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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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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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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Glove Week!, Part III: The Phillies Outfield 2004-2006 

My first stop in the morning, after I get done reading the gory details of what the Phillies did the night before, is to check out The Hardball Times (THT) and look at some of their stats. THT is a great, one-stop shop for bloggers interested in sabremetric stats that they cannot get anywhere else. Recently, much to my delight, the THT editors elected to add fielding stats like Zone Rating and Range Factor to their statistical milieu. Like a starving man eager for his meal, I dove right in and extracted some information about the recent past that interested me.

I am excited to report that THT will, for the first time I am aware of anywhere, be posting current data on Zone Rating, on balls fielded out of zone (OOZ), the number of balls hit into the fielder’s zone, and that THT will also be breaking down errors between throwing errors and fielding errors. I hurriedly devoured the 2004 – 2006 data and thought that I might given an overview on what I’ve noticed about the Phillies defense between 2004 & 2006. We'll start today with some notes on the Phillies outfield.

Range Factor. As I noted in Part II, RF isn’t a perfect stat. It is subject to the performance of what pitchers do and whom pitchers face. But I figured that comparing the players against each other might shed some light on some questions about how good the Phillies outfield really is. Let’s start with the Left Field:

Range Factor (2004 - 2006)
Burrell (’06): 1.93
Dellucci (’06): 1.93
Victorino (’06): 2.70
Burrell (’05): 1.71
Michaels (’05): 2.40
Burrell (’04): 1.92
Michaels (’04): 2.06

Pat Burrell is the incumbent but he’s been spelled for various stretches of the season by Jason Michaels in ’04 & ’05, and by Shane Victorino last season. It is tempting to state that Burrell is a poor defensive left fielder when you compare him to his colleagues, but I have a few words about that … for one thing, matched up with a similar player, Burrell and David Dellucci had identical Range Factor stats. Comparing Burrell to Jason Michaels and Shane Victorino is unfair. Both Michaels and Victorino are outstanding defensive outfielders and ought to be recognized as such, also consider that Burrell plays on a team full of groundball pitchers. This stat doesn't fairly critique Burrell's performance. We’ll come back to Burrell later …

Range Factor: Center Field
Rowand (’06): 2.57
Victorino (’06): 2.70
Lofton (’05): 2.53
Michaels (’05): 2.79
Michaels (’04): 2.67
Byrd (’04): 2.38

As you can see, center fielders get in on more plays than left fielders, so the numbers rose. It is interesting – and I won’t belabor this point, since I’ve made it 1,000 times in the past – but Aaron Rowand had a terrible, terrible season with the Phillies in 2006. Shane Victorino outshined him in every way possible. Playing in half the innings of Rowand, Victorino had as many assists and committed no errors to Rowand’s five … more on errors later … But clearly, Shane Victorino was the superior center fielder in 2006. It will be interesting to see if Rowand bounces back in 2007 … Also of note, backing up my statement that Jason Michaels is an outstanding defensive outfielder, note how well Michaels did with the Phillies in 2004 and 2005, though you have to wonder if those ’04 numbers ought to be Eric Milton-adjusted (i.e., an outfielder enjoying a flyball pitcher).

Range Factor: Right Field
Abreu (’06): 1.95
Dellucci (’06): 1.72
Conine (’06): 1.68
Victorino (’06): 2.37
Abreu (’05): 1.80
Abreu (’04): 2.22

No longer a Phillie, David Dellucci and Jeff Conine played a little right field before Shane Victorino settled into the job, which he will hold in 2007. Abreu has long been derided by bloggers and sabremetricians for being a poor defensive right fielder – his 2005 Gold Glove has been widely ridiculed – and these numbers don’t exactly support the charge. Average, not below-average, might be the more accurate conclusion of Bobby Abreu’s fielding skills. Again, Victorino was just THAT good in 2006.

Mistakes … Who made mistakes? Unless my math is off, the Phillies outfield went from making 14 errors in 2004 to 17 in 2005 to 10 last year. So the mistakes, the errors, actually went down. But who made ‘em?

Burrell: 1 throwing, 2 fielding
Rowand: 2 throwing, 3 fielding
Dellucci: 1 fielding
Abreu: 1 throwing

Rowand’s five errors look even worse compared with the fact that his replacement for much of the season, Shane Victorino, made none in any inning he played in the outfield. Yes, Victorino's fielding percentage was a sterling 1.000 in 2006. Burrell cut his errors from to 3, from 7 from ’05 to ’06, but you have to factor the decline in innings played 987 from 1,297.

