Mar
22

A low UZR doesn’t mean Teixeira is a bad first baseman

By


Photo credit: Elise Amendola/AP

Mark Teixeira plays a mean first base. We’ve known this for a while. He quickly established his reputation in Texas, and for six or so games per year from 2003 through the first half of 2007 we got to see it ourselves. He just seems graceful patrolling the bag, snagging tough one-hoppers and picking low throws out of the dirt. In 2009 we got a real treat in watching Teixeira ply his craft every day. He resembled a ballerina compared to his predecessor, Jason Giambi. I think Bob Klapisch nailed it when he described Giambi as being “as graceful as Herman Munster around the bag.”

That quote comes from an article Klapisch wrote about Mark Teixeira’s UZR. For the second time in the past three seasons his UZR fell below the league average. We’ve discussed this issue in the past, and have heard many people claim that the gross misrepresentation of Teixeira’s defense proves that the statistic is useless. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While UZR might not cover everything that makes a first baseman, it still does tell us important things about defensive range.

As I covered in the UZR primer, the statistic is primarily concerned with assigning credit and blame on balls in play and comparing that to the league average. This can cause confusion in zones between two positions, such as second and first base. Maybe Yankees’ opponents hit an inordinate number of balls to that side. Maybe opponents ended up taking two bases, thus hurting Teixeira’s UZR more than a mere single. Maybe he wasn’t positioned optimally. There are plenty of reasons why, in this one season, his UZR — in specific the range component — was below league average.

Again, this does not discredit UZR, but perhaps points out some of its inefficiencies. It doesn’t factor in player positioning, and it certainly doesn’t assign first basemen extra credit for scooping balls out of the dirt. When we look at a first baseman’s UZR, we have to recognize that it will not tell us these things. It will tell us only what goes into it, and that mostly involves how often a player turned a batted ball into an out, in a particular zone, compared to the league average. For the other aspects of manning first base, we’re on our own.

To that end, I don’t think anyone would argue that Teixeira played a poor first base last season. At the very least, everyone was happy enough to see an improvement over Giambi. Yet there is an important point to keep in mind. What we tend to remember are the plays he did make. The one hopper that he snagged as he was falling down. The dive to get a ball headed for the hole. The scoop on a three-bouncer. What we probably don’t remember, what we might not even notice, are the balls he just doesn’t get to. I’m not saying that Teixeira didn’t get to all these grounders that other first baseman would have. I’m saying that it’s possible that he did miss a few plays, and that we don’t remember them because they weren’t particularly noteworthy at the time.

Also keep in mind that UZR works with small samples. How many chances does a first baseman get to field a ball? Fewer than shortstop and second base, and we normally take three years’ worth of UZR data to get a read on those positions. Over the past three years, and for his career, Teixeira’s UZR is positive. It’s not massively so, but he’s certainly not rated below average. I suspect that we’ll see him in the positive again in 2010. These things tend to even out over time.

*Bonus section

Sorry, but I couldn’t let these two utterances, one from Tex and the other from Klapisch, fly by without a comment.

Teixeira: “Look, if computers could run the game, why bother having general managers?” Because you need people to analyze and interpret the data. Also, no one’s arguing that computers should run the game in the first place. Also, scouts have their place, and it’s no marginal, second-class citizen status. Numbers are just a recording of what happened on the field, but we need to go much further in order to make the data useful. Also, there is no such thing as a perfect statistic.

Klapisch: But here’s the kicker: Sabermetrics don’t acknowledge a phenomenon known as “clutch.” Untrue, though Klap isn’t the first to misstate the general sabermetric view of clutch. The idea is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. It does make for good storytelling, though, so most staheads have backed off arguing the idea of clutch. If you think a particular player is clutch and another unclutch, fine. It is, after all, your own definition you’re applying to the players.

Categories : Defense

50 Comments»

  1. JGS says:

    I think a lot of Kansas City fans would love to have a computer be their GM

  2. IIRC, UZR doesn’t account for those times when the first baseman is holding a runner on the base does it? If not, that would be arguably its most obvious inefficiency in terms of grading first basemen.

    • Am I the only Kevin? says:

      My understanding is that it does take into account situations (man on first, etc.), but does not take into account positioning (playing behind the runner when there is a very slow guy vs. holding a fast runner on). More generally, for all positions, it does not take into account playing softball depth against an Elsbury/Gardner type.

