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Monday, November 26, 2007

Notes on Fielding: The Season in Review, 2007 

Defense is baseball's visible poetry and its invisible virtue.

-Thomas Boswell.

Fielding. Glove work. This is the area of baseball that A Citizens Blog likes to pride itself on making its special niche in the Phillies blogging community. Fielding is such a difficult area of the game to evaluate and I like to think that this blog is able to deliver the most insightful and interesting thoughts on fielding that you’ll be able to find on the Phillies anywhere.

I often quote Bill James observation that hitting is a solid (with concrete outcomes you can judge), pitching is a liquid (with results that depend on other factors like fielding and the like) and fielding is a gas that is formless and hard to judge with any particular accuracy. Fielding is hard to figure out and agree on, even amongst expert pundits, and often falls victim to conventional wisdom and to inaccurate observations. How often have you ever heard someone argue about how terrific a fielder is by beginning with: “I saw this one play where he …” This is why Derek Jeter enjoys a largely undeserved reputation for fielding excellence that results in him winning a Gold Glove every season (mercifully save this season) while Joe Morgan prattles on about how terrific he is. The moment Derek Jeter flipped the ball to Jorge Posada in Game Three of the American League Division Series in 2001, his status as a fielder was immortalized by the pundits and fans (“Remember when he flipped the ball to Posada in that playoff game…”) and the conventional wisdom that he’s a great defensive player was born. (By the way, Dave Pinto's Probalistic Model of Range, or PMR, says that Jeter was one of the worst defensive shortstops in baseball in 2007, by the way.)

As a bit of history, it is interesting to note that in the beginnings of baseball, back in the 1860’s and 1870’s, players were valued for their fielding abilities and fielding stats like putouts and “bound catches” (balls caught on one bounce were skill outs) appeared in box scores right next to the hits and runs scored. Players were valued for their ability to convert balls up into play into outs, as much as they were valued for their hitting. Thank goodness for Manny Ramirez that the game has changed somewhat over the last 120 years! Fielding was actually more important than pitching, as the pitcher was basically expected to put the ball into play by hurling the ball over the plate so it was hittable. Since pitchers were given the ability to throw overhand and to strike someone out, the focus of the game shifted from the fielders to the pitching mound as the means to stop the opposition from scoring runs.

Since the late-19th Century fielding has been devalued. Tom Boswell said that fielding is “the cognoscenti corner of baseball, the poorly lighted room in the gallery.” In his book The Sinister First Baseman, a book that heavily influenced the philosophy of the Oakland A’s and General Manager Sandy Alderson in the 1980’s through to today, author Eric Walker argued: “Fielding is dramatically overrated. 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.” Branch Rickey said that figuring out how fielding fit into the baseball puzzle was impossible. The temptation to dismiss fielding is there and most teams, until recently, followed that. Of late there has been a renewed focus on fielding thanks to books like The Fielding Bible by John Dewan, new and improved systems for evaluating fielding, and the simple fact that fielding is under-valued by the market forces in baseball. Teams like the A’s and Boston Red Sox exploited market inefficiencies and utilized them to find success. The A’s moved to On-Base-Percentage as opposed to Batting Average as a metric for their hitters because the market ignored OBP. Now teams are finding that improved fielding is a cheap and easy way to squeeze a run or two out of their lineup for the same, or less, than they are paying their players. After all, as George Will asks in Men At Work about the exclusion of Richie Ashburn from the Hall of Fame: “Why is a double denied on defense to much less admirable than a double delivered on offense?” (Page 276.)

For those interested in the early history of baseball and the overall growth of statistics in the game, I refer everyone to the astonishing work that Alan Schwarz did in the book The Numbers Game. It is a must-read for any baseball fan. I’ll list some resources on fielding at the end of this post.

