The difference defense makes

Scenes from the dismantling
Game 34: Let's take two out of three

Defensive quantification, the final frontier. Since its introduction to mainstream culture, baseball has been a sport obsessed with statistics. Yet one aspect of the game which has flustered analysts for years is defense. We’ve seen some breakthroughs over the past few years, with Zone Rating, Ultimate Zone Rating, John Dewan’s plus minus, and Dave Pinto’s PMR, but none of them provide us with the concrete information we get from batting and pitching stats. All that means is that we should be looking for other ways to accurately evaluate defensive and its effect on the outcome of games.

On Wednesday, Rob Neyer explored the first-place Texas Rangers and their improved pitching staff. A team which has ranked no better than 12 out of 14 AL teams the past four years is currently sixth best in the young season. They’ve combined that fortune, which comes mostly on the effort of Kevin Millwood and his 2.92 ERA, with 191 runs scored, two behind Boston for second most in the AL. While it might sound funny to hear “first place Texas Rangers,” it’s not so odd to hear that the team with the sixth-best pitching and third-best offense leads its division.

At FanGraphs today, Dave Cameron flips the argument a bit and gives the Rangers defense a lot of credit for the team’s pitching success. His evidence: the team’s FIP — that is, Fielding Independent Pitching, defined below — is actually worse this year, at 5.17, than it was all of last year, 4.83. This would indicate that the defense is doing quite the job in converting balls in play into outs.

We can see this from an anecdotal and a statistical standpoint. The Rangers rearranged their infield over the winter in order to eradicate a few of their weaknesses. For instance, the team featured a revolving door at third base, none of whom were any good at the position, as evidenced by their -26.7 collective UZR. At shortstop, Michael Young featured a -5.4 UZR. So the Rangers slid Young over to third, and though it hasn’t gone quite as planned there’s still time for him to make the adjustment. They replaced him with defensive whiz Elvis Andrus, who is into the positive UZR rankings already. They moved Chris Davis over to first, where his bat will play just fine and he’s less of a liability than he was at third. Even Ian Kinsler is playing better this year, projecting to a 14.4 UZR/150 after negative values in his earlier years.

The question, of course, is how much of this is related to a small sample size and how much is for real. We can’t tell yet if Kinsler is getting extremely lucky or if having Andrus up the middle is giving him a boost. We don’t know if Michael Young is bad at third — and that comes in two senses. First, is he really bad, in the sense of, is UZR accurately depicting his ability? Second, is he just bad, or is this just a transition after having played shortstop from 2004 through 2008? Perhaps the biggest question here is, how does this relate to the Yankees?

One area in which the Yanks could have really done something to improve this off-season was on defense. Signing Mark Teixeira improved the glovework at first, but what about the rest of the infield? In order to see an improvement, they’d have to see Robinson Cano return to 2007 form, Jeter maintain what he did in 2008, and for A-Rod to continue being league average. Is it working? Well, the team has a 5.18 team FIP against a 5.64 team ERA, so it doesn’t look like it. That’s not the final word, of course — comparing FIP to ERA is just a tool to aid in analysis. But, with this one readily-available tool, it doesn’t appear the Yanks defense is doing much to bail out the pitchers.

It’s tough to make any kind of far-reaching judgments when the season is barely a month over. However, in the early going it looks like the Yanks are having problems all around: with their pitching, with their defense, and with their hitting, particularly with runners in scoring position. That’s quite a stack of problems for a team to overcome. The saving grace is that the Yankees have the talent to do it. They’re currently 10th in the AL in UZR, though they’re off of 9th place by a decent margin. Still, with even a modest improvement from here on out — say, league average — they can make the necessary adjustments and play this season like we’d imagined it in March.

Scenes from the dismantling
Game 34: Let's take two out of three
  • Aunt Becca-Optimist Prime

    It doesn’t help that the left side of the infield is Derek Jeter and a gimpy A-Rod.

    • Joey H.

      This injury is going to deplete A-Rod’s range.

      • Joey H.

        Cano to third!!11! A-Rod to SS!!111!! Jeter to 2B1!@!@ Problem solved.

        • Cor Shep

          So cocky replying to your own posts!

        • dan

          I know this is joking, but how would moving A-Rod to short solve anything?

          • skeleton coat

            It’ll help him tip pitches better.

            • whozat


  • Manimal

    Where are all those haters that called me crazy when I said Rangers won the west.