  3. bexarama says:

    Oh no Texy why did you say that ;_;

    • Pete C. says:

      Because it’s true that’s why. Look, counting on stats to explain the game is as limiting as “managing with your gut”. The best we can say is Mark Texierra is a vast improvement over our previous 1st baseman.
      Two more things, who were the higher rated 1st baseman, and can everyone agree this is the case, and this seasons success shows the importance the position has on the field, correct me if I’m wrong (and I know you will) but how many teams have won a WS with a poor 1st baseman. Seems like NY never has. Maybe Pepi but from the guy’s I’ve watched from Pepi to Watson/ Chambliss to Tex, every time the Yanks take a title they have an above average man at the position.

      • OldYanksFan says:

        Joe Pepitone was a better fielding 1st baseman then Tex. The guy was a monster. Great hands, excellent range, and so smooth he made it look easy.

        URZ does NOT measure or account for positioning. It’s does not measure how good an infielder positions/plays as a cut-off man. It does not measure arm strength or accuracy. It does not measure scooping or blocking errant throws. It measures only how FAR a player ‘ranges from his position’ to make a play.

        It is a VERY important stat for a CFer. Not so much for a C or 1Bman, who need to have other skills. It is only a small part of the defensive responsibility of a 1Bman. I personally don’t think Tex has great range. I half joking say Tex will catch anything he can fall on. He has good hands and reflexes. But range is ultimately about fast reads, a fast first step, and quickness, and I don’t think those are Teix’s strengths.

        URZ to a 1Bman is like BA to a hitter. It is an important stat, but far from tells the whole story. Swisher’s OBP and HRs more then made up for a low BA, and Teix’s overall defense makes up for his averagish URZ.

        You do not, and will not, see Teix ranging deep in the hole. You will see him carch near everything hit or thrown near him. In this respect, he somewhat compares to Jeter ( although URZ is obviously more important in a SS). While he has improved, Derek still does not have great range, but is very consistant is making plays near him.

        Does anyone know how the Fileding Bible rates Teix?

        So don’t freak. Teix might get a ‘C’ in URZ, but he is a ‘B’ or slightly better defender.

        • DF says:

          UZR might not account for positioning, but that’s part of defense, isn’t it? If Tex is positioned wrong and that’s causing him to field fewer balls, then he needs to fix his positioning.

          Jeter used to make this argument as well; I think the counterpoint still stands. If you’re positioned poorly, move. A low UZR is deserved if you don’t.

        • pete c. says:

          Couldn’t and wouldn’t have said it better Old Yanks Fan. I don’t remember much about Pepitone except for my dad being pissed about a throw from an infielder he lost on a play in the world series. As well as a quote he made when told Johnny Keane his new manager after the ’64 series didn’t like him because Pepi had made a pass at Keane’s daughter, and I paraphrase ” he shouldn’t be angry I make passes at everyones daughter”. Oh can’t forget his foray into hair care products.
          And TSJC I gotta say; obscure.
          Power to the people baby.

      • Two more things, who were the higher rated 1st baseman, and can everyone agree this is the case, and this seasons success shows the importance the position has on the field, correct me if I’m wrong (and I know you will) but how many teams have won a WS with a poor 1st baseman. Seems like NY never has. Maybe Pepi but from the guy’s I’ve watched from Pepi to Watson/ Chambliss to Tex, every time the Yanks take a title they have an above average man at the position.

        Are there any Paraguayans here? No?

        Well, of course, their requests for subsidies was not Paraguayan in and of it is as it were the United States government would never have if the president, our president, had not and as far as I know that’s the way it will always be. Is that clear?

  4. Ed says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong here, but, I believe UZR is context neutral. It doesn’t care how many outs there are, what runners are on base, what the score is, or the handedness of the batter. That’s not too much of an issue for outfielders, but it’s a huge deal for infielders.

    Say you’ve got a ball hit between the 2B and 1B. UZR will say something like the 1B fields the ball 60% of the time, so if the ball goes through, Tex’s rating goes down as he was expected to catch it. A further breakdown of the stats might show that with first base empty, the 1B gets that ball 75% of the time, but with a runner on first, the 1B only gets it 45% of the time. You’ve now got a hit where the 1B is expected to field the ball in some situations, and to miss the ball in others. UZR’s lack of accounting for that type of stuff makes me a little hesitant to believe in it too much.

    I’d love to see the raw data that goes into UZR to get a feel for that type of stuff. I’m pretty sure you have to pay large sums of money to get the data though, so oh well.

