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Dodgers, Giants Duking It Out For Top Spot In MLB True-Talent Rankings

Each year in this space, as of the All Star break and again at the end of the season, I roll out my team true-talent rankings, which are based solely on granular batted ball data. Strip away all of the subjectivity, rip the logo from the front of the uniform, and let the numbers light the way.

How were these derived? In a nutshell, league averages for each exit speed/launch angle “bucket” are applied to each team’s population of batted balls, both for against, to derive the production they “should have” achieved and allowed. Add back the Ks and BBs, and voila, each team receives an offensive and pitching rating, relative to league average of 100. For hitters, the higher number the better, for pitchers, the lower.

Team defense is also measured, in a somewhat unique manner. Clubs’ performance is compared head-to-head versus their opponent; the ratio of actual production versus projected performance for both clubs is compared to each other, resulting in a overall defensive multiplier that can also be spread among the individual batted ball types.

Last year, I added a new wrinkle. I introduced a team extreme ground ball-pulling penalty, similar to a concept I use for individual batters. It does not impact the overall team rating, but it more appropriately punishes a team’s offense rather than its defense for shortcomings in this area.

To qualify for such a penalty, a team had to both A) pull more than 5 times as many grounders as it hit to the opposite field, and B) post actual grounder production lower than the level it “should have” posted based on its exit speed. The penalty is equal to the amount of that difference. As in 2020, seven teams were subject to this penalty at the break, and it was especially large for three clubs.

Earlier this week, we addressed the Bottom 15 clubs, none of whom are currently in playoff position. Today, it’s the top 15. A couple rankings might surprise you, including one right out of the chute. Here we go:

#15 – Boston Red Sox – Actual Record = 55-36; “Tru” Record = 47-44

Offensive Rtg. = 105.6 (11th), Pitching Rtg. = 99.2 (15th), Defensive Rtg. = 102.5 (T22nd)

The current AL East leaders rank as the 4th best team in the division on this list. Offense is the clear team strength. They had a +22 homer differential at the break, and their average offensive exit velocity of 89.6 mph was 2nd best in the majors, fractionally behind the Blue Jays. Their fly ball exit speed differential of +2.7 mph (92.3 mph hit vs. 89.6 mph allowed) was the best in baseball. In just about every other aspect, however, this is almost exactly an average club. Fly ball, liner and grounder quantity, and liner and grounder authority – almost dead even. Chris Sale’s return could offer a big boost. Infield defense is an issue – their grounder multiplier of 118.0 was 2nd worst in baseball at the break.

#14 – New York Mets – Actual = 47-40, “Tru” = 45-42

O Rtg. = 94.7 (20th), P Rtg. = 92.7 (T8th), D Rtg. = 98.6 (12th)

And here is the current NL East leader, ranking only 3rd in the division by this measure. The club has suffered from injuries on both sides of the ball, and the current squad has multiple issues. They don’t hit the ball very hard – their overall 87.3 mph average exit speed ties for 5th worst in MLB, and their 92.1 mph average liner exit speed ranks 3rd worst. Jacob deGrom is their primary strength – thanks largely to him, they have a +53 strikeout differential and have allowed the fewest liners in baseball (418, 32 fewer than they’ve hit). Team defense, a longtime problem, is now a relative strength, thanks largely to Francisco Lindor, the driving force behind their 92.7 grounder multiplier. Alas, both deGrom and Lindor are hurt, and the Mets are holding on for dear life.

#13 – Cincinnati Reds – Actual = 48-42, “Tru” = 47-43

O Rtg. = 108.6 (7th), P Rtg. = 101.9 (17th), D Rtg. = 102.8 (T25th)

Last year, the Reds’ offense stunk and the pitching was great – this year the script has flipped, though the real run prevention problem is the team defense. At bat, the biggest asset is a +69 liner differential, keyed by line drive machine Nicholas Castellanos. In addition, he hits all those liners without popping up – and the club has popped up 30 fewer times than its opponents as a result. The Reds don’t hit the ball particularly hard as a club, but they manage launch angle expertly and have dumped the extreme grounder-pulling approach that hurt them so much in 2020. Outfield defense is a concern – their 121.6 fly ball multiplier is 2nd worst in baseball.

#12 – Oakland Athletics – Actual = 52-40, “Tru” = 48-44

O Rtg. = 98.6 (16th), P Rtg. = 95.7 (12th), D Rtg. = 97.7 (T8th)

The A’s narrowly missed becoming our first club to be above average in all three facets of the game. Their extreme grounder-pulling tendency is a limiting factor offensively – they are batting .164 AVG-.181 SLG on the ground, despite average range authority. In addition, they have hit 65 fewer line drives than their opponents. While their pitching staff does pitch to contact, they do not issue free passes – their 248 walks allowed at the break was tied for 2nd lowest in baseball. Center fielder Ramon Laureano leads one of the best defensive outfields in the game, posting 87.4 and 96.7 fly ball and liner multipliers.

