Jan
11

Looking at defensive stats

By

The past two years have shown us that the latest market inefficiency in baseball is clearly defense. Actually, that’s incorrect. The last market inefficiency was defense, because now everyone is on to it and soon enough something else will be undervalued. Jack Zduriencik’s Seattle Mariners are the poster child for improving defense (even though Billy Beane beat him to it), as we watched his team improve by 24 wins in 2009 despite scoring 31 fewer runs than 2008. They went from a team that allowed 5.01 runs per game in 2008 to a team that allowed 4.27 runs per game in 2009, improving their run differential by a net of 88 runs.

Evaluating defense has come a long way from the days of fielding percentage and errors, as more advanced statistics can more precisely measure the difficulty of a play based on where and how hard the ball was hit. In a piece for MLB.com, Doug Miller chronicles all of the newfangled defensive stats being used today, speaking to both the developers of various defensive statistics as well as team officials. Allow me to excerpt at length:

One of the pioneers of these stats, “The Fielding Bible” author John Dewan, says it all seems complex, but it isn’t. Dewan’s main stats, the DRS metric and Plus/Minus, are the result of logical data culled from comprehensive, painstaking attention to detail throughout a Major League season.

Simply put, Dewan’s company, Baseball Info Solutions, has upwards of 2,000 “scouts” who pore over video of every game played in the course of a 162-game MLB season and track each batted ball, analyzing how hard the balls are hit, how close or far they are from each fielder deemed to be responsible for making the play, and the result of what said defender does.

Many factors go into the point totals, including adjustments for things like stadium dimensions, wall height and even the occasional bonus points for home-run-saving catches.

Successful plays are awarded with a positive point total, points are subtracted for perceived failures, and the scores are added up and equated to “runs saved” throughout a year. Dewan and most other defensive-stat purveyors tend to agree that 10 runs saved equals one win over the course of a season.

“For Boston last year at third base, for example, Mike Lowell, who was unable to move well because of injury, cost them 20 runs, and now they have Adrian Beltre, and he added about 20 runs,” Dewan explains. “Right there, the Red Sox have added four wins. Plus they’ve added three wins at short with Marco Scutaro and a couple more in the outfield with Mike Cameron. It’s a huge improvement.”

UZR, developed by Mitchel Lichtman, is similar to DRS in its variables such as park adjustment, and to Dewan’s Plus/Minus in the sense that its scores are based on how often each defensive player is better than average on balls hit into their specific “zones” on the field.

Gutierrez, for example, led baseball with a UZR score of 29.1, while Aaron Rowand of the San Francisco Giants was one of the lowest-ranked center fielders in the game with a UZR of 1.3.

“Gutierrez had as much to do with our success as anybody last year,” Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. “He made our outfield better, he made our pitching staff better, he made our whole club better.”

For Dewan, Lichtman and David Pinto, who came up with the similar PMR metric, watching the Mariners improve by 24 games gave strong evidence that these stats are legit and the old methods of ranking defense, fielding percentage and range factor, are becoming antiquated.

Of course, defensive stats are far from perfect, just like offensive and pitching stats aren’t perfect either. Moshe Mandel at TYU pointed out the uncertainty of UZR given the naturally small sample sizes of defensive chances (think about how many balls a given fielder actually makes a play on in a game), and suggests a weighted system based on about three years of data. Jeff Zimmerman at Beyond The Box Score used a similar system and four years data to create UZR projections for 2010, which project the Yanks’ to be a below average defensive team next year (disclaimer: this was long before any major moves were made this offseason).

The more information used to make an evaluation, the better. By no means should statistics replace scouts, because there’s far too much information stats can’t measure. A spreadsheet won’t tell you if a hitter is losing bat speed (though they could suggest it), nor will they tell you that the guy throwing 97 is at risk for injury because his mechanics are deeply flawed. However, at the same time a scout’s eye won’t tell you that Nick Swisher‘s down year in 2008 was a function of bad luck more so than declining skills.

The statistics born out of the game of baseball, just like the game itself, continue to evolve. What we have in UZR, +/-, RZR, PMR and the like are the most advanced defensive metrics ever available. They’re not perfect and they suffer from the same sample size issues as do the more traditional stats, but we’d be foolish to ignore them just because the don’t agree with what our eyes tell us. Like the dude from Memento said, “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” Statistics are facts.

Frankly, we’ve only seen the tip of the defensive metric iceberg, just wait until HitFX and this monster get fully implemented.

