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March 27, 2003

Breaking Balls

Fly Catching

by Derek Zumsteg

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Outfield defense is, at first glance, one of the easier things to measure. If there's a fly ball and an outfielder catches it, they get at least one out, which is recorded statistically as a putout. But outfielders will almost never get a putout on a ground ball--the best they can do is pick it up and throw it to someone who will touch the base, or tag the runner. Can something that easy provide useful information?

In order to answer this question, I took the 2002 team totals for fly balls, subtracted the home runs, and looked to see what teams recorded the most outfield putouts. Now, there's a couple of caveats here--one, an outfielder can record a putout on a line drive, and two, an outfielder can record all the putouts that they (or the infield) make on shallow pop-ups. However, if you assume that all the outfielders got X% of their POs on line drives, and that a proportionally larger number of fly balls dropped, that still won't change the relative ratings and the interesting distributions we'll see. The only thing this really isn't going to guard against is if you believe that the distribution of fly balls between infielders and outfielders differs substantially between teams, which seems to me to be an unlikely possibility. (Or, if home runs aren't counted as fly balls, but that seems like a reasonable assumption.)

What looking at putouts against fly balls gives us a sense of is how good different outfielders are at making outs without having to deal with the fly-ball/groundball staff issues that plague Range Factor (RnF) and Zone Rating (ZR), without having to break out the formulas.

Take the Twins, for instance. In 2002, their pitching staff got 1,929 fly balls and 184 home runs, for 1,745 non-HR fly balls, and their outfield produced 1,202 putouts: 415 in center field, 397 in right field, 390 in left field. It's unusual, as we'll see, for the center fielder to not be the easy leader. The Twins were by far the closest--only the Yankees, where Bernie Williams barely squeaked by Raul Mondesi and Rondell White, and the Marlins (Wilson-Floyd-Millar) had such a weird distribution.

But of the 1,745 hypothetically playable fly balls, 1,202 putouts were made, which comes out to 69%. How does that stack up against everyone else?

			OF	 OF Putouts as
Team		Flies	Putouts	 percent of Flies
------------	-----	-------	 ----------------
Angels		1525	1181	 77%
Padres		1314	1013	 77%
Rockies		1378	1060	 77%
Cardinals	1424	1093	 77%
Reds		1393	1064	 76%
Orioles		1412	1069	 76%
Brewers		1440	1083	 75%
Royals		1459	1095	 75%
Braves		1411	1057	 75%
Indians		1406	1053	 75%
Expos		1332	988	 74%
Blue Jays	1484	1087	 73%
Giants		1576	1148	 73%
Dodgers		1395	1016	 73%
Cubs		1335	971	 73%
Red Sox		1355	984	 73%
Rangers		1470	1067	 73%
Devil Rays	1687	1215	 72%
Tigers		1602	1150	 72%
White Sox	1516	1082	 71%
Marlins		1474	1048	 71%
Mariners	1653	1172	 71%
Mets		1488	1047	 70%
Pirates		1293	907	 70%
Diamondbacks	1396	979	 70%
Twins		1745	1202	 69%
Yankees		1511	1032	 68%
Astros		1409	926	 66%
Athletics	1490	975	 65%
Phillies	1453	938	 65%

To put it bluntly: Not so hot.

Just this rough sketch provides us with a ballpark figure for the impact of outfield defense, and it's large: the difference between the best and worst is around 150 flies not turned into outs, and it's reasonable to figure a lot of those were for extra bases. That pretty easily turns into five, even as many as 10 games in the standings.

I'm also surprised by some of the results--the Twins had a fearsome defensive reputation, for instance, yet show up toward the bottom of this list. The Mariners feature two supposedly excellent outfielders in Mike Cameron, The Amazing Ichiro, along with a rotating Left Fielder of the Week. Otherwise, the top teams shake out pretty much as expected.