Back to the issue at hand … It is difficult to evaluate fielding, but we have a number of metrics we utilize. Said Schwarz: “[F]ielding is baseball statistics holy grail. Few measures of it have ever carried much meaning.” Well, here are the things we like to look at …

Zone Rating (ZR): This is a stat which measures a player’s defensive ability by measuring the percentage of plays they should have made when the ball is hit into their defensive “zone”. Admittedly, this is a stat that is sometimes left open to subjective opinions.

And …

Range Factor (RF): (Putouts + Assists) * 9 / IP. Developed by Bill James in the early days of sabremetrics, range factor essentially measures how much a player is involved in defensive plays. As James argued in his early work: “If one fielder gets to plays another would miss, shouldn’t the record books reflect that?” The obvious criticism of Range Factor is that a shortstop playing on a team of flyball pitchers will have a lower Range Factor than a shortstop on a team of groundball pitchers or strikeout pitchers. James has an updated version called Relative Range Factor (see, The Fielding Bible, pages 199-209) that deals with this by making it neutral with respect to the number of balls put into play and where they go.

And …

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. This is another Bill James stat that can be used to evalute team defense, while range factor evaluates individuals.

Stats we don’t like …

Fielding Percentage (FPct): (Putouts + Assists) / (Putouts + Assists + Errors). How often the player successfully handled the ball. The issue with Fielding Percentage and Errors are that they are, as James once said in the first Baseball Abstract in 1977, “a record of opinions”. They are judgment calls by officials about what should have been done, as opposed to a record of what was done. This is what interests me about fielding: this is where the sabremetrics movement begins intellectually. When James wrote the first Baseball Abstract in ’77, it was his sermon against the Error that was the moment that separated him from everyone else who has written about baseball in the past. So this is really where I like to do work and inform people.

Specifically why are stats like the error and fielding percentage so flawed? Well, I like the way James Click sums up the issue in Chapter 3.2 (“Did Derek Jeter Deserve the Gold Glove?”) of Baseball Between the Numbers:

Commonly used defensive statistics – the building blocks of any metric or measure of performance – are terribly and perhaps irrevocably flawed. The mainstream measure of defensive performance – the error – is a judgment call by the game’s official scorer, who is guided only by his gut and a vague reference in the rules to “ordinary effort.” Most of the time, he is correct … [However] discrepancies are the primary reason that standard defensive statistics cannot be used to determine the quality of defensive performance – the same play on the field can be seen differently by different scorers depending on their
interpretation of the word “ordinary.” A home run is a home run, but an error is not always an error.
Baseball Between the Numbers, page 96.

A little more theory before we move onto facts … There are literally dozens of metrics out there that people have hauled out. Bill James has Fielding Win Shares as a component of his Win Shares system. Clay Davenport at Baseball Prospectus has something called Fielding Runs, Mike Humphries has a system called Defense Regression Analysis, Dave Pinto has Probablistic Model of Range (PMR), etc. There are a number of systems out there that measure different things. I don’t pretend to understand all of the methodology, but I’ll try to bring you call of the facts as I see them.

Alright, so that’s a little of the background. Let’s look at the Phillies. As a team the 2007 Phillies were so-so: as a team their DER was .687, which was .004 below the N.L. average and ranked them tenth of sixteen teams. A factor here is the fact that the Phillies pitchers allowed 20% of the balls put into play to turn into line-drives, a pretty high percentage. This is where pitchers impact their defense, since approximately 75% of line-drives fall in for hits, so if a team allows a lot of line-drives, they’ll hurt their defense.

Dave Pinto’s PMR offers a more sophisticated look at the Phillies defense. According to PMR, the Phillies were the second-best team in the N.L., at .00644 (PMR takes predicted outs and compares them to the teams ‘real’ outs. The team’s ‘real’ DER is compared to the predicted DER and you get a plus or minus number. The Phillies +.00644 was just behind the Cubs +.01137). The best defensive teams in the MLB, by the way, are the Red Sox and Yankees at +.01287 and +.01364 respectively. The two Florida teams were the worst … Marlins: -.01721 and Devil Rays: -.01743
This gives you an idea about how tough it is to evaluate defense. DER says the Phillies were tenth. PMR says the Phillies were the second-best team in the N.L. Let’s look at some more information:

The Phillies allowed 54 unearned runs, slightly under the N.L. average of 60.

