Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Jim Thome; First Base
The Phillies don't rely on Jim Thome's glove, and that's a good thing: Thome is not a great first baseman. Anecdotally, he isn't a player with great range (although I'd say he has good foot work), and most stats back that up: Mike Humphries Defense Regression Analysis (DRA) rated Thome at -10, in other words, having Thome in the lineup cost the Phillies ten runs on the field. Dave Pinto's Probablistic Model of Range (PMR) rates Thome near the bottom in MLB 1B's.
At the moment Thome's Zone Rating is an abysmal .821 (actually an improvement over last year's .817, by the way), which would rank him dead-last amongst full-time NL 1B's.
Chase Utley; Second Base
It is hard to really evaluate Chase Utley. With Placido Polanco finally gone we'll get to see what Chase can do full-time at second base, but his numbers are something of an enigma right now. We don't know what they mean.
2005: Zone Rating / Range Factor
Utley: .856 / 5.25
Polanco: .905 / 5.13
Naturally because Chase & Placido split time at second their numbers don't qualify them with the league leaders, but if they did they would be the third and the best second basemen in the National League in Zone Rating. So far this season there doesn't seem to be much question that Polanco was the better fielder. Better ZR rating, no errors to Chase's two, and 1.7 Fielding Win Shares to Chase's 1.4. If you adjust their numbers per 1,000 innings, here is what you have:
Utley: 3.73 Fielding Win Shares
Polanco: 5.94 Fielding Win Shares
Dave Pinto's PMR rated Chase the #1 NL 2B in 2004, and Polanco #7, so I think we can agree that the Phillies have good fielders at 2B regardless of whether it is Chase or if it was Placido. If the Phillies stay in the race and if the Phillies play better defense, than I think we need to credit Chase's glove with the success the team has.
Jimmy Rollins; Shortstop
I'm actually not sure what to make of the Phillies SS, whom they just inked to a long-term deal despite so-so numbers this season. At the moment Rollins is eighth of fifteen NL SS's in ZR. He's eleventh in Range Factor. Jimmy is also eighth in Fielding Win Shares amongst NL SS's. Mediocre totals. Mike Humphries DRA rated Rollins at +3, not a bad total, though Mike does caution that Rollins numbers are suspicious. (Note perennial Gold Glover Derek Jeter is rated at -22 in DRA: one of the many reasons why sabremetricians scoff at Jeter's hype.)
My gut tells me that Jimmy is probably better than average, but the numbers tell a different tale.
David Bell; Third Base
Let me just take a moment to shock the lay observer with the following statement:
The Phillies have one of the best ... if the The Best ... defensive third basemen in baseball.
It's true, and I have facts to back it up:
We'll start with the fact that David Bell is leading the NL in Range Factor amongst 3B's. Not bad on a team whose pitchers tend to get fewer groundballs than the league average. Bell is also third in ZR, behind Sean Burroughs and Chipper Jones, two pretty darn good 3B's. Bell is also third in Fielding Win Shares behind the Astros Ensberg and the Padres Burroughs.
The lay observer would object to my argument and point to the fact that Bell has 10 errors and a low-average fielding percentage, but a sabremetrician would pass over those stats and ignore them because fielding percentage and errors don't really judge a player's contribution to team defense. FP measures what you do with balls you get to: it doesn't measure your range. Errors are subjective judgment calls from umps. How many times have we seen questionable plays be scored an error when it could have been a hit?
Bell's defensive contributions aren't new. Mike Humphries DRA rated David Bell at +10, an impressive number, just three runs behind Scott Rolen.
Bench ... With the departure of super-utilityman Placido Polanco to Detroit, I'd note that the Phillies infield lineup is much more set and much less deep. Polanco was a terrific guy to have coming off the bench: he can literally play every position in the infield. The Phillies current bench defenders, Tomas Perez, Ryan Howard and Jose Offerman are acceptable, but none are great gloves. I wouldn't look for any eighth or ninth inning defensive substitutions.
Tomorrow: the outfield.
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
"Why is a double denied on defense so much less admirable than a double delivered on offense?"
-George F. Will, Men At Work, Page 276.
Good question. The subject of defense is one that I've talked about a lot on this blog because it is considered to be the "Next Big Thing", in the words of ESPN's Peter Gammons, in baseball. It is not a topic that is given its due, as you might imagine from Will's quote above, in part because it is difficult to quantify and comprehend.
There's a lot of talk about defense these days, from people like Baseballmusing's Dave Pinto (who developed Probalistic Model of Range) and Mike Humphries (who wrote about his Defense Regression Analysis for The Hardball Times), who have devised new and exciting theories about defense. Teams like the Oakland A's have chosen to emphasize fielding as a low-cost means of remaining competitive against free-spending adversaries like the Mariners and Angels. The Red Sox's decision to deal Nomar Garciaparra and others for Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz, decisions made to upgrade their notoriously porous defensive alignment, may have been the shot in the arm the team needed to get back into the AL playoff race and win the World Series.