What's even more interesting is that I don't see the park effects you'd expect; Astros outfielders don't have a lot of ground to cover, for instance, but they're 28th-best, while the Rockies, with all that territory where balls can drop around them, are still in the top-five. And both staffs allowed about the same number of non-HR fly balls (1,378 for the Rockies a ton of home runs, 1,409 for the Astros), so the logical conclusion here is that the Rockies outfielders are even better than they're given credit for, while the Astros are really that bad.

The average outfield in 2002 played behind a staff that saw 1,461 of these possibly playable fly balls. The center fielder compiled 418 PO, 29% of the fly ball total, the right fielder made 324 PO, 22% of the fly ball total, and the left fielders made 314 PO, 22% of the fly ball total (again, caveats with regard to PO coming elsewhere, proportionality).

The top five teams broke down like this:

			    PO by   CF
Team	Flies Primary CF    all CF  PO/FB
Angels	1525  Erstad	    529	    35%
Padres	1314  Kotsay	    413	    31%
Rockies	1378  Pierre	    442	    32%
Cards	1424  Edmonds	    445	    31%
Reds	1393  --	    422	    30%

			    PO by   RF
Team	Flies Primary RF    all RF  PO/FB
Angels	1525  Salmon	    324	    21%
Padres	1314  Trammell	    273	    21%
Rockies	1378  Walker	    337	    24%
Cards	1424  Drew	    350	    25%
Reds	1393  Kearns	    338	    24%

			    PO by   LF
Team	Flies Primary LF    all LF  PO/FB
Angels	1525  Anderson	    328	    22%
Padres	1314  Gant	    327	    25%
Rockies	1378  Hollandsworth 281	    20%
Cards	1424  Pujols	    298	    21%
Reds	1393  Dunn	    304	    22%

Now, to staff-handedness, to make a quick point.

  • Angels: starters mostly right-handed, 70% of starts by RHP
  • Cardinals: starters heavily right-handed, 80% of starts by RHP
  • Padres: starters heavily right-handed, 85% of starts by RHP
  • Rockies: starters slightly right-handed, 60% of starts by RHP
  • Reds: starters all right-handed (under 10 starts by lefties all year)
In that way you can kind of try to unwind some more meaning in those: with more lefties standing in and pulling balls to right field, Adam Dunn's 22% is far more impressive than Todd Hollandsworth's 20%, since Hollandsworth presumably saw many more balls hit to him. Similarly, since the Cardinals and Padres have similar staff composition, J.D. Drew and the Cardinals RF defense was that much better than Bubba Trammell and the Padres.

Cincinnati's center field position was patrolled almost equally by Ken Griffey Jr., Juan Encarnacion, and Reggie Taylor. If Griffey can come back healthy, well-stretched and conditioned, it's not outrageous to think that the Reds could field a premier outfield on both sides of the inning.

What surprised me most was that the Angels--who feature Garrett Anderson, a guy who doesn't embarrass himself in center, as a regular left fielder--didn't do so well at the corners. If there's a case for any center fielder stealing outs from his mates, I think Erstad would provide it.

The Indians are also a little deceptive. With Lawton out, there was a lot of playing time for both Karim Garcia and Chris Magruder--who played a lot of left for Ben Broussard, not to mention some center field, where he and Coco Crisp seconded Milton Bradley. The Indians had an outfield-by-committee around various injuries, and it ended up working pretty well for them.

The Rockies came out well, even though recent speculation on the effects of playing consistently at altitude would lead one to believe that fielding would be much harder for the team.

The worst five teams broke down like so, from least-bad to worst:

			    PO by   CF
Team	  Flies	Primary CF  all CF  PO/FB
Twins	  1745	Hunter	    415	    24%
Yankees	  1511	Williams    378	    25%
Astros	  1409	Berkman	    363	    26%
Athletics 1490	Long	    395	    27%
Phillies  1453	Glanville   359	    25%

			    PO by   RF
Team	  Flies	Primary RF  all RF  PO/FB
Twins	  1745	Mohr	    397	    23%
Yankees	  1511	Mondesi	    304	    20%
Astros	  1409	Hidalgo	    333	    24%
Athletics 1490	Dye	    289	    19%
Phillies  1453	Abreu	    291	    20%

			    PO by   LF
Team	  Flies Primary LF  all LF  PO/FB
Twins	  1745	Jones	    390	    22%
Yankees	  1511	White	    350	    23%
Astros	  1409	Ward	    230	    16%
Athletics 1490	Justice	    291	    20%
Phillies  1453	Burrell	    288	    20%

They all share a common characteristic: below-average centerfield play. Torii Hunter supposedly was fighting some kind of chronic hamstring or something with the leg all year long, and his play with the leather did seem markedly reduced from his previous prowess.

