Monday, April 16, 2007
I’ve written a lot about fielding in the pages (or should I say, bytes?) of this blog. It is an area that I’ve attempted to latch onto as my own little niche in the world of Phillies bloggers, the thing that sets me apart from better written, more insightful blogs like Balls Sticks ‘n Stuff and Beerleaguer. It is a subject that I am fascinated by because it is so mysterious, so intricate, so full of riddles and puzzles. My mindset in writing this blog is largely numerically based – ironic then that I got C's & D’s in High School Algebra – so the approach I take is to attempt to graft numerical analysis with the often vague and uncertain outcomes of fielding statistics. I’ll freely admit that I am not the sharpest thinker when it comes to mathematical ideas, nor I am the pithiest, most insightful writer. I am a busy professional trying to balance my unpaid, time-intensive hobby that my wife tolerates with a smile – blogging my favorite baseball team – with being a successful attorney and a husband. The word I’d use to describe my blog is workmanlike. I work hard, put in a lot of time and effort and I am always striving to improve.
This post will talk a little about the issues surrounding fielding in general, how fielding has developed over time, and how some of the fielding stats have attempted to capture what happens behind the glove. As I said, this – fielding – is an arcade field in baseball. Flip to the sports section of the Inquirer (or your local newspaper, if you live out of the Philadelphia metro region or don't read the Inquirer) and look at the Phillies stats. There is a section for pitchers stating how well they did hurling the ball at home plate, e.g., 210 strikeouts, 100 walks, 12-7 won-lost record, etc. There is a section for the position players stating how well they hit at the plate, .300 batting average, 42 home runs, 122 RBIs, etc. Notice that fielding stats are rarely, if ever, included into the equasion? Look at a box score of a baseball game: hits, at-bats, runs, RBIs, innings pitched, strikeouts, walks, hits allowed … There are two grids, one for hitters and one for pitchers, but there isn’t a separate grid for fielding. People talk about Ryan Howard’s home runs, Cole Hamels strikeouts and only rarely talk about fielding plays, aside from spectacular moments like when Aaron Rowand smashes into a wall. A-Rod got paid $252 million dollars because he hit a lot of home runs. Barry Zito got paid $126 million because he gets a lot of guys out with his arm. Adam Everett did not get a $252 million dollar deal or even a $126 million-dollar deal even though he might be the best defensive player in baseball … Hey, I bet you might not even know who Adam Everett is, or what position he plays!* That’s how arcane, how undervalued, fielding is in the realm of baseball.
*Adam Everett plays shortstop for the Houston Astros. He made $1.9 million with the Astros in 2006. A-Rod made $21 million, more than eleven times that amount.
It may surprise many of you to know that fielding used to be an essential skill a ball player possessed and that he was rewarded handsomely for it. Fielding stats used to be noted in the box score right next to hitting. I recently began reading The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz – a book I intend to review as soon as possible, one that I’d rank with Moneyball or The Bill James Handbook as being an essential work concerning sabremetrics – and I discovered that in the early days of baseball fielding was a major, major focus. People didn’t care about the pitcher: the skill of a player was how often he got a hit and how often he caught a ball and made a putout. (see, Pages 6-8 of The Numbers Game for an 1861 box score of a game between Atlantic and Eckford which lists fielding stats – bound catches, fly balls caught – right below batting stats and contains nary a mention of pitching stats.) The game back then, and all the way to the days just after World War I, was played with a brown, misshapen ball that teams would smear with spit, resin, and any other substance they could afford to put on. In the days before and just after the Civil War players didn’t use gloves! It was difficult to hit the ball, so games were low-scoring and tactics like bunting and base-stealing were common. Home Runs were rare. It wasn’t until the old, battered balls were replaced with white ones and kept fresh throughout the game, until pitchers were allowed to throw over-handed and given the tools to prevent hitters from putting the ball into play, until fielders got leather gloves to protect their hands, and until Babe Ruth entered the game and hit home runs by the bushel, that the game of baseball changed to become a power game. Then the focus moved from what happened once the ball was put into play to preventing that from occurring in the first place.
In those early days of the game players made outs by tagging runners out, catching fly balls and making “bound” catches (catching the ball after it had bounced once was considered an out). The ability to make a play with the glove (or the bare hand, in the pre-glove days) was a major asset to teams and players were recognized for that talent.
