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July 15, 2013

Baseball Therapy

I Thought He Was Gonna Get It

by Russell A. Carleton


Ozzie Smith is widely regarded as the best defensive shortstop (and somewhat by extension, the best defensive player) of his era. Anything that was hit into that no-man's land between second and third was gobbled up by the Wizard. In a game that adores offensive numbers, there was something so special about Ozzie's glovework that he ended up in the Hall of Fame despite a career .262/.337/.328 triple slash line.

Plenty of plus-glove shortstops have played in the big leagues over the past few years. Some of them were of the plus-plus-glove, minus-minus-bat variety (Brendan Ryan, Paul Janish), while others have been of the plus-glove, just enough bat to make people believe he's a leadoff hitter type (Andrelton Simmons). And then there's Manny Machado, who has yet to actually play at short in the big leagues.

Teams have always seemed to understand that a particularly good defender is worth a lot, especially at shortstop. Neifi Perez and Felix Fermin played for years, and it certainly wasn't because of their offensive prowess. It hasn't been until recently that we've been able to fully appreciate the value that a good defender can bring. After all, I own t-shirts that are older than the first edition of The Fielding Bible.

Defensive metrics (and baseball metrics in general) still have one big problem. While we can estimate how many outs a fielder personally contributed based on the number of balls he did or did not get to, fielding, unlike hitting, is not an individual endeavor. It's not quite basketball, where all five players on a team might be involved in the play at any time, but what one player does on the field might impact what another does. If the shortstop has a lot of range, it might affect where the third baseman plays. If a center fielder covers a lot of ground, it might make the men on his left and right look better than (or not as bad as) they really are.

In 2000, former BP writer Keith Woolner posed this question as one of baseball's unanswered problems. Can we quantify the secondary effects that a good fielder has on his teammates? Seems a shame to leave an unanswered question unanswered.

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
Most of the publicly available fielding indices are actually based on raw data that are not made public (or at least not made public to me). Fortunately, we do have data from 1993-1999 from Retrosheet that includes the rough location of each batted ball hit during that time. Ideally, our data set would be more fine-grained than this, and there's probably some bias inherent in these data. Then again, ideally, I would be napping in a hammock on a tropical island right now.

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Related Content:  Defense,  Fielding,  Pyschology

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