Here’s what John Dewan’s Plus / Minus, the system that I rely on the most, has to say:

1. Atlanta: +58
2. Colorado: +58
3. San Diego: +55
4. Chicago: +52
5. NY Mets: +43
6. Arizona: +39
7. SF Giants: +27
8. Phillies: +24
9. Washingon: +15
10. St. Louis: 0
11. LA Dodgers: -4
12. Cincinnati: -32
13. Houtson: -42
14. Milwaukee: -48
15. Pittsburgh: -64
16. Florida: -102

Basically the Phillies were just slightly better than the N.L. average of +5. The numbers change a little when you move to Relative Zone Rating:
Relative Zone Rating:
1. NY Mets: .839
2. Chicago: .838
3. Colorado: .835
4. San Diego: .831
5. SF Giants: .829
6. Washingon: .822
7. LA Dodgers: .819
8. Atlanta: .819
9. St. Louis: .815
10. Arizona: .814
11. Cincinnati: .812
12. Phillies: .808
13. Pittsburgh: .806
14. Houtson: .804
15. Milwaukee: .798
16. Florida: .793

The Phillies shift from eighth to twelfth.

PMR: 2nd
Plus / Minus: 8th
DER: 10th
RZR: 12th

I suspect the truth is somewhere in-between. I think, as a team, the 2007 Phillies were average-to-slightly below average as a team defensively. I think that’s a fair statement. Now let’s look at the individuals. And we’ll start in the Outfield. Generally, the Phillies Outfield was a weakness in the past and continues to be one now. They rank fourteenth in RZR (.860 vs. the N.L. average of .879) amongst N.L. Outfields, although they also were second in the N.L. in getting to balls outside of their zone with 201, to the Braves 224. Let’s start with conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom: Aaron Rowand is a great defensive centerfielder.

This makes for a nice starting point. A couple of weeks ago a sabremetrically inclined Phillies fan (perhaps a reader of this blog or another blog) argued in a well-written Letter to the Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer that the Phillies shouldn’t invest money in re-signing Aaron Rowand because Rowand wasn’t a good defensive centerfielder anymore. (Mind you, this was pre-Golden Glove.) This prompted a pair of angry responses from fans that argued Rowand was a good fielder replete with “I saw him…”-type arguments. Well, that is the conventional wisdom.

Reality: Aaron Rowand was a great defensive centerfielder. No longer. In 2005 Aaron Rowand played centerfield for the Chicago White Sox and played very well. According to John Dewan’s The Fielding Bible (TFB), Rowand was the best of the best that season, posting a Plus / Minus of +30. Dewan noted his TFB scouting report on Rowand that he wasn’t “the fastest or smoothest defensive centerfielder, [but he] more than gets the job done … Rowand plays with reckless abandon … [and] would run through a wall to make a play.” (TFB at 186.) When the Phillies acquired Rowand in the 2005 – 2006 off-season, they no doubt expected Rowand to replicate his performance and improve what was the weak point in the team’s defensive alignment: outfield defense.

In 2005 the Phillies ranked first in John Dewan’s Plus / Minus system in team defense, posting a collective +108, 39 plays better than the Cleveland Indians, the top A.L. team and 58 plays better than the Houston Astros, their nearest competitor in the N.L. The Phillies strength was their +107 in the field, but they rated just +1 in the outfield, the eighteenth-best showing in baseball. The Andruw Jones-led Atlanta Braves were first in outfield Plus / Minus at +50, followed by Rowand and the White Sox at +46. Rowand’s +30 had to improve the weakest part of a strong unit, right?

