Thursday, March 6, 2014

Reality Check: Ruben Amaro

Now that we've got actual baseball games, and actual baseball people talking about other actual baseball people, I'm going to initiate a feature called "Reality Check." I'm going to take things I hear or read and test them, where I can, to see if they're true. This is not going to be a "gotcha" feature. If someone calls something correctly, I'll give credit. I remember last summer hearing Barry Larkin say on Baseball Tonight that the Seattle Mariners hit a lot of home runs. I thought, "Yeah, they pulled the fences in, but still, the Mariners aren't a home run team." Well, there's a reason Larkin does what he does and I do what I do: The Mariners wound up finishing second in the AL in homers, well behind the Orioles but in a tight grouping with Oakland and Toronto that was clearly well ahead of the rest.

Anyway, here goes. Over the weekend I heard an interview of Phillies GM Ruben Amaro on Sirius XM. I was driving, so I couldn't write down his exact quote, but the gist of it was that with free agents A.J. Burnett and Roberto Hernandez joining the club, the Phils have two of the top ground ball pitchers in the game. He said the team (which has been notoriously hostile to statistical analysis), is going to use analytics to shift infielders around to better get all those grounders, as the Pirates did last year.

Burnett first. There were 43 NL starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title (162 innings pitched). Of them, Burnett got grounders on 56.5% of batted balls, most in the NL. Score one for Amaro. 

Now, Hernandez. He's the guy who used to be called Fausto Carmona. Anyway, he didn't quite qualify for the ERA title with Tampa Bay last year. He pitched 151 innings. Of the 48 AL pitchers with 150+ innings, Hernandez got grounders on 53.2% of batted balls, fifth in the league. Despite all those ground balls, he managed to give up the home runs at the fourth highest rate in the league, as nearly 21% of the fly balls he allowed left the park, the highest proportion in the league. That's crazy high and isn't likely to persist, though the move to Citizens Bank Park won't help much.

Anyway, Ruben was right. By adding Burnett and Hernandez, the Phillies pitchers' ground ball percentage of 44.5% last year, tenth in the league, is going to rise. My concern about the Phillies is whether they'll embrace infield shifts enough to take advantage of all those grounders, and whether their aging infielders (shortstop Jimmy Rollins and second baseman Chase Utley are 35, first baseman Ryan Howard is 34) have the range to get at them.

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