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Infield defenses can make or break a season for starting pitchers

A fantasy owner can take serious advantage of the market by looking at a pitcher's ground ball and fly ball tendencies and applying them to the strengths and weaknesses of that pitcher's defense. Put simply, an extreme ground ball pitcher with a strong infield defense makes for a happy marriage. One with a poor infield defense could result in that pitcher posting high ERA and WHIP stats that might belie how well he's pitching.

Joe Sheehan recently wrote a story detailing the best and worst middle infields in the majors using Ultimate Zone Rating and plus-minus. I strongly urge you to read the full story, but, as Joe shows us, the strongest teams up the middle heading into 2011 are the A's, Phillies, Blue Jays, Rays and Reds. Conversely, the weakest are the Cardinals, Pirates and Brewers. With that in mind, let's take a look at a few pitchers who take advantage of their infielders, and a few others whose teammates do them no favors.

As a base of reference, the league average ground-ball rate is 44 percent.

Brett Anderson, Athletics -- Anderson has had big years in both his seasons in the majors, despite only making 19 starts in '10 and sticking near the league average in strikeouts per nine innings. He forces hitters to get themselves on base and he keeps the ball on the ground at a much higher rate than league average. His ground-ball rate was 50.9 percent in '09 and 54 percent last year. That allows him to take advantage of a stellar infield, including shortstop Cliff Pennington and second baseman Mark Ellis, the best double-play combo in the league according to Sheehan's study. There's no reason to expect Anderson to suddenly start putting the ball in the air, so he should continue to reap the benefits of Oakland's strong infield this season.

Trevor Cahill, Athletics -- Cahill outperformed his 4.19 FIP to the tune of a 2.97 ERA last year, thanks largely to a .236 BABIP. But Cahill also pitched to the strength of his defense, posting a ridiculous 56 percent ground-ball rate in '10. This was on the heels of an above-average rate of 47.8 percent in '09, so inducing ground balls looks like it's a skill Cahill possesses. A .236 BABIP is still bound to regress to the mean, but as long as Cahill can keep that ground-ball rate high, he should take advantage of Pennington and Ellis, which totally sounds like it could be a law firm, again.

Ricky Romero, Blue Jays -- Romero is a favorite among a lot of baseball observers to make the leap this year, and one of his greatest strengths is his ability to keep the ball on the ground. His ground-ball rate was 54 percent in '09 and 55.2 percent last season. With Yunel Escobar and Aaron Hill providing a solid backbone up the middle of the infield, Romero's ground-ball tendencies will continue to benefit him this season more than they would if his shortstop and second baseman were, say, Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker.

Roy Oswalt, Phillies -- Looking for the most encouraging sign about Oswalt's bounceback '10 campaign? The strikeout rate that climbed back above eight per nine innings no doubt played a major role, but the fact that he raised his ground-ball rate back above league average also had something to do with his resurgence. We know Roy Halladay is going to take advantage of the Phillies' strong defense up the middle and at third base with Placido Polanco, but Oswalt, too, was an extreme ground-ball pitcher once upon a time, posting a career rate right around 50 percent in his days as an Astro. There is the caveat that Chase Utley is dealing with what could be major knee issues right now, but if he can come back strong and Oswalt can keep the ball on the ground, we could see another overachieving season for the right-hander.

Johnny Cueto, Reds -- When Cueto first came to the majors in '08, we all thought he was going to be a big strikeout guy. When that didn't hold up in his sophomore season, a lot of people jumped off the bandwagon. But what you miss if you're focusing just on the strikeouts is a ground-ball rate that has improved each of the last two seasons. While the 42 percent he posted last season was still below league average, if Cueto can improve it again this year, he'll take even more advantage of Paul Janish, Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto, one of the slickest fielding infields in the league.

Jake Westbrook, Cardinals -- Look up "extreme ground-ball pitcher" in the dictionary, and you'll probably see a picture of Westbrook's goateed face smiling back at you. Unfortunately for him, he might not be doing all that much smiling this season. On another team, I'd be bullish about Westbrook's prospects. On the Cardinals, who sport one of the worst double-play combos in Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker, I'm staying away. Since becoming a full-time major league starter in '03, Westbrook's lowest ground-ball rate is 53.5 percent. Three times he has topped 60 percent. Both Theriot and Schumaker have limited range and second basemen's arms, which is too bad because Theriot plays shortstop. They may get great defense out of Albert Pujols, but they won't be able to fully take advantage of what Westbrook brings to the table with such weak defense up the middle.

Chris Carpenter, Cardinals -- Everything said about Theriot and Schumaker applies to Carpenter, who, too, is a superb ground-ball pitcher. It's also worth noting that he is increasingly an injury risk and has struck out fewer than seven batters per nine innings each of the last two seasons. The last time he did that in a full season before 09 was way back in '01 when he was still floundering as a member of the Blue Jays. Considering the price you'll have to pay for him -- his current ADP of 97.25 is higher than that of Clay Buchholz, Max Scherzer, Shaun Marcum and John Danks -- you may want to think twice before calling Carpenter's name on draft day.

Paul Maholm, Pirates -- Ronny Cedeno and Neil Walker aren't exactly stocking up on polishing products for any future Gold Gloves any time soon. That's bad news for everyone associated with the Pirates, but especially Maholm, whose ground-ball rate has never dipped below 50 percent. What's more, starting corner men Lyle Overbay and Pedro Alvarez are well below-average defenders, as well, with Alvarez posting a shockingly bad -6.2 UZR last season.

More often than not, I listen to Ron Gardenhire. Therefore, I love to "Tweet that." Find out what, @MBeller.