Instead Rowand has been a major disappointment. Let’s start with Relative Zone Rating:

2007 RZR: N.L. Centerfielders
Andruw Jones (ATL): .921
Carlos Beltran (NYM): .915
Juan Pierre (LAD): .902
Mike Cameron (SD): .894
Chris Young (ARI): .875
Rowand (PHI): .861
Bill Hall (MILW): .846

Mind you, Rowand won a Gold Glove this season despite his stats strongly suggesting that he’s an average to below-average player.

Isolated instance? Just a bad year? Well, check out 2006 RZR stats:

2006 RZR: N.L. Centerfielders
Brady Clark (MILW): .937
Steve Finley (SFG): .935
Juan Pierre (Cubs): .926
Andruw Jones (ATL): .924
Eric Byrnes (ARIZ): .917
Mike Cameron (SD): .911
Carlos Beltran (NYM): .906
Willy Taveras (HOU)): .898
Rowand (PHI): .882
Kenny Lofton (LAD): .870
Ken Griffey, Jr. (CIN): .832

Six of seven that qualified with enough innings of work in 2007. Ninth of eleven in 2006. According to PMR, Phillies Center Fielders ranked eleventh of sixteen N.L. teams in PMR at 99.26 (the ratio figure is arrived at by taking the actual outs and dividing them into the predicted outs, thus arriving at a number. 100 is average. Below 100 is below average, above is above-average). The Mets, with Carlos Beltran patrolling center field, ranked second in the N.L. in PMR at 103.45. Rowand’s 99.27 (he basically played all of the Phillies innings in center, so the team and his individual numbers were basically identical) ranked him behind fellow free agents Andruw Jones (102.76) and Torii Hunter (99.97) and leave little doubt that Rowand was an average-at-best center fielder for the Phillies in 2007.

Close the book on Rowand. As a Phillie, he’s been a bad defensive centerfielder. I think Fielding Win Shares illustrates how much Aaron Rowand’s fielding really contributed to the Phillies in 2007 and how little he really deserved the Gold Glove:

Fielding Win Shares per 1,000 Innings:
Andruw Jones (ATL): 5.57
Carlos Beltran (NYM): 5.32
Chris Young (ARI): 5.38
Mike Cameron (SD): 4.59
Rowand (PHI): 3.71
Juan Pierre (LAD): 3.32
Bill Hall (MILW): 3.13

A word on the Golden Gloves … This is an award of truly dubious distinction, in my opinion, because they are awarded based on observations by the pundits and tend to be given, year-after-year, to the same people. Derek Jeter won the award three consecutive years in a row (2004, 2005 & 2006) despite howls of indignation from the sabremetric community. Rowand’s Gold Glove is pretty much right in line with Jeter’s: flashy plays and conventional wisdom trumping solid numbers.

Let’s move along … Over in Right Field is Shane Victorino. Victorino, the talented Hawaiian native, had a terrific season in 2007 at the plate, hitting twelve home runs, twenty-three doubles and three triples. He had a respectable .347 OBP and stole 37 bases in 41 tries. Victorino was a major weapon for the Phillies at the plate and one of the biggest reasons why the Phillies offense was the best in the N.L. again. Defensively, Victorino is Aaron Rowand’s heir in center now that Michael Bourn has been dealt to the Astros.

Victorino turned in a good performance in 2007, ranking fourth of eight RF’s in zone rating. PMR has a lot of nice things to say about Victorino. Overall, the Phillies rank first, number one, numero uno, in PMR amongst Right Fielders: 110.42. The closest N.L. team to the Phillies (three A.L. teams were #2, #3, and #4) is the Nationals at 102.84. The numbers clearly state that the Phillies were the best team in baseball in right. Victorino turned in a 108.72, second-best in the league, converting 229 outs where he was predicted to make 210.62.

He was also second in the N.L. in assists from right field with ten. Nine fewer than the Braves Jeff Francour. In 814 defensive innings in 2006 (101 in left, 156 in right and 557 in center), Victorino had 11 assists. He’s got an arm and good range. In fact, Phillies notched a lot of assists in 2007. Rowand led the N.L. in assists for centerfielders with 11. The Phillies got 18 assists overall from their rightfielders, which bring up something Bill James notes in his Historical Baseball Abstract: “A bad team will have more outfield assists than a good team.” (Page 357.)

