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May 2, 2014

Pebble Hunting

The Best Defensive Game of April

by Sam Miller

Good days at the plate are pretty easy to identify. If you’re looking for the best game any hitter had in April, you can look at total bases (as in Ryan Braun’s three-homer game) or at hits (as in Charlie Blackmon’s 6-for-6 game) or at win probability added (as when Kyle Seager hit two homers, including a walk-off, for a one-game .906 WPA); or, simply RE24, which would lead you back to Blackmon, who produced more than five runs all by himself. Similarly, for pitchers, pretty easy: Andrew Cashner’s 9/1/0/0/2/11 was the month’s best game score, though you might opt for Jose Fernandez’s 8/3/0/0/0/14 for dominance or Julio Teheran’s 1-0 shutout for value.

Defense is trickier. How would you go about identifying the best defensive game of the year? Does a guy who makes 10 routine plays top a guy who makes a couple web gems in an otherwise quiet night? The busy fielder didn’t necessarily have much to do with those 10 balls coming to him, but he did turn them all into outs—and, as we are smart enough to know by now, what seem like routine plays aren’t always routine (as opposed to the residue of good positioning, good first steps, or an Andreltonesque ability to make difficult plays look easy and impossible plays look merely difficult). We also know that Web Gems aren’t always the most difficult plays—leaving one’s feet being noticeable but not always the sign of excellent defense.

This comes up because this year we wanted to highlight the best defensive game of each month (or so) using statistical means. We turned to Inside Edge, which provides advanced data to major-league clubs (and elsewhere), to help us out. We’re starting simple, but we might get a bit more complex as the year goes on, demonstrating ever-broader expressions of defensive excellence, separating our standouts by position and getting more precise with what we consider valuable. Mostly, of course, this is an excuse for me to make GIFs of pretty baseball things.

So, without further introduction, the best game of the 2014 season so far, according to Inside Edge. It will come as no surprise to you that it was produced by a 24-year-old National League shortstop. Of course, it’s Andrelton Sim—

Wait. Actually, it’s not. It’s Starlin Castro, a shortstop whose defense has long been questioned, who has finished first or second in the league in errors every year of his career, whose move off the position has been considered inevitable by many, whose lapses in concentration have led to tension with his club, and who has only once received any votes for a Fielding Bible award (finishing 15th among shortstops in 2012). But if this seems at all odd to you, remember: Charlie Blackmon, first paragraph.

Inside Edge puts each chance in one of six categories:

  • Routine: Greater than 90 percent chance that it will be fielded
  • Likely: 60 to 90 percent chance
  • Even: 40 to 60 percent chance
  • Unlikely: 10 to 40 percent chance
  • Remote: 1 to 10 percent chance
  • Impossible: 0 percent chance

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Related Content:  Defense,  Chicago Cubs,  Starlin Castro

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

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Myles Handley

For the curious, this is the April 22 game. Cubs won 9-2. You'd think it was the 5-1 victory on April 21 (seeing as it's 5-1 in the 8th inning). As far as I can tell, Valbuena didn't play in that game. Also, Hammel is clearly on the mound. The Cubs scored 4 in the bottom of the 8th in that game, and the DBacks scored 1 in the top of the 9th.

Castro went 2-4 with a double at the plate in this game as well.

May 02, 2014 05:54 AM
rating: 2

Great stuff. I look forward to keeping up with these the rest of the year.

May 02, 2014 07:24 AM
rating: 2

love how you guys chose castro. after watching his play last year compared to this year, it has been a drastic change

May 02, 2014 07:54 AM
rating: 1

This article brings a lot of questions to me, but here are the two predominant ones:

1. The comment, "(Of course, had Rizzo not scooped one of his two low throws, we’re not talking about this performance at all.)" highlights the fact that this can become really subjective. In essence, the "quality" of the infielder's defense will be largely dependent on the gloves of the rest of the infield, for example. I'll be curious to see how this impacts future selections.

2. The defensive game, Castro in this case, can't only be based on ground balls. If he botches a relay through from the outfield that costs a run, that needs to play into account. As you can imagine, if a LF is not in position to back up second base on a throw from right field, and an errant throw ensues allowing a runner to take an extra base, that also plays into account a player's "defensive game". We could go on and on with these examples, but it might be interesting to rewatch the Castro game to see if we can identify any of these types of flaws that would downgrade his quality of defense.

May 02, 2014 12:52 PM
rating: 1
BP staff member Sam Miller
BP staff

Inside Edge does actually track secondary defense -- the plays that happen after the initial play, as you're talking about in (2). It just happened that in this case no secondary defense came into play on Castro in this game. Hopefully next month!

May 02, 2014 12:59 PM

The timing of my reading this article was impeccable, as I just watched Castro make an inexcusable throwing error on a routine grounder with 2 outs costing a run...while I was reading this.

Regardless, he does seem to be a bit more focused this year, at least so far, and hopefully it continues throughout the season. Loved the article!

May 02, 2014 13:22 PM
rating: 1

Shouldn't "his two low throws" count against him? In other words, would another player with pretty much all the same play opportunities, but with zero or one low throw have had a better defensive day?

And so similarly, I'd think Rizzo scooping low throws should get him extra credit ... I guess the mechanism for that is that from his perspective those plays, rather than being "routine" were "even" ... perhaps that's the way to decide the value to dock Castro (ie. dock Castro the value added to Rizzo)?

May 02, 2014 14:25 PM
rating: 1

He fielded a two-hopper today and threw it away, costing a run and extending the inning. Just sayin'.

May 02, 2014 21:27 PM
rating: 0
Mike Schieve

I love how the gifs don't start until your mouse rolls over them.

May 03, 2014 13:56 PM
rating: 4

Sam, I bought a year's subscription yesterday so I could read this article. This one article is worth every penny as it helps give meaning to defensive metrics. Puts some skin on the skeleton. Defensive metrics are simple enough to understand but seeing a play-by-play breakdown of how a few groundballs add and subtract to a players value over the course of a game is very instructive.

I hope BP does something similar on a regular basis, like how you guys handled This Week In Catcher Framing last year. It would be great to turn this into a weekly feature, maybe first week of May it is "best middle infield performance of April", 2nd week is "best OF performance of April", 3rd is "best corner infield performance", and 4th is a miscellaneous topic - such as team defense (how Rizzo's clean scoops cover a multitude of throwing sins, relay throws, double plays, backing up a play), or analyzing shifts, or catcher's defense, or worst/most volatile/"most average" defensive performances, etc. These types of features are what gets me telling all my friends how much they need a subscription.

That said, even if this is all we get, thank you, and I'm glad to be back for a year.

May 03, 2014 17:57 PM
rating: 1
Richard Bergstrom

I'd like to see a similar analysis on Nolan Arenado. He has 20 more assists than any other major league third baseman and is in the top 10 among all players at all positions in assists in the league which is rare for a third baseman.

May 03, 2014 23:09 PM
rating: 0
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