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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Glove Week!, Part IV: The Phillies Infield 2004-2006 

We'll lead-off with a brief discussion of the disaster that the Phillies are devolving into as we speak. Coming on the heels of Charlie Manuel's break-down with Howard Eskin, the team announced that they would move Brett Myers to the bullpen to be the team's set-up guy and closer when Tom Gordon wasn't available. The move reeks of desperation and makes me question Manuel and Gillick's sanity. Yes, the bullpen stinks, but why move a top-flight starter and potential Cy Young Award candidate to the bullpen? This team never plays well in April to begin with and I am sure that the lousy weather is hurting the Phillies and preventing them from hitting their stride. This team will win a lot of games in June and July, they just need to be patient and not do something stupid like this. Why not swing some trades to acquire bullpen arms? Sending a top-flight starter to the bullpen? That's what a dumb team does to make it look to the fans that they are actually doing something.

Yesterday we talked a little about the Phillies outfield defense, which has largely been a mixed bag of sorts for the Phillies over the last several years. Average-to-below average defenders (Burrell and Abreu), disappointments (Rowand) and pleasant surprises (Michaels and Victorino) have typified the Phillies defense in the outfield. Things are different in the infield, where the Phillies have some stellar performers. I’m not saying that the Phillies are as good as the $100,000 Infield*, but they are darn good and might have one of the best infields in baseball, especially defensively.

* The $100,000 Infield refers to the 1909 – 1914 Philadelphia Athletics infield, which consisted of Frank "Home Run" Baker, Eddie Collins, Stuffy McInnis, and Jack Berry. According to the Bill James Historical Abstract the $100,000 Infield consistently ranks atop the all-time lists of Infield units. This is, by the way, a topic I’ll be exploring in the not-so-distant future.

Let’s start with David Bell at third base … Cover your ears, those who have heard this speech before, but … David Bell, whatever his faults as a hitter, is one of the finest fielding third basemen in the game. When the Phillies signed him in 2003 to succeed Scott Rolen at third base, they probably didn’t realize that their effort to replace Rolen offensively would be a flop, but Bell was every bit the talented fielder that Rolen is.

Here is how Bell did in terms of Plus / Minus:

2006: +8 (tied for eighth in MLB)
2005: +24 (ranked first in MLB)
2004: +22 (ranked third in MLB)
2003: +6

Between 2004-2006, Bell was +54, which was good for fourth amongst all major leaguers. Scott Rolen was second at +61. Oh, and Bell's relative range factor was well above 1.000 for 2003-2005:

2003: 1.075
2004: 1.065
2005: 1.079

Let’s continue with Zone Rating … In 2005 David Bell finished second in the N.L. in ZR at .757, just behind the Astros Morgan Ensberg (.769). It isn’t fair to compare Bell to Rolen that season because Rolen was injured and missed so much time, but it bears mentioning that Bell was one of the best third basemen in the N.L. that season. Bell was tops in the N.L. in Balls Outside of Zone (OOZ) with 80. Bell did make 21 errors that season to Ensberg’s 15, but 2/3 of Bell’s errors were of the fielding variety, as opposed to 7 throwing errors. Bell’s seven throwing errors weren’t bad at all.

The difference between David Bell and, say, the Marlins Mike Lowell, is a great example of why you cannot look at fielding percentage or errors to judge a player’s fielding abilities. Lowell was a technically proficient fielder in 2005, committing just six errors to Bell’s twenty-one, and had a much better fielding percentage (.983 to .951). The problem is that David Bell fielded 80 balls outside of his zone to Lowell’s 39. That’s forty or so additional outs that Bell provided the Phillies defense better than Mike Lowell. That’s why Bell is such a great fielder. Range.

Bell slumped a little in 2006. His Zone Rating (.683), prior to his trade to the Milwaukee Brewers, would have ranked him eighth of twelve N.L. third basemen. It was much worse than Scott Rolen, whose .764 led the N.L. Bell’s range, however, was decently good. Rolen fielded 66 balls outside of his zone in 1,215 innings of work. Bell fielded 35 in 781 innings. Had Bell played as many innings as Rolen, he would have had 55 balls played, which is pretty good and fairly close to Rolen.

Abraham Nunez, Bell’s successor at third base, was a horror show last season. His .667 ZR would have ranked him tenth of twelve third basemen. His Range Factor, 2.66, was worse than Bell’s 2.78 despite playing behind substantially the same pitching staff.

We’ll close out our discussion of David Bell by noting that he was pretty good in 2004. Bell finished second in fielding balls out of his zone with 73, 13 behind the N.L. leader … you guessed it, Scott Rolen. Bell committed a lot of errors (23) that season (Rolen? He committed 8) but he still made a lot of plays in the field. Keeping Henry Chadwick’s admonition (see, Part I) to keep track of plays made rather than mistakes avoided, you’d have to say that David Bell was a pretty darn good defensive third baseman. Let’s hope Wes Helms does as good a job.