Victorino’s performance in 2007 augers well for his new assignment in centerfield for 2008 (although Werth might get that assignment). As the Phillies centerfielder in 2006 he actually out-performed Rowand: .902 RZR to .882, a 1.000 Fielding Percentage to .986, and six assists, same as Rowand, but in 343 fewer innings of work.

Over in Left Field we have Pat Burrell, possibly the worst defensive leftfielder in baseball. (Yes, worse than Manny Ramirez.) How bad was Burrell in 2007? Well, he ranked tenth of ten leftfielders in RZR at .803, under-performing such defensive disasters as Carlos Lee and Adam Dunn. No leftfielder got to fewer balls outside of his zone than Burrell’s 21. Burrell’s .948 Fielding Percentage is laughably bad, as are his absurd eight fielding errors in 2007. The Phillies don’t pay Pat Burrell to field and it is a darn good thing too, because otherwise the criticism of his fielding would probably rival that of Manny Ramirez’s. According to PMR, Pat Burrell was the worst defensive left fielder in baseball in 2007, bar none. 42nd of 42 left fielders. Burrell’s 88.75 was worse than Manny Ramirez (91.53) or Barry Bonds (93.14).

How bad was Burrell’s fielding? Well, Jayson Werth, who notched 576 innings of glove work for the Phillies, had 1.8 Fielding Win Shares, 0.3 better than Burrell. That’s 1.46 Fielding Win Shares per 1,000 innings for Burrell and 3.12 for Werth. Ouch. Burrell’s defensive struggles are mightily off-set by his fearsome bat, but Burrell is a major defensive liability at this stage of his career.

Michael Bourn, Chris Roberson and Jayson Werth all notched some innings in the field for the Phillies. All three often entered as defensive substitutions for Burrell. Generally all three played well, although there is barely any data to use on Roberson (65 innings), and Bourn played mostly in leftfield (217 of his 302 defensive innings in 2007) and had a robust .896 RZR, which would have ranked him second in the N.L. behind the D-Backs Eric Byrnes.

Werth was the Phillies jack of all trades in 2007, logging 127 innings in left, 446 in right, two in center and an inning at first base. According to PMR, Werth was the best defensive right fielder in 2007, with a 114.32 PMR ratio, getting to 109 outs when projected to get to 95.35. Werth’s .925 RZR in rightfield and .929 in centerfield are both impressive, enough in fact to lead the N.L. in both positions if he qualified, but even more impressive are Werth’s seven assists in rightfield in far fewer innings of work than Victorino. If the Phillies give Werth the rightfield job they’d be getting a talented outfielder and a good bat despite paying him just $850,000 in 2007. In fact, the Phillies new centerfielder and rightfielder made a combined $1.26 million in 2007, about eleven times less than what Pat Burrell made in 2007.

To sum up, the Phillies outfield defense was pretty sorry in 2007. Pat Burrell was terrible, Aaron Rowand was badly over-rated and Victorino was good-but-not-great. The Phillies had solid gloves off the bench in Michael Bourn, Chris Roberson and Jayson Werth, but this was not a strong unit:

Outfielders: FWS 1,000:
Rowand: 3.71
Werth: 3.12
Roberson: 3.07
Victorino: 2.78
Bourn: 2.65
Burrell: 1.46

Let’s move along to the infield … The Phillies infield was better than its outfield in 2007. The Phillies infield RZR was .773, which was also the N.L. average. They ranked eighth in RZR, and the 205 balls outside of their zone that they got to was basically the N.L. average of 199. Pretty average.

Ryan Howard was an average defensive First Baseman in 2007. So too he was in 2006. He was quite good defensively in 2005, actually ranking second in all of baseball behind the Rangers Mark Teixeira in Plus / Minus at +16 to Tiexeira’s +17. This was a major improvement over Jim Thome, who was a collective -13 as a Phillie from 2003 to 2005. Since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2005, Howard has regressed defensively while his batting abilities have improved.