    • Moshe Mandel says:

      UZR accounts for all of those things plus more- ballpark, batter, pitcher, handedness, outs, baserunners, etc.

      • Ed says:

        After digging some more, it looks like you’re right. That gets left out of most explanations I’ve seen of UZR.

      • Am I the only Kevin? says:

        Exactly – see my post above. While it takes into account situation, it does not take into account positioning. That is why it is very important to look at at least 3 years of UZR data, so that these positioning issues level out (i.e., is range limited by chronically bad positioning, or is this just a blip where the guy was burned a few times by bad luck?). For example, is the reason the ball made it through the hole b/c it is the eighth inning and the corners are playing “no doubles”? Or, because the hitter is Ellsbury and you are way in guarding against the bunt and he slaps a two hopper by you? Or is it because you play too shallow to make up for your noodle arm? That is why it is very important to look at at least 3 years of UZR data, so that these issues level out. It is a useful tool when used in large samples and in context with scouting and other data, but a one-year UZR score is not the final word on whether a guy is a good defender.

  5. Jarvis Potter III says:

    i thought his range was mostly hurt by his quickness to go cover the bag. there were a few times when the announcers said “looks like he could’ve gotten to that one” on a ball in the hole.

    it looked a lot of times like his first instinct was to lunge back to the bag and wait for the throw from cano. if he positions himself better and dives at a few more grounders, his range could improve drastically.

  6. Drew says:

    I don’t blame Teix for replying in a sarcastic manner.

    Put yourself in his shoes.

    Say you help a company earn a ton of revenue and you are in fact a huge asset to that company. You know it, your co-workers know it, your boss knows it. Then, some guy comes by with some statistical analysis and tells you that his analysis says you’re below average compared to your peers. You then tell that guy to shove the analysis up his ass!

  7. ROBTEN says:

    Point One: He quickly established his reputation in Texas

    Point Two: What we tend to remember are the plays he did make…What we probably don’t remember, what we might not even notice, are the balls he just doesn’t get to.

    Point Three: Also keep in mind that UZR works with small samples.

    These are, I think, the three key points of a very good and patient explanation of Teixeira’s UZR rating last season.

    Teixeira established a reputation for being above average defensively. The problem with “reputations” is that they are often based upon limited data and thus can be unreliable. For example, as point number 2 marks, we remember “spectacular” plays, but forget the routine. As anyone in psychology can tell you, observation plus memory is a fairly poor basis for making any definitive claims.

    Fortunately, however, Teixeira’s stats back up that he is above average over his career. So, a low UZR for one season does not mean throwing out the entire metric for firstbase. It means only that last season his range might have diminished for the small amount of opportunities he was given during one season. Past history tells us that it is just as likely to be positive again and I would expect it would be at least another two seasons of negative UZR before even beginning to consider whether Teixeira’s defense has become a liability.

    In other words, sometimes the stats might contradict your memory or what you want to be true. It doesn’t mean the stats are wrong. On the contrary, it is more likely that your memory is “selective.” At the same time, to be clear, no one is seriously looking at what amounts to 50-55 games of data and making any definitive claims about Teixeira’s defense either. The stats are simply telling us something that might be meaningful, but which lacks enough context to mean anything in the short term. For all we know right now, it could simply be an outlier in an otherwise stellar career at first or the start of something to be concerned about several seasons from now.

  8. ROBTEN says:

    “Certain players can say to themselves, ‘It’s time to step it up,’ ” Teixeira said, although he knows UZR doesn’t quite get that. Maybe someday.

    Ugh.

    Sure, let’s not admit that that Tex has a positive UZR for his career, that “sabermetrics” does account for why some players are “clutch” (hint: because they’re good players), and that advanced stats have never turned a bad player into a good one like some kind of alchemist’s experiment. (Although, to be fair, it does generally turn your gritty, white, grit-machines into average to below average players, so use at your own risk.)

    The whole article is just an excuse to get a player’s “authority” on why stats are bad and thus why columnists should continue to get paid while doing little more than hanging out in the clubhouse pretending they’re part of the “game.” It’s like doing even three seconds of research is a bigger threat to baseball than Alex Rodriguez (/Stark’d).

  9. Mark D. says:

    I did see some plays that UZR rating picked up. During some games when Teixeira was playing first when there was no man on, he would give up on balls hit to his right. He would run to the bag even though the ball could have been reached by him more easily than Cano and it would become a single instead of an out. I think those kinds of plays had affected his defense statistic which points out something that was a tendency and can be fixed.

