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February 21, 2008

Schrodinger's Bat

Flashing Leather Down on the Farm

by Dan Fox

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"It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives."
--Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Earlier this week, both the sabermetric community and the topic of defense received a little mainstream press when Shane Jensen of the University of Pennsylvania discussed his Spatial Aggregate Fielding Evaluation system (SAFE) at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston. No doubt Yankees fans and some members of the mainstream media were once again offended, as The Captain's weaknesses were displayed. But seriously, when every fielding system in the free world comes to the same conclusion, one would think it would at least question the belief that Derek Jeter is a superior defender despite the cachet that comes with winning multiple Gold Gloves. Have no fear, though. As Bacon reminds us, come this April (March, actually!), rest assured that as soon as Jeter makes one of those jump throws from the hole at short, any lingering doubt caused by this week's press will melt away.

As discussed previously in this space, Jensen's system is but one of several built on detailed play-by-play data that includes fine-grained data on all balls put into play and their locations. SAFE happens to use data from Baseball Info Solutions (BIS), while other similar systems use data from STATS, Inc. Regular readers will also know that in recent weeks we've been discussing a fielding system based on play-by-play data that omits the detailed location data which I've dubbed Simple Fielding Runs, or SFR for short. While SFR is inherently not as accurate as SAFE or the metrics in that family, it does have the advantage of being able to be run on datasets that are necessarily not as complete. One of those datasets is the minor league data we receive here at Baseball Prospectus, and so in a previous column I ran the numbers for minor league infielders and provided the data in a spreadsheet. Today we'll complete that effort by running the numbers for minor league outfielders.

Leader Boards and More Leader Boards

Before we get to the numbers for the minor league outfielders, a couple of explanations are in order. First, the algorithm used to calculate outfield SFR for minor leaguers is identical to the one used for major leaguers. In other words, each outfielder is compared to all other outfielders at every park and position at which he played in 2007, taking into account the context of batter handedness and hit type. The difference, however, is that for the minor leagues I'm working with three years of data (2005-2007), so the park effects that are built into the system rely on just three years of data, whereas for major leaguers I've used five years (2003-2007). Obviously, when you're building a system such as this, based on probabilities and not on observation, the larger samples you have to compare to, the better off you'll be.

The result is that generally speaking the major league numbers will be better, both because of the greater number of years and games with which to make a comparison, and because minor league seasons are shorter, and therefore random variation will play a larger role. That is especially the case when fielders are moved between leagues and positions during the season, as is often the case in the minor leagues. Second, the system bases its comparisons for parks on league and team affiliations, so if a team renovated its park or even changed parks in the last three years, I'm not picking it up in this exercise. I simply do not have the information handy at this point in order to be more precise.

As an aside, I'd like to offer one other interesting (at least to me) tidbit of research I conducted this week. If you'll recall, the correlation with UZR for right fielders was pretty low (0.24), primarily because of a few outliers like Brian Giles and Juan Encarnacion, while the overall correlation for all outfielders who fielded 500 or more balls from 2003-2006 was 0.65. In order to see whether adding some additional context would help, I re-ran the numbers, and this time also included pitcher-handedness, which UZR includes. The results, while a tad better, weren't exactly inspiring, as the correlation for right fielders went up to 0.26, left fielders to 0.77, and center fielders to 0.78, for an overall correlation of 0.66. As an example of the magnitude of the differences for individual players under this new approach, Carlos Beltran and Vladimir Guerrero lost the most runs (4.3), dropping from 40.0 to 35.6 and 13.7 to 9.4 runs, respectively. The totals for Giles and Encarnacion hardly moved, though, so that mystery remains. As a result of doing that bit of work, the minor league numbers discussed below do not take into account this latest wrinkle.

Moving on, let's now step through the leader boards in outfield SFR by level. To start off, let's take a look at the rookie leagues, including the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer leagues, as well as the Arizona Fall League.