And then there's the A's. Maybe it'll get better this year. I mean, at least left field should see an improvement, as long as Long hits well enough to...I give up. They sure could use Beltran in center, though. But I'll bet Baird has all of Beane's phone numbers blocked at the switchboard these days.

Besides the Twins, I was most surprised to see the Phillies in here. Doug Glanville's had an excellent defensive reputation for years (and has likely written another letter to Strat-O-Matic complaining about what is certainly another decline in his defensive rating), and Ricky Ledee's no slouch either. But they didn't get much out of their center fielders in terms of putouts, and they lacked on both corners as well.

The Yankees I saw coming. Williams has been a corner OF in waiting for a while now, and the Yankees trotted out some bad defensive secondary players behind those three: Spencer, Vander Wal...hell, Gerald Williams appeared in 17 games in right field! Six in center! Gerald Williams! Twenty-eight defensive innings in center field! But I digress...

Daryle Ward led the Astros to having the worst LF, in terms of PO/FB rough stats, in the majors. I can't imagine how Jimy Williams, of all managers, kept gouts of steam from coming out his ears as doubles rolled past Ward and Berkman.

Now for some really long tables and sparse commentary:

Center Field

				PO by	CF
Team	  Primary CF	tFB 	all CF	PO/FB
Angels	  Erstad	1,525 	529	35%
Rockies	  Pierre	1,378 	442	32%
Padres	  Kotsay	1,314 	413	31%
Cardinals Edmonds	1,424 	445	31%
Braves	  Jones	        1,411 	434	31%
Royals	  Beltran	1,459 	447	31%
White Sox Lofton	1,516 	460	30%
Reds	  --            1,393 	422	30%
Brewers	  Sanchez	1,440 	435	30%
Rangers	  Rivera	1,470 	444	30%
Expos	  Wilkerson	1,332 	402	30%
Tigers	  Magee	        1,602 	482	30%
Giants	  Shinjo	1,576 	465	30%
Indians	  Bradley	1,406 	411	29%
D'backs	  Finley	1,396 	403	29%
Orioles	  Singleton	1,412 	407	29%
Blue Jays Wells	        1,484 	422	28%
Red Sox	  Damon	        1,355 	382	28%
D-Rays	  Winn	        1,687 	470	28%
Mariners  Cameron	1,653 	456	28%
Pirates	  --	        1,293 	351	27%
Cubs	  Patterson	1,335 	360	27%
Mets	  Perez	        1,488 	401	27%
Dodgers	  Roberts	1,395 	375	27%
Athletics Long	        1,490 	395	27%
Astros	  Berkman	1,409 	363	26%
Marlins	  Wilson	1,474 	377	26%
Yankees	  Williams	1,511 	378	25%
Phillies  Glanville	1,453 	359	25%
Twins     Hunter	1,745 	415	24%

Andruw Jones surprised me. Atlanta's CF defense was fifth-best at 31%. In the past, you could look at nearly any defensive metric and Jones would rate with the best baseball has ever played in center--and now, well, he's not. It's hard to tell the difference between being historically great and being one of the best in baseball, but Jones just isn't dominating his peers as he once did. Was Andruw cheating over to left to keep Chipper out of trouble all year, leaving Sheffield to make more plays? It's possible. Of course, even if that were true, Chipper still almost made a left fielder's share. I don't have the answers here.

And as for Mike Cameron...well, that was just because Ichiro's so good he's stealing all of Mike's flies. Yeah, that's the ticket.