Photo Credit: David J. Phillip, AP

Categories : Analysis, Defense

117 Comments»

  1. Steve H says:

    It’s funny, here in Boston all of the Sox fans are pissed off about their offseason, and they expect me to give them crap about it. Then I tell them the Sox have a great offseason due to the huge defensive improvements, and they can’t tell if I’m screwing with them or not. A run saved=A run scored, any day of the week.

    Any thoughts on the next market inefficiency? I’m going grit myself, David Eckstein, for all of his grit and winning isn’t very well paid.

    • Moshe Mandel says:

      Health. Teams that get better at predicting and forecasting injuries can extract the most value from their dollars. There are injury databases that are springing up that teams should be using and improving on, to try and establish trends, etc

      • A.D. says:

        In what way? I’m not familiar with what the databases you’re referring to can do, but something like seeing mechanical flaws that are likely to lead to pitcher injuries?

        • Moshe Mandel says:

          Exactly. Also, analyzing whether certain types of injuries are likely to lead to further injury.

          • A.D. says:

            That makes sense, could be huge on predicting & prevention of shutting kids down. Providing some better basis than the more simple observations/rules such as the Verducci’s for young pitchers.

            • Moshe Mandel says:

              Right. I’ve actually spoken to a few people loosely associated with MLB clubs that say that some clubs are sniffing down this path, analyzing injuries to make the right decisions in talent procurement and talent cultivation.

    • Andy in Sunny Daytona says:

      Any thoughts on the next market inefficiency?

      Astrology.

      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0079154/plotsummary

    • jsbrendog says:

      ambidextrous pitching

    • It’s funny, here in Boston all of the Sox fans are pissed off about their offseason, and they expect me to give them crap about it. Then I tell them the Sox have a great offseason due to the huge defensive improvements, and they can’t tell if I’m screwing with them or not. A run saved=A run scored, any day of the week.

      Maybe you should comfort them with some nice reassurances about Tom Brady and the Pats, who will probably steamroll the Ravens–

      AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAW, TOO SOON???????

      • Steve H says:

        Never too soon. It was a transition year for the Pats. As soon as Belichick traded Seymour for a pick 2 years out he admitted as much. They were a good but flawed team, not elite. Still have a few rings to fall back on. This Pats team actually reminds me of the 2008 Yankees, went with youth and if things worked out great, if not they get some experience going forward. Of course the Pats won’t load up like the 2009 Yankees, but the 2011 Pats should be a force (you know, if there is football).

        • Just busting your chops. As I’m sure you’ll bust mine when Sanchez throws a few picks in the forthcoming loss to the Chargers.

          It’ll be close, though, methinks. We can run, they can’t stop the run. They can pass, but we can stop the pass. It won’t be a walkover.

          • Steve H says:

            Yeah, I think Jets would have had a better chance against the Colts than the Chargers, I’ll be stunned if they pull it out, though win the TO battle and they have a chance. It’s funny this Jets team is from another era, they would have a much better chance of winning it all even just 10 years ago, with #1 defense and #1 running offense. That used to the the absolute formula for success, now we have 51-45 playoff games and if you sneeze on a WR it’s pass interference.

            • Meh, I like our offense v. the Chargers defense matchup more than I like the Colts matchup.

              • Steve H says:

                I think a physical team like the Jets can knock Manning off his game. People forget that Manning, other than 1 year (and he actually wasn’t very good the year they won), has been a pretty poor playoff QB, and I think if the Jets knocked him on his ass a few times early they could get to him. Rivers, who I used to hate, is one tough SOB, and their receivers are massive and are less likely to be knocked around.

    • Evilest Empire says:

      teh 8th inning!!!11!

    • Ed says:

      Any thoughts on the next market inefficiency?

      Supply and demand curves. Allow more players to reach the open market to reduce the bidding wars for less than ideal players.

      Abreu learned this lesson last year, and Damon is finding it out this year.

      We’re seeing free agent contracts become shorter, and teams are more aggressively non-tendering players. Expect that trend to continue.

      • A.D. says:

        Definitely have seen a change in contracts lately, more teams buying out early free agent years with their young stars, along with the financial mess giving GMs the excuse/need to push back on salaries for non superstars (Moore & Minaya signings aside).