Table 1: Rookie League Leaders in SFR for 2007
Player                 Pos   League  Team     Balls    SFR    Rate
Rather Trujillo       Center  DSL     DWX      408    33.6    53.5
Herman Armas          Left    VSL     VAS      190    22.1    75.5
Samuel Vasquez        Center  DSL     DRD      395    19.9    32.7
Raddy Sierra          Center  DSL     DAN      354    17.7    32.6
Dom Duggan            Center  AZL     GIA      197    12.7    41.7
Delvi Cid             Center  DSL     DIN      437   -16.4   -24.4
Hilton Richardson     Center  AZL     ROY      195   -17.1   -57.1
Nestor Castillo       Center  DSL     DML      324   -19.3   -38.7

You'll notice that in addition to the league and team, we include the number of balls fielded, as well as the SFR and the rate per 650 balls fielded. Obviously, in short seasons like those in the Dominican or Venezuelan Summer Leagues or the Arizona Fall League, 650 fielded balls is out of the question, as the schedules are typically between 50 and 80 games in length. However, the rate is scaled to a major league season so that we can make comparisons across leagues.

Be that as it may, our leader by a wide margin is 18-year-old Rather Trujillo, who played center field for the White Sox' affiliated team, and rated at an astounding +34 runs. That's certainly good news for him, since he hit .196/.340/.238 without a home run in 65 games. On the bottom of the heap we have 17-year-old Nestor Castillo on the Marlins' team, who committed five errors in 54 games in the center, and seemingly showed poor range.

Now let's move up a level to the short-season York-Penn (NYP) and Northwest (NWN) leagues.

Table 2: Leaders in SFR for 2007
Player                 Pos   League  Team     Balls    SFR    Rate
Roberto Marquez       Right   NYP     BAT      150    14.2    61.4
Adam White            Center  NYP     MVS      256    10.8    27.4
Ty Wright             Left    NWN     BOI      142     9.1    41.8
Marcus Davis          Left    NYP     STC      153     8.6    36.5
Kody Kaiser           Right   NYP     ONE      100     8.4    54.8
C. Fernandez-Oliva    Left    NYP     LOW      261   -12.3   -30.5
Emeel Salem           Center  NYP     HVR      238   -12.4   -33.9
Dominic Brown         Right   NYP     WPT      173   -12.7   -47.7

Roberto (also known as Mateo) Marquez is a 22-year-old right fielder in the Cardinals system, and put up that +14 SFR to take the title at his level despite playing in just 41 games in the outfield. He also looks to be anoter "good field-no hit" type, as he hit .191/.270/.301 while striking out 49 times in 136 at-bats. Behind Marquez we find Adam White of the Indians, who did better with the bat (.260/.362/.361) and did not commit an error in 56 games. Of note here as well is Pirates five-tool prospect Marcus Davis, who finished fourth at +8.6 runs. On the flip side we find 6'5" Phillies prospect Dominic Brown, whom Kevin Goldstein ranked ninth recently in their organization, and who Baseball America puts at number six. Reportedly, Brown is athletic and an above-average defender despite his size. Unfortunately SFR didn't like him in right field with Williamsport--he did commit 6 errors in 44 games--nor did it find his work in center (-3 in fielding 125 balls) anything to brag about. He also has a strong arm, and we did find that he rated at +3 runs when totaled across both positions.

Let's move now to full-season Low-A, populated with the Midwest (MDW) and Sally Leagues (SAL):

Table 3: Low-A Leaders in SFR for 2007
Player                 Pos   League  Team     Balls    SFR    Rate
Gorkys Hernandez      Center  MDW     WMI      526    25.1    31.1
Ryan Royster          Left    SAL     CLM      389    17.0    28.4
Chris Heisey          Left    MDW     DAY      326    15.1    30.1
Daniel Perales        Left    MDW     SOU      436    14.2    21.2
Stantrel Smith        Left    MDW     CED      225    14.0    40.4
Travis Snider         Right   MDW     LNS      413   -22.1   -34.8
Jason Place           Center  SAL     CAP      592   -22.5   -24.7
Trayvon Robinson      Center  MDW     SWM      521   -24.5   -30.5

At the top of the list is the new number five prospect of the Braves, Gorkys Hernandez, who was acquired in the Edgar Renteria deal earlier this offseason. The 19-year-old put up an impressive season in the Midwest League, and some readers will remember that he also took second place in our minor league baserunning metrics in 2007. Behind Hernandez we find the Rays' number 11 prospect, Ryan Royster, who had a breakthrough-type season in earning the organization's Minor League Player of the Year Award after struggling in short-season ball the previous three seasons. Not known for his defense, when looking at his SFR components he did very well in fly balls (+27) but very poorly in line drives (-12), which could be an indication that there is a data problem. Dodgers farmhand Trayvon Robinson brings up the rear at this level with his -24.5 SFR in 108 games in center. Robinson committed 12 errors and, when combined with a -2.6 for his throwing arm, rated as the worst defender at any single outfield position in the minor leagues in 2007. Robinson edged out Red Sox prospect Jason Place, who came out at -22.5 in his first full season at Greenville.

