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April 14, 2009

You Could Look It Up

V for Vendetta

by Steven Goldman

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This week's installment of YCLIU is a follow-up to the Derek Jeter-inspired piece on aging shortstops that ran in this space on March 31. This time around, we doff the historian's cap for a look at the problem of evaluating shortstop defense. For those of us in New York, this is an evergreen topic, because Jeter is a subject of a tug of war between those who want to celebrate him as a future Hall of Famer, albeit one with flaws, and those who want to canonize him, refusing to admit the possibility of weakness in any phase of his game.

Jeter's controversial weakness is always his defense. Every statistical evaluation of defense agrees that he is a subpar defender, but as we wrote in Baseball Prospectus 2005, "It doesn't take an MS in scouting or statistics to see it. When watching a Yankees game, simply pay attention to the opposing shortstop. He will routinely get to balls that Jeter cannot." Jeter has extremely limited range to his left, and many balls that are caught by the average shortstop roll "past a diving Jeter" into the outfield for singles. This would seem to be prima facie evidence that Jeter is not a great defender, but as Simon & Garfunkel sang in "The Boxer," "A man he hears what he wants to hear, but disregards the rest." Despite the plethora of new measurements, defense remains stubbornly in the realm of the subjective.

Perhaps, though, one way to convert the unconverted is to redirect their attention and put the onus of making an argument (or, pardon the pun, constructing a defense) on them. The Jeter accuser should not make arguments based on defensive statistics that are not currently transparent to the general public (the translation of balls fielded and missed into runs being somewhat abstruse), but based solely on basic effects. Unfortunately, we rarely see these basic statistics. For example, here is a breakdown of batting average allowed on ground balls by major league teams in 2005:


2005 Average Allowed on Ground Balls
Year Team       Average
2005 Nationals   .219
2005 Dodgers     .219
2005 Giants      .220
2005 Rangers     .225
2005 Athletics   .226
2005 Pirates     .228
2005 Rockies     .228
2005 D'backs     .229
2005 Braves      .231
2005 Cardinals   .231
2005 Mariners    .232
2005 Angels      .233
2005 Reds        .233
2005 Brewers     .234
2005 Blue Jays   .234
2005 Padres      .235
2005 Twins       .239
2005 Cubs        .239
2005 Devil Rays  .239
2005 Phillies    .240
2005 Red Sox     .246
2005 White Sox   .247
2005 Orioles     .249
2005 Marlins     .250
2005 Mets        .250
2005 Indians     .251
2005 Astros      .256
2005 Tigers      .258
2005 Royals      .260
2005 Yankees     .262

Note that the Yankees were dead last in the majors, having allowed a .262 average on ground balls. The major league average of all hitters on grounders was .238. Now, that doesn't necessarily tell us anything, because we have too broad a sample; for all we know, the shortstop fielded every ball hit his way, and it was Jason Giambi, Tony Womack, and Alex Rodriguez who were waving the worm-killers into the outfield. We can eliminate some of this by isolating the batting average each team allowed on balls in play to right-handers. According to a recent essay by Bill James, right-handed hitters pull 70 percent of their grounders, so BABIP Allowed vs. right-handers should give us a reasonable sense of the effectiveness of balls hit to the shortstop/third-base side of the field. Note that switch-hitters have been eliminated from the sample-we can't track the way they were facing in a particular at-bat.


2005 Average Allowed on Ground Balls, Right-Handed Hitters Only
Year Team       Average
2005 Dodgers     .206
2005 Mariners    .218
2005 Giants      .220
2005 Reds        .221
2005 Rockies     .222
2005 Nationals   .224
2005 Angels      .226
2005 Pirates     .226
2005 Blue Jays   .226
2005 Red Sox     .227
2005 D'backs     .229
2005 Padres      .229
2005 Braves      .232
2005 Devil Rays  .233
2005 Cardinals   .234
2005 Rangers     .237
2005 Brewers     .238
2005 Cubs        .240
2005 Athletics   .240
2005 Marlins     .242
2005 Mets        .243
2005 Indians     .246
2005 Phillies    .247
2005 White Sox   .248
2005 Twins       .250
2005 Orioles     .252
2005 Tigers      .254
2005 Royals      .271
2005 Astros      .275
2005 Yankees     .287

One season is no solid sample, so let's move on to 2006 through 2008, listing overall figures, then those of right-handed hitters only.


