August 4, 2000
The Daily Prospectus
Recently we've been running a series by Gary Huckabay in which Gary evaluates major-league fielders using a combination of the available metrics and his own visual observations. Defense has proven difficult to quantify, and without a "killer app" for the task, we're left with a combination of flawed tools.
One of the problems with evaluating defense was brought into sharp relief for me last night while watching various highlight shows. On nearly every one, a play by Shannon Stewart in the Blue Jays/Rangers game was singled out as a "great" play, even making one popular Web site's listing of the plays of the day.
On the play, Stewart made a running, over-the-head catch in moderately deep left-center field. The problem with singling the play out was simply that its "greatness" was entirely a result of Stewart misjudging the fly ball and taking a horrific route to the ball. From his position in left field, Stewart took about ten steps directly to his left, then ran straight back. It was actually a better post pattern than anything you'll see on football fields in August.
Had Stewart made a good read, he would have caught the ball in a much-less-exciting manner, and he wouldn't have been all over Internet Jewels or whatever other silly features have cropped up. It would have been F7 and on the to the next batter. It was a bad defensive play, but because he made the catch at the end and looked awkward in doing so, it's hyped as great defense.
This is one of the biggest problems in how defense is judged. Because the metrics are flawed and have a low acceptance rate, because no one can see enough players play enough innings to make accurate relative assessments and because our brains aren't wired for that kind of work, perception of defense is driven by appearances on highlight shows. And appearances on highlight shows are driven by athletic plays made at the edge of a player's range, irrespective of that range, as well as significant self-selection by the producers of those shows.
This rant isn't meant as a knock on Shannon Stewart, who has generally struck me as a center fielder playing left field because he can't throw. It's just that he stood out as a shining example of how highlight plays get made, and how those plays can be misleading as a tool for evaluating defensive performance and establishing defensive reputations.
Joe Sheehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.