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July 16, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Big Gains Afield

by Jay Jaffe

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Defense has been on my mind lately, and not just because I've covered it in the context of my recent So-Called "Year of the Pitcher" investigations. It has been a topic I've followed closely over the past few seasons, particularly in terms of the relationship between teams' year-to-year improvement in the field and their overall success. While clubs' hitting and pitching upswings are often attributed to the work of individuals in our conversational shorthand-the Reds are winning because Joey Votto is having an MVP-caliber season and because Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake have anchored the rotation-defense is rarely mentioned in such a manner; indeed, it often slips under the radar entirely. Nonetheless, the past few seasons have seen some interesting turnarounds anchored by defenses, so the question is which ones have improved and declined the most since last year.

To answer this, I'm once again turning to Defensive Efficiency, the rate at which teams turn batted balls into outs. While our own Fielding Runs Above Average and other systems such as Ultimate Zone Rating or Plus/Minus can be used to rate defenses in terms of runs, and can be useful when honing in on individual responsibilities (as I'll do below), subjectivity enters into the ratings even at the team level with regards to figuring the pitcher/defense split or assigning responsibility based upon a given swath of the diamond. DE, on the other hand, is an objective calculation, the formula for which is 1 - ((H + ROE - HR) / (PA - BB - SO - HBP - HR)).

Recall that in 2008, the Rays rode a record-setting year-to-year improvement-one correctly pegged by PECOTA-not only to their first winning season in franchise history, but to the American League pennant, as the arrivals of Jason Bartlett and Evan Longoria and the positional shifts of Akinori Iwamura and B.J. Upton paid major dividends. Last year, the Rangers posted their first winning season since 2004 and were in playoff contention well into September thanks to the addition of Elvis Andrus and various improved performances in the infield and outfield, all of which led to a 29-point gain in DE. The Mariners actually improved by one more point than the Rangers did, and vaulted from 61 wins to 85. On the other hand, the Reds improved by an MLB-leading 32 points, yet only gained four wins; then again, manager Dusty Baker had a hard time figuring out which end was up when it came to the lineup.

Looking at the big winners and losers thus far:

Rk

Team

2010

2009

+/-

1

Athletics

.710

.683

.027

2

Yankees

.718

.697

.021

3

Red Sox

.699

.679

.020

4

Royals

.692

.675

.017

5

Padres

.710

.694

.016

6

Rays

.710

.696

.014

7

Braves

.699

.687

.012

8

Blue Jays

.694

.682

.012

9

Phillies

.699

.694

.005

10

Rangers

.704

.699

.005

11

Twins

.695

.691

.004

12

Rockies

.691

.689

.002

13

Orioles

.682

.682

.000

14

White Sox

.690

.690

.000

15

Indians

.681

.681

.000

16

Marlins

.685

.685

.000

17

Cardinals

.693

.694

-.001

18

Giants

.704

.707

-.003

19

Angels

.684

.689

-.005

20

Reds

.700

.705

-.005

21

Mets

.688

.693

-.005

22

Nationals

.681

.686

-.005

23

Tigers

.687

.695

-.008

24

Mariners

.703

.712

-.009

25

Diamondbacks

.676

.687

-.011

26

Astros

.665

.676

-.011

27

Pirates

.678

.691

-.013

28

Cubs

.685

.701

-.016

29

Brewers

.668

.688

-.020

30

Dodgers

.685

.714

-.029

Thus far the biggest gain has been pulled off by the A's, whose general manager, Billy Beane, has famously shifted his focus toward defense as the new market inefficiency in the wake of Moneyball. While Daric Barton's full-time work at first base has largely been offset by the absence of Mark Ellis for a good chunk of time at second, the biggest differences appear to be the work of shortstop Cliff Pennington (+14 FRAA) in replacing Orlando Cabrera (-13 before being traded at the deadline) and Ryan Sweeney (+7) instead of Jack Cust (-11 in just 51 games) in right. Nonetheless, the A's big D gain hasn't entirely resulted in Ws. Their .483 winning percentage is only a slight improvement upon last year's .463, and while they've risen from ninth (tied) to third in terms of runs allowed per game, the offense remains subpar, with .255 True Averages both years.