Burrell: 1 throwing, 6 fielding
Abreu: 1 throwing, 3 fielding
Lofton: 2 throwing, 2 fielding
Michaels: 2 fielding

Again, Michaels played a lot of innings defensively and did a nice job.

Burrell: 4 fielding
Abreu: 2 throwing, 3 fielding
Byrd: 2 fielding
Michaels: 1 throwing, 2 fielding

Let’s move onto the issue of fielding range. How often did the Phillies get to balls that were hit to the edge of their fielding zone? I ran the numbers and came up with some conclusions … Let’s start with every blogger’s favorite whipping boy, Pat Burrell:

2006: 352 / 4
2005: 367 / 15
2004: 302 / 19

BIZ = Balls in Zone
OOZ = Outside Of Zone

I think this sums up a problem that the Phillies have. Pat Burrell gets to fewer and fewer balls hit into his vicinity. His Zone Rating has been declining from .623 to .602 to .571. He’s losing his effective range as a fielder. In fact, he was the worst defensive left fielder in 2006 in terms of Zone Rating last season, finishing eleventh of eleven amongst N.L. left fielders. There's really no doubt about it - this evidence - as opposed to Range Factor is dispositive.

Now let’s scope out Bobby Abreu’s decline as a fielder as well:

2006: 278 / 10
2005: 401 / 12
2004: 407 / 25

It is ironic that baseball chose to give a gold glove to a poor defensive outfielder during a season where he was doing worse than he usually does. In terms of Zone Rating, Abreu is middle-of-the-pack at best. Let's move on to centerfield.

Rowand (’06): 260 / 43
Victorino (’06): 154 / 35
Lofton (’05): 211 / 31
Michaels (’05): 153 / 33
Byrd (’04): 189 / 36
Michaels (’04): 80 / 25

Interesting points ... Victorino seemed to get to more balls outside of his defensive zone than Rowand, getting to just eight fewer in 343 fewer innings. Victorino's Zone Rating was better as well: .818 to .796. Rowand was ninth of eleven N.L. centerfielders in ZR, a major disappointment. In 2005, when Aaron Rowand was arguably the best defensive outfielder in baseball, he finished third of eleven AL center fielders in ZR. Quite a difference a year makes.

Remarkably to me, Victorino's Zone Rating was good but a little middle of the pack, roughly comparable to Carlos Beltran (.817) and well behind the Astros Willy Taveras (.861)

Miscellaneous notes ... If Jason Michaels had logged enough innings in 2005 he would have ranked second in the N.L. amongst centerfielders in ZR (.837) behind the Cubs Corey Patterson (.841); and he would have ranked first in 2004, besting the Marlins Juan Pierre (.838 vs .835) ... And Marlon Byrd was terrible in 2004. Only Marquis Grissom and Steve Finley were worse in 2004. Here are the Zone Rating numbers …

Lofton (’05): .806
Michaels (’05): .837
Byrd (’04): .767
Michaels (’04): .838

What does Plus / Minus tell us? John Dewan's Plus / Minus numbers are available to us, although you have to do some detective work to figure out 2006 individual numbers. Here is how the Phillies outfield has ranked over the last four years:

2003: +9 (4th in N.L.)
2004: -22 (11th in N.L.)
2005: +1 (7th in N.L.)
2006: -48 (16th in N.L., and actually second-worst in baseball behind the Boston Red Sox at -69)

Yeah, they were terrible in 2006. Let's start with Rowand:

2003: -1
2004: +5
2005: +30 (led MLB)
2006: -4

The heck happened to Rowand in 2006? That's a swing of 34 plays that he made, or one every fourth game or so. Here is Abreu:

2003: +7
2004: -6
2005: -13 (this is the year he won the gold glove)
2006: unk

To figure 2006 Plus / Minus I took available data and did a little math. In the case of Rowand he's listed as a +31 for 2004-2006, so once you subtract his +5 in 2004 and +30 in 2005, you get his -4 in 2006. Abreu, I haven't a clue what he did in 2006. I say he did poorly, but I cannot say.

Jason Michaels:
2003: -1 (as CF)
2004: -1 (as CF)
2005: +4 (as CF)
2006: +12 (as Cleveland's LF)

It is a pity that the Phillies lost Michaels to the Indians because he is an outstanding defensive outfielder and a good hitter too. Lucky Cleveland.

Pat Burrell:
2003: +11
2004: -2
2005: +3
2006: unk.

I think we can safely assume that Burrell was probably a negative number and that it may even be a double-digit negative number. Burrell's rank is something I am very curious about.