The 2007 PMR numbers are pretty clear-cut: Phillies first basemen ranked thirteen of sixteen N.L. teams in PMR at first base. Howard’s 95.88 ratio was much worse than Doug Mientkiewicz (118.17, best in the MLB) and Pujols (113.01). Alright, the Phillies don’t pay Howard to execute 6-3, 4-3 and 5-3 put-outs, but Howard is a much inferior player to Albert Pujols, his rival star N.L. first baseman. Pujols has been one of the top three defensive first basemen each of the last three seasons. It is worth noting that Pujols is a much better defensive player when evaluating the two.

Also of note: Howard started just 16 double plays in 2007, 14 fewer than Pujols, and his .991 Fielding Percentage is much lower than Pujol’s .995 or the Colorado Rockies Todd Helton’s .999 …

Over at Second Base, the Phillies are blessed to have the best second basemen in baseball on their roster. Write this down: Chase Utley’s #26 is going to be retired one day along with Mike Schmidt’s #20, Richie Ashburn’s #1, Robin Roberts #36 and Steve Carlton’s #32. He is that good of a player, a unique blend of speed, power and skill. Before he got injured he was well on his way to the 2007 NL MVP award, before teammate and fellow pivot-man Jimmy Rollins took the reins. He's the front-runner for the 2008 MVP, as far as I am concerned.

Utley’s .859 RZR and 53 balls outside of his zone ranked him third in the N.L. in both categories. PMR ranks Utley as the second-best defensive second baseman (105.95) in baseball after the Cincinnati Reds Brandon Phillips (110.38). Utley’s 4.7 Fielding Win Shares actually ranks sixth in the NL amongst second basemen, despite losing nearly 300 innings of work. (Overall, Utley led N.L. Second basemen with 28 Win Shares, seven more than the Pirates Freddy Sanchez. Utley’s 17 Win Shares Above Bench are eight better than Sanchez’s 9 WSAB. Utley was THAT good in 2007.)

Right next to Utley is Jimmy Rollins, the 2007 Gold Glove winner at Shortstop and 2007 National League MVP. Was Jimmy Rollins the best defensive shortstop in the N.L. in 2007? Well, PMR certainly thought he did well, ranking Phillies shortstops third overall in the N.L. in PMR at 102.82. However, there is a compelling case to be made against him, actually. J.Roll also ranked ninth of fourteen shortstops in RZR, ninth overall in Fielding Win Shares, and sixth of thirteen in Range Factor. So nothing makes him stand out amongst NL Shortstops. In fact, Rookie Troy Tulowitski of the Rockies (who should have been Rookie of the Year) was clearly the best shortstop in my opinion, ranking first in Range Factor at 5.39 and fourth in RZR. Compare Tulowitski’s FWS 1,000 to J.Roll’s:

FWS 1,000 Innings:
Tulowitski: 7.92
J.Rollins: 3.47

Ouch. On the other hand, J.Roll also ranked third in Fielding Percentage, third in balls outside of his zone and second in double plays started. So there are a lot of points running in his favor and he had the best season of the Big Three NL East Shortstops (including the Marlins Hanley Ramirez and the Mets Jose Reyes). I look at J.Roll’s Gold Glove as a reward for years of excellent work, sort of like when Hollywood awarded Denzel Washington for Oscar for Training Day, after passing him over for The Hurricane.

Finally, manning the hot corner at Third Base was a hodge-podge collection of players. Originally signed to succeed David Bell, Wes Helms proved ineffectual at the plate and gave way to Abraham Nunez and Greg Dobbs. The Phillies third base situation was so bad they actually gave Russell Branyan five innings of work against the Pittsburgh Pirates in August.

