By Chris Glover
* I am running with the notion here that everyone is cool with using advanced metrics to measure defensive ability. I realise this is a stretch but I didn’t want to caveat every other sentence with a disclaimer about small sample sizes and the reliability of data. That was the nerdiest sentence I ever wrote.
Any kid who grows up playing baseball without much natural ability to hit or pitch soon learns that one way to earn playing time is to excel in the field. (By way of full disclosure, I very much lacked said natural ability, though not at baseball, but cricket, a similar game whose simple rules are explained here). It therefore continues to puzzle me why the majority of baseball execs (who are not generally former athletes) are not sold on this philosophy and continue to undervalue defensive ability when assembling a squad of players.
Consider the attributed worth (and thus cost) of two players:
- Player A has added 26.0 Runs Above Replacement Level (RAR) in 2011 thus delivering $12.6m of value for his team. He is currently in year two of a 5-year, $16.5m deal and will count for just $1m against the cap this year. He does not feature as one of the top 15 outfielders listed in the current AL All Star voting update.
- Player B has added 28.4 RAR in 2011, delivering $13.7m of value for his team. He is currently in year four of a 5-year, $30.25m deal and will count for $8.25 against the cap this year. He has gathered over 1.7m nods in the All Star voting, behind only Jose Bautista and Robinson Cano among all AL players.
The key difference between the two players is how they are generating those added runs. Player A is Denard Span, who is enjoying a historically good season with the glove (on pace to shatter the all time record of 39 in ‘Runs from fielding’) while his batting is only above average (.294/.361/.385). According to FanGraphs he has added a league leading 10.9 runs in the field but just 4.6 with the bat. Player B meanwhile is MVP-candidate Curtis Granderson who is having a very good season at the plate (.267/.344/.600, 20 HR) on his way to adding 18.7 runs while playing slightly below the average level in the field (-0.9 runs added).
When discussing offensive stats, fans tend to alter their opinions based on the facts they read (“I thought player X had great discipline but his OBP is pretty low, I guess I was wrong”) while for defensive stats they tend to question the metric when it disagrees with what their eyes show them (“Asdrubal Cabrera has plenty of WebGems so if his UZR is bad it must be a useless stat”). Even if we accept that the defensive metrics are not perfect measures of a player’s ability in the field, they are at least indicative of reality and highlight that when it comes to scoring and preventing runs, the former is valued considerably higher by fans and General Managers alike. Although we all like to see runs being scored, it is strange to me that such a gulf still exists despite the abundance of evidence in favour of a strong defense.
Given that we’re talking about the Rays here – they of the ‘extra 2%’ – this seems like an opportunity they would take advantage of (having read Jonah Keri’s great book, along with glancing at the Wall Street Journal before a job interview three years ago, I would like to say this is an arbitrage opportunity, but that could be total nonsense). Anyway, based on the eyeball test the Rays appear to be an above average defensive team who should clearly gain some ground on their offensively minded opponents, but is that playing out in the statistics this year?
To keep this post at a sensible length, and to avoid anyone having Apocalypse Now style flashbacks to statistics class I will only talk about the corner infield here with the middle infield, outfield and catchers to come in later posts.
Your immediate thought is that this is an area of strength for the Rays with Evan and Casey yielding gloves of golden potential. For Longoria one would be correct in that presumption. His current UZR/150 (which essentially annualises a player’s defensive performance) is 44.6 runs added, a full 8.5 runs ahead of the second placed player with over 250 innings logged (Gerardo Parra who contributes little with his bat), more than double the next best 3B (Adrian Beltre 18.0) and triple the third best (Alex Rodriguez 15.4). The majority of his defensive value derives from his range, which is probably the hardest element of defensive ability to judge simply by watching the game. Sure, we can see the highlight plays but we tend to place too much emphasis on a player completing outs which he fields rather than how many balls in play he gets too (consider Jeter, for example, who can throw to first and second all day but has a comparable range to Matthew McConaughey’s acting skills).
The metrics show us that along with Adrian Beltre, Evan is a step above his peers and could well go down as one of the best defensive corner infielders of his generation. We all know that Evan is locked down into a very team friendly contract, but his defensive play suggests that even if he was to hit free agency, he would still be undervalued by the market who would likely focus solely on his good, but arguably not elite, offensive production. R.J. Anderson at the Process Report does not make such a mistake as he explains why Longoria is indeed “elite” as an overall player.
Kotchman is one of the strangest players to evaluate this year. His offensive production (.345/.395/.453) is almost unanimously considered to be an unsustainable blip, while his defense is thought to be of a high level. Fangraphs’ data however suggests that Kotchman’s bat has added 7.5 RAR this year while his defense is only marginally above replacement level (0.8). With 9 career errors in over 5000 innings, it’s clear Kotchman is a solid first baseman, but – as noted with Longoria – a player’s range is hard to judge and the advanced metrics for this year (and last year in Seattle) suggest Casey’s is not elite. It’s great to get some production at first base after Pena’s departure and Johnson’s struggles but the concern here is that if Kotchman’s bat does slow down as expected, he would quickly be contributing very little to the team if you believe that his glove is only average. There do not appear to be too many alternatives, so perhaps we should just be thankful he isn’t Lyle Overbay, who cannot hit or field.
The corner infield is actually pretty well manned in the AL East with three of the top six defensive third baseman (Longoria, A-Rod and Nix) and three of the top seven at first (Gonzalez, Lind and Lee). However, aside from Toronto (who have only recently settled on Nix as an every day starter after watching the horrendous Encarnacion give up 8 errors and -9 runs), all other teams have one player who is either playing at the replacement level (Texeira 0.2 RAR) or significantly below (Youkilis -7.7 and Reynolds-25.7). The Rays’ 49 RAR at the two positions is well over double the next best team (Yankees and Blue Jays, 18) and a long way ahead of the Red Sox (7) and hapless Orioles (-20). “The Extra 165%” isn’t quite as catchy though.
The way we measure defensive ability is still clearly a work in progress but however you cut it the Rays look to be fairly set at the corners for the immediate future, giving them yet another way to squeeze value out of their limited annual payroll. Whether or not those 30 or 40 ‘runs added’ at the positions will mask their unarguably weaker bats will be an interesting theme as the season develops.