Right Field

				PO by	CF
Team	  Primary RF	tFB     all CF  PO/FB
Dodgers	  Green	        1,406 	348	25%
Cardinals Drew	        1,424 	350	25%
Rockies	  Walker	1,314 	337	24%
Reds	  Kearns	1,411 	338	24%
Red Sox	  Nixon	        1,412 	323	24%
Astros	  Hidalgo	1,511 	333	24%
Giants	  Sanders	1,576 	370	23%
Cubs	  Sosa	        1,396 	313	23%
Braves	  Sheffield	1,440 	330	23%
Indians	  Lawton        1,470 	323	23%
Expos	  Guerrero	1,332 	306	23%
Twins	  Mohr	        1,409 	397	23%
Orioles	  Gibbons	1,459 	321	23%
Rangers	  Gonzalez	1,484 	334	23%
Pirates	  Wilson	1,395 	289	22%
Mets	  Burnitz	1,488 	331	22%
Mariners  Suzuki	1,335 	365	22%
Royals	  Tucker	1,393 	322	22%
Marlins	  Floyd	        1,293 	325	22%
Brewers	  Hammonds	1,516 	315	22%
Blue Jays Mondesi	1,602 	319	21%
Angels	  Salmon	1,525 	324	21%
Padres	  Trammell	1,378 	273	21%
Tigers	  Fick	        1,687 	332	21%
White Sox Ordonez	1,653 	311	21%
Yankees   Mondesi	1,474 	304	20%
Phillies  Abreu	        1,745 	291	20%
D'backs	  McCracken	1,490 	279	20%
D-Rays    Grieve	1,355 	337	20%
Athletics Dye	        1,453 	289	19%

Good stuff.

And Ichiro...well, that was just because Mike Cameron's so good that he's stealing all of Ichiro's flies. Yep.

Left Field

				PO by   LF
Team	  Primary LF	tFB	all LF  PO/FB
Padres	  Gant		1,314	327	25%
D-Rays	  Crawford	1,687	408	24%
Orioles	  Cordova	1,412	341	24%
Marlins	  Millar	1,474	346	23%
Blue Jays Stewart	1,484	346	23%
Yankees	  White		1,511	350	23%
Brewers	  Jenkins	1,440	333	23%
Indians	  Branyan	1,406	319	23%
Twins	  Jones		1,745	390	22%
Royals	  Knoblauch	1,459	326	22%
Cubs	  Alou		1,335	298	22%
Reds	  Dunn		1,393	304	22%
Angels	  Anderson	1,525	328	22%
D'backs	  Gonzalez	1,396	297	21%
Mariners  McLemore	1,653	351	21%
Mets	  Cedeno	1,488	315	21%
Expos	  O'Leary	1,332	280	21%
Dodgers	  Jordan	1,395	293	21%
Tigers	  Higginson	1,602	336	21%
Cardinals Pujols	1,424	298	21%
Braves	  Jones		1,411	293	21%
Pirates	  Giles		1,293	267	21%
Red Sox	  Ramirez	1,355	279	21%
White Sox Lee		1,516	311	21%
Rockies	  Hollandsworth	1,378	281	20%
Giants	  Bonds		1,576	313	20%
Phillies  Burrell	1,453	288	20%
Rangers   Mench		1,470	289	20%
Athletics Justice	1,490	291	20%
Astros	  Ward		1,409	230	16%

Ah, finally, some counter-intuitive results! Of course, these are particularly masked by the effects of defensive replacements. Still, the Padres did well by their Gant/Lankford splitting, and the Orioles got a lot by spotting Cordova and Mora together. The gap here is particularly shocking: replacing the Astros outfield with the Padres outfield would have turned an extra 100 outs--or roughly three games in the standings. Think about that; three games for defense at one position. Jeez.

There you have it--it's not too quick, and it's not too dirty, but it's also not super-complicated, and produces an interesting picture of what teams are getting out of their outfields, and offers us a more general picture of the impact good- and bad-fielding units can have at each outfield position.

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