I’ve mentioned this in the past in A Citizens Blog, but when David Bell manned Third Base for the Phillies, they had one of the finest Third Basemen in all of baseball. In 2005, for example, Bell was +24, by far the best in baseball amongst Third Basemen. Overall, his +52 between 2003 and 2005 was the second-best in baseball to Adrian Beltre (+71), and +6 better than Scott Rolen, the man whom he was supposed to replace at Third. Bell could never match Rolen’s prowess with the bat but he did a nice job with the glove. After dealing Bell to the Brewers in late 2006, the Phillies pursued Helms, thinking he’d be a solid replacement for Bell at the plate. He was not.

The Phillies ended up playing Dobbs, Nunez and Helms all at the hot corner and all were equally ineffectual. Overall, Phillies Third Basemen ranked thirteenth in Fielding Percentage. They also ranked eleventh in PMR (97.95). Nunez, the light-hitting utility infielder, did the best, with a .711 RZR. Right behind him was Helms at .702 and Dobbs at .644. Nunez’s 3.27 Range Factor was actually the best in the N.L., so Nunez actually played rather well and will make a team a good defensive specialist in 2008. Here are their Range Factor stats:

Nunez: 3.27
Dobbs: 2.61
Helms: 2.53

According to FWS 1,000, here is the Phillies best defensive third baseman in 2007:

Nunez: 3.18
Dobbs: 1.79
Helms: 1.66
And here is PMR:

Nunez: 99.49
Helms: 96.50
Dobbs: 96.29

Mindful of the fact that Dobbs and Helms got significant innings in other positions and Nunez played pretty much every defensive position in the infield. Dobbs, as a matter of fact, played five of the eight positions in 2007: 1B, 2B, 3B, RF, and LF.

Finally, I ought to mention Tadahito Iguchi. The Phillies decision to snatch Iguchi up from the White Sox after Utley went down for next to nothing was a brilliant move and probably helped to save the Phillies season. (Given how thin the margin for error was at the end, I think that is a fair statement.) Iguchi played very well at second base, with a perfect 1.000 Fielding Percentage and an .818 RZR. In fact, if you go off of FWS 1,000, Iguchi was better than Utley: 4.90 to 4.00. Again, like Nunez, someone is going to have a very good defensive infielder once they sign Iguchi.

Now on to a complicated and thorny issue. The Catcher. How do you evaluate a catcher? There are a number of issues to consider: how often the catcher throws out base-runners, a pitching staff’s ERA with him behind the plate, etc.

How hard is it to be a catcher? Well, according to Bill James Defensive Spectrum, it is the hardest defensive position in baseball:

1B – LF – RF – 3B – CF – 2B – SS – C

Basically, as you move from left to right, the difficulty level increases … Even the sabremetric community has done a poor job trying to develop metrics and an over-all method of evaluating catchers. Tellingly, The Fielding Bible left catching out of the book altogether, a rather glaring omission and telling in that it was the most exhaustive work I can find on the subject and it still couldn’t tackle it.

It’s tough being a catcher, squatting in the dirt in 95 degree heat, wearing protective gear, constantly looking to make sure that the runner on first doesn’t go to second, calling pitches, keeping the pitcher focused on the game. Because of the stresses and demands of the job, few catchers are the focal points of their team’s offenses, and none catch all 162 games in a season. The Dodgers Russell Martin was the most durable of the catchers in the N.L. in 2007, catching 151 games. That’s pretty rare: the Nationals Brian Schneider caught 129 games, the Mets Paul Lo Duca caught 119, etc. The hard, demanding nature of the job tends to wear catchers down and make them into the most blue-collar of the players on the baseball field. That’s probably why movies like Bull Durham and Major League made catchers the featured characters and portrayed them as gruff, savvy everymen who mentored and protected the more vulnerable emotionally pitchers.

