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March 18, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

Defensive Doldrums

by Larry Granillo

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The differences between the 2010 Brewers, who won 77 games, and the 2011 Brewers, who are projected for an 85-win season, are usually described along these lines:

The 2010 Brewers were a team with a great offense and terrible pitching and defense. By trading for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, the Brewers have transformed themselves into a team with a (still) great offense and solid pitching. The defense is still awful (and may even be worse).

I've read that sentiment in a dozen different articles and have even expressed it myself. It's a simple, accurate description of the team’s strengths and weaknesses. In 2010, the Brewers scored the fourth-most runs in the National League, behind only the Reds, Phillies, and Rockies. With no major departures in the lineup, a similar offensive output is expected. On the other hand, the team’s pitching staff allowed the third-most runs in the league, behind only the Diamondbacks and Pirates. Greinke and Marcum are expected to alleviate some of that distress, both by piling up outs themselves and by easing the strain on an overtaxed bullpen

On defense, though, there’s no help on the horizon. It's no secret that Prince Fielder, Casey McGehee, Ryan Braun, and the rest of the Brewers’ big boppers are defensively-challenged, but it's not until you see the big picture that the extent of their inadequacy sinks in. Milwaukee’s 0.678 Defensive Efficiency (DE) ranked 15th in the National League and 29th in the majors last season. The only team to rate lower played in Pittsburgh and won 57 games. And with Alcides Escobar—one of the few players on the Brewers’ roster valued for his glove—leaving as part of the Greinke trade, there isn't much potential for improvement in 2011. Adding Yuniesky Betancourt to the everyday lineup tends to lower a team’s defensive ceiling.

The Brewers aren't the only defensive black hole in the division. The Pirates, Brewers, Astros, and Cubs occupied the bottom four spots in the NL's 2010 Defensive Efficiency rankings. Only the Cardinals (seventh in the league) and the Reds (second) were above average in the field. No other division can "boast" such defensive homogeneity.

As I mentioned earlier, the Central's worst defense does not belong to the Brewers. With a .673 DE, Pittsburgh finished worst in the majors and as far behind the 29th-place Brewers as Milwaukee was behind the 24th-place Marlins. Individual players' stats back up the team-level findings.

According to the new Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) figures found in Baseball Prospectus 2011, rookie left fielder Jose Tabata was the club's best defensive player in 2010 with +6 FRAA (a respectable total, but not what you want from your "best defensive player"). The team's star players—Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker—all fared worse. Alvarez accumulated +1 FRAA at third base in his abridged time in the majors, while McCutchen and Walker dipped well below zero, with -12 and -18 FRAA, respectively, forcing the kind of trade-off of offense and defense that teams have to make all the time.

The Pirates and Brewers are in similar boats, with their most productive offensive players also playing their worst defense. Prince Fielder is often derided as Milwaukee's worst defender; while that may sometimes be the case, it didn’t appear to be in 2010. After a -12 FRAA season in 2009, the lumbering first baseman finished the 2010 season at +1 FRAA, though we should avoid putting too much stock in either single-season sample. The news wasn't as good for Corey Hart and Casey McGehee. Neither Hart nor McGehee has ever been considered a plus defender, and 2010 was Exhibit A for the prosecution. Hart spent his season accumulating -10 FRAA in right field, while McGehee put up the same number at the hot corner. More surprising was FRAA’s verdict on Carlos Gomez. The Brewers put up with Gomez's anemic bat because of his excellent defensive reputation for getting good reads on the ball and using his speed to chase down anything hit near him. In 2008 and 2009, Gomez turned in seasons of 14 and 15 FRAA as the Twins’ center fielder. In 2010, though, his FRAA sank to -10. With Hart, Braun (+4 FRAA), and Gomez patrolling the Miller Park outfield in 2010, there were plenty of balls falling in for hits.

The blame for the Cubs' poor defense is a bit more difficult to distribute. Most of their outfield was solid, with Marlon Byrd, a +6 FRAA player, chasing down flies in center field, and two decent fielders in Kosuke Fukudome (+1 FRAA) and Tyler Colvin (+2 FRAA) working in right. In the infield, Starlin Castro spent his age-20 season at shortstop, a tough assignment even for a more experienced player, but he handled it well, accumulating only -2 FRAA.

