Aviles - Kelly O'Connor, sittingstill.net

Fangraphs.com is a fantastic site for those who want to delve deeper into the game beyond the typical statistics that pop up on a baseball broadcasts. These statistics can tell you so much more about a player than you may have otherwise realized, and sifting through the site can be a fun time-killer. Let’s take a look at some numbers on that site that popped out at me…

Mike Aviles is one of the best baserunners in the game.

Or so says Fangraphs’ baserunning statistic, Ultimate Base Running. You can click through for a more detailed explanation behind the statistic, but essentially, runners are given positive or negative credit for a runner hold, advance or out on a ball in play. Other plays that figure in include being safe or out at second on a grounder to the infield, or what happens to the runner when he tries to go from second to third on a grounder. Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive statistic as baserunning is one of the more innate traits in the game, but you can still try to quantify it as best as you can. Aviles’ 1.9 mark is tied for fourth-best in the game, behind the White Sox’s Alejandro De Aza, the Braves’ Michael Bourn and the Yankees’ Derek Jeter. Dustin Pedroia is hot on Aviles’ tail with a 1.5 mark as well, which ranks eighth in baseball.

What’s interesting about this is that Aviles’ best mark prior to this season was a 4.4 in his rookie season of 2008, then barely registered in the positives until this year. Pedroia, meanwhile, was in the negatives the last two seasons and four out of the seven seasons with data are all negative. He’s never been above 1.8 in his career, and already through roughly half of the schedule, he’s poised to set a career mark. Incredibly, they are the only Sox in the top 100 of qualified hitters, with Marlon Byrd and Cody Ross coming in just after the 100th player.

The Red Sox’s best clutch hitter has been Dustin Pedroia

Yup, Fangraphs has a clutch statistic, too. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at a different kind of clutch statistic: WPA/LI. Looks like a mouthful, right? But it’s a pretty easy stat to figure out. Every batter, over the course of a game, contributes positively or negatively to the outcome of a game. When they make an out, obviously that’s bad. When they hit a triple, they’ve contributed more to a victory than if they had hit a single. Heck, making an out on a 3-2 pitch is more valuable than a first-pitch out, because the pitcher was forced to throw five more balls. All of these outcomes are debited or credited similarly to UBR, and put into a statistic called Win Probability Added. That’s the WPA part. But it also matters when these outcomes happened, and there’s a way to quantify the importance of the current score, inning, runners on base, number of outs in the inning… you get the point. That’s all been quantified as Leverage Index (LI). So WPA/LI is a measure of who produces the most in the clutch. The leader there is David Ortiz, who has been the 25th most clutch player in baseball by WA/LI with a 0.98 mark.

But — and this is key here — that statistic is misleading. If someone hits .300 in the clutch, that’s obviously very good, and he will have a high WPA/LI. But what if he hits .300 overall? Then can you really call him clutch? I say no. I say he’s performing as expected. That’s where Fangraphs’ clutch statistic comes in — it compares a player’s WPA/LI to himself. A batter hitting .300 both overall and in clutch situations will not show up as clutch. That’s why Ortiz is only the second-best clutch player on the Red Sox by this metric, as Pedroia outdistances him by a good margin to rank 33rd in all of baseball with a 0.45 mark. Ortiz is at 0.16.

Swing, baby, swing!

When the Red Sox acquired Adrian Gonzalez, the thought was that they were getting a patient hitter with great power who could also hit for a high average. The power’s been a bit wanting, but A-Gon’s shown he can still hit for a high average. What’s interesting, though, is that he’s not really all that keen to be patient anymore. Last season, his walk rate sank to 10.3 percent, the lowest since 2007, his second full season in the majors. Even that’s not too surprising, because he was pitched around all the time in San Diego — intentional walks and pitching away from contact gave Gonzalez a lot of walks to play with in San Diego. Not so much in Boston, where he has better protection around him. But he’s at new levels this year, with his walk rate at 8.3 percent of his plate appearances, the least he’s ever walked since his first full season in 2006. And not just that, but he’s now swinging at 50.8 percent of all pitches thrown his way, the first time as a full-time player he’s broken that mark.

