Touching BasesNovember 18, 2010
The Decade in Basic Fielding: Leaderboards
By Jeremy Greenhouse

The Gold Gloves were announced last week, and I know what you're thinking; if only there was another metric to evaluate fielders. Well, sorry to disappoint, but I don't have it in me to come up with an original acronym. Anyway, there was this really interesting thread on The Book Blog in which Tangotiger posted a simple yet powerful leaderboard consisting of outs made per ball in play for all active shortstops. Derek Jeter came in last. Spanning the entire 2000-2009 timeframe, one would have to have faced extraordinary luck to not deserve one's place at the very top or bottom of such a basic leaderboard. There's really no arguing with it. (If you want to argue, Colin Wyers went in depth on the subject at Baseball Prospectus.)

I found every fielder's out-per-ball-in-play rates as well as the average conversion rates at each position. Nothing special. No handedness or batted-ball adjustments, no plays-to-runs conversion. Below, I present the top five and bottom five at each position sorted by total plays above and below average.


Going from one to nine:

Greg Maddux was probably something like three standard deviations from the Major League mean with his pitching ability. That pales in comparison to his fielding prowess. He turned balls in play into outs as often as Carl Crawford and Ichiro Suzuki. Daniel Cabrera did not do a single thing well on the baseball field other than throw hard.

I've always said that Yankee fans should give Jorge Posada more credit for his fielding. Wait, that's not right. Maybe I mean Brett Gardner. Seeing Posada top a defensive leaderboard is throwing me off.

Albert Pujols: good at baseball.

Orlando Hudson is over 100 plays better than the next closest fielder at any position. You might say he's the basic man's Adam Everett. Freddy Sanchez rates as well as Hudson in several advanced fielding metrics. Considering Jack Wilson played counter Sanchez for many years, there could be a large ball-hogging effect going on.

There has been no ball-hogging effect on the left side of the Yankee infield. A-Rod finishes last for third basemen, and of course Jeter lags all shortstops.

I wonder why Carl Crawford never picked up center field, considering his greatness in left. I've noticed that Garret Anderson is often called underrated by television announcers, given his ability to rack up hits. When I learned about secondary offensive skills, I decided then he was overrated. Then I saw his fielding numbers, and it turns out he's pretty good in left. Maybe he's been rated properly all along.

Darin Erstad had a run where he was something like a true +30-run center fielder. The astute reader will notice a similarity between the LF and CF leaderboards. Foreshadowing.

Yes, Randy Winn appears in the top five of all three outfield positions. Also, Brad Hawpe: bad at fielding.

I made a bunch more leaderboards by varying the data I used as opposed to adjusting the original dataset, which I will do next week. For example, I restricted my sample to only RHBs or only LHBs.

Right-Handed Batters
Left-Handed Batters

If you click on the links, you will see an image similar to the one I used in this article. Different data, same methodology. I don't expect anyone to click on more than a couple, so I will provide brief commentary.

Batters pull grounders and go the other way on fly balls. This results in shortstops making fewer outs against left-handed batters than second basemen, first basemen, left fielders, or center fielders. At some point, it must be optimal for fielders to switch positions depending on the batter's tendencies. I'm sure once that started to happen, a rule would be put in place to deter such delays.

Mariano Rivera turned 10.55% of balls in play into outs himself when facing LHBs. Maddux was 7.52%, the league average was 4.36%, and Cabrera came in at 1.76%. That 10.55% mark can explain a fair amount of Rivera's extraordinary .263 career BABIP. He's a gifted athlete who is said to play a quality defensive center field. Plus jamming LHBs with his cutter can result in easy bouncers right back to the mound.

Right-Handed Pitchers
Left-Handed Pitchers

I don't know if any advanced fielding metrics control for pitcher handedness, but I'd imagine any adjustments made would be negligible.

Ground Balls
Air Balls

Jeter has been very good at catching balls in the air in his career, but that only highlights his inability to field grounders. At least he might be better than Yuniesky Betancourt. A-Rod showed up in the top five among shortstops on air ball plays, but bottom five among shortstops and third basemen on grounders. Robin Ventura blew away the third base field by converting over 20% of grounders into outs. Damion Easley was first on grounders and close to last on balls in the air. Jason Varitek was last on grounders and first on popups.

Ichiro has forced out four players on ground balls.

There's a massive range for pitchers in how often they field their own bunts. Javier Vazquez and Carlos Zambrano control 50% of bunts themselves, while Jon Lieber and Ben Sheets make outs on under 25%.

Two Outs
Less Than Two Outs

Overall defensive efficiency is ten points higher with two outs than it is otherwise. I don't know if it follows that their should be a fielding adjustment.

