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RCG Mailbag: Do the Tampa Bay Rays Hustle on Infield Grounders?

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In today’s article about whether the Tampa Bay Rays should deal Wil Myers, I mentioned Myers’ statistics on balls hit to the infield as evidence of how hard he runs to first base. @PrTwain on Twitter, though, wanted to know about the hustle displayed by all of the Rays’ players. With that in mind, we arrive at another edition of our Rays Colored Glasses Mailbag. To submit a question, you can tweet me @RobbieKnopf, email us at rayscoloredglasses at gmail dot com, or comment on our Facebook page or any post on our site.

Overall, the Rays ranked 9th in baseball with 168 infield hits according to Baseball-Reference and 8th with 12.3% of their hits coming on the infield. However, infield hits and hustle are not the same thing. Teams get more opportunities for infield hits when they hit more weak groundballs, and we have better measures with which to discuss the Rays’ hustle.

One major thing to note is that we also can’t learn about how hard players run on groundballs to the infield from Baseball-Reference’s batted ball split for groundballs. Some players simply hit more rockets on the ground that turn into hits, and such hits are completely different than what we are talking about.

To illustrate that, the Tampa Bay Rays hit 44 doubles on groundballs this year, and the Detroit Tigers hit as many as 52. In terms of balls hit to the infield, meanwhile, no teams had more than 10 doubles on such hits, and the Arizona Diamondbacks did not have a single double on a grounder all season.

Looking at the balls hit to the infield split is our best course of option to evaluate the Rays’ individual players. One issue is that the category also encompasses infield popups, but we can also look at the percentage of infield popups hit by players and teams (we have those stats available) and use it to remove those popups from our analysis.

We are also helped out by the fact that an infield popup can basically never be a hit–it has to be either an out or an error. Because of that, we can safely regard all the removed popups as outs (at least from the batter’s standpoint) with minimal error resulting from doing so. Once we make this adjustment, we finally have stats for “weak groundballs,” and that’s exactly what we were looking for from the start.

Once we look at only weak groundballs, the MLB batting average on such hits is .087. The Rays ranked 14th in baseball with that same .087 batting average for themselves. Here’s a quick table of the five best and worst teams in terms of batting average on weak groundballs.

I put “hustle” in quotations marks because clearly speed plays a big role here. The R-squared between teams’ batting average on weak grounders and teams’ stolen bases is .840, meaning that 84% of the variation in weak groundball BA is explained by teams’ stolen bases. However, that leaves another 16% to be explained, and some of that must come from the additional effort of players, which we call hustle. Using the Rays as an example, we can certainly see that speed is not the only variable involved with whether a player will get hits on weak grounders.

It is no surprise that some of the Rays’ fastest players rank highly in this statistic. Desmond Jennings isn’t known for his hustle yet hit .110 on weak groundballs, 26.4% better than average. However, that mark actually ranks just fifth on the team, and some of the four players ahead of him may be surprising: Brandon Guyer (68% above average) , Wil Myers (57%), Kevin Kiermaier (54%), and Logan Forsythe (34%).

Kevin Kiermaier obviously has speed in addition to great hustle, but we forget how speedy Guyer is as well. Guyer certainly deserves credit for running hard, but he is also extremely fast and could steal quite a few more bases next season now that the Rays are more confident in his health. Myers and Forsythe, though, are different stories. Both struggled this season, but they kept running hard and netted themselves a few extra hits out of that.

We discussed earlier today how Myers has busted down the line in both of his big league seasons, and the same is true for Forsythe as well. Although his numbers did slip in 2013 as he dealt with planar fasciitis, he has been average or better on weak groundballs in each of his other big league seasons despite not being a particularly fast player.

In regards to the other Rays, Ben Zobrist (15% above average) and Matt Joyce (12%) were the only other ones above league average. Sean Rodriguez somehow ended up at 3.9% below while Yunel Escobar unsurprisingly was 11% below average.

The biggest shocks, though, are that Evan Longoria and David DeJesus finished at -31% and -46% respectively. Even Jose Molina was at -20.8%! Certainly there is a small sample size effect involved for both DeJesus and Molina, but it would be nice to see both Longoria and DeJesus running a little harder next season and getting a few more infield hits for their efforts. James Loney was at 58.7% below the MLB average while Ryan Hanigan was at 69.3% below.

Overall, the Tampa Bay Rays are around an average team in terms of their hustle, but they do have several players who especially stand out. The way that Kiermaier, Guyer, Myers, and Forsythe run down to first base will pay subtle but important dividends for the Rays moving forward, and the hope is that more young players like Nick Franklin could help the Rays steal a few more hits as well.

Update (10:15 PM): About Longoria, one crazy stat is that he reached on 12 different errors on weak groundballs. No other player on the team reached more than five times on errors from such plays. Clearly Longoria got unlucky in regards to questionable plays being called errors instead of base hits. At the very least, he doesn’t deserve to be penalized for such an irregular amount of errors. Longoria was poor on weak groundballs in 2013 as well, but his numbers are much better from 2008 to 2012 and it looks like he should be fine.

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