Archive for Defense

Quite a stir was made last offseason when former Baseball Prospectus-er and current Astros employee Mike Fast published a study quantifying the number of runs catchers saved with his pitch framing skills. That is making a borderline pitch look like a strike to the umpire and getting the call. Russell Martin rated very well in Fast’s study, as in second only to Jose Molina. Here’s a great example of Russ stealing a strike for CC Sabathia in ALDS Game One on Sunday…

At FanGraphs yesterday, Jeff Sullivan used PitchFX data to estimate how many extra strikes each team enjoyed this season, and the Yankees placed fourth in baseball (and first in the AL) at +5 strikes per 1,000 pitches. The league average is actually -5 strikes, not zero. Blame the umps. New York’s pitching staff threw 23,181 total pitches this season, so the pitching staff received approximately 232 more strikes than the league average. That doesn’t sound like much across 162 games, but it is. Past studies have calculated the difference in value between a called ball and a called strike at 0.13 runs, so Martin’s (and Chris Stewart‘s) pitch framing helped save the team a touch more than 30 runs this season. Roughly 9.5 runs equaled a win in 2012′s scoring environment, so those extra strikes were (theoretically) the difference between an AL East title and a wildcard play-in game.

It’s important to note that Sullivan’s estimations ares just that, estimations. Fast’s study was much more precise and comprehensive, and we shouldn’t attribute every single extra strike to the catcher and his pitch framing anyway. Sometimes the umpire was going to the call the pitch a strike without the catcher’s help. Even if that 30 runs saved number is off by as much as 50%, it’s still a lot of runs to save with a simple skill. Catcher defense is a very tough thing to quantify, but analysts have gotten better at it and pitch framing is one of those things that seems to impact the game much more than originally expected.

Categories : Analysis, Defense
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(Rob Carr/Getty)

The Yankees are a few hours away from opening their best-of-five ALDS matchup against the Orioles, a team they know pretty well since they reside in the same division. The pitchers should be familiar, the hitters should be familiar, and everyone’s defensive abilities should be familiar.

The Orioles were rated as a below-average defensive team overall by the various advanced metrics this year, but they are strong up the middle with Matt Wieters behind the plate, J.J. Hardy at short, and Adam Jones in center. One thing Baltimore’s defenders do very well is stop the other team’s running game, which means the Yankees won’t be able to create much havoc on the bases these next few days.

No Stolen Bases For You

Thanks to the cannon arm of Wieters, the Orioles led the AL in throwing out attempted base-stealers and not by a small margin. Overall, they threw out 36 of 99 base-stealers (36.4%), far better than the second place Blue Jays (33.1%). Wieters threw out nearly 40% (38.6% to be exact) of the runners who tried to steal again him, which is well above the ~25% league average. Only Ryan Hanigan (48.5%), Yadier Molina (47.9%), and Miguel Montero (42.1%) were better among regular catchers, and in case you haven’t noticed, all of those guys play in the NL. Over the last two years, it’s a 37.7% throw-out rate for Wieters. The guy just shuts the running game down.

Perhaps the best way to look at this is just in terms of number of attempts. Opponents attempted a stolen base just 99 times against the Orioles this season, tied with the Cardinals for the second fewest in baseball. Only the Diamondbacks (85) had fewer steals attempted against them. The Yankees, for what it’s worth, had the fifth fewest stolen bases attempted against them this year (118). Anyway, the Bombers are called the Bombers for a reason, and that’s because they don’t steal all that much. Their 93 team steals (120 attempts) were the eighth fewest in baseball, and only four players had double-digit steals: Ichiro Suzuki (14), Alex Rodriguez (13), Eduardo Nunez (11), and Curtis Granderson (10). The stolen base isn’t a huge part of the Yankees’ offense, but it’ll likely be a non-factor in the ALDS thanks to Wieters.