Fenway Park
Coors Field

DERs at Coors and Fenway were .665 and .676, respectively. Brad Hawpe and Manny Ramirez were both 80 plays below average in their respective parks. It's tough to say if Jason Bay played good defense in Fenway or if Manny's insane awfulness made it appear that way. I've been under the impression that J.D. Drew is a really good defensive outfielder, yet he's made only 6.6% of plays in Fenway's oddly-shaped right field, while most RFs turn around 7.5% of balls into outs. Maybe there's a Coco Crisp ball-hog effect?
Juan Pierre showed up on the bottom five overall list for center fielders, but he played in an impossibly difficult Coors Field, and actually did well there.

Next week I'll take a look at basic fielding adjustments.

The information used here was obtained free of charge from and is copyrighted by Retrosheet. Interested parties may contact Retrosheet at 20 Sunset Rd., Newark, DE 19711. 2010 data is out!


If that's Cliff Lee low on the pitchers list, then his behind-the-back on a comebacker and general athleticism has masked his lack of range/glove quickness in my mind like Jeter hustle highlights masks his lack of range to others.

Matt Holliday, Juan Pierre, Preston Wilson, Larry Walker, Brad Hawpe - they all played in Colorado for a significant period of time.

Maybe there's a bit more to the thin air in Colorado and unadjusted OF defensive stats. I'm not saying that any of them have good range, but when the entire starting OF for the Rockies are all in the bottom 5 at their position, maybe there's something else going on.

Bob, at the bottom of the article I posted a Coors Field leaderboard and noted that Juan Pierre was actually above average there. Good job noticing Larry Walker and Matt Holliday, who were also decent in left at Coors. However, Preston Wilson and Brad Hawpe really were really bad, ballpark adjustment or no.

I'd like to see age factored into this somehow. Maybe average defense of all 22 year olds at a position, all 23 year olds, etc.

I also think you should take a grain of salt trying to judge Larry Walker from these numbers, since it only has him from age 33 on.

Shthar, good idea to try basic aging curves. I'll put that on my to-do list. And I don't think I've ever said a bad word about Larry Walker.

I guess that explains why the Yankees have been so lousy all these years.

Great stuff, Jeremy. The breakdowns are terrific, especially GB and airball.

The one position I think you have to be careful about interpreting is pitcher, because they control their own GB/FB environment. The fact that Schilling had a 39% GB rate while Maddux was 51% obviously plays a big role in their ratings here.

Question: how can A. Jones be a leader in CF on airballs, but not overall?

DHN, good one! Because the Yankees haven't been lousy. I get it.

Guy, thanks. And I think you just answered your own question. Maddux had a 51% GB rate, which means that Jones was probably on the field for more GBs than average. Does that make sense? I'll be running the adjustment numbers next week and I will make a point of checking whether Jones or Cameron had an abnormal GB/FB rate while on the field, because Retrosheet says they had similar out rates on balls in the air.

Yes, that makes sense. So we should really look only at Airball numbers in assessing OFs, I think. And probably should consider only, or at least mainly, at GBs when rating IFs. I'm sure there is some airball skill among IFs, but the potential for ball-hogging probably overwhelms that in many cases (e.g. Orlando Hudson).

Boy, R. Winn is impressive (although he drops out of the CF leaders when you look only at airballs). I wonder if his split time among positions has led to him being underrated?

You probably won't have an effect worth mentioning for handedness of the pitcher, once the batter handedness is handled.

One important split you missed is the state of the runners. Put a runner on first, and see how often second basemen and first basemen make the out.

Charles: Base/out certainly changes the distribution of outs. But does the base/out distribution for 1B and 2B vary enough to really impact player ratings much? I would have guessed it washes out pretty quickly (within a couple of seasons). Is that wrong?

"Leadeboards" should be "Leaderboards" in the title

I had checked for first-base occupied splits, and the results added no value for me, so I didn't think they would for the reader. Maybe I should've done first-base occupied with nobody on second. I do understand that at times, the base situation makes a difference.

GDC, thanks. What a ridiculous typo. I need an editor to proof or better write headlines for me.

Chipper Jones doesn't come out looking to good in these numbers, which I guess jives with what most other advanced metrics have said about his fielding. One thing to note, however, is that he is among the leaders in turning bunts into outs. From watching him, it's always seemed like he was good at making that play. On the other hand, maybe he just positions himself too far in, making it easier to get to bunted balls but tougher to get to hard-hit balls down the line.

I'm curious about Jeter. How does he do so well and rate so poorly? Is this about age and diminished range? Was he better a decade ago?

My complaint about Jeter as a SS is his tendency to jump and throw, turning routine ground balls into highlight plays.

It seems to me that fielders should plant their feet and make a solid throw. Not only does the ballet move result in a weak throw, it often results in an error and advances the runner to second base.

No football quarterback or point guard on the basketball court could get away with the leaping, fading pass. Couches would bench them for it. Why do baseball infielders get away with it?

Whoops. Coaches, not couches. Perhaps when a player gets into his upper 30's he should be couched rather than benched.