Big Weaknesses on Contenders

Every year during spring training, teams are doing more than more than soaking up sun and trying to cut out early to get in 18 holes. They’re actually working on their games, and often that means working on areas in which they were deficient a year ago. In that vein, let’s take a look at five would-be contenders and the areas in which they should be focusing this spring. At a certain point, teams and players are who they are, but hope springs eternal, and hard work does pay dividends.

Detroit’s defense: It’s no secret that Detroit’s defense left something to be desired last season. It didn’t stop them from reaching the World Series, but that doesn’t mean that Detroit should rest on its laurels. While the Tigers had a middling .983 fielding percentage, advanced metrics — be it UZR, DRS or Defensive Efficiency — all painted the Tigers as a bottom feeder with the leather. The transactions they have made should make them a bit better this season. Omar Infante is a slight upgrade over Ramon Santiago, but mostly in the sense that manager Jim Leyland may be more comfortable playing Infante every day, while Santiago never achieved that status. Assuming that father time didn’t catch up with Torii Hunter this offseason, he should be a big upgrade over Brennan Boesch in right field. But it’s not all wine and roses. Likely starting left fielder Andy Dirks may have good range, but his arm leaves a lot to be desired. And then there is still Miguel Cabrera at third base. Among the 13 qualified third basemen last season, no one posted a worse UZR than did Cabrera. In fact, of the 124 qualified players last season, Cabrera’s -10 UZR ranked 115th. To be fair, his defense could have been a lot worse than it was, and he has worked hard to transition from first base back to third base. But he needs to keep working.

Boston’s walk rate: When Red Sox fans used to complain that the team’s games were too long, the main culprit was the team’s great walk rate. Last season, it was a different story. After nine years with one of the top walk rates in the game — from 2003 to 2011, no team had a better walk rate than Boston — the Sawx’s walk rate fell all the way to 29th-best in the game. There are two reasons to think that won’t continue in 2013. First, new recruits Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli and David Ross are exceedingly patient. Second, while Boston’s non-pitcher walk rate fell from nine percent in 2011 to seven percent in ’12, they still saw about the same number of pitches — their 3.89 pitches seen per plate appearance ranked third in the majors, which was in line with the recent past. The team did lose patient hitters in Kevin Youkilis and Cody Ross, but they are poised to once again claim a top-notch walk rate.

Atlanta’s hitting against breaking balls: In looking at the Pitchf/x breakdowns of how teams fared against each pitch last season, one thing sticks out — on a per 100 pitches basis, the Braves were the only National League team in the bottom five against both curveballs and sliders last season. Atlanta had a middling offense — seventh in the National League in runs scored, and 17th overall — and this inefficiency was a likely culprit. Looking to 2013, the situation may not improve all that much. The only Braves’ regulars who posted positive rates against both curves and sliders last season were Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, and neither of them will suit up for Atlanta in 2013.  On the positive side of the ledger is that Michael Bourn was well below average against both pitches, and he is also history. Andrelton Simmons may help, as he was leaps and bounds better against breaking balls than were Tyler Pastornicky and Paul Janish. Then again, Simmons doesn’t even have 1,500 professional plate appearances yet, and less than 200 at the major league level, so let’s hold off on crowing on him just yet. The Upton brothers may help, as for their careers both have posted positive numbers against curveballs, and Justin Upton has fared well against sliders as well, but neither has been impeccably good against the pitches. B.J. Upton had been a monster against curveballs until last year. Another negative may be at third base, where neither Chris Johnson nor Juan Francisco are downright Pedro Cerrano-esque. The Braves would do well to set the pitching machine to deliver a bevy of breaking balls this spring.

Oakland’s starting pitcher strikeout rate: Last season, only one team’s starters struck out less than 17 percent of the hitters they faced and still posted a winning record. That’s right, it was the A’s. The mainly no-name crew of castoffs, rookies and Brandon McCarthy didn’t pump strike three with enough regularity. Often unable to generate swinging strikes — their swinging strike percentage ranked a dismal 10th in the American League and 24th overall — Oakland had to rely on its defense more than most. Since they imported Chris Young, they will have even more defensive depth this season, but it would be nice if they could give their fielders a break more frequently. The team’s K% should come up a little naturally. The four starters at the bottom of their K% list from a year ago — McCarthy, Bartolo Colon, Tyson Ross and Graham Godfrey — are all either history or will miss a significant chunk of the season. The three departed pitchers — Godfrey, McCarthy and Ross — combined for more than 20 percent of their starter’s innings, and all posted a K% south of 16 percent. On the other hand, their removal in and of itself isn’t going to make the A’s elite. For them to make real progress in this regard, the team needs their youngsters to take steps forward, particularly Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily. Both struck out at least 20 percent in every one of their minor league stops, but did not reach that threshold last season in the majors. It’s reasonable to expect improvement from both — both posted swinging strike percentages that were above league average — but they’ve got to go out and show it.

Yankees’ starting pitcher HR/FB rate: Last season, only the Orioles and Yankees posted a HR/FB (fly ball) rate in the bottom 10 and posted winning records, but while the O’s should get a different mix of pitchers (more Chris Tillman and Jason Hammel, less Tommy Hunter) the Yankees’ mix figures to be fairly similar — CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, with David Phelps first off the bench as spot starter. These six started 88% of the team’s games last season, and all six posted a HR/FB above the AL average of 12.3%. This deficiency is understandable when the team is in the Bronx, as the corners of Yankee Stadium are fairly bandbox-ish. But only three teams allowed homers at a higher rate on the road than did the Yankees, and among starting pitchers, only Hughes’ HR/FB dipped under league average. The tendency to allow big flies certainly didn’t hurt New York’s chances of reaching the postseason, but any Yankees fan who hasn’t yet repressed the memories of Game 4 of last year’s American League Championship Series will remember that part of the reason New York was broomed was that they allowed four homers to Detroit in the decisive fourth game. This may prove to be a blip on the radar — the dismal 2012 HR/FB rates for Hughes, Kurosa, Nova and Sabathia were all career worsts — but just in case, the Yanks may want to make keeping the ball in the yard a priority this spring.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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