Outfield Arms

The Yankees catch a little bit of a break because Nick Markakis, one of Baltimore’s all-around best players, is still sidelined with a broken thumb that will keep him on the shelf through the ALDS. He actually originally suffered the injury against the Yankees, when CC Sabathia hit him with a pitch. With Markakis out and Jim Thome healthy, the Orioles have been playing Chris Davis in right field, his worst position. He’s not especially quick or the smoothest of route takers, but the one thing he has going for him defensively is his arm, which is a rocket. Here, look…

It’s unfortunate that TBS cut to Nelson Cruz running like that, but you can still see how strong that throw was. Davis got it to third on the fly, and you probably won’t be surprised to learn that he used to pitch — “Davis also has touched 93 mph off the mound,” wrote Baseball America in their draft write-up back in 2004, the year the Yankees selected him in the 50th round but did not sign him. Anyway, enough with the nostalgia.

With Davis and Adam Jones, another former amateur pitcher who has long owned one of the strongest arms in baseball, patrolling the outfield, the Orioles are not a team that allows runners to take the extra-base very often. In situations where a runner could have gone first-to-third on a single hit to Jones, the runner held at second 69.2% of the time. The league average for center fielders is 43.8%. They don’t even run on his arm anymore. Davis only played 230 innings in right this year (and in his career), so we don’t have reliable data for him. Still though, look at that .gif. Runners beware.

* * *

The Yankees were a very station-to-station team this year, due in large part to Brett Gardner‘s injury and Nunez’s demotion to the minors. They did, however, steal 27 bases (in 33 attempts) in the final 29 games of the season thanks to Ichiro‘s scorching hit finish, A-Rod‘s return to the lineup, and Nunez’s return to the majors. In terms of taking the extra-base on first-to-thirds, etc., the Yankees attempted it only 37.3% of the time compared to the 40% league average. With Wieters behind the plate and the duo of Jones and Davis in the outfield, New York is going to have to be very judicious about trying to create offense with their legs in the ALDS.

Categories : Defense, Playoffs
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8:40pm: Via Collins, Nunez left the game with a sore thumb. It’s not expected to be a major issue, which is good news.

5:30pm: In his third game for Triple-A Empire State since being send down late last week, Eduardo Nunez made a pair of errors this afternoon. According to Donnie Collins, the first was just a botched routine grounder and the second a missed catch at second base on a stolen base attempt. Nunez has played shortstop all three games and for whatever reason, he was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning today.

The Yankees sent Nunez down with hopes that playing regularly will improve his defense, but obviously that’s a process that will take more than three games. I’m worried about his confidence more than anything, and Collins said it appears Nunez is playing as if he’s afraid to make a mistake. I got a similar vibe watching him with the big league team in recent weeks, and again, I hope he doesn’t lose all confidence and develop the yips or something. That would suck. Hopefully he didn’t leave the game with an injury and can get back out there tomorrow to keep working.

Categories : Asides, Defense, Minors
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May
15

Platooning the defense

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Cover your eyes. (J. Meric/Getty)

Brett Gardner‘s injury has hurt the Yankees in more ways than one. They miss his productive bat and ability to make pitchers work at the bottom of the lineup, they miss his speed on base paths, and most of all they miss his all-world defense. I give Raul Ibanez an A+ for his effort out there, but the man is a butcher and doesn’t belong anywhere near a glove. Andruw Jones can hold his own in the outfield but is no longer the defender he was during his Atlanta days, and Dewayne Wise is a very good glove man but can’t hit a lick.

With Gardner out anywhere from another two weeks to a full month with a strain muscle in his right (non-throwing) elbow, the Yankees are stuck with sub-optimal left field options for the time being. Ibanez has started each of the last four games and six of the last nine games in left mostly because the DH spot has been rotated around. Even with Eduardo Nunez in Triple-A, the duo of Jayson Nix and Eric Chavez give Joe Girardi a chance to rest Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter somewhat regularly early in the season. Better to rest them now than risk burning them out later, I suppose.

