Another measure of Teixeira’s defense

The Almighty RBI
The RAB Radio Show: January 25, 2011
(Kathy Willens/AP)

When the Yankees signed Mark Teixeira in December of 2008, it meant two upgrades for the Yankees. The first came on offense, where Teixeira’s bat would represent an improvement over the aging Jason Giambi. In his final two Yankees seasons Giambi’s numbers dropped a bit, and he came to bat only 868 times in those two seasons. Teixeira would bring not only a superior bat, but also durability. But the most significant upgrade came on defense. Giambi was known as a statue before he even signed his $120 million contract. Teixeira was considered one of the game’s premier defensive first basemen. I can’t count the number of times I said, “I sure is nice to have a real first baseman” in 2009.

Defensive metrics did not agree with what Teixeira’s reputation, and what our eyes, told us. In 2009 Teixeira produced a 0.9 UZR, which ranked him 12th in the majors. That might not have been as ridiculous sounding had Miguel Cabrera not finished with a 3.5 UZR, fifth in the majors. Much as our eyes can deceive us, I don’t think that they deceive us to the level it would require for Cabrera to be a better defensive first baseman than Teixeira. After the 2009 season I recall a lot of ill feelings towards UZR, because of Teixeira’s situation specifically. The stats did not match what our eyes told us, and so we blamed the stats.

In 2010 UZR ranked Teixeira a bit worse. He finished with a -2.9 UZR, 14th in the majors. There might have been a number of good defensive first basemen ahead of him, but it’s doubtful that he finished more than a win worse than, for instance, Ike Davis. Maybe Teixeira isn’t the league’s best defensive first basemen, but after watching him for over 150 games in each of the last two years, and watching him frequently enough during his pre-Yankees seasons, I’m fairly confident that he ranks in the top five.

While UZR is still a widely used defensive metric, it does contain flaws. Almost all defensive metrics will, since we’re still figuring out how to best quantify defense. Perhaps the most aggressive in the pursuit of fielding knowledge is Baseball Prospectus’s Colin Wyers. He has spearheaded BP’s effort to create a more effective defensive stat, and after reading a number of his columns on the topic I see his point. With observation stats such as UZR and DRS there can exist significant range bias. Total Zone, the fielding stat used on Baseball Reference, takes the observation out and instead uses the play-by-play logs to determine defensive value. It’s here that Teixeira excels.

FanGraphs just added Total Zone (with location) data for the 2010 season, so we can see where he ranks compared to his peers. Surprisingly to UZR, but unsurprisingly to Yankees fans, Teixeira finished with a 13 TZL, which ranks him second in the majors. The only first baseman to finish better was Daric Barton, and we know he’s a top-notch first baseman. In 2009 he had a 10.1 TZL, which ranked fifth. But instead of sitting behind Miguel Cabrera (-4.4), he was behind only Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Todd Helton, and Lyle Overbay. That’s a list a bit easier to accept.

This isn’t necessarily an indictment of UZR. After all, the correlation between UZR and TZL in 2010 was .75, so they’re pretty close to one another. What it makes me wonder more than anything is why UZR views Tex so differently. Barton, for instance, led the league in both TZL and UZR. Of the players with worse than -1 UZR, all but two — Tex and Todd Helton — also had a negative TZL. What about Tex’s game causes UZR to rate him so poorly relative to what we see? I don’t have an answer, but I do hope that this sheds a little light on current defensive metrics. Maybe UZR isn’t flawed for everyone. Maybe its biases affect different players in different ways.

The Almighty RBI
The RAB Radio Show: January 25, 2011
  • Monteroisdinero

    7 errors the last 2 years and lots of brilliant, clutch plays, many of which saved throwing errors from Jeter and Arod. There is no one else I’d rather have at 1B-until Montero takes over in 6 years.

    • RL

      … and makes us all think of Giambi.

      • MikeD

        In fairness, we don’t know what kind of defensive 1Bman Montero will be. Tex was not good at third, but is a different story at first. Montero (assuming he one day moves) will be shifting from the most difficult defensive position on the spectrum, to what’s rated as the easiest.

        • RL

          True, but he’s not seen as an “athletic” catcher. If he could match Giambi overall, I’d take that any day of the week!