The Phillies had three catchers in 2007: Carlos Ruiz, Rod Barajas and Chris Coste. Ruiz and Coste were returnees from 2006, when they both arrived in Philadelphia from Scranton to help replace Mike Lieberthal and Sal Fasano. Lieberthal, the long-time Phillie, was on the D.L. and his career was in decline, while Fasano, a terrible hitter, was causing too much chaos to the Phillies offense to justify continuing on the roster. Ruiz and Coste stunned observers by turning in dynamite performances. Coste, in particular, impressed people with his strength and determination after spending roughly a decade in the minors to make his major league dreams a reality. Ruiz’s skills, however, attracted the attention of the Phillies and he was given the job of being the backup at the start of the season.

The starter and replacement for Lieberthal was expected to be Rod Barajas, the former Texas Ranger. Coste was sent back to Triple-A, this time to the Phillies new affiliate in Ottawa. Ultimately, Ruiz took over the catching duties and Coste returned to Philadelphia, where he ultimately nearly caught as many innings as Barajas (243 to 303). With the Phillies declining an option on Barajas for 2008, it looks likely that Ruiz and Coste will be the Phillies catchers in 2008.

Carlos Ruiz led the Phillies in Fielding Win Shares per 1,000 innings with 7.995, a big improvement over 2006 (4.545). Barajas actually did a little better: 8.25, and Coste brought up the rear at 6.58. What did each do? Well, let’s start with innings and catching ERA:

Innings / CERA:
Ruiz: 913 / 4.51
Barajas: 303 / 5.17
Coste: 243 / 4.93

Now Catchers ERA is a pretty unfair metric to evaluate a catcher because so much of his work depends on whom he’s catching and how they do. Now, as I noted above, there is something of a symbiotic relationship between pitcher and catcher (this is where the grizzled, old catcher gets to be the young pitcher’s psychiatrist and friend on the field in the movies) so the catcher does play a role, but we’ll pretty much ignore that. Barajas, after all, caught many of the Phillies early games when the pitching staff was in chaos.

Let’s deal with base-runners. How did the Phillies catchers do with preventing guys from stealing?

SBA/G / CS%:
Ruiz: 0.75 / 25%
Barajas: 0.53 / 33%
Coste: 0.78 / 29%

Now again, I am wary about reading too much into this. Did Barajas just catch a lot of games where teams didn’t steal? Remember that the Phillies played in the same division as the New York Mets in 2007, the team that led the N.L. in stolen bases by a wide margin, specifically with 246, 89 more than the second-best team, the Phillies. So in one of every nine games, the Phillies faced Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran trying to steal.

Still, I think we can look at the numbers and come to the conclusion that Barajas was pretty good defensively. Teams didn’t try to run on him and when they did they paid the price.

Ruiz’s 25% is actually the N.L. average, so he didn’t do a bad job either. Certainly Barajas, Coste and Ruiz did better than catchers like the Brewers Johnny Estrada, who caught just 8% of the guys who ran on him, or the Padres Josh Bard, who allowed 94% of base-stealers to succeed and consequently had 1.25 attempted steals per game. Ouch.

There is another metric I like: wild pitches and passed balls per game (WP+PB/G) …

Ruiz: 0.32
Barajas: 0.50
Coste: 0.19

Point here for Coste.

Other interesting bits of information … as near as I can tell, Phillies catchers made just two errors in 2007, a pair of throwing errors by Ruiz. Neither Coste nore Barajas made a single error. How impressive is that? Well, Mike Lieberthal made two throwing errors as a member of the Dodgers, but he did so in just 167 innings of work as Russell Martin’s backup. Martin himself made a whopping 14 throwing errors. Lo Duca made 9. The Braves Brian McCann somehow made five fielding errors. Yes, errors are a record of opinions, but there is something to it when you see that the Phillies catchers made so few errors and other teams catchers made so many.

Alright, that’s fielding in a nutshell. Tune in next Monday for Pitching.

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Great article. I am very much looking forward to the other articles in this series of the season in review.

One thing i thought i'd point out... Chase Utley actually wears #26 (as opposed to the 28 you mention in the article). I figured it was a typo, but just wanted to let you know.

Keep up the awesome writing.

Thanks, I really enjoyed your article & learned a few things.

I'm looking forward to the pitching article.
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