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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Friday, April 20, 2007

Glove Week!, Part V: Fielding and the First Baseman 

Continuing to follow the Phillies April swoon ... Yesterday's game was an illustration as to why the Phillies aren't winning and how they will. Notice that the Phillies only scored 3 of their 14 base-runners (they got four runs off of fifteen hits, but one of those runs & hits was a Aaron Rowand home run). Time for more wallowing about their inability to hit in the clutch? Nope, the Phillies won yesterday's game because they got a sterling pitching performance from Jamie Moyer, who went eight innings and gave up two runs on four hits and four walks while striking out five. Then Tom Gordon entered the game and got a 1-2-3 ninth inning.

That is the Phillies real problem: their leaky bullpen has blown leads and their revamped starting rotation has been a major disappointment so far. Pitching and poor defense have been the Phillies Achillies heel. Their inability to hit in the clutch is a phantom issue. Lots of teams struggle to drive in runners in scoring position but they score runs by the bushel because they are very good about hitting home runs and creating opportunities by getting on base. A team hitting .500 BA/RISP will always score fewer runs than a team that hits .250 BA/RISP, but who has more base-runners and more home runs.

Thankfully Jamie Moyer reversed the Phillies slide with a nice performance that should show the rest of the rotation how it is done. Up next for the Phillies, the Cincinnati Reds. This is a pitching staff and a ballpark (Great American) designed to wake the Phillies batters out of any slumps they might be in. In particular I am looking forward to saturday night's matchup between ace Cole Hamels and Eric "Three-run home run!" Milton. Ryan Howard ought to be back for that game, which looks like it will be a 11-2 Phillies victory, or something like it.

Alright, let's talk a little D...

You’ll notice that first base defense was conspicuously absent from my discussion of the Phillies infield defense yesterday. I’ve been pondering over the issues in evaluating what makes someone a good defensive first baseman and I thought that this might be a topic deserving a special post.

First, a few questions to consider …

Is a good defensive first baseman valuable?

How do you evaluate first base defense?

The answer to the first question is yes, of course, especially when there is a costly error that costs your team a run or two. Then first base defense is VERY important. I suspect that Boston fans watching the sixth game of the 1986 World Series would have testified that first base defense was very, very important when Mookie Wilson’s dribbler squirted through the tired legs of Bill Buckner. Otherwise … well, I’ll refer to the defensive spectrum I referenced on Tuesday:

DH / 1B / LF / RF / 3B / CF / 2B / SS

From left to right the toughness of the position you play increases. As you can see, first base isn’t that tough a position to play relatively. It is technically the easiest next to the DH, where you ride the pine. The tough positions are those in the middle of the field – centerfield, short, second base – where most of the balls put into play are hit. The corner defense is less important because fewer balls are hit in those locations. Right field is tougher to play than left because right fielders have to hurl the ball two second and third to cut-off runners advancing from first. Third base is tougher to play than first because you have to make a play on a sharply hit ball, then hurriedly make a throw across the diamond to first. The first baseman is usually within several paces of the first base bag. In the rare instances where the first baseman actually needs to do something other than stand on the bag and catch the ball from the other defenders, all he needs to do is snap up the ball on grounders and trot to the bag to make the unassisted putout, or toss the ball to the pitcher. No muss, no fuss. As Bill James notes (in a section of the Historical Baseball Abstract discussing Bill Buckner’s fielding abilities):

The evaluation of a first baseman’s defense by fielding statistics has always been difficult. The essential problem is that there is no “range” number for a first baseman. Putouts by first basemen, in a traditional fielding analysis, are given no eight, since about 80% of first base putouts come from plays originally made by other infielders.

(See, The New Bill James Historical Abstract at 458.)
James went on to take a swipe at Total Baseball’s efforts to evaluate fielding stats by deriding their assessment of Bill Buckner as a superior first baseman to the Dodgers Steve Garvey. The solution, to James, was to look at how many unassisted putouts a first baseman made.

Interestingly, right around the time that I was reading James' notes on first base defense, I was watching a show on ESPN about the 1986 World Series. The program casually noted several things that made my ears perk up, namely the fact that Buckner was almost always removed for a defensive replacement late in a game, but wasn’t in Game Six; and that Buckner had apparently been glancing up to check and see if the pitcher was covering first base on the play and this allowed the ball to squirt into right field. This last piece of information startled me because James excoriates Buckner in the pages of the Abstract for forcing his pitchers to cover first base on close plays rather than run for the bag because his knees were bad. Wrote James:

I can still see him in my mind’s eye, standing five feet from first base, fielding a slow-hit grounder with the glove on his right hand, pointing vigorously to the bag with his left hand, saying “Your play. Get over there. Cover the bag.” Yes, he was implicitly saying, I can easily make the play myself, but its your job … If a pitcher failed to cover first, Buckner would go immediately to the mound and tell him about it.

It was a startling thing to read in light of the comment made about the infamous Mookie Wilson dribbler in Game Six. James plainly disliked Buckner for his attitude and plainly doesn’t think the sympathy for Buckner is warranted. I’m inclined to agree based on Buckner’s comment that he was a better defensive first baseman than his usual replacement, a statement that flies in the face of the facts … anyway, something to ponder.

Alright ... back on topic. We’re going to compare the Phillies last two first basemen, Ryan Howard and Jim Thome, with a particular eye towards how they fared vis-à-vis Albert Pujols, the perennial N.L. MVP runner-up, and perhaps the finest defensive first baseman in baseball. Since we are only dealing with two players, we’ll start with Thome …

Jim Thome (2004) … Zone Rating: .722 … Overall, Thome ranks eighth of ten first basemen in Zone Rating. The worst defensive first baseman that season was Lyle Overbay, then of the Brewers, at .677. Thome’s .722 badly trailed Pujols, the N.L.-leading first baseman, at .806 … Pujols was a busy man at first that season, with 206 balls in his zone, on which he made 166 plays. He also made 61 plays on balls outside of his zone. Thome had 115 balls in his zone and made plays on 83. Interestingly, he made plays on 65 balls outside of his zone, a higher total than Pujols did despite facing many fewer plays in fewer innings (roughly 150 fewer innings). Thome also committed five errors against Pujols ten.