Range Factor... Bell / Rolen
2006: 2.78 / 3.04
2005: 2.84 / 3.20
2004: 2.88 / 3.06

Moving on to Chase Utley at Second Base … There are big, big difference between second and third base. If you play third you’ve got to have lightning quick reflexes and a strong arm. To play second you have to have quick reflexes and good footwork, as opposed to a powerful arm. Turning the double play and getting to balls hit into the gap is key to playing second base … Fortunately the Phillies are blessed / have been blessed with terrific play at second in Chase Utley and, before him, Placido Polanco.

Let’s start with Utley. The best second baseman in the N.L. (any doubt?), Utley is a sterling defensive player as well as being a major offensive force. What does Plus/Minus say?

2006: +19 (third in MLB)
2005: +26 (second in MLB)
2004: +7

Relative Range Factor: 1.024 in 2004 and 1.073 in 2005.

In 2006 he finished fourth of twelve 2B’s in ZR and was second in the N.L. in plays outside of his zone with 43. He was also third in assists. The previous season Utley finished second of nine N.L. 2B’s in ZR at .849. In abbreviated play in 2004, Utley finished in the bottom-half in terms of ZR.

What makes Utley so great? He’s not perfect – 17 errors in 2006 and 15 in 2005 – but he’s got great range and makes nice throws. He turns the double play well too. Few are better at getting to the ball and making plays.

As I noted, Placido Polanco was the Phillies second baseman in 2004 and 2005 prior to being dealt to the Detroit Tigers in the middle of the ’05 campaign. Polanco was consistently good in the field, though I was always mystified how someone with such good range factor numbers could rank as inconsistently in terms of ZR as he.

First, Plus / Minus ...

2006: unk (not ranked in top ten)
2005: +13 (ranked 9th in MLB)
2004: -4 (ranked 21st)
2003: +18 (ranked third in MLB)

Relative Range Factor:
2005: 1.058
2004: 1.134
2003: 1.038

In 2004 Polanco finished dead-last (!) in the N.L. in ZR. In 2005, had he kept up his trend in fielding, he would have finished with a tremendous .881 ZR (Mark Grudzielanek of the St. Louis Cardinals actually finished first with a .853 … Check out the comparison:

Range Factor … Utley / Polanco
2006: 5.14 / 5.24*
2005: 5.06 / 5.15
2004: 4.90 / 5.42

* As Detroit Tiger.

Let’s wrap up with a few quick thoughts on J.Roll. Off to a blistering hot start in 2007, J.Roll plays the most important defensive position in baseball … shortstop.

2006: +12 (7th in MLB)
2005: +23 (4th in MLB)
2004: +5 (14th in MLB)
2003: +12 (3rd in MLB)

Oddly, J.Roll’s numbers aren’t good. Consider:

Relative Range Factor:
2005: .956
2004: .927
2003: .978

Rollins numbers in terms of RRF is Derek Jeter-like. Now consider ZR...

Zone Rating ... Jimmy Rollins:
2006: .828 / 8th of 13
2005: .784 / 15th of 15
2004: .841 / 3rd of 11

Inconsistent, to say the least. But there are things to like about J.Roll. In 2004, when people were busy declaring Jack Wilson the greatest shortstop in baseball, J.Roll committed fewer errors than Wilson (9 to 16).

Range Factor ... J.Roll
2006: 4.30
2005: 4.11
2004: 4.00

Alright ... Tomorrow I'll discuss defense and first base. Every position has its own wrinkles and variations in the field. First base has a lot of issues that I hadn't comptemplated before until recently. So I have some thoughts on Ryan Howard's defense tomorrow. Before I go, enjoy Fielding Win Shares per 1,000 Innings, a pretty good look at how each of the Phillies contributed in 2004-2006 …

2004 / 2005 / 2006
Bobby Abreu: 2.65 / 2.71 / 2.59
David Bell: 3.47 / 3.63 / 3.59
Pat Burrell: 2.45 / 2.47 / 2.53
Marlon Byrd: 3.32 / --- / ---
Doug Glanville: 5.13 / --- / ---
Ryan Howard: --- / 1.70 / 0.86
Kenny Lofton: --- / 5.13 / ---
Jason Michaels: 3.89 / 6.30 / ---
Abraham Nunez: --- / --- / 3.56
Placido Polanco: 5.48 / 6.01 / ---
Jimmy Rollins: 3.49 / 3.61 / 4.43
Aaron Rowand: --- / --- / 4.22
Jim Thome: 1.10 / 1.61 / ---
Chase Utley: 3.89 / 4.32 / 3.58
Shane Victorino: --- / --- / 4.79

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