    • David

      Ain’t it amazing how Jeter became a good defensive shortstop as soon as Tex started manning 1B? Saving slightly errant throws can save a team a lot of runs, and I don’t think that is captured by UZR. I believe (though I am not positive) that UZR only looks at balls hit to a fielder, assesses his range in reaching those balls hit near him (using zones), and the ratio of those balls hit near him he can convert into outs. I don’t think there is anything built into it that accounts for good scoops of throws from across the diamond.

  • Dick Whitman

    Curtis Granderson is the opposite. Positive UZR, negative TZL.

    • Mister Delaware

      Honestly, a system that upticks Teix and downticks Granderson probably sounds closer to correct.

      • Chris

        They’re very different problems, though. It’s possible that one is better for outfielders and one is better for first basemen.

  • ND Mike

    Nice post that explains that stats aren’t everything. To bring this around to someone we all love to discuss, I wonder if UZR has it in for Jeter as well. I know Jeter’s defense is slipping but I don’t think it is to the degree that UZR says it is. Just a thought…

    • RL
    • Chris

      I don’t believe that UZR thinks Jeter’s defense is slipping. It (and most other metrics) believe that it was bad all along, with some ups and downs.

      • Hannah Ehrlich

        Correct. According to FG, since 2002, Jeter’s only had two years of positive UZR: 2002 (0.9) and 2009 (6.5). All other years have been in the negative, including an awesome -17.9 in 2007.

  • OxxStone

    I haven’t seen any first baseman field better than Teixeira in recent years. The UZR is total BS.

    • Mike Axisa

      Doug Mientkiewicz was better than Teixeira with the glove.

      • Mister Delaware

        Can we count JT Snow? Guy was poetry.

    • Tom Zig

      Just curious. How many games of other teams do you watch?

  • The Three Amigos

    It seems like UZR is a good indicator of the outfield positions, but is lacking in grading the infield.

  • mike hc

    I personally put very little value in any of these defensive metrics. I understand wanting to create a measure of D that is better than pure subjective analysis, but the information that is currently put out to the public is sorely lacking.

  • BTG

    UZR is an incomplete measure for defense. It puts too much emphsis on range which is just one component for a defensive player. First Baseban, Catchers, and even Third Baseman to a certain extent depend less on range than other factors and so while it might be very useful for other positions like outfield and middle infield, UZR is almost non-useful for the other positions.

    This is also a good place to discuss why a lot of fans and writers are skeptical of the influx of new statistical measures. Anyone who has studied statistics, even on a basic level (and as an economist, my background is more in-depth), knows that statistics often portray what you want them to. Garbage in, Garbage out. People quote WAR or VORP numbers like Moses with the tablets, but 99% of them couldn’t begin to tell you how those numbers are tabulated. And, while in many ways these new stats are much more useful than previous measures, they are still somewhat flawed and are constantly being revised. So we need to take them with a grain of salt. Less salt perhaps than with RBI’s or Wins or the “older” stats, but still, with the realization that our stats and our hunches should exist harmoniously when evaluating players. Like the case with Teixeira, if they contradict each other, something is usually wrong.

    • the Other Steve S.

      “People quote WAR or VORP numbers like Moses with the tablets, but 99% of them couldn’t begin to tell you how those numbers are tabulated. ”

      THIS, in spades.

  • jon

    i wonder what his WAR would be using TZR rather than urz

    • YankeesJunkie

      It is probably 10 runs equals a win.

    • Thomas

      His fielding would improve from -2.9 runs to +13 runs. Making his RAR 49.7 and his fWAR would be roughly 5.

      His bWAR would also climb to about 5 (4.9).

      • Chris

        I thought bWAR used TZR?

        • Thomas

          Total Zone (TZ) is used by bWAR. Teixeira’s TZ was 7. I was using the Total Zone with location (TZL) that is used in the post, which was 13.

    • mike hc

      Arod has the highest tmz in the game by a large margin.

  • YankeesJunkie

    I don’t think UZR has done a good job at evaluating the value of Teixeira’s defense especially the last two years to say that he has been average. So I think the last two years instead of a 8.9 fWAR he is probably closer to 10 WAR conservatively and 11 WAR if you feel really good with his defense. Which has been consistent with his pay so far.

  • Kiersten

    Doesn’t UZR just measure range? Half of a first baseman’s job is scooping and stopping bad throws, which is probably the best part of Tex’s defense.

    • Mister Delaware

      Yup. That’s easily the biggest flaw in UZR.