Alright, tomorrow we'll take a quick look at the Phillies defensive infield. (Except for First Base.) Oh, and after taking consecutive rain-outs, the Phillies got just enough dry weather to get hammered by the New York Mets 8-1. Garcia wasn't quite what he was cracked up to be, the leaky bullpen gave up five runs and the Phillies hit into three double plays. Oh, and Shane Victorino committed an error. Poor Charlie Manuel apparently challenged a talk radio show host to a fight. Pretty much a matter of time until he gets the axe, sad to say.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Glove Week!, Part II: Major Statistical Systems 

Yesterday I talked a little about the evolution in thinking about defense that brought us up to the modern era. Sabremetrics has really exploded over the last four years since the publishing of Moneyball in 2003, which stunned the baseball establishment with a provocative assault on the conventional wisdom that few had evidentially been paying attention to. While things like Runs Created and Defense Independent Pitching (DIPS) have pre-dated the Moneyball era, the numerous sabremetric fielding statistics that have come down are all largely post-Moneyball.

The focus on fielding is largely a product of the great baseball minds moving on from hitting and pitching and finally giving this unknown part of the game its due. Bill James pondered in ’05 on what he’d write about if he reissued the old baseball abstracts, Bill James pondered in ’05 on what he’d write about if he reissued the old baseball abstracts, he answered: “Baserunning and fielding. I know that I've spent more time worrying about fielding in my career than I ever have about hitting, but that's because we started out so far behind and that is still true. We're still way behind on fielding and baserunning. We ought to do better.”

James has focused more of his attention in the recent past to those two fields of study. Base-running information has been in the last two Bill James Handbooks (see, 2006 Handbook; 2007 Handbook), but the big focus is on fielding stats: Bill James recently reworked his old Range Factor into Relative Range Factor, an improved version of his old stat, and heavily participate in The Fielding Bible, a publication issued from Baseball Information Solutions (BIS) and John Dewan, a friend and colleague of James for years. Fielding is a difficult subject, which I think Bill James summed up best by likening hitting to a solid, pitching to a liquid and fielding to a gas, stating that fielding was, like a gas, “formless and hard to see”. As I noted in Part I, Branch Rickey threw up his hands in frustration with fielding stats in the 1950’s when he ran the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was an area of the game that he felt he lacked the tools to attempt to quantify. Now we do, thanks to computers, have some tools to tackle what Alan Schwarz referred to in The Numbers Game as the “holy grail” of baseball statistics … Fielding.

Here is an overview of the systems used …

I. Range Factor (RF). The first stat that really got us focused on fielding. Proposed in the ’77 Baseball Abstract, RF takes the number of successful plays that a player makes (Putouts and Assists), multiplies them by nine and divides by innings played thus giving you the number of plays a player makes in a nine-inning game, much like how ERA gives you the runs a pitcher would surrender in a nine-inning game:

((Putouts + Assists) * 9) / IP

The obvious flaw with Range Factor is that pitching greatly impacts your numbers. Are you a shortstop? If you play on a team with a lot of groundball-oriented pitchers, you are going to have some nice stats. If you play on a team of fly ball-oriented pitchers, you are going to come out behind. Richie Ashburn posted nice Range Factor numbers during the 1950’s (usually a full play better per game than the league average), but he played on teams that featured Robin Roberts, a pitcher who allowed a lot of fly balls. Ashburn was a great fielder, but that must be taken into account.

James created RF and let it hang out there for years without updating it … until now.

II. Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER). Two years after he gave us Range Factor, James proposed Defense Efficiency Ratio. DER simply put, measures how often the fielders behind a pitcher convert balls put into play into outs:

(Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts))

The advantage DER has over RF is obvious: it is more of a pitcher-neutral stat. A shortstop playing behind a fly ball pitcher will watch enviously as the balls go sailing into the gloves of his friends in the outfield. DER rates the whole team. This is a way of measuring team defense that is much better than double plays turned or errors or team fielding percentage.

Naturally, no system is perfect. Pitchers impact DER because the types of the balls that they allow to be put into play vary. Hard-hit balls that drop in for line-drives are virtually uncatchable, and thus, not fairly attributable to the fielders. The other thing is that DER evaluates the whole team, how the team’s defensive alignment works, not individuals like RF.