  10. KeithK says:

    If UZR doesn’t account for first basemen scooping balls in the dirt then it’s of limited utility for the position. It still tells you something. but to my mind receiving throws from other infielders is one of the prime defensive duties of a first baseman and where he will save the most runs.

  11. Simon B. says:

    I don’t even really care about UZR, though it helps validate my opinion a little bit: Tex isn’t that good. He makes easy plays look hard and has below-average range.

    I can’t believe there’s been as much said about a firstbaseman’s defense in the first place.

  12. Dave says:

    Klapish had every right to mock UZR. No one should defend shoddy sabermetrics. It’s things like this that makes sabermetrics look bad to the casual fan.

    According to UZR, Daniel Murphy was the 4th best defensive first baseman in the majors last year and much better than Texeira. Daniel Freaking Murphy or as a Met fan friend of mine likes to call him, the least athletic player in baseball. Of course anyone who watched the Mets knows Murphy was actually horrible at 1B. 10 errors in under 100 games. Way too many bonehead plays and hands of stone. He simply did not know how to play the position which is why the Mets had Keith Hernandez work with him. His bad positioning likely greatly effected his positive Ultimate Zone Rating. He played firstbase like a middle infielder. So Murphy’s showing pretty much confirms UZR is a terrible stat to judge firstman on. There are too many anomalies.

    Texiera played an amazing firstbase in the playoffs. He has GREAT range and perfect footwork. Just watch the way he moves around the base if you ever get to a game. The guy is one of the best in the league. No one doubts that.

    UZR is useless as a defensive stat for a firstbaseman. Until they come up with something better that also measures the ability to scope up balls and accurately measures range, it should be taken with a grain of salt.

    • So Murphy’s showing pretty much confirms UZR is a terrible stat to judge firstman on. There are too many anomalies.

      Sure, I’ll agree, as we all do, that it’s not a great tool for measuring first basemen, but for each example like Murphy, there’s a positive one that’s backed up by conventional thinking.

      Youkilis is regarded as a great 1B by many, right? His UZR at first is almost off the charts. The same goes for Carlos Pena and Adrian Gonzalez, both of whom have good defensive reputations (though their ratings aren’t as high as Youk’s). Murphy’s one good season via UZR may turn out to be fluky. That’s why, like the author of this piece said, it’s better to judge a player’s UZR in multiple seasons.

    • Bo says:

      Any stat measure that shows D Murphy as a good 1b is inherently flawed and should be dismissed.

  13. YankeesJunkie says:

    Defensive stats in baseball and sabermatrics are still very crude and have not really what they could be and it will probably be awhile before a stat to better evaluate defense comes in. Hopefully in 10 years UZR will be a thing of a past as the sabermatric revolution continues to tinker in making their stats better.

    • I don’t think UZR will go away or become irrelevant any time soon. In fact, with the addition/blossoming of Hit F/X, it will probably be improved upon rather than thrown away.

  14. iYankees says:

    UZR barely rates Teixeira below average. An UZR of 0 isn’t necessarily “league average,” in a strict sense, in that you can have an UZR a bit below that or above that and still be considered average. Also, to the person using Daniel Murphy as a way to mock the metric, those who use it correctly know that you need at least 3 years of data to really make claims about how good or bad someone might be at a particular position. That’s a very small sample and may fluctuate in the future (and we know that, it is to be expected).

  15. pete says:

    I live in Boston, so I see Youkilis play a ton, and as far as range is concerned, there is a HUGE gap between him and teixeira. Not necessarily because of skill, but largely because of positioning. Youkilis plays very far back from the bag, and pretty far from the line. Thus a lot of his “great” plays are ones that look less spectacular because they involve him running to a ball and throwing it to first. Teix, on the other hand, often plays pretty far in for a 1B, and as a result of this, has to make a lot of diving plays, and a lot of balls that would appear to be completely unfieldable to a fan used to watching the Giambis of the world, get through. Thus, as Joe said, we don’t notice or discredit Tex. We just assume that nobody could have made that play.

