August 28, 2014
On Regressing Defense
We heard the first blows in the nascent MVP debate of 2014 unfold just last week. At the time, Alex Gordon led all players in fWAR (by a narrow margin), largely on the basis of his extraordinary defense in left field (15 fielding runs above average, fifth highest in MLB). In response, Jeff Passan wrote that the idea of Alex Gordon as the best player in baseball was absurd.
Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued. To some of the doubters of sabermetrics, Gordon’s triumph on the leaderboards was yet more proof of the uselessness of WAR(P). To others, arguments against Gordon may have seemed ill-formed.
Fortunately, Gordon no longer leads baseball players in any of the flavors of WAR(P) (whew, argument defused). Even so, Alex Gordon brought to the surface a recurring theme in criticisms of the WAR framework: the weighting of defensive metrics. In theory, a run saved is a run scored. But whereas the relationship between singles, doubles (etc.), and runs produced is easily parsed with linear weights, defense is more difficult to measure. The steps between the events on the field and the runs being saved require more estimation, and that potentially injects more error in the final result.
A natural response to the additional error implicit in defensive measurements is to deem them unreliable and regress them according. ‘Regression’ exists in the sabermetric lexicon as both an abstract concept and a concrete, mathematical transformation. In the abstract sense of the word, to regress a player’s defensive WAR(P), for example, is to mentally adjust his contribution back toward the mean, accounting for the uncertainty in the estimate—exactly what we’d like to do with defense. We can formalize that mathematically by simply multiplying each player’s defensive value, calculated hereabouts as FRAA, by some constant which I’ll call a “regression factor,” r:
FRAAi x r = regressed FRAA of player i
When r is less than one, a player’s defensive contribution is being pushed back towards zero, which is to say the average. For example, at a regression factor of .5, a defensive standout like last year’s Manny Machado loses half of his value, i.e. about 14 runs. Meanwhile, a defensively mediocre player that year, Matt Carpenter, also sheds half of his value, but this only amounts to a single run subtracted. The penalty is thus much stiffer at the extremes, both good and bad. Consider the following graph, which shows the density of players at different FRAA values, with and without a regression factor of .5 applied.
You can see that applying a regression factor less than one effectively compresses the distribution of defensive talent in MLB.
When r is greater than one, conversely, you are accentuating the defensive differences between players. Suddenly, Machado’s defense goes from merely outstanding to more valuable than Adam Jones’ offense in 2013. This change corresponds to a very anti-Passan idea: defense is actually undervalued.
Suppose that we do decide to regress defense somehow. The question becomes then how much regression to apply. At one extreme, a regression factor of 0 effectively discards defensive metrics altogether. At the other, we could over-emphasize them to the point of ridiculousness.
Fortunately, we can use past data to guide our search for the optimal regression factor. The idea goes like this: pitching statistics, say ERA, are the result of some combination of 1) the skills of the pitcher, 2) the skills of the defenders behind him, and 3) luck. We can’t do anything about 3), but we can change the relative weights we assign to the pitcher and his defenders. If, when we regress out the summed contributions of defenders, we are better able to predict the resulting team’s ERA, then this would be evidence that we need to downweight defense to a greater degree.
I’ll look at this at the team level, using the past three years as my dataset (2011-2013). I first looked at the fit of the model when we use the default, that is, a run scored is a run saved. Then, I varied the regression factor, both higher and lower than the default (r = 1). I scored the fit of the model to ERA by looking at the root-mean-square error (RMSE); when this value is high, the model fit is poor, and when low, the model fits the data better.
For FRAA, we see that downweighting defense via the use of a regression factor less than one results in a worse fit to the model. At the extreme of r=0 (disregarding the defensive stats entirely), the model fits the least well (RMSE>.4). To put it another way, defensive stats may be unreliable, but they are measuring something, and when we take them into account, we are better able to predict and understand the results on the field.
Somewhat surprisingly, the model best fits the data (RMSE is minimal) when FRAA is overemphasized, to the tune of r ~ 4. There is some sense to underweighting defensive statistics, given their unreliability, and I would note that the difference throughout the whole range of regression factors is small.
It’s not WARP that prompted the debate, however. It all started with the FanGraphs dWAR, and we can take the very same approach to that slightly different variety of WAR. To recap, I’ll vary the regression factor across some range, checking a linear model’s fit to ERA at each step to determine the optimal regression to apply to our defensive metrics.
Just as with BP’s FRAA, the UZR-based dWAR of FanGraphs contributes some accuracy to our model of ERA. And, as with BP’s defensive metric, if any error is being committed, it’s that we are not weighting defense enough. For optimal accuracy, we should be accentuating the differences between players’ defensive statistics, not regressing them.
These results shouldn’t be entirely surprising. Defensive WAR is not a truth revealed from on high; it was designed (by very capable sabermetricians) with full knowledge of the fact that it improved our understanding of runs allowed. The coefficients which translate defensive play into runs weren’t chosen arbitrarily from a hat or a random number generator, but rather calibrated with at least some attention given to the resulting models’ ability to fit things like ERA. For this reason, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that our defensive metrics are well-suited to predicting ERA. Indeed, I would bet that the small error observed in both models (FG and BP), in which defensive metrics are perhaps slightly underutilized, is by design.
Considering this experiment, I don’t think that there exists any particular issue with the weighting of defensive WAR as a whole, despite Passan’s argument. There might be a problem with Alex Gordon’s dWAR in particular (or Adeiny Hechavarria’s, or whoever’s). Yet, the overall weighting of dWAR is reasonably accurate, or it would have been discarded for something different.
I’ve approached this issue of defensive metrics using a Large-N framework, that is, evaluating our models on the basis of the behavior of a lot of players over a sizable stretch of time. However, I suspect that the problem is with particular players, and the notion that individual defenders are worth as many wins above replacement as the models suppose. That small-N (or even N=1) problem is a much more difficult one to engage with or disprove.
The good news is that whatever your stand on defensive metrics, the problems inherent in them may soon disappear. With the impending arrival of Statcast, we will be able to root our defensive metrics in numbers every bit as solid as singles, doubles, and home runs. We’ll be able to decompose a given player’s contribution to individual plays, as well as individual skills. Alex Gordon’s defensive brilliance will become a combination of Alex Gordon’s incredible reflexes, measured as reaction times, combined with his astounding speed, measured as miles per hour of outfield grass covered, and coupled to his fantastic arm.
Defense will still be complex, mind you. There are problems of positioning, and coaching (the rise of the shift), and the ways in which multiple defenders can play a role on the same play. But with luck and some Gory Math, all of those difficulties should yield, and we ought to end up with a better framework for dWAR when all is said and done. In the meantime, defensive metrics are at worst being over-regressed, perhaps in accordance with our uncertainty about them.