Anyway, the Yankees are stuck with an undesirable left field situation until Gardner comes back. The personnel on the roster is unlikely to change barring injury, but the team can still maximize what they get out of these guys by optimizing their usage. Let’s take a quick look at some batted ball data (2010-present)…

FB% LD% GB%
Ivan Nova 30.2% 18.3% 51.6%
CC Sabathia 32.0% 19.2% 48.8%
Hiroki Kuroda 33.0% 19.8% 47.2%
Andy Pettitte 37.0% 18.3% 44.8%
Phil Hughes 47.3% 18.3% 34.4%

You folks are smart, so you probably already know what I’m getting at here: the Yankees should employ their top defensive outfield unit whenever the fly ball pitchers are on the mound. That means Wise on the field and Ibanez at DH whenever Hughes and Pettitte start. We could also add Nova to that mix if his ground ball rate (44.6% this year) doesn’t return to previous levels (52.7% last year). Kuroda’s ground ball rate (48.6% this year), matches his career average after dropping to 43.2% last year. Perhaps reuniting with former battery-mate Russell Martin helped, or maybe it’s just an early-season fluke.

With Wise in the outfield two (potentially three) out of every five days, Girardi will be able to hide Ibanez’s defense a bit while still being able to rotate that DH spot. It’s not ideal; in a perfect world Ibanez never plays the field, but it’s going to happen until Gardner is healthy, so the Yankees should stick him out there when their top ground-ballers are on the bump to minimize the damage. It also goes without saying that Wise should replace Ibanez in the field in the late innings of close games.

Nunez is in Triple-A now, but the Yankees can also employ a similar defensive platoon on the infield. Nix is not exactly a stellar glove man, but he can spell Jeter at shortstop whenever one of the fly ball guys is on the hill with the thinking that he’ll have fewer tough plays to make. Sure enough, Nix’s only start at short so far this year came with Hughes on the mound this past Saturday. Perhaps the defensive platoon is already in place, at least on the infield. The difference may only be two or three plays a game, but every little bit counts.

Categories : Defense
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While the Yankees’ offense has gotten off to a roaring start, the starting pitching has yet to catch up. They’re allowing far too many hits to drop in, and then they’re allowing home runs on top of those hits. The result is an ERA, 5.72, that ranks third-worst in the majors. Their peripherals look a bit better, thanks to the third highest strikeout rate and a bottom-third walk rate, but they’re still getting plenty of runs dropped on them. Yet it might not be all their fault.

One pitching aspect that stands out is the starters’ BABIP. At .355 its not only worst in the league, but worst by more than 20 points. As I noted in this morning’s post on Freddy Garcia, the BABIP issue is not simply a matter of pure luck. There are other factors that play into this. While poor command is the likely culprit in Garcia’s high BABIP, that’s not necessarily true for the staff as a whole. In fact, part of that huge BABIP number isn’t the pitchers at all.

A quick look at Baseball Prospectus’s team defensive efficiency bears this out in a different way. The Yankees’ fielders in general fare worst in the majors in converting balls in play into outs. When BP adjusts for park effects and converts defensive efficiency into runs, the Yankees have allowed a half run more on defense than the next worst team. They are nearly 14 runs behind league-leading Toronto.

As you might imagine by this point, the infield plays a large role in in this defensive inadequacy. To wit, on ground balls Yankees pitchers have allowed a .309 BABIP against an AL average of .225. That’s not to say they’re any great shakes against fly balls. Against those they have a .196 BABIP vs. the league average of .136. The defensive woes stretch across the entire field. And it’s killing the pitching staff.

No, poor fielding isn’t the only culprit in these inflated BABIP numbers. As with Freddy, command in general is an issue. We saw CC Sabathia with little command of his fastball in his first two outings. Phil Hughes has left many hittable pitches right over the plate. Hiroki Kuroda struggled with his command in his last start against Minnesota. And there’s Garcia himself, of course. So some of the high BABIP is due to the pitchers leaving hittable pitches over the plate. After all, the bullpen BABIP is much lower, at .307, but that’s still well above league average.

(Other evidence for poor defense killing the Yankees includes a league-worst UZR and a fourth-worst DRS.)

The pitching staff has been rightly criticized through the season’s first month. The starters simply haven’t put it together yet. Unfortunately, their fielders are doing them no favors. Both the infielders and the outfielders are not converting balls in play into outs at an acceptable rate. Getting Brett Gardner back will help the outfield, but in the infield it’s tough to fathom a huge improvement. That could be something to watch as the staff regains its form. Can they overcome these fielding inadequacies?