    • Joey H.

      No idea. Someone needs to tell you it’s only May 14th.

      • manimal

        All I said was IF the Rangers get some solid pitching, then they will win the division. I saw the angels struggling (NO ONE couldve predicted their injuries) and

        • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

          All I said was IF the Rangers get some solid pitching, then they will win the division. I saw the angels struggling (NO ONE couldve predicted their injuries) and

          That’s a hell of a “prediction”, Manimal.

          “If a team that has lots of offense but not much pitching gets good pitching, I think they’ll be good.


          • manimal

            lol left you hangin at “and”.

            And when I said the Rangers were going to win the division, I predicted that their pitching staff will get it together this year. It wasn’t just like “If they pitch well, they will win games and if they pitch bad they will lose and in both scenarios it makes me look like a master predictor”.

            • VO

              Wait, is there a difference between you and that other guy that posted the question with the URL in his name?

          • Spaceman.Spiff


    • Aunt Becca-Optimist Prime

      No one saw the Angels entire rotation AND Vlad going down.

      Texas was good, but it still takes a gimpy Angels team to have a shot.

    • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      Jorge Posada: 133.0 IP
      Jose Molina: 115.1 IP
      Francisco Cervelli: 39.0 IP
      Kevin Cash: 8.0 IP

      Mark Teixeira: 264.1 IP, -0.4 UZR
      Nick Swisher: 26.0 IP, -0.6 UZR

      Robinson Cano: 295.1 IP, +1.8 UZR

      Derek Jeter: 263.1 IP, -1.2 UZR
      Ramiro Pena: 32.0 IP, 0.4 UZR

      Cody Ransom: 116.0 IP, -1.5 UZR
      Ramiro Pena: 106.1 IP, -0.5 UZR
      Alex Rodriguez: 42.0 IP, -0.2 UZR
      Angel Berroa: 31.0 IP, -4.1 UZR

      Johnny Damon: 244.1 IP, -4.4 UZR
      Melky Cabrera: 33.0 IP, -0.4 UZR
      Nick Swisher: 18.0 IP, -0.1 UZR

      Brett Gardner: 175.1 IP, 2.9 UZR
      Melky Cabrera: 120.0 IP, 1.2 UZR

      Nick Swisher: 190.0 IP, 0.6 UZR
      Melky Cabrera: 59.0 IP, -0.7 UZR
      Xavier Nady: 46.0 IP, -1.0 UZR

      • andrew

        Might we be the definition of an average fielding team?

  • Tank the Frank (formerly just “Frank”)

    The Yankees started out the season very bad defensively. Cody Ransom certainly didn’t help matters. Now that Pena has been getting more playing time, A-Rod is back, and Swish is in RF instead of Nady, we should see the Yanks defense even out a bit with Tex’s continued glove work, Cano improving, and Jeter hopefully keeping up his pace this season.

  • Thomas A. Anderson

    This contract negotiation with El Capitan will be so telling. Baseball is evolving. You CANNOT give up good-premium defense at short and hope to win anything going forward. The Red Sox figured that out 5 years ago.

    Cold, hard truth is that DJ is just not going to be a good enough defensive shortstop for NY to continue to run him out there and hope to win it all.

    Problem is, I don’t know if the Yankee FO knows the answer.

    • VO

      Honestly though, are you going to let Jeter walk? I think it all depends on the other options out there, and if the DH spot is open.

      • JP

        That’s a good question. I’d be shocked if they let him walk, but I can tell you that the typical number cruncher GM with no Yankee “loyalty” would seriously consider it…

        It’s like tommie said in another post. The question is, which aggregate value is higher? a) Jeter at SS, his offense and defensive value, plus whomever is playing LF now, their offensive and defensive value, or b) Jeter in LF, his offense/defense there, plus the offense/defense of the replacement SS (Pena?)?

        I think as long as Jeter remains a good to very good offensive player, that answer has been easy: he stays at SS. But his offense took a hit last year (perhaps largely from playing through the wrist injury, but that’s beside the ponit), and we don’t know if he’ll improve for a year or two, plateau at last year’s level, or decline.

        I do know this: if, for whatever reason, the Front Office made the decision that we had to have good defense at SS, the chances of Jeter walking go way, way up. First, he might WANT to walk in order to keep playing SS, somewhere, but if not, second, the chance that the Yankees could get a leftfielder cheaper than what Jeter would cost, and with more offensive value, is highly likely.