The earliest fielding stats tried to measure the contributions players made. The National League, which was formed in 1876, made fielding percentage their definitive fielding stat. Fielding Percentage measured how often a player handled the ball successfully:
(Putouts + Assists) / (Putouts + Assists + Errors) = Fielding Percentage.
Today the ball is handled properly 98% of the time, so I don’t think that most fans pay attention or even think about fielding percentage. There was a time, however, when it was a meaningful stat. When the ball was a misshapen, brown, dirty object, it was much, much more difficult to handle on the field. I looked it up on Baseball Refence.com and discovered that the team that led the National League in fielding percentage in 1876 was the St. Louis Brown Stockings, a team that existed just two years (1876 & 1877) and led the N.L. at .902, a total that would be Little League-worthy today. The New York Mutuals, a team that folded after 1876, had the worst fielding percentage in the N.L. that season at .824. Well over 50% of the runs scored were unearned. (Click here for the stats for the 1876 season.)
Years before Bill James would create Range Factor (more on that later), Henry Chadwick – the father of baseball stats – determined that conventional means of measuring players like fielding percentage were flawed. Chadwick wanted players measured by how often they made plays in the field. Wrote Chadwick: “The best player in a nine is he who makes the most good plays in a match.” Pretty far-sighted thinking on the part of Chadwick, who created the box score and did more to popularize the game of baseball than any one else prior to Babe Ruth. (Moneyball, I think, unfairly portrays Chadwick as a close-minded moralist.) Chadwick’s idea, however, went unheeded until Bill James came along over one hundred years later.
After Chadwick baseball progressed through the dead ball era and moved towards the modern game. Pitchers were allowed to make putting the ball into play difficult by throwing over-handed. The pitchers mound was moved back to sixty feet six inches from forty-five feet. The ball was replaced when it became dirty in a game and teams were not allowed to tamper with it. And then Babe Ruth came along.
Fielding stats fell by the wayside in terms of interest from fans. The focus of the game shifted from fielding to hitting and pitching. Tellingly, Richie Ashburn turned in spectacular performances during the 1950s playing centerfield for the Phillies, leading the National League in putouts by a centerfielder nine times (1949-1954 & 1956-1958), setting six of the top ten all-time single-season records for putouts. His dramatic throw to home to gun down the Dodgers Cal Abrams was the climatic moment of the final game of the 1950 season, a game that secured the Phillies the National League pennant and was hailed by Bill James as one of the greatest games ever played.
And Richie Ashburn had to wait over thirty years to get inducted into the Hall of Fame while his slugging 1950s contemporaries – Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider – got to go right in.
Fielding didn’t register on the radar of fans until Bill James came along. James, a night watchman at a factory in Lawrence, Kansas, loved baseball and attempted to write about it in the pages of Baseball Digest. James second article for Baseball Digest, “Big League Fielding Stats Do Make Sense!”, contained James critical assault on fielding statistics. James would later expand on his article in his first Baseball Abstract, self-published in 1977.* In the '77 Abstract James wrote: “[T]he fact of an …error is that no play has been made but that the scorer thinks it should have. It is, uniquely, a record of opinions.” That set Bill James apart from the legions of writers and thinkers who had come before proposing some new, radical departure from the accepted norm was that James wrote with wit, charm and insight and translated his ideas to his readers in such a way to make them accessible to the public and not those who understood advanced algebra. That clarity of insight that James brought to the table is what set him apart from everyone who had come before him and make sabremetrics accessible for the public.
* James wrote the first Baseball Abstract at night over the course of a year while working as a night watchman at his factory. Check out Chapter Three of Moneyball and Chapter Six of The Numbers Game for more on James path to fame.
“So why”, James asked after a discussion of the inadequacy of fielding stats ability to measure George Brett’s abilities, “do we go on using a set of fielding statistics that has been outdated for decades?” James went on to propose a new statistic, Range Factor, which measured the number of plays that a player made in a game by taking putouts and assists, multiplying them by nine and dividing that number by the number of innings played:
((Putouts + Assists) * 9) / IP
It was basically the same system that Chadwick proposed back in the 1860’s and 1870’s.