NOTE: Say what you will about Nunez; I expect plenty of “infield defense will improve if they don’t play Nunez” comments. But the Yankees’ problem isn’t necessarily errors. In fact, according to UZR they’re actually in the positive in terms of errors. It’s in the range department that they’re getting killed.

Categories : Defense
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For the second straight year, Brett Gardner has won the 2011 Fielding Bible Award as the game’s best defensive left fielder. He received nine of ten first place votes and one second place vote (behind Carlos Gonzalez). His points total (99) was the highest by any player at any position. Tony Gwynn Jr. was a distant second with 74 points. It doesn’t directly factor into the voting, but Gardner had the highest UZR (+25.2) and DRS (+22) in baseball last season, regardless of position.

Mark Teixeira (fourth), Robinson Cano (seventh), Alex Rodriguez (eighth), Russell Martin (fifth), and Hiroki Kuroda (sixth) all received votes at their respective positions.

Categories : Asides, Defense
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Mar
09

2012 Season Preview: Saving Runs

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So good that MLB told him he can't use a glove in 2012 just to make it fair. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Like a number of other teams, the Yankees ignored defense for quite some time in the mid-aughts. Maybe ignored is the wrong word, but it definitely wasn’t a priority. The 2005 Yankees were arguably the worst defensive team in baseball history, but they still managed to win 95 games thanks to a dominant offense and some good timing (pythag. 90 wins). That formula doesn’t cut it these days.

By no means are the 2012 Yankees a defensive dynamo, but they’ve improved defensively at a number of positions in recent years by shedding poor glovemen like Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, and Johnny Damon. UZR says the Yankees were the eighth best defensive team in baseball last year, saving 23.2 more runs than expected. At the same time, their -15 DRS ranks 21st out of the 30 team. Different systems give different answers, which is why this defense thing is so hard to pin down these days. Let’s take a look at the Yankees who provide value when not in the batter’s box…

Robinson Cano
Cano is a good example of just how imperfect defensive metrics are these days. UZR doesn’t like him one bit, rating him as a below average defender in each of the last four years and in six of his seven seasons. DRS, on the other hands, says he’s been above average in each of the last three years and in four of the last five. Total Zone says he’s been a bit below average the last two years, but above average the four years before that. FRAA? That says he’s been above average defensively in every season of his career except for 2010, when he registered at -0.5.

Which system is right? Probably all of them to a certain extent, but it goes to show that there’s still no right answer with this defensive stuff. Overall, I think Robbie’s a pretty good second baseman, particularly on plays to his right and around the bag on the double play pivot. Balls hit to his left have been a bit of a problem throughout the years, but I think he’s still a net positive, all things considered. No one will ever confuse Cano for Roberto Alomar or Chase Utley on defense, but he’s a solid glove guy that does his best work near the bag. That double play pivot is just as sweet as his swing.

Brett Gardner
You can make a legitimate case that Gardner is the best defensive player in baseball. He combines his speed with excellent reads for top notch range, and his throwing has improved dramatically over the last two years or so. His arm isn’t terribly strong, but it is accurate. Anytime a ball is hit in the air towards left, I’m pretty confident that it’ll be turned into an out these days.

One thing to keep in mind is that Gardner’s ridiculous defensive ratings — +50.9 UZR and +35 DRS last two years — are relative to other left fielders, and most other left fielders are slow, plodding, bat-first types. I don’t want to take anything away from Brett because he is an elite defender, but if the Yankees were to move him to center, he would not be a +20 defender on an annual basis. He’d be more along the lines of +10 or so. That’s still really awesome, and when it comes to saving runs with the glove, no one on the Yankees is better and very few around the league are even comparable.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Russell Martin
Catcher defense is a tough thing to quantify, but we’ve gotten better throughout the years. Although he’s been below average at blocking passed pitches in recent years, PitchFX data has shown that Martin is one of the very best at framing pitches and saving runs by turning balls into strikes. With an average arm that consistently throws out 30% of attempted base stealers or so, Russ handles himself well behind the plate and is an asset to the team defensively.