The biggest defensive problem with the Cubs, though, comes from the other players making up the left side of the field: Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano. Soriano has never been a great defender, and 2010 may have been his worst year yet in the field: he earned -7 FRAA playing under the glare of the Ferris Bueller seats last year. Note this quote from BP2011: "His fielding sums him up: He's not awful as much as frustrating, making mistakes and scrambling to repair the damage."

Ramirez may be the Cubs' most serious liability in the field. Offensively, A-Ram’s 2010 was a disappointment, as he hovered below the Mendoza line for the first two months of the season before finally getting healthy enough to put together a respectable second half. His defense was even worse. Ramirez had -14 FRAA in his 2008 season before shooting up to -3 FRAA in 2009. He was back to his old self in 2010, putting up a -9 FRAA season. With a 20-year-old rookie shortstop, a near-statue at third base, and a series of adventures in left field, it's a wonder that the Cubs caught as many balls as they did.

Houston's Defensive Efficiency was identical to Chicago's in 2010, but their story isn't quite the same as the Cubs'. To begin with, Houston's two best players, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, are also excellent outfield defenders. Bourn finished the 2010 season with a career-high +7 FRAA. Pence did him even better, accumulating +10 FRAA in 2010, which was Pence's third straight year of with a FRAA of at least +7 in right field. Jeff Keppinger put together a fantastic season with the glove as Houston’s starting second baseman in 2010, mustering a +12 FRAA at the keystone. He'll give way to Clint Barmes in 2011, while the Astros attempt to fit him in elsewhere.

The biggest defensive drain on the team in 2010 was clearly Carlos Lee. Whereas the Cubs needed Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano to combine for -16 FRAA, the Astros received the same horrible performance from Lee alone.  El Caballo finished the season at -15 FRAA, and considering his age and body type, Houston’s brass can't expect much better from their $37 million albatross. Combined with the infield changes that the Astros have made—bringing in Barmes and Bill Hall to replace Keppinger and the revolving shortstop—Houston's defensive outlook for 2011 looks dark.

At least the Cardinals and Reds can look proudly at their defense and not have to worry about that aspect of their performance in the coming season. Having players like Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols, Skip Schumaker, Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Scott Rolen—all of whom range from solid to excellent defenders—arrayed around the diamond certainly makes things easier on the St. Louis and Cincinnati pitching staffs. The fact that most of these good glove men are also excellent offensive players makes these teams' lots even better, since it keeps them from having to settle for suboptimal solutions in the field in exchange for pop at the plate.

The worst defensive player on these two above-average teams—at least according to FRAA—hails from St. Louis. A sophomore last year, Colby Rasmus didn’t have the best relationship with his manager; perhaps his -20 FRAA in centerfield had something to do with that. Most surprisingly, Rasmus put up this horrendous number only one season after posting a +5 FRAA in his rookie campaign. Rasmus will be only 24 during the 2011 year, so he may still have better defensive days aheads.

The NL Central doesn’t have the strongest reputation among baseball fans these days. Since the 83-win Cardinals' World Series win in 2006, observers have bemoaned the Central's mediocre teams and their lack of success in the postseason. There are, of course, many factors that contribute to a run like that, but it's not unreasonable to think that the division's terrible defense has played a big part. In view of the scarcity of good gloves making their way into the division this offseason, a defensive renaissance in the NL Central will probably have to wait until at least 2012.

Related Content:  Defense,  FRAA,  Defensive Efficiency

21 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Tom Pfister

"Having players like Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols, Skip Schumaker, Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Scott Role—all of whom range from solid to excellent defenders—arrayed around the diamond certainly makes things easier on the St. Louis pitching staff."

The Reds are going to be in trouble this year with Votto, Bruce and Rolen in St. Louis.

Mar 18, 2011 05:23 AM
rating: 0
 
BillJohnson

Looks like that got fixed, but "Schumaker" is an interesting misspelling of "Rasmus," too.

Mar 18, 2011 06:29 AM
rating: 2
 
smocon

Although I agree that there is a perception difference betwen the NL Central and the rest of the league, the one about bad defense isnt very accurate (not slamming article here Larry, just stating general perception problem).