James wasn’t finished there. Although much of his attention was focused on the development of Runs Created, his most famous stat, and other hitting and pitching statistics, James did occasionally return to the realm of fielding stats as he continued to write his Baseball Abstracts. In the 1979 Baseball Abstract James wrote an essay entitled “The Defensive Record” where he stated:
“(1) the more important measure of a player’s defensive ability is not his fielding average but his range factor, which is simply the number of plays per game that the fielder makes, and (2) the important measure of a defensive team is the percentage of all balls put into play against it that it can get to and make a play on.”
James went on to propose another new metric of measuring defense: Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER), which attempted to sort good defensive teams from bad ones:
(Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) = DER
In the 1982 Abstract James published the Fielding Spectrum, which sorted the relative difficulty level of each defensive position, from the easiest on the right to the hardest on the left:
DH / 1B / LF / RF / 3B / CF / 2B / SS
All of these developments contributed to the understanding of defense in baseball, but sabremetrics has generally not paid much attention to it. In Eric Walker’s The Sinister First Baseman, a book that heavily influenced Sandy Alderson, the Oakland A’s General Manager in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and Billy Beane, the author wrote: “Fielding is dramatically over-valued. Most – the vast majority, in fact – of all plays will either be executed by virtually any man at the position or will be unmakeable by anyone.” Most sabremetricians focused on hitting stats like On-Base Percentage, Runs Created, and the like or moved on to Pitching stats like Defense Independent Pitching (DIPS). Attention to fielding was ignored either because sabremetricians believed Walker’s “Fielding doesn’t matter” thesis, or the tools didn’t exist to evaluate fielding. Branch Rickey believed the latter was the case and never gave fielding much thought when building the Cardinals, the Dodgers and the Pirates.
But the prevailing view in sabremetrics is that fielding does matter. As Peter Gammons, one of the finest writers on the game, noted in 2004, the A’s began to utilize fielding as a metric to evaluate a player because fielding was undervalued by the baseball community and it was a way for the A’s to exploit the market and maximize their payroll. The Red Sox, after embracing the “Fielding doesn’t matter” thesis , promptly repudiated it during their successful 2004 World Series campaign by dealing Nomar Garciaparra – their slugging, oft-injured shortstop – for defensive help, namely shortstop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. Atlanta Braves General Manager John Schuerholz idiotically attempted to “prove” that sabremetrics didn’t work by arguing that the Red Sox focus on fielding in the latter half of the 2004 season runs counter to the Moneyball / On-Base Percentage ideology, but that just underscores how narrow-minded Schuerholz is: sabremetrics is interested in examing new ways to look at the game. The A’s and Red Sox and Blue Jays utilize market economics to look for an edge. The market undervalues defense, so the A’s and the Red Sox (I don’t believe the Blue Jays feel the same way) utilized defense to keep their meager payrolls in line and give themselves a chance to compete with the Yankees and Braves of the world.
Today defense is a tricky subject. It is undervalued by teams (see, my earlier comment about the differences between A-Rod and Adam Everett), and when people do focus on it, there are wildly differing opinions about what is, or is not, true. e.g.: Yankees fans and baseball traditionalists (e.g., Joe Morgan), believe that Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is a defensive genius. His brilliant flip to home to catch Jeremy Giambi and prevent the A’s from scoring is part of the stock highlight reel on Jeter. But the sabremetric community has run the numbers and they indicate that Jeter is actually a below-average fielder. The fact that Baseball hands Derek Jeter a Gold Glove every season to signify their belief that he is the best at what he does, while the sabremetricians greet those gold gloves with derrision and contempt, underscores the disconnect, the issues and problems with evaluating defense in baseball. That takes us to the modern day. Tomorrow I’ll discuss some of the systems that have emerged to measure defense.
That's an old saying but I think it means hard work and sticking to the grindstone.
Numbers and statistics are great and the best part about it is that different numbers can be used and interpreted in many ways. I like the different stats you bring up on your site, you won't see them in a box score always that is for sure.
Keep on Blogging! And if you want to spend even more time and effort, do a podcast and then the wife will constantly be hounding you about time spent at the computer, as mine does!
Rich .. www.phillywebcast.com
Philly Sports Talk Now!
Is there somewhere to see sabermetric fielding comparisons of current players?