Of course, Martin looks like the greatest catcher ever compared to his predecessor Jorge Posada. Not to dump on Posada, but he was a bad defensive catcher and flat out abysmal later in his career, and it could be clouding our judgment when watching Martin or any other Yankees catcher. The few advanced metrics we have do a good job of showing that while he’s a good defensive backstop, Martin isn’t great. He does the job throwing out baserunners, frames pitches exceptionally well, and won’t allow and excessive amount of pitches to get by him.

Mark Teixeira
Defensive metrics still haven’t mastered the first base position, which has more to do with straight glovework than range. Tex isn’t fleet of foot but he does guard the line well and keeps his fair share of balls from getting through the hole. That has more to do with positioning than actual quickness. He’s also a strong thrower, which is still amazing to see after watching Giambi airmail throws for the better part of a decade.

I think Teixeira’s best defensive work comes when he’s scooping throws at first or snagging bad hops, stuff like that. There’s no way to measure this accurately, so it’s completely anecdotal. He saves the other infielders errors by scooping those poor throws, but more importantly saves pitches for the guys on the mound. Tex sees more defensive work than every non-battery position on the field, which is a good thing for the Yankees given his skills.

* * *

I think Alex Rodriguez is worth a mention here, because he looked fantastic on defense late in the season and especially in the ALDS. He didn’t hit much after the knee and thumb injuries, but he still moves well around the bag and makes a lot of tough plays look easy because of his strong arm. I also think A-Rod is the smartest, most instinctual player I’ve ever seen. He always seems to makes the correct decision when it comes to going for the double play, looking back the lead runner, charging the bunt, all that stuff. Alex won’t win a Gold Glove, but by no means is he a liability at the hot corner.

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(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Catcher defense is incredibly hard to quantify, but there’s been a lot of research done on the subject and a lot of progress made in recent years. Back in October, Bojan Koprivica published a ridiculously in-depth analysis on blocking pitches using PitchFX data, determining just who the best catchers were at keeping the ball in front of them. It’s an intense research piece but a surprisingly easy read, so I highly recommend checking it out. Even if you read it back in October, it’s worth re-reading for a refresher.

Since the start of the 2009 season, Yadier Molina has saved a total of 16.0 runs by blocking pitches, the most in baseball. That’s not a surprise since he’s generally regarded as the best defensive catcher in the game. Brian McCann (14.2) and Matt Wieters (13.3) round out the top three. Based on Koprivica’s work, pitch blocking is similar to base running in that its impact isn’t as significant as we may think. The best pitch blockers save about seven runs per season while the worst allow seven runs. Most catchers are within two runs of average. Yeah, every bit does count, but on the whole it’s not a huge part of the game.

FanGraphs now carries pitch blocking data using Koprivica’s algorithm, so it’s nice and easy for us to dig up the stats. Here’s how the Yankees’ two primary catchers have fared at blocking pitches over the last three seasons…

Expected Passed Pitches, CPP
Actual Passed Pitches, APP
Runs Saved, RPP RPP MLB Rank
Frankie Cervelli 59 59  0.0 27th
Russell Martin 142 159 -6.5 51st

I used a minimum of 1,000 innings caught over the last three seasons, giving us 58 qualifiers. Cervelli has performed exactly as expected during that time, which is pretty neat. Martin has been much worse however, which goes against pretty much everything we know and have heard about him defensively. It’s only 6.5 runs across 3036.2 innings, but only seven qualified catchers have been worse at blocking balls in the dirt than he has over the last three years*.

* One of those seven is Jorge Posada at -8.2 RPP in 1,469.1 innings (54th out of 58 qualifiers). Former Yankee Jose Molina isn’t much better believe it or not, he’s at -7.2 RPP in 1,200.1 innings.

Breaking it down by the individual seasons, we can see that most of the damage came back in 2009. Russ was expected to allow 48 balls to get by him based on what his pitchers threw that year, but he actually allowed 69 passed pitches. Those 21 extra passed pitches resulted in a -5.8 RPP for the season, the worst in baseball. Martin was pretty much league average in both 2010 (-0.1 RPP) and 2011 (-0.6 RPP) when it came to blocking balls, and the improvement since 2009 can probably be attributed to a million different things. I guess he seemed so much better than average last year because we were stuck watching Posada all those years.

