The Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers made the biggest splashes in free-agent acquisitions by adding sluggers Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder to their respective lineups. The Angels also signed C.J. Wilson, the foremost starter on the market.
However, the Cleveland Indians' securing Derek Lowe will be the most significant move impacting the 2012 race. He bolsters a formidable and deep, yet relatively unknown pitching staff that will propel the Indians to the top of the league.
Lowe induced a striking 59.4 percent ground balls in 2011 ( 361 grounders of 608 in-play). He surrendered an opponent batting average of 241 and 87 hits on those 361 grounders. That 241 will diminish in 2012 because instead of immobile Chipper Jones and Dan Uggla backing him, Lowe will have Gold Glove candidate Jack Hannahan, budding star Jason Kipnis and All Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera backing him.
Justin Masterson generated 55.4 percent ground balls, Jeanmar Gomez 52.8 percent, Carlos Carrasco 49.9 percent and Ubaldo Jimenez 47.2 percent, making the Indians' five-man rotation the only AL one with all their projected starters exceeding 47 percent ground-ball generation. Moreover, their busy 71 appearances apiece in 2011 relievers Joe Smith and Rafael Perez both induced more than 57 percent ground balls.
Only Boston has three starters exceeding 50 percent ground ball production in Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Aaron Cook. Minnesota has two in Nick Blackburn and Carl Pavano, with Francisco Liriano close at 49.1 percent. Most other teams have serious falloff beyond their aces: Seattle beyond Felix Hernandez, Toronto beyond Ricky Romero, Kansas City beyond Luke Hochevar, Oakland beyond Brett Anderson and LA Angels beyond C.J. Wilson.
Why is this ground ball-inducing capability so important?
The answer is that ground balls do not go for home runs. Ground ball-inducing pitchers are far less vulnerable to the differences of their home and road parks.
Former Oakland starter Guillermo Moscoso induced only 26.8 percent ground balls, 109 of 407 in-play. In his spacious Oakland home stadium he went 6-3 with a 2.42 ERA and opponent OPS of 537, but on the road he went 2-7, 4.70 ERA and opponent OPS of 720. On the road his fly balls allowed more frequently went for extra base hits. Moscoso will struggle in his new home, Colorado.
There are numerous "flyball" pitchers who struggle at home because they play in hitter-friendly parks. Texas' Colby Lewis induced only 34.3 percent ground balls and suffered a 5.54 ERA and opponent OPS of 803 at home, while he was 9-5, 3.43 ERA and 681opponent OPS on road.
Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil, two sub-39 percent ground-ball inducers, suffered similar miseries at home in Toronto's offense-friendly stadium. Morrow was 5-8, 6.31 ERA at home versus 6-3, 3.07 ERA on road while Cecil was 1-7, 5.43 ERA at home versus 3-4, 4.04 ERA on road.
Look for the Yankee's big trade acquisition Michael Pineda to struggle because his 37.7 percent ground-ball production will make him vulnerable to the tougher competition in the AL East. Of his 28 starts in 2011, 14 were against weaker hitting teams, including three versus Oakland. In a six-week period he got killed against the Tigers, Angels, Blue Jays and Red Sox in road games.
How confident can one be about this "ground ball-inducing" theory of success?
The answer is "very" and one derives this confidence by studying the 2011 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. They were sparked by top starters Jake Westbrook at 59.5 percent ground-ball generation, Jaime Garcia at 53.5 percent, Kyle McClellan at 50.6 percent and Chris Carpenter at 46.8 percent. These guys got 22, 25, 13 and 20 "grounded into double plays" produced by their infield. Key relievers Mitchell Boggs at 51.4 percent, Lance Lynn at 57.3 percent and Marc Rzepczynski at 64.2 percent complemented them.
How much of the Cardinals' success is attributable to the pitchers themselves, how much is due to great catcher Yadier Molina and how much credit goes to great pitching coach Dave Duncan is a topic for another article.
For now remember Cleveland has blossoming catcher Carlos Santana and potential All-Star outfielder Shin-Soo Choo supporting their fine pitching and infield. The Indians' primary concern is the lack of a left-handed starter when their division is populated by left-handed hitters like Fielder and Minnesota's Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Look for them to pick up a veteran like Jeff Francis, who quietly induced a commendable 47.3 percent ground balls in an overlooked 2011 season with the Royals.
Congratulations to general manager Mark Shapiro for rebuilding the Indians into a championship contender on a modest budget.