I’ve spoken often in the past about defense. It’s an interesting topic, sort of the “final frontier” of sabremetrics. A lot of the recent work in the field has concentrated there because so much has been done on topics like pitching and batting. Unlike batting and pitching it is difficult to put fielding into numerical categories, so there is a lot of room for debate and the theories and methods used are fairly controversial. E.g., I rely a lot on “Zone Rating” to discuss fielding during the season because it is a better measure of a player’s abilities than Fielding Percentage* (which only measure how a player does with balls he gets to) or Range Factor^ (which revolves around how often your pitchers put the ball into play at you).
*Fielding Percentage: (Putouts + Assists) / (Putouts + Assists + Errors). How often the player successfully handled the ball.
^Range Factor: (Putouts + Assists) * 9 / IP. Essentially measures how much a player is involved in defensive plays.
“Zone Rating” has its flaws – it measures balls a player “should” have gotten to. Subjective to a certain extent, though I like it because it measures a players defensive range more than FP or RF.
This will be a sizable post because there is a lot to talk about when it comes to the Phillies defensive progress. Today I’ll discuss the team generally, and then the individual players tomorrow.
The Team … The Phillies were pretty good defensively in 2004. They were third in the NL in DER*, behind just St. Louis and Los Angeles. Something people don’t understand about the Phillies is that the team has been pretty good defensively over the years. Consistently the team has been one of the top teams in Zone Rating and Fielding Percentage.
(You’ll have to take my word on that: SI.com and ESPN.com have both dropped team defense from their stats pages, which makes rating team defense much, much harder. Fortunately I did print out the 2002-2004 stats last fall, so I have them as a reference.)
* Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER): (Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) How often fielders convert balls put into play into outs.
I use DER to rate team defense because it is pretty objective and, frankly, it’s all I got.
According to Baseball Reference, the Phillies were fourth in DER in 2001, 2002 & 2003, and they were third in ’04. Here is how the Phillies have been doing this season:
New York: .700
St. Louis: .694
San Diego: .694
Loa Angeles: .692
San Francisco: .690
Nl average: .693
Not so great compared with years past, but not bad. Bottom-line: it is above the NL average with some sub-par players on the field. e.g, big bats like Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu and, to a certain extent, Pat Burrell, are defensive liabilities for the team, yet the team has persevered with good play.
Still, the team doesn’t seem to be playing defense with the vigor it has in seasons past, one of the reasons (along with what I’d refer to as the “power outage”, i.e., Jim Thome’s struggles at the plate) the team got off to a slow start. An indication that the Phillies aren’t playing good defense is that the Phillies’ FIP ERA is basically the same as their actual ERA. What do I mean by that? The Phillies actual ERA (4.64) is just 0.04 higher than their FIP ERA*. If the Phillies were playing good defense the team’s FIP ERA would be much higher than its actual ERA: right now it is actually lower. Last year the Phillies FIP ERA was 0.07 higher than its actual ERA, meaning the team’s fielders covered up for some pitching mistakes.
* FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: (13*HR+3*BB-2*K / IP) + League Factor Evaluates a pitching by how he would have done with an average defense behind him by keeping track of things that a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, home runs allowed) as opposed to things he cannot (hits allowed, runs allowed).
Here is what the Phillies have done in past seasons:
Zone Rating: (Rank, behind leader)
2004: .851 (6th, -.014)
2003: .859 (2nd, -.001)
2002: .863 (4th, -.005)
Not too shabby.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss PMR: PMR took a team’s actual DER and compared it with its projected DER (based on a fairly complex formula predicting outs that I won’t get into). The Phillies did very well, very nearly outperforming the team DER. I admit some skepticism as to PMR's conclusion that the Red Sox and Cubs were outstanding defensive teams (huh?), but it is a good system and I use it, along with Defense Regressional Analysis, to evaluate individual players.
Monday, June 13, 2005
For the month of June (which basically covers the homestand), the Phillies hit .313, with a .375 OBP and a .575 SLG. Impressive totals for a team that ranked near-last in pretty much every major statistical category going into this. The Phillies vaulted from being one of the worst teams in slugging percentage to #5. Of particular interest to me is the fact that the team had a .228 ISO during the homestand, bringing their NL rank in ISO up to tenth. The rise in ISO was triggered by the Phillies big bats:
One of the Phillies credited good pitching for the Phillies resurgence, but that's hard to see how:
There were some good individual pitching performances, but it is hard to see how anyone can really argue that the Phillies keyed off their pitching: simply put, the Phillies (largely Pat Burrell, Chase Utley and Bobby Abreu) slugged their way back into contention.
At the moment the Phillies are running three games ahead of their pythagorean win-loss record: not bad. The Nationals are +5 in that category. The race for the NL East is very even. Not much seperates these five teams now, and any one of them can still win the division. The 12-1 homestand got the Phillies to the front of the race. Now they need to stay there and that won't be easy.
This team needs to take what they did at Citizens and take it on the road. I think they can: they have road series against the Mariners & A's, two very beatable teams right now. Maybe, when the Phillies return to Citizens on June 21 to take on the Mets, they can be in first place. But they've still got a ways to go.
More tomorrow. This week we'll be taking a look at the Phillies defense.