Like I said earlier, passed pitches typically have a very small impact in the grand scheme of things, just a handful of runs each year. It seems a lot more when you’re watching a game and a passed ball allows the tying run to move into scoring position in the late innings, but that stuff evens out over the course of a 162-game schedule. Martin’s real defensive value comes from his ability to frame pitches according to the various catcher defense studies, but over the last two years he hasn’t killed his team with his pitch blocking skills either.

Categories : Defense
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(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

It’s been trendy to classify the Yankees as a poor defensive team over the last decade or so, and for a while it was absolutely true. It’s not anymore though, even if Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez have lost a step over the years. Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano are rock solid at worst on the right side of the infield, Russell Martin is very good behind the plate, and the outfield features two center fielders. Yeah, the left side of the infield is lacking, but the defensive is generally solid overall.

The Yankees outfield led baseball in good ol’ UZR this season (32.3 runs saved), and they were fourth overall last year (+28.6). At 60.9 runs saved since the start of 2010, they’ve been the second best defensive outfield in baseball behind the Diamondbacks (+61.2), who on any given night are running three players out there capable of playing center field (Gerardo Parra, Chris Young, and Justin Upton). The eye test agrees with the numbers as well; Brett Gardner is a stud in the field, Curtis Granderson is solid, and although Nick Swisher can look funny out there at times, he’s solid as well.

Over the last few months, the question has arose about whether or not the Yankees are using the best outfield alignment. Because Gardner is an elite defender, shouldn’t he be playing center instead of Granderson? The advanced metrics didn’t like Curtis’ defense at all in 2011, including UZR (-5.1), DRS (-15), Total Zone (-5), and FRAA (-13.1). One year of fielding data isn’t enough though, and his three-year rates seem much more in line with the eye test (0, +3, +3, and -12.1, respectively). Gardner, on the other hand, was one of the best fielders in all of baseball this year (+25.8, +22, +3, and +13.7) and has been since 2009 (+50.9, +35, +46, and +22.6). You’re not going to find much of an argument here, Gardner is the better defensive player whether you dig the stats or not.

Now, it is important to consider context when dealing with these defensive stats. Gardner has played left field for the vast majority of the last two years, so his performance is being compared to other left fielders. As you know, most teams have some kind of plodding, bat-first guy roaming left, only able to catch balls hit right at him. Granderson is being compared to fellow center fielders, who tend to be better than left fielders on defense. Move Gardner to center, and his +20 UZR turns into a +5 or +10 UZR real fast. That’s still very good, but the numbers can be deceiving.

SG at RLYW dug deeper into the data last week, and found that yeah, the Yankees probably are better off defensively with Gardner in center and Granderson in left, but chances are the upgrade would be small. That doesn’t mean it’s not an option worth exploring though, and I think switching the two is something the Yankees should at least consider this offseason. Granderson hasn’t played an outfield position other than center since 2007, when he spend five innings in left, and all told he’s got just 59.2 career innings in left and over 8,000 in center. A mid-season switch probably would have been tough, but it’s something he can work on during the offseason and in Spring Training. It might not be a big difference, but it’s an extra five or ten runs saved over the course of the season, it will certainly help the Yankees.

Categories : Defense
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Everyone knows what Curtis Granderson is doing with the bat this year, but no one really seems to know what to think of his defense. The defensive metrics say he’s one of the worst center fielders in baseball but that doesn’t really jive with the eye test. I don’t think he’s a Gold Glover, but I really have a hard time seeing him as any worse than average.

ESPN’s Mark Simon broke down Granderson’s defense and those advanced metrics a day or two ago, looking at how the systems work and also how they can pick up things we just can’t see by watching everyday. He also recapped Grandy’s six worst defensive plays of the season, and spoke to long-time scout to get some old school opinion. It gets RAB’s highest level of recommendation, so make sure you check it out. Great read and well worth your time.

Categories : Asides, Defense
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