Onward and upward, as we now look at the High-A leaderboard of the California (CLF), Florida State (FSL), and Carolina Leagues (CRL):

Table 4: High-A Leaders in SFR for 2007
Player                 Pos   League  Team     Balls    SFR    Rate
Zachary Daeges        Left    CLF     LNC      287    17.9    40.6
Gregory Golson        Center  FSL     CLR      431    17.5    26.5
Cole Garner           Left    CLF     MOD      303    17.3    37.0
Lorenzo Cain          Right   FSL     BRE      333    16.8    32.8
James Rapoport        Center  FSL     PBC      445    14.8    21.6
Sean Henry            Left    FSL     SLU      330   -15.1   -29.8
B.J. Szymanski        Center  FSL     SAR      328   -17.3   -34.2
Ovandy Suero          Center  FSL     LAK      267   -19.3   -46.9

Another Red Sox outfielder, Zach Daeges, edges out Golson for first-place honors at +17.9 runs. Daeges had an outstanding year with the bat (.330/.423/.579) with hitter-friendly Lancaster but isn't noted for his defense, so it will be interesting to see if his numbers going forward can even approach his 2007 performance. Golson, on the other hand, has been noted for his defense, and Baseball America ranks him as the best outfield defender and arm in the Phillies' organization. It also ranks him seventh overall (he just misses Goldstein's list) despite a 49/2 strikeout to walk ratio after his promotion to Double-A. In the Eastern League he rated at +1 in center, and overall his throwing arm was at +2.5 across both stops. By all accounts Brewers prospect Lorenzo Cain is a good defender with a strong arm, and SFR agrees, clocking him at +17, and also with a +4.4 in throwing. Basestealer extraordinaire Ovandy Suero in the Tigers organization did pretty well in EqBRR in 2007, racking up almost +6 runs on the strength of 104 EqSBR opportunities. However, on defense SFR had him at -19.3, runs helped along by his 10 errors in 54 games in center field.

Finally, its time for the first rung of the upper levels with Double-A and the Eastern (EAS), Southern (SOU), and Texas leagues (TXS):

Table 5: Double-A Leaders in SFR for 2007
Player                 Pos   League  Team     Balls    SFR    Rate
Shaun Cumberland      Right   SOU     MON      377    27.9    48.2
Christopher Frey      Center  TXS     TUL      530    21.8    26.7
Andrew McCutchen      Center  EAS     ALT      549    16.4    19.5
Jorge Cortes          Left    SOU     TEN      322    12.8    25.8
Dante Brinkley        Left    SOU     CMC      191    12.6    42.8
Thomas Collaro        Right   SOU     BIR      392   -16.9   -28.0
Ryan Patterson        Left    EAS     NHM      172   -17.0   -64.3
Xavier Paul           Center  SOU     JAX      428   -22.4   -34.0

Former Rays prospect Shaun Cumberland--acquired in a trade by the Reds at the deadline last season--takes the top spot in right field for his work at Montgomery prior to the deal, but after the trade in 23 games in right field for Chattanooga he was at -1.8. Ranking third we find the top prospect of the Pirates' organizatioin, Andrew McCutchen, who Baseball America also rates as the organization's top defensive outfielder. His arm, however, did not get a good rating, coming in at -4.2 runs. Bringing up the rear is 22-year-old Dodgers farmhand Xavier Paul; according to Baseball America, he profiles best in right field. SFR apparently agrees, and supports the idea with his +1.9 runs garnered by his throwing while in center field.