If you look at the last 3 years for defensive statistics for individuals, there is a group of about 3 who could be considered elite in Utley, Zimmerman and Bourn, when you go one level down, to "very good" there are just as many NL Central guys over that time as NL East players....Bourn, Pence, Phillips, Soriano.

The Brewer defense will be horrendous this year, and my suspicion is that its going to make those two big pitching acquisitions look a little less shiny by years end as a result. Add to it that that will probably be the thing that keeps that team out of the playoffs. My suspicion is that the whole package will be the thing that wins the Central (i.e. Reds).

Mar 18, 2011 06:45 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Larry Granillo
BP staff

It is certainly Milwaukee's achilles heel. And when you look at the two biggest surprises of 2010 - the Giants and Reds - you notice that they both rank at the top of the league in defense. Great pitching, an average (SF) or great (CIN) offense, and terrific defense is certainly a formula for success. The Brewers will be fighting it all year, but it's not insurmountable.

Mar 18, 2011 07:05 AM
 
Dennis
(749)

Since when is Skip Schumaker a defensive asset at 2B? And where is Colby Rasmus' defense improving to? -10 FRAA? Sounds like he'd still be a definsive liability. Brendan Ryan is gone as well and Ryan Theriot is probably about a win worse defensively.

Oh yeah, and they are pretending Lance Berkaman is a right fielder...

I'd say the Cardinals have plenty of defensive questions.

Mar 18, 2011 07:32 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Larry Granillo
BP staff

I included Schumaker in that list because, when I was looking through the Cards' chapter, I saw he had a +12 FRAA in 2010. But when I look again, I see only a +2. I must have been hallucinating.

I don't know what happened to Rasmus last year. In 2009, his CF FRAA was +5 and in 2008, in Memphis, it was +8. The -20 seems tough to get past, but I'd give him another year or two at the big league level before I made a final determination. (Then again, I don't watch him on a nightly basis, so I may be missing something.)

Mar 18, 2011 07:58 AM
 
cards1982

He had issues throwing to third and home last year. Additionally, he was playing too shallow at times. If he cleans up the throwing and has better positioning, he should be a back to his pre-2010 defensive value.

Mar 18, 2011 08:29 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I'm sorry, FRAA since its inception has been a bit of a junk stat to me. It varies widely from one year to the next, without any real explanation on how someone goes +10 to -10 or vice versa. Regarding BP2011, FRAA and the player comments often contradicted each other from one player to another. Even comparing BP 2010 to 2011, you get different interpretations of FRAA and why it fluctuates. Perhaps an elite SS took fielding chances from a 3B, for example. Also, I remember some commentary about how little difference there actually is between +10 FRAA and 0 FRAA.

Using multiple defensive metrics can help provide some insight, but besides a brief mention of DE, there wasn't anything else used but FRAA. And to me, at least, FRAA is pretty much worthless.

Mar 18, 2011 10:29 AM
rating: 1
 
irussma

I'm not defending the stat per se, but it's worth pointing out that just as players have good years and bad years at the plate, they have good and bad years in the field. We don't generally bat an eyelash at a player's Runs Created, say, fluctuating by ten or twenty runs from year to year. Why shouldn't their fielding runs saved fluctuate as well?

Mar 19, 2011 19:41 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Oh I got no problem with fluctuation in fielding stats and am quite comfortable with the concept of people having better or worse years with the glove... but for 90-95% of the players who play a full MLB season, generally you see an FRAA range of +10 to -10.

The implication is that the 20 point difference is a quantifiable, measurable difference. Then, that "measurable difference" is at times refuted by BP's own scouting comments in the BP Annuals, for example. A player maybe +10 in CF but takes poor routes to balls, throws horribly, etc. A player is +0 at third base yet is considered a horrible fielder.

Even from a qualitative aspect, FRAA isn't that informative because again, the +10 to -10 valuation doesn't often reflect in BP's own scouting. Then, take in the idea that a person can go from +10 to -10 from one year to another and the "explanation" varies from injury to a shortstop taking chances from the third baseman etc to luck to a bad year, and I just don't know how useful it is.