#11 – Washington Nationals – Actual = 42-47, “Tru” = 47-42

O Rtg. = 107.9 (8th), P Rtg. = 106.2 (21st), D Rtg. = 95.9 (7th)

This one surprised me a little. The Nats are tied for the lowest average offensive launch angle with the mighty Pirates, at 9.0 degrees. They have hit 123 more grounders than their opponents. Not exactly a recipe for success, right? But let’s look at the other contributing factors to that low launch angle. They’ve popped up less than any team in baseball, and hit 65 more liners than their opponents as of the break. The imprint of Juan Soto’s batting profile is on all of this. Their pitching has been mediocre but not a disaster – they’ve allowed 100 more fly balls than they’ve hit, but their authority management has been adequate. Defense has been solid, particularly in the outfield (92.3 and 95.0 fly ball and liner multipliers).

#10 – Atlanta Braves – Actual = 44-45, “Tru” = 47-42

O Rtg. = 112.9 (1st), P Rtg. = 103.9 (19th), D Rtg. = 101.8 (19th)

At the break, the Braves were your true-talent NL East leader. Of course, the injured Ronald Acuna had everything to do with that #1 offense ranking. It’s all about batted ball authority – their overall average exit speed of 89.0 mph tied for best in the NL at the break, and their average liner authority of 95.7 mph was best in baseball – better than all of the clubs whose pitchers don’t have to hit. Despite putting 65 fewer balls in play than their opponents, the Braves hit 43 MORE fly balls. They are the most pull-happy team in MLB on the ground, with a pull ratio of about 7:1. Infield defense has been subpar (105.8 grounder multiplier). Despite Acuna’s absence, the Braves are buyers – and should be in the wide-open NL East.

#9 – Tampa Bay Rays – Actual = 53-37, “Tru” = 50-40

O Rtg. = 91.1 (25th), P Rtg. = 87.9 (T5th), D Rtg. = 92.5 (4th)

Well, there are two teams left in the AL East, and the Rays or Red Sox aren’t either of them. There are serious offensive issues here. They have struck out more than any club in either league. And when they do put it in play, the Rays don’t hit it particularly hard (except on the ground, where their 85.9 mph average exit speed ranked 5th in MLB, taking advantage of their home park’s perennial tendency to inflate grounder production). They also have a -50 liner differential compared to their opponents. Their run prevention skills are elite, however. They were tied with the A’s for 2nd fewest walks issued at the break (their hitters do draw walks – good enough for a +94 differential). Their infield (86.8 grounder multiplier) leads a strong overall defensive effort.

#8 – Milwaukee Brewers – Actual = 53-39, “Tru” = 51-41

O Rtg. = 98.0 (17th), P Rtg. = 87.9 (T5th), D Rtg. = 100.0 (T14th)

Earlier this season, their pitching ranked at the very top and their offense at the very bottom, though both have crept a bit toward the center of late. Both their bats and arms are in the business of generating lots of strikeouts and walks, though their pitchers do so to a greater extent. Their +46 fly ball differential is a significant edge, again mostly because of their pitchers’ ability to induce grounders. They hit their flies, liners and grounders modestly harder than their opponents do, and those small edges add up. Defensively, their outfield has been exceptional, posting 85.8 and 97.9 fly ball and liner multipliers. We still don’t have an above average club at all three disciplines – barely.

#7 – San Diego Padres – Actual = 53-40, “Tru” = 52-41

O Rtg. = 107.4 (9th), P Rtg. = 95.8 (13th), D Rtg. = 100.0 (T14th)

Our first above average, offensive, pitching and defensive team – again, barely. Much of the Padres’ strength lies in their comparative offensive and pitching K/BB profiles. They are + 121 in strikeout and +63 in walks – that affords a club massive margin for error. Their batted ball profiles are a bit messy, however. They put 114 more balls in play than their opponents, but were -44 in fly balls – while, counterintuitively, hitting 36 more pop ups than they allowed. Thanks to good ole Eric Hosmer, they’ve hit – by far – the most ground balls in baseball. They do crush their liners – their 95.4 mph average liner exit speed ranks 2nd in MLB. Their infield defense is strong, as they’ve posted a 92.1 grounder multiplier.

#6 – New York Yankees – Actual = 46-43, “Tru” = 52-37

O Rtg. = 111.5 (4th), P Rtg. = 86.0 (3rd), D Rtg. = 107.9 (30th)

Big market bias, right? I assure you, Yankee fans don’t think this team is the 6th best in baseball. What gives? They crush the baseball. Their overall 89.5 mph average exit speed ranks 3rd in MLB, their average fly ball authority tied for 2nd at 92.1 mph. Their +2.0 mph overall exit speed differential ranks 2nd, as their pitchers have been quite good at managing contact. They’ve walked 106 more time than their opponents, and struck out 31 fewer. A big issue has been their inability to elevate the baseball at the plate. They’ve hit 73 fewer fly balls than their opponents, and their average launch angle deficit of (2.0) degrees compared to their opponents is tied for 4th worst in the game. Oh, and that defense……their 126.2 fly ball multiplier is MLB’s worst, and their 117.8 grounder multiplier is 3rd worst.

