The Decade in Basic Fielding: Leaderboards
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.
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.
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.
I don't know if any advanced fielding metrics control for pitcher handedness, but I'd imagine any adjustments made would be negligible.
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%.
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.
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?
Next week I'll take a look at basic fielding adjustments.
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