Finally, to reiterate, 90-95% of full-time players fall in that +10-10 range. To me, that's as informative as saying the average MLB hitter posts an OPS between .700 and .900. However, there are ways to determine how the .700 hitter is different than the .900 hitter (Hits, HR, BB, etc.) and ways to identify luck vs skill (GB rate, BABIP, etc). FRAA doesn't have that.

Also, it's less unlikely that a .700 hitter will become a .900 hitter and vice versa where it is quite common for a fielder to bounce back and forth from a -10 FRAA and a +10 FRAA. As a comparison even EQBRR (Equivalent Baserunning Runs) has some measurable components to it and has a bit more consistency from year to year.

Overall, OPS and other metrics can be indicative of future performance, but to me, FRAA isn't really indicative of anything.

Mar 20, 2011 12:57 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

The difference between +10 and 0 is ten runs. One ballgame, basically. Which, as one aspect of one lone player, is pretty significant.

No opinion as to how reliable that +10 and 0 is, though.

Mar 18, 2011 13:08 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I understand that the difference between +10 and 0 is meant to be ten runs and one win difference, but as you said, I debate how reliable the +10 and 0 is.

Mar 18, 2011 14:12 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

The same can be said for any defensive system - wide swings from year to year without any "explanation." That's why it's better to use multi-year samples (three is best) when doing any real evaluation of individual defense, and why it's helpful to look at multiple systems where available. Those wide year-to-year swings will average out.

Mar 18, 2011 15:29 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

I'll admit, I don't know much about the other systems since I primarily hang out here. I do look at multi-year samples though. I guess part of me was thinking, as I said in my original post, that Larry could've included some measurements from other systems in his article instead of coming to a conclusion about the NL Central's doldrums using just one metric of measurement.

Mar 20, 2011 13:00 PM
rating: 0
 
evo34

It would make sense to test any defensive metric to see how predictive it has been historically. I suspect the predictive value of FRAA would be quite low, but I would certainly be open to reading an analysis of it.

Mar 20, 2011 21:00 PM
rating: 0
 
Lou Doench

I think you missed the Reds best defensive assets altogether, in the up the middle combo of Brandon Phillips, Paul Janish, and Drew Stubbs. Assuming a year of health from Rolen this might be the best Reds defense since the '90s.

Mar 18, 2011 16:44 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Assuming a year of health from Rolen is akin to assuming a year of health from Ted Williams.

Mar 18, 2011 20:53 PM
rating: 0
 
Squirrelmetrix

So, the Cardinals already have Matt Holliday in left field and first baseman Albert Pujols in house. They brought in Lance Berkman, who is going to play right field I guess. I don't think the Cardinals are strong up the middle with Schumaker and Theriot.

Kudos if Berkman's bat offsets his shoddy play in right field but I think the Cardinals' defense could be atrocious.

Mar 18, 2011 21:50 PM
rating: 0
 
Joe

Pujols and Holliday don't belong in this analysis. The rest probably stands, though without those two it reads a lot like "Lance Berkman can't play RF."

Mar 19, 2011 13:50 PM
rating: 0
 
irussma

Uh, yeah, I'm also confused by this analysis. Pujols is an elite defender at first and Holliday is above average in an outfield corner. Schumaker and Theriot aren't great, but eh. They'll be fine.

Mar 19, 2011 19:42 PM
rating: 0
 
RedsManRick

Not quite sure I see how the Cards are grouped with the Reds considering the cards got worse defensively this year and were already a fair bit behind the Reds. Here are their DERs from last year with their NL Rank.

CIN .704 (2)
SLN .693 (7)
CHN .680 (13)
HOU .680 (14)
MIL .678 (15)
PIT .673 (16)

The Reds will be getting more play from Paul Janish instead of Orlando Cabrera. The Cards will "traded" Brendan Ryan for Ryan Theriot at SS and John Jay for Lance Berkman in RF. If anything the Cards are likely to be closer to the rest of the pathetic NL Central defenses than they are to move closer to the Reds, who have gold glove caliber defenders at more positions than not.

Mar 19, 2011 05:41 AM
rating: 3
 
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