III. Fielding Runs (FR). Developed by Pete Palmer as the fielding component of his Total Player Rating (TPR), Fielding Runs attempts to look at a player’s fielding stats and assign a number stating what their contribution to the team was with their glove. I’d refer people to The Numbers Game, specifically to Chapter Eight, where the author talks a little about Palmer and his work. Fielding Runs is fairly complicated. First calculate the league average for players in that position:

.20 * (Putouts + (2 * Assists) – Errors + Double Plays) / League Putouts – League Strikeouts)

Then … once you have the league averages, plug in the individual player’s stats …

.20 * (Putouts + (2 * Assists) – Errors + Double Plays) – ((Team Putouts – Team Strikeouts) * (Player Average * percentage of playing time)

Not a perfect system mind you. Even the author of The Numbers Game, Alan Schwarz, noted the improbability of Glenn Hubbard setting an all-time record for 62 Fielding Runs in 1985 (see, Pages 167-168). I noticed several comments - specifically the sections dealing with Granny Hamner and Bill Buckner - from Bill James assailing Fielding Runs in his Historical Baseball Abstract. (See, Part IV of this series.) Critics have cited problems with Fielding Runs such as the fact that Palmer awards a double value to assists over putouts based on his belief that it takes “more fielding skill” to make an assist over a standard putout. Critics have also noted that Fielding Runs doesn’t attempt to be pitcher-neutral. i.e., Outfielders will rate well on teams that have fly ball pitchers, while infielders look like Ozzie Smith when they play behind guys like Tim Hudson. It is just not an accurate system.

IV. Zone Rating (ZR). Developed by Dick Cramer, Zone Rating analyzes how often balls are hit towards a fielder’s location and how often those balls were converted into outs when hit into their zone. The data of how Zone Ratings are calculated is pretty tough to decipher. How accurate is it? Tough to say. Theoretically, ZR deals with an issue that RF and FR don’t: pitcher-neutrality, however it is something where someone is making a judgment about whether or not someone ought to have made a play on a ball hit near them and thus we run dangerously close to what Bill James spoke of when he talked about fielding stats being a record of opinions. (For more on Zone Rating, click here.)

Note: Zone Rating has been redone by John Dewan to clear up many of the problems associated with it and The Hardball Times is now posting the ZR numbers on their website.

V. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). Mitchel Litchman developed UZR by taking ZR and converting it into runs saved or runs allowed. Again, there is no public data on UZR (and in any case, Litchman has stopped publishing UZR last I checked), so it is difficult to sit down and objectively see the numbers, however, UZR does try and correct for ZR’s flaws by taking park factors, a pitcher’s groundball and fly ball ratio and other factors into account. (For more on UZR, click here.)

VI. Probablistic Model of Range (PMR). Developed by David Pinto of Baseball Musings, PMR takes balls put into play and analyzes their probability of being caught. Then PMR takes what each player successfully does and combines them. If a player’s efficiency in the field (their DER) is greater than what they were expected to do under the system, then they have a positive PMR rating. If it is the reverse, then so be it. (Click here for a more complete discussion of PMR.)

VII. Defense Regression Analysis (DRA). Developed by Michael Humphreys, DRA tries to analyze players utilizing traditional defensive statistics, unlike PMR or UZR, which are zone-based systems that look at what players are doing through a modern lens. (Click here for a more complete discussion of DRA.)

VIII. Fielding Win Shares (FWS). Bill James introduced Fielding Win Shares as part of his Win Shares system in 2002. The system is complicated, so I am going to refer anyone interested in seeing how James calculates Fielding Win Shares to The New Historical Baseball Abstract, specifically, pages 350-358. The system figures heavily in James player ratings for the Abstract.

IX. Relative Range Factor (RRF). In 2006 Bill James revisited Range Factor by deciding to smooth out the issues that plagued it, namely pitcher’s groundball / fly ball ratios, left-handed / right-handed issues with pitchers, etc. Contained in The Fielding Bible (specifically, pages 199-209), James works on all of those problems and even comes up with a nifty idea of multiplying the number with the league average so that a number higher than 1.000 is better than average and .999 and lower is below-average.

X. Plus / Minus. Developed by John Dewan, Plus / Minus is the cornerstone of The Fielding Bible, Dewan’s 2006 book that revolutionized fielding stats in the blogging community, though it generated barely a ripple in the mainstream media. Simply up, Plus / Minus takes the plays that a fielder makes and washes it through a computer system. In the example Dewan includes on page 9 of The Fielding Bible, Dewan notes that a ground ball hit on vector 17 to a shortstop is successfully fielded 26% of the time, so if the shortstop makes the play, he is credited +.74 (1.00 minus .26 for the expectation that the play is made). If he misses it, it is -.26, which seems like a fair result. Fail to make a low-percentage play and absorb a little loss, make a low-percentage play and get a lot of credit. It is insanely complicated and not capable of being dissected by the lay fan.

Those generally are overviews of the systems talked about. Naturally I am forgetting a few, but those are the biggies. Now we’ll move on a discuss the Phillies a little.


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Monday, April 16, 2007

Glove Week!, Part I: Fielding Then and Now 

Or, “An incurable love of the unconventional …”

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.


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