Dee-Fense . . . Dee-Fense . . .
Last year, Justin Inaz popularized a new fielding stat, based on the freely available data from the Hardball Times. This year I decided to set up a spreadsheet (one that can automatically update!) and keep track of fielding performance, using Justin’s process. While there are plenty of advanced fielding metrics out there, such as MGL’s Ultimate Zone Rating, David Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range, and John Dewan’s Plus/Minus, I figured, if anything, it wouldn’t hurt to have one more. It may not get as detailed as those listed above, but it’s pretty good and it’s available all the time (and for free).
The Hardball Times provides us with some great information to evaluate fielding performance. On their fielding stats page, they report, for each and every player, the number of balls hit into the player’s zone, the number of plays made on balls in their zone, and the number of plays made on balls hit outside of their zone. With these three numbers in hand, we can get a pretty solid grasp of a player’s fielding performance. But, before we get to that, we’ve got a few definitions to get out of the way:
Now, how do we go about turning three numbers into a decent fielding metric? Well, let’s take a look at Mariners’ shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, as an example. He’s had 244 balls hit into his zone, and of those 244 chances, he’s turned 200 of them into outs. The average shortstop turns about 83% of balls in zone into outs, so we would expect the average SS to make about 203 plays, if they had 244 chances. Betancourt is about -3 compared to average.
How do we handle out of zone performance? Betancourt’s made just 17 out of zone plays so far in 2008. The average shortstop makes about .13 out of zone plays per in zone chance*, so we’d expect the average SS to have about 32 out of zone plays, given Yuni’s in zone chances. This puts Betancourt at -15 on OOZ balls and about -18 plays overall.
*One major assumption is being taken here. That is that the number of in zone chances a player gets also reflects the number of out of zone chances he’ll have. Since we don’t know exactly how many OOZ chances anyone actually has, we have to estimate this number somehow. Some people believe innings or total balls in play or something else would be a better proxy, but I’m using in zone chances here.
We now have Betancourt at -18 plays, but we’re not quite done yet. It’s a lot easier to work in terms of runs because that’s generally how we measure things in baseball, so we have to make one final conversion. Using the numbers derived from Chris Dial, we can turn plays into runs, simply by multiplying plays by .753 for shortstops (it varies by position as saving a play in, say, the outfield, is, on average, more valuable than saving a play in the infield). Betancourt now ends up at about -13 runs, or the second-worst MLB shortstop, ahead of only Bobby Crosby (-14.6).
That is essentially what you do, with every player, at every position (of course, Excel makes that a little bit easier, or at least it’s supposed to, if you know what you’re doing).
The Good and the Bad
There are a number of reasons why this metric (stat, translation, conversion, whatever you want to call it) is pretty darn good, and there are also, of course, many limitations.
I think that, if we keep the limitations in mind, this can be a very useful number to look at. Of course, we can’t get carried away with two-thirds of a season’s stats, both because of the limitations mentioned above, and because of the relatively small amount of data we’re working with. With that said, let’s take a look at the best and worst teams and individual fielders so far in 2008.
Below are all 30 teams listed, in order of runs saved above average (through Monday, July 28):
STL 45.1 ATL 39.4 CHN 35.7 OAK 35.1 SD 31.0 HOU 28.3 PHI 28.0 LAN 27.5 MIL 22.4 TOR 18.5 LAA 15.4 NYN 10.3 TB 9.0 SF 4.7 CHA -2.8 SEA -5.5 COL -6.1 BOS -7.3 DET -7.6 ARI -8.6 WAS -10.8 CLE -12.9 BAL -17.0 CIN -19.2 PIT -24.3 TEX -26.4 FLA -38.1 NYA -48.9 MIN -49.2 KC -58.4
The Cardinals come out on top, at about 45 runs above average. The Cards are led by a great infield trio of Adam Kennedy ( 14.9), Albert Pujols ( 11.5), and Cezar Izturis ( 10.2). The Braves are also anchored by three great infielders in Yunel Escobar ( 17.4), Chipper Jones ( 16.5), and Mark Teixeira ( 10.6). The Cubs are led by rookie right fielder Kosuke Fukudome ( 15.5). Other standouts include Derrek Lee ( 7.2) and Mike Fontenot ( 6.8).
The Royals find themselves trailing the majors, at 58 runs below average. They have eight players that are at least 5 runs below average or worse. Minnesota’s been hurt badly by their infield defense: Justin Morneau (first, -10.7), Alexi Casilla (second, -6.1), Brendan Harris (short, -5.6), and Mike Lamb (third, -12.6). The Yankees can thank most of their poor rating to Bobby Abreu, who trails the majors at 27.5 runs below average.
Best and Worst Fielders
The subtitle there is a bit of a misnomer, as you’d like to have more than one year of data to truly determine the best and worst fielders. But here are the top 20 fielders so far in 2008, ranked in order of runs saved above average (these aren’t per 150 innings or anything, by the way – this is the player’s total so far):
Utley, Phi 25.0 Rolen, Tor 23.8 Beltre, Sea 21.8 Ellis, Oak 18.3 Hardy, Mil 17.5 Escobar, Atl 17.4 Giles, SD 16.9 Jones, Atl 16.5 Fukudome, Chi 15.5 Hannahan, Oak 14.9 Kennedy, Stl 14.9 Berkman, Hou 13.9 Winn, SF 13.2 Anderson, CHA 13.1 Votto, Cin 12.9 Rios, Tor 12.7 Gutierrez, Cle 11.5 Pujols, Stl 11.5 Helton, Col 11.3 Figgins, LAA 11.1
And how about the trailers:
Abreu, NYA -27.5 Wells, Tor -21.9 Jacobs, Fla -17.9 Encarnacion,Cin -15.9 Hawpe, Col -15.5 McLouth, Pit -15.3 Griffey Jr, Cin -15.1 Mora, Bal -14.8 Blake, Cle -14.6 Crosby, Oak -14.6 Ramirez, Bos -14.1 Betancourt, Sea -13.3 Ordonez, Det -13.3 Lamb, Min -12.6 Easley, NYN -12.5 Hermida, Fla -12.5 Quentin, CHA -12.1 Cantu, Tor -12.1 Castillo, NYM -12.0 Kinsler, Tex -11.8
Figuring you might be interested in, oh, say, the 800 some players in between the top and bottom 20, here’s the full spreadsheet.
There you’ve got ratings at every position, positional averages in some of the key stats, and team totals again. Feel free to use it however you’d like, of course, and let me know if you have any questions. And let me know if I’ve messed anything up, be it in the spreadsheet or in any of my rambling above. I am by no means any type of expert on fielding analysis, but I find it fascinating, and I hope you do too.
Myron Logan writes about the Padres and baseball at Friar Forecast.