John Dewan's Plus/Minus puts Thome at -12 in 2003 and -5 in 2004, both of which rank Thome badly (33rd and 25th respectively). Pujols was much better: +7 in 2003 and +8 in 2004. He was fourth in Plus / Minus in 2004.

Thome (2005) … It is a little difficult to rate Thome’s 2005 season. Injury-plagued, Thome played just 436 innings after logging 1,179 in 2004. Thome turned in, despite his injuries, very respectable numbers in 2005. His Zone Rating was a robust .786, which would have ranked him fifth of ten N.L. first basemen and fairly close to Pujols, who finished with a .808, tied for second in the N.L., behind the Nationals Nick Johnson at .833. (Go figure.) Pujols was great in 2005, making plays on 68 balls outside of his zone, tops in the N.L., although Thome made plays on 22.

Pujols was +10 in 2005, good for sixth, while Thome ranked at +4, but did not qualify to rank.

Ryan Howard (2005) … Ryan Howard took over duties at first base late in the ’05 campaign and won the Rookie of the Year award behind some strong hitting. Less interesting to awards voters was Howard’s performance in the field. Howard turned in a Zone Rating of .722, which would have ranked him eighth of ten had he qualified with enough innings of work. (There was a big gap that season between #1-7 fielders and #8-9. Sean Casey, #7, had a .771 ZR. Adam LaRoche, #8, had a .693.) Howard did display surprising range, making plays on 44 balls outside of his zone. That is roughly 2/3 of what Pujols did in half the innings and one-third the balls put into play. That surprising range partly explains why Pujols rated a +10 in terms of Plus / Minus rating from John Dewan. I think you have to give the edge to Pujols here because he started 21 double plays to Howard’s 3.

Interestingly, Ryan Howard bested Pujols in Plus / Minus in 2005 with a +16. More on that later...

Howard (2006) … With Jim Thome dealt to the Chicago White Sox for bat (124 Runs Created) as opposed for his glove (played just 20 innings in 2006 at first base, DH’ing nearly the entire season), Ryan Howard took over at first base. He ranked seventh of thirteen first basemen in Zone Rating (.789) and made 51 plays on balls out of his zone. Pujols was simply spectacular in 2006. He ranked second in Zone Rating at .831. He made plays on 93 balls outside of his zone, by far the best in the N.L. His ZR was better than Howard’s on roughly the same number of balls hit into his zone (142 for Pujols, 152 for Howard). Pujols started 18 double plays to Howard’s 7. Howard made fourteen errors to Pujols six. Interestingly, Ryan Howard made six throwing errors, one fewer than the Nats Johnson (who crashed to earth in 2006 defensively), but far more than any other N.L. 1B.

Plus / Minus charts a crash to earth for Ryan Howard, who plunges to -8 in 2006 from +16 in 2005. Pujols, in contrast, led the MLB at +19. Is that difference in terms of plays significant? Well, it is a swing of 27 plays, so the question is how much did Pujols fielding help his team and how much did Howard's hurt the Phillies? Tough to say, but assuming that a play is worth a 1/3 of a run, then you'd have to say that Albert Pujols fielding netted his team nine extra runs over Ryan Howard.

Surprisingly, Nomar Garciaparra was tops in the N.L. in ZR at .835 … Conclusions: Ryan Howard played well in some respects in 2005, but can best be categorized as a below-average 1B. Jim Thome? Ditto. Both pale in comparison to Albert Pujols, who helps his team out with good range and smooth fielding at first base, and might be the finest defensive first baseman over the last three years. Fielding is a small part of Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols job, but it is a factor – a major one if you like – in comparing the two.

Everyone have a nice weekend. Topics for the week ahead (tenative):

Monday - What's Wrong with the Phillies, Part I, The Myth of Clutch Hitting
Tuesday - What Wrong with the Phillies, Part II, Eye on the Mound
Wednesday - Farm Report
Thursday - Book Review, The Numbers Game

Naturally that schedule will change if/when Charlie Manuel is fired.

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I want to disagree on one point you made in your analysis of yesterday's game. I truly believe the starting rotation is, and has since the beginning, been doing exactly what it needs to do. The reason the Phillies are losing is maybe 10% bullpen blowing leads and 90% Chase and Ryan not hitting. If we repeated the last three weeks but instead Chase and Ryan both hit .300 like we all know they should, we would have won 4 or 5 more games.

I'm not saying the rotation is perfect, by any means, but they are definitely not just giving in to the other teams.
Concur with Andrew. Assumptions about the effectiveness of our 3&4 hitters were the basis for our high expectations. My speculation: Howard had a distracting off season (MVP & Contract), and was not as prepared for 2007 as he was for previous seasons. When he failed to hit in Spring training and early April, pitchers began bearing down on Utley, causing Utley (now burdened with the expectations of a new, lucrative contract) to fail. Their failures then mutually reinforced each other causing a downward spiral that has yet to break. Not surprisingly, the rest of the only-average-hitting lineup can't take up the slack. This happened last year. When managers gave up on the idea of even pitching to Howard, they began to concentrate on getting Utley out and he slumped badly in August and September. Utley's success depends on Howard's effectiveness.

When Howard hits, Utley will hit but for all practical purposes the season is over.
Phire Charlie!

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