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Getting Past Defense

Posted by: John Bonnes Updated: September 16, 2010 - 7:49 AM

When you’ve studied baseball stats for a while, you become sensitive to the trends. One popular trend lately has been the rise of defensive statistics, mostly because it’s exciting to objectively measure something that nebulous. And with excitement almost always comes a little over enthusiasm.
 
In the case of defense, it’s been especially fun to watch because of the changing roles it’s forced on rival tribes. In the 90s, when the sabrmetricians were pounding their chest about the importance of their offensive metrics … that’s “offensive” with the stress on the first syllable, though I suspect some traditionalists would say it was the second. Anyway, when they were pounding their chest about the importance of their offensive metrics, the traditionalists loved to talk about the importance of defense. But now it’s the sabrmetricians that can’t talk enough about its importance.
 
That goes for Twins Territory, too. The constant refrain about the Twins and their “little things” has created a natural backlash about whether the Twins really are good at defense. The truth is that they are pretty good this year, mostly because of some changes in the middle infield. So the focus has drifted to the outfield, particularly the outfield corners where the Twins had three poor fielders statistically.
 
But, of course, if you’re going to have poor fielders, isn’t that where you would want them? And those three players, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Delmon Young, have also formed a productive middle-of-the-order for the Twins this year. Shouldn’t that count for something?
 
And so, the question arises – just how important is defense in the outfield corners?
 
Left Field
Certainly the most criticized fielder has been Delmon Young, and justifiably so. His Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) (as stated by FanGraphs.com) says he has cost the Twins about 10 runs this year with his defense. (I suspect half of them came in the series versus the Rays, but I digress.) But how much has that hurt his overall season?
 
Not much, it turns out, but you’ll need to stick with me through a quick history lesson.
 
One of the first real breakthrough sabrmetric offensive stats was Runs Created by Bill James. Basically James took a look at a team’s hits and walks and was able to estimate the total number of runs they scored for a season, and it was spooky how close he could get. He called the formula Runs Created, tinkered with it several times, and it served as the basis for most of the offensive metrics that followed.
 
If you would like to learn a little more about Runs Createdt (it’s easy and kinda fun, I promise), click here.
 
The neat thing about Runs Created is that you can apply it to players, too, not just teams. In Young’s case, he has created about 77 runs with his offense. Giving back 10 of those with his glove drops him from the 5th most productive left fielder this year in the majors to 8th. Here, in case you’re interested, is the rest of the list.
 
PLAYER
TEAM
RC
UZR
Total
Josh Hamilton
TEX
123
6
129
Carl Crawford
TB
98
30.3
128
Matt Holliday
STL
104
7.7
112
Brett Gardner
NYY
74
16.9
90.9
Ryan Braun
MIL
97.2
-10.5
86.7
Juan Pierre
CHW
70.5
9.1
79.6
Alfonso Soriano
CHC
68.5
8.6
77.1
Delmon Young
MIN
76.6
-9.9
66.7
Josh Willingham
WSH
70.5
-4.3
66.2
Scott Podsednik
KC/LAD
72.1
-6.1
66
Raul Ibanez
PHI
73.4
-9.9
63.5
David Murphy
TEX
60.7
2
62.7
Jose Tabata
PIT
48.4
9.4
57.8
Pat Burrell
SF/TB
54
2.2
56.2
Tyler Colvin
CHC
54
1.5
55.5
Fred Lewis
TOR
58.4
-6.1
52.3
Seth Smith
COL
50.8
1
51.8
Jason Bay
NYM
52
-1.8
50.2
Jonny Gomes
CIN
64.7
-14.7
50
Austin Kearns
CLE/NYY
51.9
-3.7
48.2
Lastings Milledge
PIT
47.2
0.9
48.1
Melky Cabrera
ATL
51.1
-3.6
47.5
Chris Coghlan
FLA
48.6
-1.3
47.3
Gerardo Parra
ARI
33.7
11.7
45.4
Carlos Lee
HOU
59.4
-14
45.4
Ryan Raburn
DET
45.2
-1
44.2
Juan Rivera
LAA
43.3
-3.4
39.9
Corey Patterson
BAL
40.2
-2.1
38.1
Eric Hinske
ATL
41.7
-3.7
38
Travis Snider
TOR
29.4
3.7
33.1
Logan Morrison
FLA
35.4
-3.6
31.8
Shelley Duncan
CLE
26.6
3.9
30.5
Scott Hairston
SD
33.2
-3.5
29.7
Laynce Nix
CIN
23.7
5.3
29
Felix Pie
BAL
30
-2.3
27.7
Milton Bradley
SEA
26.9
0.3
27.2
Conor Jackson
OAK/ARI
25
1.4
26.4
Michael Saunders
SEA
28.3
-2
26.3
Chris Heisey
CIN
24.2
1.8
26
Matt Diaz
ATL
26.1
-0.5
25.6
 
Three guys pass him when you include defense, and they are Brett Gardner, Juan Pierre and Alfonso Soriano, all guys know for their speed. And Young finds himself far away from the elite names on the list, Josh Hamilton and Carl Crawford. But overall, his defensive shortcomings haven’t hurt his production much. It looks like there are 20+ other teams that would be more than happy to take him off the Twins hands, defense or no.
 
Right Field
Ranked at the same level as Young are Michael Cuddyer (-8.3) and Jason Kubel (-9.4). And now a quick interjection by the Geek Chorus…
 
Geek Chorus: Can you say ludicrous? Those values are ludicrous. I know these stats are freely available, and so I’m loathe criticizing anything that someone is providing free. But there is an error in that computation and that stuff needs to be driven out an tested before it is published.
 
