Michael/Male/26-30. Lives in United States/Pennsylvania/Wexford/Christopher Wren, speaks English. Spends 20% of daytime online. Uses a Fast (128k-512k) connection. And likes baseball /politics.
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Monday, January 08, 2007

New Defensive Metrics, Part I... 

As I noted in my Primer post a few days back, fielding is sort of my niche, my specialty within the Phillies blogging universe. I am fascinated with the subject because it is so complicated and unknown, the undiscovered country of sabremetrics. So you can imagine my delight when Santa Claus (a.k.a., my darling wife) gave me The Bill James Handbook 2007 and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2007 for Christmas. To be sure I will be posting reviews of both in the coming days, but in the here and now I am most interested in what both books have to say about the Phillies defense in 2006. So … the first thing that I noticed in The Hardball Times Annual was that John Dewan published his 2006 team defense ratings which contained a wealth of data and a clear picture about the Phillies fielding foibles in 2006.

Dewan is the author of The Fielding Bible, a book published last year that did a lot to revolutionize our understanding of fielding in baseball and gave people much to argue about last off-season. Dewan, the head of Baseball Information Solutions, gives the information to baseball teams to allow them to evaluate their defense and only publishes the information at the end of the off-season. (Last season I believe it was published in February or so.) Plus / Minus, Dewan’s system for evaluating individual players, evaluates how many plays above (or below) average a player made in the season.

Let’s start with the team performance …

Overall the Phillies were -33 in Plus/Minus is 2006, placing them 13 th of 16 N.L. teams. Mercifully for the Phillies, the Washington Nationals (-38), the Cincinnati Reds (-61), and the Pittsburgh Pirates (-77) were worse at defense. The Pirates in particular are a tale of misery: defense is an undervalued asset in baseball, so a team looking to improve while not spending much money might look at defense as a tonic for what ails them, yet the Pirates don’t. While being respectable in 2005, the Pirates were again the N.L.’s worst defensive team in 2004 at -44.

So the Phillies struggled defensively in 2006. Why is this a big deal Mike?
Because they have traditionally been one of the better defensive teams in baseball. Check out their plus / minus and rank the last three seasons:

(N.L. rank, of 16 teams)
2006: -33 (13th)
2005: +108 (1st)
2004: +18 (6th)
2003: +31 (5th)

The 2005 Phillies weren’t merely good that season, they were out of sight: they were 39 plays better than the MLB’s second-place team, the Cleveland Indians. They were 58 plays better than the #2 N.L. team, the Houston Astros. They were awesome. 1929 Philadelphia A's awesome.

Which is why the Phillies breakdown in 2006 was really the story of the season. The -33 was a swing of 141 plays, or nearly a play a game. Sure, perhaps a bloop single landed in here and there to extend an inning a batter, but some of those were plays that could have saved runs. Assuming that every other play resulted in a run, you’d have to say that the Phillies defense swung 70 runs from ’05 to ’06. The defensive breakdown put a lot of stress on the pitching staff and forced the Phillies to play a lot of catch up.

What do we know about the Phillies individual performers? Well, in 2005 the Phillies had a lot of superstars on defense. David Bell was the best third baseman at +24, Chase Utley was second at second base in Plus/Minus at +26, Jimmy Rollins was fourth at short at +23, and Ryan Howard, not exactly someone you’d mention for a gold glove at first, was +16, second in the league. Simply put, the Phillies infield defense was spectacular. Combined they were +107, and the Phillies ranked first in corner infield (+57) and middle infield (+50).

That changed somewhat in 2006: the Phillies still rated well up the middle, posting a +32 in middle infield defense, but they dropped to -17, thirteenth in the N.L., on the corners. I tried to figure out why this decline happened and I had a few ideas:

Picking up The Bill James Handbook, I saw that John Dewan listed the top ten players at each position in 2006 and for the last three years. Since most of the Phillies ranked in the top ten in the ’04 – ’06 era, I very quickly figured out the problem:

For all of his success in 2006 with his bat, Ryan Howard was an atrocious fielder. After being +16 in 2005, he was -8 in 2006, a swing of 24 plays, and a good deal of the reason why the Phillies rated to poorly.

But that doesn’t fully explain the swing of 74 plays in the corner infield from ’05 to ’06. While David Bell wasn’t as good (+8, tied for eighth in the MLB), I suspect that Abraham Nunez played terrible baseball for the Phillies at third base. We don’t know what percentage of Bell’s +8 come from his performance with the Phillies and what with the Brewers after his trade there, but it seems reasonable to assume that Nunez lousy play is largely responsible for the Phillies struggles. I suppose we shall see what the 2007 Fielding Bible is published, or John Dewan makes the 2006 Plus / Minus data public.

Chase Utley continued to impress: his +19 was third in the MLB, and Jimmy Rollins +12 was seventh. Clearly, the Phillies are strong up the middle and weaker on the corners. Let’s hope Wes Helms has a good glove.

Here’s how the Phillies have ranked in corner and middle defense for the last several seasons:

Middle Infield / Corner Infield (N.L. rank, of 16 teams)
2006: +32 (3rd) / -17 (13th)
2005: +50 (1st) / +57 (1st)
2004: +10 (6th) / +30 (2nd)
2003: +35 (2nd) / -13 (10th)
’03 – ’06: +127 / +57

John Dewan also rates how the Phillies did defending against bunts and in turning the double play. The information is interesting stuff:

With the decline of the Phillies corner infield it is perhaps not that surprising that the Phillies rated fifteenth of sixteen N.L. teams in defending against bunts with a .513 average. This is not, however, an area where the Phillies have traditionally excelled. They were twelfth in 2005 at .504, even in a season where the team was +57 on the corner. Their best showing between ’03 & ’06 was in ’04, when they were seventh at .556.

What did surprise me was in the Phillies success in turning the double play: the Phillies ranked third of sixteen teams at .420 in turning the GDP. This was an improvement:

(N.L. rank, of 16 teams)
2006: .420 (3rd)
2005: .387 (7th)
2004: .364 (8th)
2003: .424 (2nd)

I think the ’06 campaign represented Chase Utley’s maturation as a player. In addition to having a strong season at the plate he continued to be a strong fielder and improved on a phase of the game where he struggled in 2005, namely in turning the double play pivot. I think we may assume that the Phillies success in turning GDP’s was a product of Chase developing his skills further in the field.

That is all for today, tomorrow we’ll discuss outfield defense a little more …

A very interesting post, I always appreciate your fielding analysis. I can recall some critical fielding mistakes by pitchers last year (Lieber comes to mind immediately) and I wonder where the pitching staff ranked and how much of an impact they would have had on the team's overall fielding.
Really interesting stuff, I didn't realize the extreme drop-off between the two years
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