2006 Average Allowed on Ground Balls
Year Team       Average
2006 Giants      .211
2006 Rockies     .222
2006 Nations     .227
2006 Braves      .229
2006 Padres      .231
2006 D'backs     .234
2006 Reds        .235
2006 Athletics   .235
2006 Cardinals   .235
2006 Mets        .236
2006 Phillies    .238
2006 Angels      .241
2006 Blue Jays   .242
2006 Red Sox     .243
2006 Brewers     .243
2006 Devil Rays  .245
2006 Orioles     .247
2006 Dodgers     .249
2006 Rangers     .249
2006 Pirates     .251
2006 Cubs        .252
2006 Astros      .252
2006 White Sox   .255
2006 Royals      .255
2006 Yankees     .255
2006 Twins       .256
2006 Indians     .259
2006 Tigers      .264
2006 Mariners    .266
2006 Marlins     .270

The Yankees shaved some points, though they were still over the major league average of .244. The Marlins, with an infield of Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez, and Mike Lowell, ranked last. The top-ranked Giants had Shea Hillenbrand, Ray Durham, Omar Vizquel, and Pedro Feliz. Hillenbrand and Durham were not great gloves, but Vizquel and Feliz were (and still are) dominant players on the left side of the infield, as we'll see when we look at right-handed batters only:


2006 Average Allowed on Ground Balls, Right-Handed Hitters Only
Year Team       Average
2006 Giants      .203
2006 Phillies    .226
2006 Dodgers     .227
2006 Braves      .228
2006 Nationals   .228
2006 D'backs     .229
2006 Rockies     .230
2006 Padres      .231
2006 Cardinals   .235
2006 Orioles     .237
2006 Mets        .238
2006 Twins       .239
2006 Astros      .243
2006 Angels      .245
2006 Red Sox     .245
2006 Royals      .248
2006 Reds        .249
2006 Brewers     .249
2006 Devil Rays  .249
2006 Athletics   .251
2006 Blue Jays   .254
2006 Rangers     .255
2006 Mariners    .256
2006 White Sox   .260
2006 Pirates     .261
2006 Cubs        .267
2006 Indians     .268
2006 Tigers      .270
2006 Yankees     .270
2006 Marlins     .283

It was nearly impossible to get a ball past the Vizquel-Feliz combo, while the Yankees, with Jeter and A-Rod, sink to last in the American League. So, what about the following season?


2007 Average Allowed on Ground Balls
Year Team        Average
2007 White Sox    .215
2007 Padres       .217
2007 Giants       .228
2007 Athletics    .233
2007 Blue Jays    .234
2007 Nationals    .235
2007 D'backs      .238
2007 Rangers      .238
2007 Orioles      .245
2007 Pirates      .245
2007 Twin         .246
2007 Royals       .247
2007 Cubs         .251
2007 Yankees      .251
2007 Mets         .251
2007 Braves       .253
2007 Reds         .253
2007 Indians      .253
2007 Astros       .253
2007 Brewers      .253
2007 Phillies     .255
2007 Red Sox      .256
2007 Rockies      .259
2007 Dodgers      .261
2007 Marlins      .263
2007 Cardinals    .264
2007 Devil Rays   .264
2007 Angels       .268
2007 Mariners     .273
2007 Tigers       .274

The Yankees bounce up a bit, but remain a hair under the .250 MLB average. The Tigers, with Sean Casey, Placido Polanco, Carlos Guillen, and Brandon Inge, rank dead last, which seems odd given that the same unit helped lead the league in defensive efficiency the year before. Turning to infield performances against right-handed hitters:


