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.