        Next could be the superstars, Bay and Holliday just signed big deals when neither had a huge market of bidders (at least publicly), thus the teams seemingly out-bid themselves

        • Ed says:

          Next could be the superstars, Bay and Holliday just signed big deals when neither had a huge market of bidders (at least publicly), thus the teams seemingly out-bid themselves

          I’ve been waiting for that correction for a while. I first started pondering that when the Mets signed Beltran.

          That one came down to the Mets and Astros fighting it out. Back then, if you didn’t sign your own free agents by a certain date, you couldn’t resign them until May 1st. Boras took those negotiations down to the deadline, playing the Astros against the Mets.

          Boras called the Astros about 5 minutes before the deadline to resign Beltran and informed them he would be signing elsewhere. At that time, the Mets were offering significantly more than the Astros, but there was no agreement until a few days later.

          I’m baffled as to why the Mets didn’t reduce their offer the minute the Astros were no longer allowed to resign Beltran.

          • jsbrendog says:

            because their gm was steve phillips..was it not? or minaya……or duquette….either way there hasnt beena good gm there in decades

            • Ed says:

              I’m pretty sure that was Minaya.

              Anyway, “It’s the Mets” somewhat explains Beltran and Bay.

              Still leaves us wondering why Holliday got so much. I’m sure we could dig up plenty more examples if we tried.

  2. Zack says:

    It’s appropriate that it’s a picture of Swisher. The guy who gets the most hate for ‘sucking’ in RF because fans remember a handful of bad players.

  3. The more information used to make an evaluation, the better. By no means should statistics replace scouts, because there’s far too much information stats can’t measure.

    And yet, these defensive stats are all merely the accumulation of thousands of individual scouting reports from thousands of individual plays. Defensive metrics aren’t the opposite of visual scouting, they’re more the validation and refinement of visual scouting.

    They take one scout and clone him so that he can see EVERYTHING on every play, and they take his scouting notes and compile them to a concise and simple figure.

    UZR, PMR, Dewan Plus/Minus: all nothing but good scouting

  4. Reggie C. says:

    Boston may have taken a step backwards in terms of instant offense (Jason Bay’s 36 HRs), but this post is making it pretty clear that Theo’s experimenting with runs prevention in the signings of Beltre, Cameron, and Scutaro. I’m not sure if runs prevention is under-valued as a FA strategy b/c these guys are older vets.

    Of the 3, the Beltre signing has the highest reward, lowest risk attached.

    • It should also be noted that one of these other Moneyballesque statistical revolutions is the greater attention paid to park effects.

      It would behoove Boston, in general, to seek out defensive plus guys who have doubles power but not necessarily homer power, because their friendly bandbox park turns decent hitters into great hitters.

      So, not only do they improve massively defensively by swapping Bay/Lowell for Cameron/Beltre, but Cameron and Beltre probably hit much better for Boston than they did for Milwaukee/Seattle. The perceived offensive dropoff is overstated. Their park dictates that their current strategy is the wisest one, all things considered.

      • Reggie C. says:

        I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Beltre have a Lowell-like resurrection at the plate.

      • radnom says:


        Their park dictates that their current strategy is the wisest one, all things considered.

        In regards to Beltre and Cameron, this is true. Looking at Elsbury in left compared to Bay, I think people are overating to benefit from the combined (very good) defensive outfield alignment the Sox will field. Considering their park, they would be better off (than other teams) with a masher in left who could not play as well defensively. Again, all relative to the rest of the league, because of their park.

        • Sure, I can see and accept that point.

          Manny and Ted Williams sure as hell worked out well for them.

          • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi says:

            Well, to be fair, they didn’t win squat when they had Ted Williams roaming the outfield, maybe they should have looked for someone else.

            (kidding)

          • radnom says:

            Definitely.

            So the Sox’s offensive downgrade of Bay -> Cameron is being offset by the defensive upgrade of Ellsbury -> Cameron in CF (substantial) and Bay -> Ellsbury in LF (much less substantial, in part because of the park).

            I think it would be reasonable to say that the team’s outfield is worse in 2010, or at the very least that they did not substantially improve.

            • pete says:

              you literally just explained why their outfield would be at least as good as it was last year and then said it’s reasonable to say that it is worse in 2010…

              • radnom says:

                Not exactly.
                I’m saying that the defensive upgrade in left isn’t that great, and I’m not sure that the offensive difference between Bay and Cameron is the same size as the defensive difference between Ellsbury and Cameron. In fact, I don’t think it is.