2007 Average Allowed on Ground Balls, Right-Handed Hitters Only
Year Team       Average
2007 Padres      .203
2007 Giants      .212
2007 White Sox   .213
2007 Athletics   .237
2007 Orioles     .239
2007 Pirates     .241
2007 Royals      .242
2007 Mariners    .244
2007 D'backs     .246
2007 Twins       .249
2007 Mets        .249
2007 Nationals   .251
2007 Phillies    .254
2007 Blue Jays   .254
2007 Red Sox     .255
2007 Astros      .256
2007 Yankees     .258
2007 Indians     .260
2007 Rangers     .260
2007 Dodgers     .264
2007 Rockies     .265
2007 Braves      .266
2007 Cubs        .266
2007 Reds        .266
2007 Marlins     .269
2007 Angels      .272
2007 Devil Rays  .273
2007 Tigers      .274
2007 Brewers     .279
2007 Cardinals   .279

The Yankees' left side again trails the overall unit's numbers-left-handers hit only .239 on ground balls. On to last season:


2007 Average Allowed on Ground Balls
Year Team        Average
2008 Phillies     .217
2008 Pirates      .221
2008 D'backs      .222
2008 Reds         .223
2008 Athletics    .227
2008 Giants       .227
2008 Rockies      .230
2008 Padres       .230
2008 Nationals    .231
2008 White Sox    .232
2008 Mets         .232
2008 Braves       .235
2008 Blue Jays    .235
2008 Rays         .240
2008 Dodgers      .243
2008 Astros       .245
2008 Royals       .246
2008 Orioles      .247
2008 Cubs         .247
2008 Yankees      .247
2008 Marlins      .248
2008 Rangers      .250
2008 Mariners     .252
2008 Angels       .254
2008 Brewers      .254
2008 Indians      .257
2008 Twins        .257
2008 Red Sox      .259
2008 Cardinals    .261
2008 Tigers       .263

The MLB average in 2008 was .241. The Yankees' infield combo of Jason Giambi, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez seems to have been adequate last year. Turning to the split:


2008 Average Allowed on Ground Balls, Right-Handed Hitters Only
Year Team       Average
2008 Giants      .206
2008 Phillies    .218
2008 Braves      .222
2008 Pirates     .222
2008 Reds        .226
2008 D'backs     .228
2008 Mets        .232
2008 Padres      .233
2008 Astros      .237
2008 Yankees     .237
2008 Orioles     .238
2008 Royals      .239
2008 Athletics   .239
2008 Mariners    .241
2008 Nationals   .241
2008 Dodgers     .242
2008 Rockies     .243
2008 Blue Jays   .243
2008 Cubs        .250
2008 White Sox   .251
2008 Rays        .254
2008 Red Sox     .257
2008 Tigers      .259
2008 Rangers     .260
2008 Angels      .264
2008 Indians     .264
2008 Twins       .264
2008 Brewers     .267
2008 Marlins     .268
2008 Cardinals   .268

For the first time, these splits put the Yankees in a good light; left-handed batters did more damage against the Yankees, hitting .254 on grounders. Goodbye, Jason Giambi, hello Mark Teixeira. It seems likely that this was a fluke season, given the consistency of the results in the previous three years. Again, keep in mind that we are also capturing grounders hit by right-handed batters that were fielded by the first and second basemen as well, somewhat distorting the overall numbers.

Despite its limitations, this kind of analysis would seem to put the onus squarely on Jeter's defenders to account for why the Yankees have weak results in converting grounders into outs. Those safeties have to come from somewhere. They can't just blame the entire problem on Alex Rodriguez, can they? Actually, they can, and probably will, just for the sport of it, but eventually they will have to grapple with the different number of chances available to third baseman and shortstops each season. But hey-those are just facts.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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