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June 16, 2005

Crooked Numbers

The Bronx Defense

by James Click

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Most Yankee fans aren't as reasonable as Joe Sheehan. It's not their fault; the media coverage of the Bronx Bombers is relentless to the point of suffocation. It's difficult to tune out the crescendo of hyperbolic cries, yet easy to reinforce any opinion about the team with a small phalanx of scribes. But this year, regardless of your opinions about the team in general, any squad that suddenly moves Tony Womack to left field in order get Bernie Williams out of center is acknowledging that its defensive problems have reached the point of no return.

That was over a month ago. In the meantime, Womack, Hideki Matsui, and Robinson Cano have played about 30 games in their "new" positions. As Derek Jacques pointed out a month ago, the Yankees were sporting the worst Defensive Efficiency (DE) of the last 34 years through May 8, converting only 65.1% of balls in play into outs--effectively turning all opposing batters into .349 hitters if they could just get their bats on the ball (not including home runs). Since then, things have gotten better: New York has improved its DE to .6674, meaning the switch has improved the team to a DE of somewhere around .6800, give or take. That sounds nice, but there's just one problem: a DE of .6800 would still rank them dead last in the AL in 2005.

So just how bad is this Yankees defense? It's tough to say because data prior to 1972 is incomplete, most notably regarding players reaching on error (ROE). DE is a handy stat based on commonly available stats, but ROE was a key missing component, allowing teams that allowed hits to look worse than teams that committed errors. Comparing modern teams with ROE included in the equation to historical teams without it would artificially skew the results in favor of the older teams.

For example, while the 1999 Tampa Bay Devil Rays show up with a .6617 DE in the BP Defensive Efficiency report, running the same equation on data available prior to 1972 shows the Rays with a DE of .6800; the '99 Rockies (.6633) now come up as .6755. Regardless, using DE without ROE for all teams since 1907 (the first year in which all teams have all the accurate stats needed for DE) still gives a general ballpark feel of the defensive abilities of a team. Using only data available prior to 1972, the following teams show up as the worst defensive teams of all time as measured by DE (1907-2005, Federal League excluded):


Year   Team      DE
----   ----     ----
1930    PHI    .6602
1999    COL    .6755
1997    OAK    .6760
1923    PHI    .6773
1929    PHI    .6795
1937    SLA    .6795
1994    COL    .6796
1999    TBA    .6800
2005    NYA    .6812
1936    SLA    .6813
2005    COL    .6818
1997    COL    .6819
2005    CIN    .6830
1920    PHA    .6832
1926    PHI    .6839

Conveniently for the Yanks, they leapfrog several teams behind which they were listed in the modern list containing ROE information, but they still place ninth worst all time. While it's unlikely that anyone's going to catch the 1930 Phillies, the '99 Rockies and '97 A's--two of the worst teams of the last 34 years--are among the worst teams of all time.

Note that the Rockies show up four times in the worst 15 defensive teams of all time. This fact isn't entirely a result of the Rockies being poor defenders; they're battling through an unfair advantage--their park. The vast expanses of Coors Field would be difficult to patrol for all but perhaps Willie Mays, but we can adjust for that factor using Park Adjusted DE (PADE). Unfortunately, PADE is only available for 1972-2005, so we cannot objectively check the 2005 Yanks against the 1930 Phillies and see if perhaps the old Baker Bowl was more to blame than Philadelphia's atrocious combination of defenders.

Looking at the last 34 years, the worst defensive teams, adjusted for their park, are:


Team   Year      DE      LgDE      PF       PADE
----   ----     ----     ----    ------     ----
SEA    1986    .6704    .7012    1.0189    -5.29
CIN    2005    .6712    .6955    1.0381    -5.22
OAK    1979    .6800    .7029    1.0388    -5.10
SDN    1972    .6978    .7154    1.0410    -4.43
FLO    1998    .6737    .6902    1.0426    -4.42
DET    1989    .6909    .7053    1.0474    -4.31
HOU    1996    .6683    .6872    1.0318    -4.27
SDN    1974    .6862    .7056    1.0276    -4.07
NYA    2005    .6674    .6955     .9947    -4.06
SDN    2002    .6784    .6969    1.0279    -3.99
SDN    1997    .6752    .6883    1.0434    -3.99
NYA    1984    .6830    .6999    1.0320    -3.95
CHN    1987    .6765    .6981    1.0165    -3.89
CHN    2002    .6864    .6969    1.0490    -3.86
CHN    1981    .6859    .7097    1.0070    -3.68

(DE is the normal DE for the team including ROE, LgDE is the league average DE for that year, and PF is the team's DE Park Factor.)

PADE is a percentage, so a PADE of -4.06 as the Yanks have means they turn 4.06% fewer balls into outs than a league average defense in their park. Note that suddenly the Rockies fail to appear on the list at all while the '86 Mariners--doomed by an Alvin Davis/Ken Phelps platoon at first and Harold Reynolds at second--now suddenly top the list of the worst defensive teams of the last 34 years.

Even more surprising, the Reds vault to the top of the list this year, just barely trailing the Mariners. This change is the result of two factors. First, the Reds stink at defense. They're the second worst team in the NL in normal DE behind only the Rockies who are naturally going to get a large boost in any park adjustment. Second, the GABP has had one of the larger park factors with regards to defense since it opened in 2003. Initially, this could have been a small sample size issue, but in its third season, the GABP still clocks in as nearly 4% easier to play defense in than an average park.

Finally, let's look at one more metric of defense: double plays. DE is an excellent team defensive metric because it sums up the critical elements of defense nicely, but teams that turn a single ball in play into two outs instead of one should be credited. Again, reliable statistics aren't available prior to 1972, so we'll stick with the information available in the BP Double Play Rate for Pitchers report. Adding the team net double plays to the list above:


Team   Year     PADE   AdjNetDP
----   ----     ----   --------
SEA    1986    -5.29    26.37
CIN    2005    -5.22   -28.71*
OAK    1979    -5.10   -55.62
SDN    1972    -4.43   -15.82
FLO    1998    -4.42     2.53
DET    1989    -4.31   -15.74
HOU    1996    -4.27   -30.51
SDN    1974    -4.07   -36.87
NYA    2005    -4.06    -2.40*
SDN    2002    -3.99    -3.01
SDN    1997    -3.99   -28.25
NYA    1984    -3.95    14.22
CHN    1987    -3.89    -4.87
CHN    2002    -3.86   -14.93
CHN    1981    -3.68    -5.68

*--Pro-rated for a full season

This slight adjustment may be the edge the Mariners needed; while they were objectively terrible at turning balls in play into outs, they were actually quite good at turning the double play. That total of 26.37 extra double plays over league average would place them near the top of the list almost every year. Of course, there are other factors in play here--particularly the pitching staff's GB/FB tendencies--but the Mariners' extra 26 outs (not to mention the extra 55 outs lost by the '79 A's) no doubt vaults them out of the basement. Given that teams allow about 4500 balls in play on a season, the 0.19% difference in PADE between '86 Seattle and '79 Oakland is only about 8-9 balls in play, more than made up for by the 82 outs in double plays.

While the Yankees may be getting quite a bit of grief about their defensive ineptitude of late, the real criticism should be directed towards the Reds and their assault on the title of Worst Defensive Team in Recent Memory. The '79 A's--a team that had no position register a positive FRAA except for pitchers--have set the bar pretty high, but it's certainly not an unattainable goal for the new Big Red Machine.

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