A couple of weeks ago Kubel was at -5, and now he’s at -9.4? He’s worse than Delmon? Worse than Bobby Abreu? Can Abreu even get around without a walker out there anymore? Did he upgrade to a motorized scooter? Is that how he’s passed those guys?
 
I don’t know what’s wrong, but something is wrong. Perhaps the adjustment for Target Field’s short right wall wasn’t made yet. Perhaps it is some other error. These values jump around quite a bit and adjustments are sometimes applied later. Two months from now we’re going to find a fix has been made. At some point, I’m afraid these problems are going to make these numbers lose credibility, and that would be a shame.
 
I agree that those values for Cuddyer and Kubel are likely a few runs too low, but let’s use them as they are. How much do they diminish the impact that Cuddyer and Kubel have had?
 
Cuddyer has created 71 runs and Kubel 65.4 with their bats, which rank them 15th and 18th respectively. When you subtract their defense, they slide to 18th and 23rd overall. I’ll put the results below, but there is, to me at least, a more telling result.
 
PLAYER
TEAM
RC
UZR
Total
Jose Bautista
TOR
117
-4
112.7
Ichiro Suzuki
SEA
92.7
9.8
102.5
Jayson Werth
PHI
98.8
-0.8
98
Shin-Soo Choo
CLE
88.6
7.7
96.3
Jason Heyward
ATL
89.4
0.9
90.3
Jay Bruce
CIN
74.7
14
88.7
Nick Swisher
NYY
91.1
-3.3
87.8
Hunter Pence
HOU
84.6
-0.2
84.4
Nick Markakis
BAL
87.4
-3.8
83.6
Justin Upton
ARI
75.4
7.8
83.2
Ben Zobrist
TB
72.1
5.1
77.2
Nelson Cruz
TEX
67.6
8.3
75.9
Corey Hart
MIL
82.8
-7.7
75.1
J.D. Drew
BOS
67.9
6.9
74.8
Bobby Abreu
LAA
78.8
-5.7
73.1
Andre Ethier
LAD
79.8
-11
68.8
Ryan Ludwick
STL/SD
60.9
3
63.9
Michael Cuddyer
MIN
71
-8.3
62.7
Jose Guillen
KC/SF
61.3
-1.5
59.8
David DeJesus
KC
57.7
1.6
59.3
Brennan Boesch
DET
61.3
-4.5
56.8
Magglio Ordonez
DET
54.7
1.6
56.3
Jason Kubel
MIN
65.4
-9.4
56
Will Venable
SD
47.5
6
53.5
Kosuke Fukudome
CHC
57.1
-3.8
53.3
Mike Stanton
FLA
47.6
2.2
49.8
Jeff Francoeur
TEX/NYM
47
2.5
49.5
Carlos Quentin
CHW
63.9
-18
45.9
Roger Bernadina
WSH
49.4
-3.9
45.5
Andruw Jones
CHW
41.5
3.1
44.6
Ryan Spilborghs
COL
49
-5.4
43.6
Matt Joyce
TB
31
5.6
36.6
Ryan Sweeney
OAK
36.6
-0.4
36.2
Jon Jay
STL
38.3
-3.7
34.6
Nate Schierholtz
SF
26.2
7.3
33.5
Michael Morse
WSH
34.3
-6.1
28.2
Joe Inglett
MIL
18.1
2.1
20.2
Randy Winn
NYY/STL
23.8
-4.1
19.7
Delwyn Young
PIT
21.3
-2.1
19.2
Willie Bloomquist
KC
18.3
-3
15.3
Ryan Church
PIT/ARI
17.7
-2.5
15.2
 
If you sort that list another way – by the best offensive production, you get an interesting result. I’ll show you:
 
RK
PLAYER
TEAM
RC
UZR
Total
1
Jose Bautista
TOR
117
-4
112.7
2
Jayson Werth
PHI
98.8
-0.8
98
3
Ichiro Suzuki
SEA
92.7
9.8
102.5
4
Nick Swisher
NYY
91.1
-3.3
87.8
5
Jason Heyward
ATL
89.4
0.9
90.3
6
Shin-Soo Choo
CLE
88.6
7.7
96.3
7
Nick Markakis
BAL
87.4
-3.8
83.6
8
Hunter Pence
HOU
84.6
-0.2
84.4
9
Corey Hart
MIL
82.8
-7.7
75.1
10
Andre Ethier
LAD
79.8
-11
68.8
11
Bobby Abreu
LAA
78.8
-5.7
73.1
 
Now look at the defensive values in that chart. Of those top 10, only two provide a truly positive defensive glove. Three more are neutral. The other five all rank somewhere between not good and ugly. It suggests what we already really know – if you can hit in right field, you can play. In fact, the defensive specialists are clustered towards the bottom. Defense is what you put in right field if you can't find a guy who hits.
 
The defense is icing on the cake if you can bring it. And in the case of Cuddyer and Kubel (and plenty of others on the list) it doesn’t hurt your overall production much if you aren’t playing defense well. 

Conclusion

The new defensive metrics helps considerably in standardizing an area that couldn’t be objectively measured before. They also help in popping some over-the-top statements by local announcers who over value their own team’s defensive prowess. But for some positions, particularly corner outfielders, defensive ability has been an afterthought, both traditionally and statistically.
 
And it looks like that is appropriate.
 
 
More from TwinsCentric
-          Seth focuses on last night’s game and the race for home field advantage.
-          Nick talks about Jesse Crain’s year.
-          Yesterday, I dissected the battle between Jesse Crain and Paul Konerko.
-          How would you like to watch a Twins game with TwinsCentric? Well, you can, just about every night, because we almost all tweet during games and take questions. Just follow John, Seth, Nick and Parker by clicking on these links. 

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