Still, the A's 27-point DE improvement would be enough to crack the bottom reaches of the top 20 Retrosheet Era defensive improvements (since 1954)-ignoring fourth-decimal tiebreakers, at least:

Year

Team

DefEff

Prev

Diff

2008

Rays

.710

.656

.054

1980

Athletics

.728

.680

.048

1991

Braves

.714

.679

.035

1988

Brewers

.716

.683

.033

1971

Giants

.721

.689

.032

1978

White Sox

.714

.682

.032

2009

Reds

.705

.673

.032

2008

Marlins

.693

.661

.031

1955

Cubs

.735

.705

.030

2009

Mariners

.712

.682

.030

1997

Tigers

.700

.671

.029

2009

Rangers

.699

.670

.029

2001

Mariners

.727

.699

.028

1988

Reds

.726

.698

.028

1971

Astros

.715

.688

.027

1991

Angels

.708

.680

.027

1965

Pirates

.716

.688

.027

1985

Yankees

.711

.683

.027

1998

Yankees

.712

.685

.027

1992

Brewers

.725

.698

.027

1985

Giants

.707

.680

.027

Elsewhere on the leaderboard, the Yankees and Red Sox have shown the biggest gains. The Yanks, who haven't exactly been known for their D in recent years, lead the majors overall; only three teams have posted marks higher than their .718 since the turn of the millennium, the 2001 and 2003 Mariners (.727 and .721) and the 2002 Angels (.719), so it's probably fair to expect some second-half regression. The Yanks have improved by 21 points since last year and a total of 36 points since 2008 thanks to the arrival of Mark Teixeira, the steady gains of Robinson Cano (+19 FRAA this year), and the swap of Johnny Damon for Curtis Granderson, with Brett Gardner shifting from center to left. The Red Sox, whose general manager, Theo Epstein, took a lot of heat for his off-season pledge to emphasize run prevention, have seen their defense improve by 20 points despite an injury stack which has allowed Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron to pair up in left and center just five times, none since April 11. That said, at least in the eyes of FRAA, the upgrade on the left side of the infield from Mike Lowell (-2) and a cast of six shortstops (-3) to Adrian Beltre (+5) and Marco Scutaro (-7) hasn't been quite the slam-dunk improvement one would have expected.

Strolling down the leaderboard, the Royals' presence near the top certainly is a surprise given all of the grumbles about 2009 mid-season acquisition Yuniesky Betancourt. He was a combined 20 runs below average last year between the Mariners and the Royals but is one above average this year, though UZR rates him much lower. Elsewhere in the infield, Alberto Callaspo has gone from being a below-average second baseman to an average third baseman, while Mike Aviles and Chris Getz have turned the keystone into a net positive; even so, those improvements have been somewhat offset by David DeJesus' shift from left (+21) to right (-2). Note that the Royals still rank just ninth in the league in DE, nothing to write home about.

As for the Padres, they lead the NL in DE, though some of that is owed to playing half their games in Petco Park; PADE places them third behind the Giants and Reds. FRAA shows second baseman David Eckstein as particularly improved (-9 to +5) and Jerry Hairston Jr. and Everth Cabrera playing surprisingly well at shortstop relative to Cabrera and company last year (-7 to +12). They're also above average at all three outfield spots, which helps given that they ditched Brian Giles (-11 in just 58 games in right field last year).

The Rays, Braves, and Blue Jays round out the big gainers. On a team level, FRAA shows Tampa Bay as having at least 10-run turnarounds at first base, second base, and shortstop, with improved play from Carlos Peña, Jason Bartlett, and Reid Brignac, the addition of Sean Rodriguez, and continued strong play from Ben Zobrist wherever he may roam (+11 last year, +15 this year). The Braves' big improvement appears to owe much to the center field situation, where Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera, and Gregor Blanco are six runs above average this year; McLouth, Jordan Schafer, and Ryan Church were 25 below average last year. Further help has come via Martin Prado (+11) taking over full-time second-base duties from Kelly Johnson (+3) and improving over his own work there last year (-7). For the Jays, the big improvement seems to be largely owed to Vernon Wells' turnaround (-16 to +3); oddly enough, fleet-footed Fred Lewis (-7 in left field) has been just as bad as pokey Adam Lind (-8) was last year in similarly limited time. An interesting note regarding this week's shortstop swap between the Braves and Blue Jays: FRAA loves it some Yunel Escobar, who's 33 runs above average over the past two years, and 46 above average over the past three. Alex Gonzalez is six above average this year, but was four below last year, when he was still recovering from injury after missing all of 2008. Yet another way that Toronto may wind up on top in this deal.

