The Braves' Jason Heyward Prevents Ground Ball Outs

(All 2010 stats in this article are through Wednesday's games...)

Several TCers have made note of the seemingly incredible frequency with which Jason Heyward reaches on errors. I've seen many comments to the effect of, "These fielders are almost as afraid of Heyward as the pitchers are!"

Well, TCers are a sharp bunch, and as it turns out, they were onto something. Heyward has 7 ROEs, which is 2 more than anyone else in MLB. To give you some perspective, the average number of ROEs for a full season (600 PA) would be around 5 or 6. Heyward has more than that in a bit more than 1/4 the PAs. All of Heyward's ROEs have come on ground balls (and indeed, the vast majority of all ROEs come on grounders).

Even more impressive, Heyward also has a large amount of infield hits (all of which also came on grounders). His 10 infield hits put him in a tie for third in MLB, behind only Ichiro Suzuki (who has 14) and Hunter Pence (who has 12). Combining the ROEs and the infield hits, Heyward has hit 17 grounders on the infield that were not converted to outs.

To give you a sense of how remarkable this is, Heyward has hit 56 total grounders this year. Of those, 6 were not fielded by an infielder (3 singles, 2 doubles, and a triple). Of the other 50, only 33 were converted to at least one out. In other words, even when an infielder gets a glove on one of his grounders, Heyward is still reaching base a third of the time. That is far and away the best ratio in the league.

After the jump, I create a new junk stat to measure this ability (if you can call it that) and compare Heyward to the best ground-ball out-preventers in baseball from the past 2 seasons.

Introducing GBOP

To measure a player's ability to prevent outs on fielded balls, I devised a junk stat called "Ground Ball Outs Prevented," or GBOP. There are 3 components to this. The first two are infield hits (IFH) and times reaching on errors (ROE). You may disagree with me lumping these two together, since ROEs are supposedly the result of a mistake by a fielder. While that is the case, I think there is something to the notion that certain players put more pressure on the defense to make a play cleanly.

Obviously, some plays are botched for no good reason and some ROEs are actually on fly balls. Still, I think such plays occur with equal frequency (plus some random variation of course) regardless of the player batting. My hope is that the variation on these plays is small enough that GBOP is not completely meaningless. Not that I would ever call such a junk stat meaningful.

Other than that, I think it is worthwhile to combine these two categories for 3 reasons:

  1. they usually occur on the same type of ball in play (a grounder on the infield)
  2. they have the same result (batter reaches 1st and no outs are made)
  3. the distinction between an error and an infield hit is often murky, and quirky official scorers often rule what looks like a hit to be an error (and vice-versa)

The third component of GBOP is double plays grounded into (GIDP). It is important to consider GIDPs because they are the inverse of an ROE or IFH--a play in which more outs than expected are made (assuming that the typical result for a fieldable ground ball is 1 out). Here is the formula for GBOP:

GBOP = IFH + ROE - GIDP

To use Heyward as an example, his GBOP is 15 (10 IFH + 7 ROE - 2 GIDP). As an example from the opposite extreme, Miguel Cabrera has a GBOP of -6 (2 IFH + 1 ROE - 9 GIDP). The average regular position player is at about +2 GBOP right now, and the average for a full season is around +5 or +6.

Here are the GBOPs for some notable Braves batters:

Player GBOP = IFH + ROE - GIDP
Melky Cabrera 10 8 4 2
Nate McLouth   3 3 1 1
Brian McCann   2 3 2 3
Martin Prado   2 3 3 4
Chipper Jones   0 3 1 4
Troy Glaus  -3 1 1 5

You are probably surprised to see Melky so high on the list. I'm not really, though. He's done a good job of doing the little things this year, like hustling down the line and beating out double plays. His problems have been that he has been unable to get the ball out of the infield, not so much what he does when the ball stays on the infield.

Other than that, the big surprise to me is that Prado rates no better than McCann. Martin is obviously a lot faster than Mac, but there must be other factors at work besides speed. Prado's low-ish GBOP is not an anomaly, either; it was actually negative last year (-1). McCann's, on the other hand, just might be anomalous; his GBOP was -8 last year, one of the worst in the league. Mac already has more infield hits this year (3) than he had in all of 2009 (2).

A high GBOP could be caused by lots of factors-- a batter's speed, his ability to hit the ball sharply, or even his ability to hit high choppers (::cough:: Melky ::cough::). I'm not sure how predictive GBOP is; most batters correlate pretty well from year to year, but there are some weird anomalies. For instance, Cody Ross was near the bottom of the league in GBOP in 2009 but is near the top in 2010.

A good test of GBOP's power will be to compare the leaderboard from today with the leaderboard from the end of the season; if they look very similar, this could be a useful stat. If they are wildly different, I'll have to admit that GBOP is mostly luck, and that Heyward is not superhuman at preventing ground ball outs.

For fun, here are some graphs showing the top 5 in GBOP for 2010 and 2009. In these graphs, the overall GBOP is the green bar, GIDPs are in red, and the out preventers (IFH and ROE) are in gray. First, the top 5 GBOPpers in 2010 so far:

2010_gbop_top_5_medium

Heyward is out-Crawfording Carl Crawford so far, and out-Ichiroing Ichiro. That's pretty impressive, though it is obviously for a different reason (Jason is great, but he's nowhere near as fast as those two). Melky's impressive totals give the Braves 2 of the top 5 in GBOP this year (though they don't have anyone else who's much above average).

If I had to compare Heyward to another player based on his GBOP totals, it would be Ryan Braun, who is 13th in GBOP in 2010 and was 5th in 2009. Both are big dudes who aren't super fast but hit the ball extremely hard. Both also have a ton of power, unlike many of the speedsters on the GBOP leaderboard.

After the top 5, four guys have GBOPs of +9 so far: Ronny Cedeno, Rickie Weeks, Brett Gardner, and Ryan Theriot. Six more, including Braun and Nyjer Morgan, are at +8.

Some of the worst GBOP players in 2010 are pretty great hitters overall; they're just slow. The bottom 5 is: Joe Mauer (-6), Miguel Cabrera (-6), Billy Butler (-7), Victor Martinez (-8), and Troy Tulowitzki (-8). If I'm not mistaken, all of those guys made the All-Star team last year. Obviously, it wasn't because they were legging out a bunch of infield singles. In other words, don't use a player's GBOP to judge his overall hitting ability.

Here's the graph of the top 5 in 2009:

2009_gbop_top_5_medium

No real surprises here (except maybe Braun). The other guys are speedsters who routinely put up large IFH and ROE totals. Six other players rated at +20 or better: Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, Denard Span, Emilio Bonifacio, Matt Kemp, and Scott Podsednik. Again, mostly speedsters who don't compare well with J-Hey. The one guy that stands out is Matt Kemp, who in many ways is a similar player to Heyward.

The following players had GBOPs of -10 or worse in 2009: Brad Hawpe (-10); Albert Pujols, Bengie Molina, and Jermaine Dye (-11); Andy LaRoche (-12); Adrian Gonzalez (-15); Kevin Kouzmanoff (-16) and Yadier Molina (-17). Ah, the wonderful catching Molinas. You can always rely on them to pop up on a list like this. It's almost surprising that Bengie managed to get 2 whole infield hits last year. Did a squirrel run away with the ball or something?

Anyway, I'm sure there's more that could be done with GBOP (for instance, expressing it as a fraction of the total number of ground balls, to make it more of a rate stat). But that'll have to wait for another post. For now, let's just marvel at the awesomeness that is J-Hey, and hope that he and the Braves can keep playing well.

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