Lastly, let's take a look at the Pacific Coast (PCL) and International Leagues (INT):

Table 6: Triple-A Leaders in SFR for 2007
Player                 Pos   League  Team     Balls    SFR    Rate
Eric Reed             Center  PCL     ALB      426    25.1    38.2
Jason Pridie          Center  INT     DUB      271    18.3    43.8
Jeff Salazar          Center  PCL     TUC      488    17.0    22.7
Freddy Guzman         Center  PCL     ORH      545    15.9    18.9
Jonathan Van Every    Center  INT     BUF      235    15.7    43.4
Alex Sanchez          Center  INT     CHR      128   -12.0   -61.1
Choo Freeman          Center  PCL     LVG      523   -13.3   -16.5
Victor Diaz           Left    PCL     ORH       93   -13.9   -97.3

Another player who rated well in EqBRR, the Marlins' Eric Reed, takes the Triple-A title in center field. In the second spot at +18.3 runs we find new Twin Jason Pridie, who is rated as the organization's best defensive outfielder, skills he'll use to compete for the open position on the parent club this spring. The Diamondbacks' Jeff Salazar continued to play solid defense in 2007, while Freddy Guzman, dealt from the Rangers to the Tigers during the Winter Meetings, is a good defender in addition to being a burner on the bases, evidenced by his placing third in EqBRR at Triple-A behind Wayne Lydon and Reed. It's also interesting here to see Red Sox outfielder Jonathan Van Every show up on this list. He was the subject of a recent interview by our own David Laurila, where Van Every noted, "I'm an extremely above-average defender who is capable of playing all three outfield positions. I would think that would be my main strength." SFR agrees with that self-assessment. Rangers corner outfielder Victor Diaz finds himself at the bottom of the pile at -13.9 for his 27 games of work in left field for Oklahoma City; in right field he came out at +0.5 in 16 games. While I doubt that Diaz is much of a defender, as mentioned at the beginning of this column, results like this from small samples should be taken with a large helping of salt.

Piggy-backing off of that last point, as you can probably tell, the totals for some players in Tables 1 through 6 seem incongruent with their scouting reports, as well as their performance at other positions. In an effort to increase the sample size, let's take a look at the top and bottom ten outfielders across all levels of the minors and aggregated across positions for players who fielded 400 or more balls in 2007.

Table 7: Minor League Leaders in Outfield SFR for 2007
Player                  Balls     SFR
Rather Trujillo           409    33.4
Jason Pridie              593    32.5
Jonathan Van Every        403    28.8
Shaun Cumberland          518    28.4
Gorkys Hernandez          526    25.1
Eric Reed                 426    25.1
Gregory Thomson           452    23.3
Christopher Frey          530    21.8
Jeff Salazar              551    21.3
Travis Becktel            481    20.9
Carlos Fernandez-Oliva    443   -18.9
Adam Boeve                461   -19.4
Drew Macias               538   -20.3
Ryan Patterson            487   -21.5
Xavier Paul               446   -21.6
Travis Snider             413   -22.1
Jason Place               592   -22.5
Joseph Dickerson          447   -22.9
Trayvon Robinson          521   -24.5
Thomas Collaro            495   -24.7

Scouting and Stats

While Table 7 is a nice list and confirms that SFR is able to track players we think of as good defenders (Pridie, Van Every, Hernandez, Reed, Salazar), it would also be nice to do a direct comparison with an independent source. Fortunately, as mentioned previously Baseball America publishes a "Best Defensive Outfielder" and "Best Defensive Infielder" for each organization in their Baseball America Prospect Handbook . We can use those ratings to produce the following table, sorted by organization:

Table 8: Top Defensive Outfielders by Organization for 2007
Player              Team       Balls     SFR    Rate
Gerardo Parra        ARI         540    11.8    14.2
Jordan Schafer       ATL         585    -4.0    -4.4
Matthew Angle        BAL         279     4.7    11.0
Jacoby Ellsbury      BOS         461     9.8    13.8
Ryan Sweeney         CHA         476    16.6    22.7
Sam Fuld             CHN         448     5.4     7.8
Drew Stubbs          CIN         548    13.4    15.9
Brad Snyder          CLE         330    -3.8    -7.4
Dexter Fowler        COL         285    12.5    28.5
Matthew Joyce        DET         438    -1.3    -2.0
Cameron Maybin       FLA         421   -15.4   -23.8
Yordany Ramirez      HOU         561    18.1    20.9
Jose Duarte          KCA         577     7.8     8.8
Peter Bourjos        LAA         268    12.0    29.2
Darren Ford          MIL         513     7.6     9.6
Jason Pridie         MIN         593    32.5    35.7
Austin Jackson       NYA         524    14.9    18.5
Carlos Gomez         NYN         218    -0.7    -2.0
Javier Herrera       OAK         292    -2.0    -4.4
Gregory Golson       PHI         597    19.1    20.8
Andrew McCutchen     PIT         609    18.0    19.2
Drew Macias          SDN         538   -20.3   -24.5
Michael Saunders     SEA         525    12.4    15.4
Antoan Richardson    SFN         409    -1.3    -2.0
Colby Rasmus         STL         535     9.1    11.1
Fernando Perez       TBA         485     9.3    12.5
Julio Borbon         TEX          26     3.4    86.1
Eric Eiland          TOR         240    -4.5   -12.3
Rogearvin Bernadina  WAS         535    -8.4   -10.3