#5 – Toronto Blue Jays – Actual = 45-42, “Tru” = 51-36

O Rtg. = 110.7 (6th), P Rtg. = 93.2 (10th), D Rtg. = 98.2 (11th)

This bunch is potentially scary. They crush the baseball and don’t strike out, taking on the characteristics of MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. They’re 1st in average overall (89.7 mph) and tied for 2nd in fly ball (92.1 mph) exit speed. They even crush their grounders. They’ve hit 85 more liners than they’ve allowed, almost 20% more, and put 187 more balls in play than their opponents. Plus, their pitching staff seems to have turned the corner. Robbie Ray’s been durable, and his contact management has been simply bad instead of historically poor, while rookie Alek Manoah has been a solid addition. The defense makes errors, but has range – their grounder multiplier of 89.8 is quite strong. Oh, and they haven’t played a true “home” game yet.

#4 – Chicago White Sox – Actual = 54-35, “Tru” = 56-33

O Rtg. = 101.4 (13th), P Rtg. = 85.1 (2nd), D Rtg. = 91.5 (2nd)

From here on out the teams are quite impressive. This is a run prevention juggernaut. As with the Padres, it begins with an exceptional overall team K/BB profile. They’ve struck out 99 fewer times than their opponents and walked 74 more, and most of the credit on both fronts goes to the pitching staff. One might think that their average 14.0 degree launch angle allowed – 2nd highest in MLB – is a problem, but it’s because of their pitchers’ prolific pop up-inducing ability. Only the A’s and all of their foul ground have done better. Their stellar defensive performance to date has been keyed by the outfield and its best-in-baseball 76.6 fly ball multiplier. Weak spots? Their offense struggles to elevate the baseball – its average 9.0 degree launch angle is tied for the lowest in baseball.

#3 – Houston Astros – Actual = 55-36, “Tru” = 58-33

O Rtg. = 112.3 (2nd), P Rtg. = 92.0 (7th), D Rtg. = 91.9 (3rd)

These guys are using the same formula as when they won it all, so it was likely more than pot-banging after all. They’ve put 260 more balls in play than their opponents, thanks largely to their contact-making ability (their hitters have struck out 146 fewer times than their opponents). And they’re making the right types of contact, too – 85 more fly balls, 102 (well over 20%) more liners, but 21 less pop ups. They don’t hit the ball all that hard overall (except for their best in baseball 87.0 mph average grounder exit speed), but with that profile, they don’t need to. They’re strong across the board defensively, but best in the infield with an 83.7 grounder multiplier, lowest in the game.

#2 – San Francisco Giants – Actual = 57-32, “Tru” = 58-31

O Rtg. = 105.7 (10th), P Rtg. = 86.1 (4th), D Rtg. = 90.8 (1st)

The Giants are for real. Last year, they finished at #8 in my year-end rankings despite missing the playoffs, so I’m not that surprised. On offense, they hit a ton of fly balls (69 more than their opponents) and line drives (+52), which is good, though they are an extreme grounder-pulling team that hits their grounders quite weakly (81.9 mph average, last in baseball), which is bad. They’re batting .163 AVG-.173 SLG on the ground, and deserve every bit of it. Their pitching staff gets it done in so many ways. They issued only 232 walks as of the break, the least in baseball and 115 fewer than their hitters had drawn. The average exit speed of fly balls allowed by Giant hurlers is an MLB-low 88.9 mph, and their +2.4 mph offense/pitching fly ball authority differential is 2nd best. Their insane +45 homer surplus makes that same point much more succinctly. Their defense has been spectacular, with their fly ball (84.7) and grounder (87.8) multipliers among the best in the game.

#1 – Los Angeles Dodgers – Actual = 56-35, “Tru” = 61-30

O Rtg. = 112.2 (3rd), P Rtg. = 83.4 (1st), D Rtg. = 95.5 (6th)

They’re still the best, though not by as great a margin as in 2020. But that’s OK, considering they’ve been riddled by injuries to most of their very best players. Where does one start? Well, their K/BB profile is second to none. The Dodgers walked 109 more and struck out 113 fewer times than their opponents as of the break. The 197 additional batted balls put in play compared to their opponents gives them a nice head start. And like teams #2 and 3, they’re the right kind of batted balls – the Dodgers are +112 in fly balls, +78 in liners. Unlike those two other clubs, these guys possess a significant authority advantage over their opponents: +2.0 mph in flies (92.0 vs. 90.0 mph, 3rd best differential) and +2.1 mph in liners (1st). They have a +24 homer differential, 2nd in MLB. Their overall +2.4 mph exit speed advantage (89.0 vs. 86.6 mph) is the best in the game; that average authority allowed figure also ranks 1st. Their outfield defense posted the 2nd best fly ball multiplier (78.0) at the break. The NL West race – not to mention the first two playoff rounds – should be something to see.

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