Second Thoughts, Game #79: Cleveland 2, Seattle 3
Baseball game analysis frequently requires depth - digging beneath the mere runs scored or outs recorded to determine how those runs were scored, how those outs were recorded. For instance, one might have been worried by the fact that Cleveland's pitchers, between Bauer and the relievers, recorded only six strikeouts - not ideal when pitching in front of the Cleveland defense.
Yet the actual reason for Cleveland's 3-2 defeat was far simpler: Cleveland got 7 hits over their 27 outs, Seattle 11 hits over their 24, and Seattle hit a home run. It was not necessarily as though Cleveland hit the ball worse, per se: on the game, line drives made up an absurdly high 38.5% of balls put in play by Cleveland, contrasted with a league average that hovers around 20-21% in any given year. To counteract this, Seattle had a Line Drive rate of 40.7% on the game, and whereas Cleveland had three lineouts on the game, Seattle had none. Seattle had marginally more liners, but their liners fell for hits more often.
The explanation of Friday's loss are brief: the takeaways are not.
Reneging on the Deal
Chris Young, the Mariners pitcher to whom the Indians lost on Friday, operates on a fairly simple philosophy: not all pitches high in the zone are bad. Chris Young, like Trevor Bauer, is a subscriber to the theory of effective velocity, the idea that pitching high-and-tight exploits a loophole in the typical 'high pitch = dinger meat' zeitgeist. Chris Young's particular case was dissected by Eno Sarris of FanGraphs, Bauer's by what amounts to a biography by SB Nation. Certainly, high-in-the-zone pitchers - flyballers - will give up their share of home runs, but that's not the entirety of the story.
In any case, while pitching high has obvious detriments (high gross home run totals), but it has, on the aggregate, its benefits, as well. On the whole, pitchers who work high and tight rather than low and away can expect to run lower batting averages on balls in play than the league average; fly balls are more all-or-nothing than ground balls, since batted balls with six seconds of hang-time have substantially fewer seeing eye hits - unless they happen to get hit over a fence. That is the bargain Bauer has made - more fly balls, resulting in more home runs with the expectation that his BABIP will be better than league average.
On paper, it's a fair trade. On paper, of course, the Indians defense wasn't supposed to be the worst in the league.
Instead of adhering to the models that govern every other MLB pitcher, however, Bauer's .329 BABIP after Friday's game is not only well above the league average BABIP of .298, it is substantially above the expected average for a flyball pitcher, which might hover closer to .270 or .280 were Bauer pitching in front of an average defense. In short, the flyball tendencies of certain Cleveland pitchers cause surface-level analyses of pitcher BABIPs to understate the abyssal depths of the Cleveland defense.
The question of BABIP in Bauer's case is rather paramount, since the groundball-flyball dichotomy can mask a much larger defensive split. Bauer's .329 BABIP seems extremely high but not egregious - but Bauer's own personal BABIP should be substantially better than league average. Rather than a .030 gap between Bauer's BABIP and a neutral-luck, neutral-defense BABIP, he's suffered from closer to a .050 gap as a result of luck and the defense.
The same lesson can be applied to any of the other Cleveland flyballers. Salazar had genuine control problems; he was by everyone's definition, however, a flyball pitcher. Flyball pitchers, no matter how flawed, simply do not run .369 BABIPs without an incredibly porous defense. If one's unconvinced that Salazar belongs in a discussion of MLB pitchers (which would have been a very interesting perspective to hear six months ago), consider instead Zach McAllister - an unabashed flyballer who ran a .327 BABIP - a rate that is obviously above average, but unless one looks at his batted ball distribution, one fails to recognize how far above average it is.
The most striking case is that of Josh Tomlin, whose BABIP is .298 - precisely league average. Looking at his BABIP in the absence of all else, it would not appear as though Tomlin has suffered from any sort of bad luck or bad defense; his precisely-average BABIP would indicate that Tomlin is allowing hits on balls in play at a completely average rate. Yet Josh Tomlin's 40.4% flyball rate certainly qualifies him as a flyballer. His 1.63 HR/9 innings certainly suggests he bites into the negatives but does not enjoy any of the positives.
Unless one knew that Tomlin is a fly-ball pitcher, however, there would be no reason to assume that Tomlin had drawn a short stick with regard to BABIP luck. It is because Tomlin's BABIP appears completely normal and because a refutation of that assumption of averageness requires digging to a third or fourth level in the stats - because of this, Tomlin is an excellent illustration of how flyball pitchers like Bauer, McAllister, and even (with abounding caveats) Salazar can mask the inadequacies of a possibly historically-terrible defense with poor but not horrifying BABIP numbers.
Trevor Bauer can and will pitch high in the zone. Pitching low in the zone offers little in the way of tangible aid, and the SB Nation article above suggests that Bauer cannot maximize his potential unless he is allowed to follow his ideology to its conclusion. There are merits to the ideology of pitching high, certainly, and to grasp the nature of the Indians defense, one must absolutely bear in mind the conscious choices made by pitchers.
Fail to take that into account, and one might gloss over some potentially revelatory details about a defense that very easily might be one of the worst in the league, errors or not.
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unfortunately the yanks and angels won't fade like last year. And bal and Kc look good too.