        I always thought one option for Derek was 1b, but of course that’s out…he could still play 3b, and ARod could play OF, but would the team do that? DH? Looking at how Jorgie was doing throwing this year, I have a feeling we’re going to see him at DH alot more as time goes by…maybe most of the time next season.

    • Mike HC

      And who do you want at shortstop instead of Jeter?? You write as if there are clear, better options out there. Who do you want that is a true upgrade. There is no point in letting “Thee” Derek Jeter, Yankee Legend, one of the best players of all time, walk, just to replace him with garbage.

      • JP

        One of the best players of all time? I don’t know about that…he was the best player in baseball one season out of his career, possibly 2. I guess everyone ranks somewhere on the list of the greatest ever, but how high do you put Jeter?

        Top 20 players ever? Top 50? Top 100? ALL players, not among SS.

        • Mike HC

          You don’t know about whether Jeter was one of the best players of all time?? He has won 4 world championships, been to 6 world series, has made the playoffs every year but one, and was the SS and and one of the best hitters on the team for all of it. His number will be retired in monument park and he will easily surpass 3,000 hits. The guy was as clutch as it gets (and nobody can tell me there is no such thing as clutch), and was willing to give up his body to win games. He made plays that can not be quantified (flip throw to get Jeremy Giambi). How can you people call yourselves Yankees fans. This is crazy. Who are these Yankee fans, Jeter haters? I don’t get it. Please start rooting for the Mets, because if you cannot fully appreciate Jeter, you don’t deserve to be a Yankee fan.

          • JP

            All I said was, “where do you rank him?” There’s a difference between being a great player and “one of the greatest of all time.” But I really didn’t even say he wasn’t…I’m just asking you to tell me just how high you think he belongs on the all time list.

    • JP

      I agree. Nobody likes to say it, but when he gives up the ghost as a shortstop, his value to the team will plummet, because he will be compared to outfielders’ offense, not SS…

      Keeping DJ at shortstop until he’s 40 or whenever he wants to retire would be stupid.

  • Mike HC

    The Yanks clearly don’t have a great D. The key is for them to play par for the course, average, and the big money pitchers and hitters to come through. All the Yanks money have gone to hitting and pitching, with D as an afterthought. It is the pitchers and hitters job on this team to pick up the D, not the other way around.

  • JP

    UZR schmoo-zeee-aaaaar….from what I know of that metric, it’s sensible, but not perfect, and certainly not immune from “false negative” or “false positive” ratings. You still have to use your eyes.

    Anyone can see that Pena is a vastly superior defender over Jeter. More range, better arm.

    It takes alot of defensive value to account for the difference between Jeter’s offense and Pena’s, but certainly Jeter is becoming more ordinary as an offensive player as the years go by.

    With the team so depleted of OF’s, would it be so bad for Jeter to swallow his Yankee Pride and play a few games in left field. Even Yogi stepped aside when Ellie Howard came along (no, I’m not saying Pena is Howard…but you get the point).

    Tonight was a good night to toast “pitching and defense.”

    • Mike HC

      Please stop calling yourselve a Yankee fan. It has really come to that. You rather have Pena at short than Derek Jeter? I can’t, I don’t, I mean, uh, … I’m speechless. I really hope the RAB writers don’t start with Jeter should be moved off SS nonsense. I know that at his advanced age, he is not the same, but that does not mean that he is still not better than most of the SS’s out there. I can’t sit here and read this crap. Yes I may be a bit tipsy right now, but someone has to make a stand against this Jeter hating, especially on a Yankee FAN website.

      • Joseph Pawlikowski

        You need to stop with this. You, like many before, completely conflate criticizing Jeter with hating Jeter. NO ONE HERE HATES JETER. Not me, not JP, not anyone. If you think he’s above criticism, that’s your little red wagon. Us, we’ll continue to make observations, analyze stats, and talk about them here.

    • JP

      I’ll give you a mulligan for the “tipsy” thing. I’m a Yankee fan. I’m not a Jeter worshipper. Yes, I think his defense has gotten to the point where it would be better to have someone like Pena playing shortstop regularly. At the very least, at a time when the team is depleted in terms of outfileders and DH’s, Jeter could give his slot to Pena in the field, and continue to play every day as an outfielder or DH. I’d say move him to 3rd and put A-Rod in the outfield, but I’m not sure A-Rod would be a good outfielder. Jeter would.