Having accentuated the positive, we'll move on to lambasting the negative, since eliminating it doesn't seem to be an option, or even very much fun. And No. 1 on the list of teams that deserve it are the Dodgers, who went from leading the league in DE last year by a whole seven points to ranking 10th this year. Not surprisingly, one key culprit appears to be the loss of Orlando Hudson (+17), though Blake DeWitt and friends have been a respectable two runs above average at the keystone. At third base, Casey Blake has declined (+13 to -5), and Rafael Furcal has dropped off (+13 to +4), surprising given how much more Furcal-like he's been when available. In the outfield, Matt Kemp has lost 10 runs himself (+8 to -2), a particularly rough blow when coupled with his 20-point drop in True Average. Luckily for the Dodgers, they're second in the league in strikeout rate, minimizing the number of balls in play.

The Brewers look even worse than the Dodgers, but then they should, as they're back near the bottom of the league (15th), having dropped 30 points since ranking third in 2008. The promotion of Alcides Escobar and trade of J.J. Hardy was supposed to improve the defense, but Escobar (-11) has failed to live up to his predecessor's solid work (+7). Furthermore, the return of Rickie Weeks (-12) in place of fill-in Craig Counsell (+12) has keyed a 24-run swing at the keystone, and the switch in center field from Mike Cameron (+5) to Carlos Gomez (-14) has been similarly catastrophic.

As for the Cubs, the biggest differences appear to be at second and third base. Last year, second basemen Mike Fontenot, Jeff Baker, Andres Blanco, and Aaron Miles-all of whom played between 35-70 games there-were a combined 13 runs above average. This year, Baker, Fontenot, and Ryan Theriot-now in the second base circulation thanks to the promotion of shortstop Starlin Castro-are five runs below. At the hot corner, while Aramis Ramirez has been seven runs below average in both seasons, the supporting cast led by Fontenot and Baker has dropped from +7 to -2. For what it's worth, Marlon Byrd (+10) has been strong in center field, offsetting drops by Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome.

The middle pasture is the most interesting situation on the Pirates. For all of the grousing about the overrated and subsequently traded McLouth, he and Andrew McCutchen were both seven runs above average last year; the latter is a whopping 17 below this year, though it's worth noting that UZR and Plus/Minus place him much closer to (but still below) average. Meanwhile, though their desire to try just about anyone at second base-Delwyn Young, Neil Walker, Andy LaRoche, several of John Hodgman's favorite hobos-isn't all bad, the team's been 32 runs below average there over the past season and a half. The Diamondbacks' year-to-year defensive numbers don't appear to be worth getting too worked up about relative to the problems with their offense and pitching. What stands out most are Justin Upton's 17-run drop, which is offset by Chris Young's nine-run improvement, and Adam LaRoche's essentially average play shoring up a first-base situation that was 11 runs below average last year.

At the bottom of the proverbial barrel in both 2009 and 2010, the Astros are ripe for some piscine riflery as they've gotten even worse. The supposedly defense-minded shortstop Tommy Manzella (-11), who can't hit his hat size (.190 TAv), has been a steep dropoff from the supposedly indifferent Miguel Tejada (+10), who shifted to third base upon moving to the Orioles. Not helping matters is the fact that Manzella's fill-ins have been nine runs below average as well. Furthermore, Pedro Feliz (-12) has failed to live up to his reputation at the hot corner; pair that with his .193 TAv and you've got a left side of the infield that may as well be named to the 2010 Vortices of Suck today.

It's worth pointing out that the small sample sizes of the season to date and the general trickiness with measuring defense make taking all of the individual numbers above with at least a pinch of salt. Other metrics may paint a different picture, often drastically so, as to the individual credits and debits on the field. Again, that's why it's still worth keeping DE at the forefront of any defensive evaluation, along with an understanding that the differing number of opportunities between a high-strikeout staff and a low-strikeout one can mitigate things somewhat.

 In any event, while larger year-to-year turnarounds seem to be becoming commonplace-lending a bit of credence to Rob Neyer's theory about the emphasis on defense lending a hand to the current scoring dip-once again we find the answer to the suddenly-commonplace question, "Who are this year's Rays?" to be an empty set. The largest gainers from this year's crop don't appear to be as definitively linked to changing fortunes in the wins column, though the gains by the Padres and Braves have certainly helped both climb into contention, and the losses by the Dodgers threaten their viability in a crowded NL West race. As teams clamber for upgrades over the next couple of weeks, it will certainly be worth watching to see where defense falls into the mix.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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