      • Chris

        And (I believe) total zone and the other metrics as well.

    • Slugger27

      Its not just range. Its double play ability, arm strength, and penalizes errors as well.

      • AndrewYF

        But it’s mainly range. And it’s not very good at that either.

        Besides defensive statistics’ well-discussed problems, none of them take into account the fielder’s initial position at the time of the batted ball. I personally think that’s a humongous component that’s being missed in all of these defensive statistics. Now, initial positioning can be up to the player and thus be a part of his defensive value, but many, many teams use specific defensive coordinations where they tell their players to be, and how is that a good way to judge a player’s true talent?

        There is not one defensive metric that truly measures the true range ability of a player in isolation. The only way I can see this happen is for Field F/X to come to fruition.

        • jim p

          “Zone” is something I’ve never been clear on. Is it the field divided up the same way for every position? Any shortstop, say, has this same zone.

          Because if that’s the case, then positioning is really key in whether balls get stopped or not. And like you say, is that the defender’s call or the coaches?

          Further, if batted balls are being read on video, there has to be a camera-angle distortion and a subjective read on where exactly in the zone the ball is, at least near its borders.

  • Jacob

    I would also like to know the specific components that are causing the difference in UZR and TZL. I’m not exactly sure what goes into calculating both of the metrics and I’ve had trouble finding info.

    Perhaps UZR is a better measure for certain positions (i.e. outfield) and TZL is better for other positions (infield). If that is the case, maybe it would be best to calculate WAR using different defensive metrics for each position?

  • Matt

    Both stats focus on fielding batted balls, which is a bad way to judge a first baseman. Unlike all other fielders (except catcher), a 1st baseman’s main defensive value is his fielding of throws NOT his fielding of batted balls. UZR and Total Zone ignore a first baseman’s ability to scoop balls up out of the dirt, turning throwing errors or tight plays into outs.

    Texiera is undervalued by UZR and TotalZone just as all players are undervalued by these stats, which are inferior and need to be replaced.

    • jim p

      More, there’s the 1B making the double play with a throw to second, which Tex does very well. Frankly, I just don’t see that many balls hit past him either. Maybe my eyes are lying, but it just doesn’t happen, like I see with Jeter or A-Rod where I’m thinking “oh he should have gotten that.”

  • MikeD

    There have always been problems with advanced defensive metrics, especially as they relate to first base. I look at them, but I haven’t taken them too seriously in the twenty-five or so years I’ve been following them. I think they’ve gotten better, but there are still too many questions remain. MLB teams, even the ones sabermetric inclined, don’t put too much faith in them, so if they don’t, I can’t either.

  • Joe R

    UZR isn’t really a good metric for 1B. At other positions, it’s a lot more insightful, but at 1B, it fails to encapsulate both a player’s ability to catch throws, as well as the fact that 1B typically have less range than other IF since they generally have to be positioned relatively close to the bag (especially when there’s a runner on first).

    UZR’s criticism of Teixeira (and other 1B, for that matter) really isn’t much of an indictment of the UZR stat overall, IMO. It is an indictment of its ability to measure the value of 1B, but I don’t think how it ranks Tex sheds light on its ability to properly evaluate players at other positions. It certainly has flaws for every position, but those flaws are multiplied when it comes to 1B – I personally think it does a decent job at other positions (especially in the OF), better than almost any other defensive metric currently existing, at least.

  • Preston

    I’ve always thought that what UZR wasn’t quantifying with Tex was his decision making ability. So much of playing first base is deciding where to get the outs. I’m admittedly a monday morning quarterback when I watch games and constantly second guess decisions by fielders. But I can’t ever remember thinking Tex threw home when he should have gone to the bag, or didn’t turn two, or whatever. He always seems to be prepared for each situation and makes the right decision quickly. Jeter does the same. However he’s at a position where his range and throwing accuracy are more important.

  • bobmac

    SI’s low life Tom Verducci is continuing his Yankee hating series of articles.Today’s hatchet job is saying Texiera will turn into Giambi.Verducci is constantly trying to make himself relevant but at the end of the day he is simply a hack.


    NOt to mention that Texiera’s throwing has saved this team so many runs over Giambi it’s not even funny. Many first baseman do not even attempt to make throws to second base. Tex is one of the better throwing 1bman in the league at this point and is able to hold runners at third on right side gorunders and get lead runner force outs at a good rate.