As you scan Table 8, you'll notice that 20 of the 30 players produced positive SFR numbers in 2007, and 25 of 30 had values greater than -4.0 runs. Pridie takes the top spot in terms of rate (not counting Julio Borbon, who fielded just 26 balls), followed by the Angels' Peter Bourjos and the Rockies' Dexter Fowler. The three outliers here are Drew Macias of San Diego, Cameron Maybin of the Marlins, and the Nats' Rogearvin Bernadina at -8.4.

Macias split time at Double-A and Triple-A, and in the process played all three outfield positions. He didn't commit many errors (just two all season) but did rate below zero in four of the five position/league combinations in which he played. His arm, however, rated at +6 runs overall. Maybin fared poorly across all hit types in his 70 games in center field while at Lakeland, and Bernadina scored negatively at both Harrisburg in the Eastern League (-5.8) and Columbus after being promoted to Triple-A (-2.8).

Following the same procedure, we can also look at the top rated defensive infielders for each organization:

Table 9: Minor League Leaders in Infield SFR for 2007
Player              Team        Balls    SFR    Rate
Emilio Bonifacio     ARI         572    -1.0    -0.9
Van Pope             ATL         383     4.9     6.4
Luis Hernandez       BAL         422    11.9    14.1
Argenis Diaz         BOS         461    14.2    15.4
Robert Valido        CHA         583    13.3    11.4
Joshua Lansford      CHN         269     8.5    15.9
Zachary Cozart       CIN         209     3.3     7.9
Adam Davis           CLE         475    19.5    20.6
Hector Gomez         COL         560     2.9     2.6
Dan Worth            DET         247     8.5    17.2
Matt Dominguez       FLA          36     2.1    29.9
Thomas Manzella      HOU         490     3.5     3.6
Chris McConnell      KCA         536    16.1    15.0
Andrew Romine        LAA         259     7.8    15.0
Chin-lung Hu         LAN         506    11.7    11.5
Alcides Escobar      MIL         564     0.7     0.7
Deibinson Romero     MIN         192    14.2    37.0
Alberto Gonzalez     NYA         535    11.2    10.4
Jose Coronado        NYN         366     0.3     0.5
Gregorio Petit       OAK         581     5.1     4.4
Freddy Galvis        PHI         160    10.3    32.4
Brian Friday         PIT         193     3.7     9.5
Jesus Lopez          SDN         584     9.9     8.4
Juan Diaz            SEA         373     6.8     9.1
Brian Bocock         SFN         612    13.6    11.1
Peter Kozma          STL         187    -0.6    -1.6
Reid Brignac         TBA         562     5.0     4.4
Elvis Andrus         TEX         581     8.4     7.2
Luis Sanchez         TOR         369    12.8    17.3
Ian Desmond          WAS         626    -6.4    -5.1

Here we can see the more accurate nature of SFR's infield algorithm at work, as 27 of the 30 players end up with positive assessments by SFR. At the top of the list in terms of rate is Twins third base prospect Deibinson Romero, followed by 17-year-old Phillies' shortstop prospect Freddy Galvis, who has a great glove but didn't hit a lick in the New York-Penn league, and whose season was done after he separated his non-throwing shoulder in July. The only real anomaly on this list is Ian Desmond, who played shortstop for Potomac in the Carolina League. Desmond also did very poorly in EqBRR at -7.1 runs, and he certainly wasn't helping matters by committing 32 errors in 127 games.

The Home Version

If you're really anxious to see how your favorite prospect did, you can download a spreadsheet of all the minor league outfield SFR and throwing numbers for 2007 from this link.

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