  5. G says:

    If the stats tells me Swisher is a “slightly below average” RFer but the scouts/humans tell me he is horrid in RF.

    i’m probably going to conclude that Swisher is probably a little worse than “slightly below average” because the computer can’t see the route he takes to the ball, or if he almost drops the ball, etc etc…which is most likely why the humans think he is bad…because of those actions that the stats can’t really grasp.

  6. pete says:

    next market inefficiencies to come into vogue? baserunning? it almost feels like we’re running out

    • radnom says:

      How can you run out? Certain skills will probably come in/out of fashion as our knowledge of the game increases, just like always.

  7. larryf says:

    Swish does have that 1″ vertical at the fence to snare those balls just over the fence :-) I also like his “wall-climber” move that never results in a catch….Let’s hope Grandy can cheat a bit to right center and worry more about Swish than Gritty in left.

  8. Andy in Sunny Daytona says:

    Simply put, Dewan’s company, Baseball Info Solutions, has upwards of 2,000 “scouts” who pore over video of every game played in the course of a 162-game MLB season and track each batted ball, analyzing how hard the balls are hit, how close or far they are from each fielder deemed to be responsible for making the play, and the result of what said defender does.

    I call bullshit on this one.

  9. LarryM, FL. says:

    A player is the sum of his abilities which are the five tools. Swisher comes out horrid to the eye but slightly below average in the field. There is one thing about Nick Swisher. He’ll die trying to improve. I’m sure that ST will bring about an awareness and attempterd improvement to his fielding. He worked on his throwing last year after a few missiles to the plate. He apparently has had his session with Kevin Long to improve his hitting contact. So the guy will work at it.

    He gets under my skin at times but I know he tries. Now if we could get Robbie Cano to bust it out of the batter’s box.

    When the Yanks put Melky in LF, Gardner in CF and Swisher in RF. I felt comfortable that the ball would get caught and the players had the ability to hold runners. Damon did not have this ability. This why I don’t have a problem with our outfielf even minus Damon.

  10. Guest says:

    The new system mentioned in the NY Times article seems fascinating. The comments under the article are intriguing as well. Lots of people complaining about stat-heads “draining all of the fun out of the game” etc., etc., blah, blah…

    I don’t understand how so many people just don’t get it. These new stats aren’t taking any of the magic away from the game at all. No amount of statistical precision will change the beauty of baseballs aesthetics. No matter how many defensive metrics we create, a sweet diving catch is now, and will always remain, a sweet diving catch.

    These statistical advances are there only to help us better understand the game we love and the value of the players who play it. They are adding another layer to the way we watch, analyze, and enjoy the sport without taking anything away from it.

    And if this argument doesn’t work for you, just ignore the stats and enjoy the whole “ignorance bliss” thing. Its a free country. But you better hope that the GM of your favorite team disagrees with you.

    • A.D. says:

      Yeah I’ve never gotten the stats are “ruining the game” personally I think they make it even more interesting, one is more informed about what they’re actually watching & you’re not reliant on the “analysis” provided by whomever is on the TV

      • jim p says:

        The only real annoyance with the new stats is that I have to be plugged in somewhere to see what, say, the league-average is in order to derive current changes. You don’t figure these things out on the fly in the middle of the game.

        I can see someone go 2-for-4 today, and if I’ve just looked at his record before the game I can figure out that his average went up 1 point today, or the pitcher’s era went up .5 today.

        So if that solar-storm comes along and knocks out the internet, we’re all just floating out there. Though of course, that’ll be the least of our problems.

    • Moshe Mandel says:

      Well said. I’ve been trying to put together something on this point, but you hit it perfectly.

    • But you better hope that the GM of your favorite team disagrees with you.

      That’s a great point.

      Many of the shittiest teams from the past few decades were the clubs run by front offices who hadn’t embraces sabermetrics. The holdouts, like the Pirates/Royals/Reds, etc.

      For all the complaining done by media members and fans about stats ruining the game, the teams who have embraced statistical evaluation have reaped the benefits in actual wins and losses. If you hate the modern statistical explosion, I hope you like to watch your team make bad contractual decisions and sit in last place.

    • Andy in Sunny Daytona says:

      It’s not a “sweet diving catch” if the player is out of position to begin with. From now on, a play can only be called a “sweet diving catch”, if said player is outside his designated UZR zone. Oh yeah, said player must also have the proper jump on the ball.