But here’s the thing — most of that swinging rate spike is coming on pitches inside the strike zone. His out-of-zone swinging rates are a little bit higher than last season, but not much. It’s on pitches inside the zone that he’s been hacking at, offering at 74.5 percent of all pitches inside the strike zone. Compare that to just 69.9 percent last season and a career mark of 72 percent. That career mark is a bit misleading, as he hasn’t cracked 72 percent since 2007. Why is he swinging more often? Does he have to be more aggressive in the American League? Are the problems around him in the lineup giving him less pitches to hit overall, so he’s attacking more? Is he just desperate to break out of his power slump?

More swinging numbers:

  • Dustin Pedroia makes contact on 85.5 percent of pitches he swings at outside the strike zone, good for seventh in baseball. Former Sox Marco Scutaro is second at 89.2 percent, by the way. This speaks to Pedroia’s incredible ability to cover the entire plate — and more. Interestingly, though, he’s 68th in baseball when it comes to making contact inside the zone at 89.2 percent. That’s the lowest contact rate of his career. Mike Aviles is the only person that ranks ahead of him on the Red Sox in that category.
  • Marlon Byrd sees the most first-pitch strikes on the team. And actually, the most in the AL. His 71.5 percent mark trails only Ian Desmond of the Nationals in baseball. Not a surprise — Byrd’s offensive ineptitude earlier in the year emboldened pitchers to go after him right away. He’s hitting better in Boston, but hasn’t really scared the pitchers off from adjusting. Aviles also sees a lot of first-pitch strikes, but a lot of that has to do with his terrible plate discipline, as he goes after any pitch that looks good.

Poor Clay Buchholz

We like to talk about BABIP a lot in these parts. Batting average on balls in play should always hover around .300 for a pitcher, as they don’t really have control of what happens to a baseball once a batter hits it, aside from home runs. .300 is the historical average for pitchers, so Clay Buchholz has been very unlucky in this regard, with his .335 mark the ninth-highest in the game. What makes it worse is that his career mark is .287, so that’s why xFIP believes his ERA should be over two full runs lower. Granted, 5.29 still isn’t great, but that’s a sight better than his current 7.84 mark.

What else is working against Buchholz? Runners left on base. This, too, has a historical average behind it, and it’s usually around 72 percent, give or take, every season. Buchholz only stranded 64.2 percent of runners on base, so he’s also been unlucky pitching from the stretch. And while he does pitch worse with men on base statistically than with bases empty, it’s not a significant difference, and he actually pitches the best with runners in scoring position, so luck appears to be the mitigating factor here over effectiveness.

The righty also draws bad luck on home runs, allowing 20 percent homers per fly ball. This too, is significantly over and above the baseball average of about 11 percent HR/FB, so Buchholz can reasonably expect homers to stop hurting him so much moving forward. All the numbers indicate that Buhholz is giving up more hits than expected, more homers than expected and stranding less runners than expected. He’s a better pitcher than he’s shown, and perhaps he’ll start turning it around soon.

Some relief

Let’s wrap up by looking at some relievers…

  • Remember WPA/LI? Well, Scott Atchinson’s 0.77 mark there is eighth-best in baseball. But Atchinson is pitching lights out overall, so that’s not a fair comparison to make. Using Fangraphs’ clutch statistic, we see that Atchinson is at 0.08 — or in other terms, pitching about as well as can be expected.
  • Matt Albers’ WPA/LI is 0.47, 26th best in baseball. But his clutch mark shows he’s hurt Boston in crucial situations, with a -0.23 line.
  • Vincente Padilla is Boston’s most clutch reliever, ranking fifth among all major league relievers with a 0.67 mark. I wouldn’t trust Padilla in any type of clutch situation, but hey, it’s working. That’s why he’s become the setup man.
  • The save is a lousy statistic for many reasons we won’t bother getting into here, as it’s been beaten to death. Good thing, then, that Fangraphs came up with a better statistic that not only can apply to any reliever, but shows clearly how well they performed in tough situations, where they really would have earned their save. Alfredo Aceves is tied for ninth in baseball with 10 shutdowns against three meltdowns. That’s a pretty good figure. For comparison, six pitchers ahead of him have 11 or 12, and two lead baseball with 15 (Jim Johnson, Kenley Jansen).