP

WHIP

BABIP

Porcello

Tigers

2012

176.1

5.46

53.2%

4.59

3.91

1.53

.344

Tigers

2013

177.0

7.22

55.3%

4.32

3.53

1.28

.315

Tigers

2014

204.2

5.67

49.0%

3.43

3.68

1.23

.298

Simon

Reds

2012

61.0

7.67

54.1%

2.66

3.19

1.43

.337

Reds

2013

87.2

6.47

45.3%

2.87

3.96

1.07

.236

Reds

2014

196.1

5.82

48.2%

3.44

4.33

1.21

.265

Greene

Minors

2012

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Minors

2013

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Yankees

2014

78.2

9.27

50.2%

3.78

3.73

1.40

.330

All three pitchers do a good job of keeping the ball on the ground. Porcello’s 2014 ground ball rate of 49% ranked him 25th among eligible MLB pitchers, while Simon’s 48.2% rate ranked him 28th. Greene didn’t tally enough major league innings to qualify, but his 50.2% ground ball rate beat both of them. Porcello and Simon strike batters out at roughly the same (unspectacular) rate, while Greene’s K rate is higher. Keep in mind, though, that this is a small sample size for Greene. Expecting him to continue at a 9.27 K/9 clip is unrealistic. Still, his minor league K rates over the last few seasons ranged from 7.72 K/9 to 8.28 K/9, which, if sustained, would put him in the neighbor of the 2014 versions of Yordano Ventura, Scott Kazmir, and Julio Teheran. Putting K rates aside, the standard metrics for all three of these pitchers are pretty comparable.

A pitcher’s Batting Average on Balls in Play, or BABIP, is a good pitching metric to transition us into our look at the defenses behind these pitchers. BABIP measures how many of the balls put into play against a pitcher end up as hits. A normal BABIP is right around .300. A pitcher with a high BABIP over the course of a season could mean that he has a bad defense behind him, is unlucky, or a little of both. By contrast, a pitcher with a low BABIP could be relying a lot more on the defense behind him to make great plays.

Porcello’s .298 BABIP last year was right around average, but that was an improvement over 2012 and 2013. So what changed? Well, for one thing, the Tigers middle infielders went from Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante to Andrew Romine/Eugenio Suarez and Ian Kinsler. Simon’s 2014 BABIP of .265 is on the low side. This might be explained by Cincinnati’s defense. (It could also be explained, at least in part, simply by knowing that Simon is generally tough to explain using metrics. For example, Simon’s ERA consistently outperforms his FIP, sometimes by almost a full point.) By contrast, Greene’s .330 BABIP is on the high side. Will Simon continue to see the same success after the change in defensive support? Could Greene experience increased success similar to Porcello by going from the Yankees’ defense to the Tigers’ defense? Let’s take a look at each team’s defense for possible answers.

Even though defensive metrics have progressed by leaps and bounds since the dark days of fielding percentage, it’s still a much harder attribute to track than offense or pitching. We could argue all day about which metric is a better measure of defensive performance, but I’m going to use Ultimate Zone Rating (or UZR). To make a long story short, UZR attempts to estimate the number of runs a player saved or gave up due to his defense. An average UZR is 0. The UZRs of 2014’s Gold Glove winning shortstops were 15.5 and 13.9. The UZR of an absolutely terrible defender is around -15. (Torii Hunter’s 2014 UZR was -18.3.) Here’s a look at the middle infielders who will be backing Simon and Greene in 2015 compared to the ones who backed them up last year:

Team

Player

Season

Position

Innings

UZR

Porcello (Tigers)

Iglesias

2012

SS

193.2

6.7

2013

571.2

3.4

2014

x

x

Kinsler

2012

2B

1265.0

-0.3

2013

1095.1

-1.0

2014

1414.0

13.0

Simon (Reds)

Cozart

2012

SS

1163.2

7.9

2013

1308.0

6.4

2014

1274.1

12.1

Phillips

2012

2B

1251.0

8.7

2013

1347.0

8.6

2014

1054.1

8.1

Greene (Yankees)

Jeter

2012

SS

1186.1

-14.0

2013

109.2

-4.0

2014

1138.1

-8.3

Roberts

2012

2B

149.0

-5.2

2013

540.1

2.0

2014

774.2

-5.3

The UZR metrics for Simon’s middle infielders tell a very different story than those for Greene’s middle infielders. The Reds middle infielders were well above average in 2014. Cozart’s UZR ranked him 3rd among qualified shortstops (just behind the two 2014 Gold Glove winners), while Phillips ranked 5th among qualified second basemen. Meanwhile, the Yankees were bad up the middle defensively in 2014. Both Jeter and Roberts measured below average, especially Jeter, whose 2014 UZR ranked 19th among qualified MLB shortstops. So, what does this mean for the pitchers moving from these defenses to Detroit? Assuming Iglesias is healthy, his 2015 UZR should well surpass his previous MLB UZRs, which are based on small sample sizes. (I know this is a cardinal sin for a sabermetrician, but he just looks better than that, doesn’t he?) Kinsler’s 2014 UZR ranked him 2nd among qualified second basemen, even ahead of Phillips. This would put Greene in a much better position defensively for 2015 than he was in for 2014, while the defense of Simon’s middle infielders will be relatively comparable in 2015 to what it was in 2014.

After way too much math, it looks like Porcello, Simon, and Greene have similar tendencies, the most obvious of which are their above-average ground ball rates. While Simon clearly benefited from Cincinnati’s stellar infield defense, the gloves of Iglesias and Kinsler should be enough to help him continue his newfound success as a starting pitcher. The upgrade in defense Greene will see going from Jeter and Roberts to Iglesias and Kinsler should mean he’ll see some additional success in Detroit and will be an adequate replacement for Porcello at the back end of the Tigers’ rotation. Now, getting them both to have the stamina necessary to maintain that success over an entire season of 200+ innings pitched…well, that might be another story. Maybe that’s why the Tigers acquired both of them.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of the <em>Bless You Boys</em> writing staff.