      /destroying joy’d

    • Fan's Commish says:

      The NY Times article shows us the future of defense. The answer is right there. Time and distance. how much reaction time did the fielder have, and how far did he need to range. I spoke at the PITCHf/x Summit in San Francisco. The new number for defense is going to be simple to compute. Divide time by distance and you will have the Holy Grail of Defense

  11. Januz says:

    I majored in Finance and Minored in Economics, and my Concentration was in Applied Mathematics (Quantative Analysis, Business Economic Forecasting, Derivitive Applications etc) so I understand this stuff pretty well. The basic problem with stats, is you can manipulate your outcome, just by changing the variables. This is what TSJC tries to do by “Giving wins to Boston without even playing the game”. Are their certain trends you can follow? Yes there are. But I have seen enough sports (Particularly baseball) to know that certain guys fall in places like Boston (Or New York for that matter) due to on and off the field expectation levels, and until Cameron and (Or) Beltre succeed in Boston, I will not claim they will play better than they did in Milwaukee and Seattle.
    As a practical example of how stats can be very dececptive, look at yesterday’s Cardinals/Packers Game: Curt Warner was 29 of 33 for 379 yards and five touchdowns with a QB rating of 154.1 (With 158.3 being perfect (A number that you almost need to be an MIT grad to comprehend the logic of)). If you look at those numbers alone, you would say that game should be a blowout, instead of being a classic game that ended in overtime. In fact, the key play was a penalty that was NOT called on Arizona, that instead of a turnover, and game over, should have been a FIRST DOWN for Green Bay, and perhaps victory for the Packers. The human element, not calling a penalty mattered more in the final outcome more than an almost flawless statistical performance by Warner.

    • I majored in Finance and Minored in Economics, and my Concentration was in Applied Mathematics (Quantative Analysis, Business Economic Forecasting, Derivitive Applications etc) so I understand this stuff pretty well.

      You should have minored in English.

      • Wait, it got worse:

        As a practical example of how stats can be very dececptive, look at yesterday’s Cardinals/Packers Game: Curt Warner was 29 of 33 for 379 yards and five touchdowns with a QB rating of 154.1… If you look at those numbers alone, you would say that game should be a blowout, instead of being a classic game that ended in overtime.

        You should have double-minored in English and in Logic. Kurt Warner (with a K) was only one of two quarterbacks in the game.

        You can’t look at one team’s QB and say “Wow, he had a great day. They must have won big-time.” It doesn’t work that way, Januz. The other team gets to play offense as well.

      • Januz says:

        I was actually very good in English. I had 2 semesters each of English Comp. and English Lit. (With a “B” in Lit 1 being my lowest grade).
        My point about stats being manipulated and over used is extremely valid, and if no one believes me ask the 2008 New England Patriots. This team dominated games in a way I have never seen in the NFL, but still did not win it all. Who is the eventual champion is what matters, not how they got there.

    • JGS says:

      not really–you would look at Warner’s 154.1 and conclude that he had an excellent offensive game and that Arizona probably scored a lot of points, but it tells you nothing about the final score of the game because it says nothing about the other team scoring.

      By that logic, the 4/25 Yankees-Boston game should have been a blowout because Robinson Cano was 3-6 with 2 home runs and 5 RBIs and the Yankees scored 11 runs. As it happens, Boston scored 16 and won.

      • JMK aka The Overshare's Garden Apartment Complex says:

        Worst game ever. And in some respects, best game ever.

        • JGS says:

          they did torch Josh Beckett, which is always fun to do

          fun fact: Sox starters career against the Yankees (ERA, WHIP)

          Lester–3.88, 1.377
          Beckett–5.33, 1.439
          Lackey–4.66, 1.534
          Dice-K–5.49, 1.561
          Buchholz–5.74, 1.723
          Wakefield–5.02, 1.433

    • Steve H says:

      When did Curt Warner unretire, leave the Seahawks, and become a QB?

  12. jim p says:

    ? Seattle’s run differential of 88 leads to 24 more wins? Has that 10 runs/1 win convention been statistically verified.

  13. [...] of the game, should allow us to assess the defensive abilities of a player. Unfortunately, as Mike mentioned in his defensive stats post, our eyes can deceive us. Our memories get distorted, and the effect gets multiplied as we become [...]

Leave a Reply

You may use <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> in your comment.

If this is your first time commenting on River Ave. Blues, please review the RAB Commenter Guidelines. Login for commenting features. Register for RAB.