    When it comes to scooping throws and throwing and general glovework (that is to say, his sure-handedness and diving abilities), Teixeira is an outstanding 1B. When it comes to fielding balls hit to the right side, he’s solid, and has been above average for his career, but he is not a spectacularly rangy 1B. People need to realize that making a bunch of diving plays does not automatically mean you have great range. Also, when you’re comparing a player to the league average, it’s important to keep in mind that every friggin player in baseball is ridiculously, unbelievably, unimaginably brilliant at baseball, almost always including defensively. So just because Tex is an amazing first baseman doesn’t mean he’s significantly better than the average first baseman, especially in the AL. We just happened to see a lot of Jason Giambi over there, and Giambi is one of the very few position players in MLB who is not THAT much better than what your average athletic person would be, with a lot of practice and coaching, at 1B.

  16. Chris says:

    Top two 1B in UZR/150 in 2009:

    Jorge Posada +77.6
    Jose Molina +65.0

    Seriously though, the top full time 1B (in UZR/150) over the last 3 seasons are Youkilis, Pujols and Kotchman. The bottom three are Giambi, Jacobs and Sexson. That tends to agree with what scouts and other observers see. There may be something that UZR is missing with Teixeira, but on the whole I don’t think it’s that far off even for firstbasemen.

  17. Akes says:

    This will all be a moot point. And just as blogs have changed the media field f/x will take over this argument and make it irelavent. San Francisisco is using it now. And it will not be long before they are all using it.

  18. Davor says:

    1B defense is UZR’s weakest position.
    As for scooping up throws, MGL calculated somewhere at the beginning of the offseason that the difference between the best and the worst 1B in the league is barely worth mentioning. If somebody wants to find it, it is somewhere at
    http://www.insidethebook.com/ee/

    • OldYanksFan says:

      Does that make sense? Picking up an errant throw turns a man-on-first (or second) into an out. We saw Tex save our infielders a good number of errors. Would those guys, if they HAD gotten on, ultimately scored? Would it have changed the outcome of the game? I don’t know. But every ‘saved’ throw lowers the other teams OBP, and opposed to raising it. That must mean something.

      • DF says:

        I think the takeaway point from that is not that scooping throws is not a very valuable skill, it’s just that the difference between the best and the worst “scooper” is so small as to be negligent.

        If you remember, Giambi was pretty decent at scooping throws. I remember McGwire being good at it as well. But neither one of them is really what I’d call a good first basemen. Tex is pretty clearly awesome at scooping errant throws, but it seems that the number of bad throws Tex scoops that no one else would scoop is so few that it really doesn’t matter too much.

        Like was referenced earlier in the thread, every MLB player is an amazing world class athlete. Even the bad defensive players are pretty crazy good. You can’t compare them to anything but each other, and scooping throws is apparently a skill that’s not uncommon.

  19. Bo says:

    It is a small tool used to define defense but UZR is useless exactly because of exactly this. No one with a brain can say that Tex played a sub avg 1b last season. They need to improve their data to be a useful tool.

    • OldYanksFan says:

      The point is that it measures range… not overall Defense (although some quote it like it did). And of course, range is more/less important depending on position. Certainly it’s a valuable tool for CF, but has little meaning at C.

      That’s why I agree that Teix’s Range hasn’t impressed me, but his overall Defense has. The stat is fine, but it is often interpreted poorly.

  20. A.D. says:

    Well the issue is that a high UZR score generally equates to great range at your position + the factor of making the plays you should. Perhaps Tex doesn’t have amazing range at 1st, however first would be the position you would care the least about having range (ignoring catcher here)as the part you care about the most is the 1B catches the balls throw & hit to him, which from all channels Tex seems to do well.

  21. Hobbes says:

    If you had a stat that purported to measure hitting ability and it ranked Jeter behind the Melkman, would you try so hard to defend the stat, or would you throw the stat out as ineffective?

    Why do you try so hard to force this stat to be accurate?

    Anyone looking at it can tell it sucks.

    • OldYanksFan says:

      Again Dude…. you totally miss the point.
      URZ does NOT measure overall defense, it JUST measures Range.
      Melky had a BETTER BA then Swisher.
      Is Melky a BETTER hitter (offensive player) then Swisher?

  22. Zack says:

    I love how a player has a down year according to UZR and people see that as a way to say UZR is unreliable; but say a career .270 hitter hits .334 one year, they dont claim that AVG is a unreliable stat because it had a .270 hitter .060 points higher than what they really are.

    It’s all about sample size, i dont know how many times that has to be said. Maybe we should TYPE LIKE THIS!! so they get the picture.

  23. yanksfan4life says:

    Sabermetrics is GARBAGE.Screw all these UZI’s and whatever the new stat of the day is.They are a concoction of computer nerds with WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY too much time on their hands.

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