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August 21, 2009

Red Sox Woes Afield

When Does Defense Get Offensive?

by Marc Normandin

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A top-shelf defense can do some amazing things for a baseball team. Look at the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, for a well-worn example. As we all know by now, in 2007 they were the worst defensive team of the modern era according to Defensive Efficiency, but the front office spent the offseason retooling in order to improve that one area of team performance, and they ended up in the World Series for the first time in their history. The Texas Rangers could turn out to be the 2009 version of the Rays, as last year they ranked lowest in Defensive Efficiency, which in combination with their home park made their starters far and away the least effective in all of baseball. This year they are sitting pretty at fifth in DER in the majors, and that reflects in the standings. They have an echo in the senior circuit-the Giants still can't hit, but their defense is among the league's best this year after sitting among the league's worst in 2008, and they are still a factor in the NL Wild Card race because of it.

Unlike the above examples, the Red Sox have headed in the opposite direction. Their front office is aware that defense is important, but knowing that is only half the battle, and it's showing on the field. The Sox ranked second in the majors in Defensive Efficiency in 2007, when they brought another World Series title home to Boston, and they ranked fifth in 2008, when they made it to the ALCS before falling to the Rays. In 2009, the Red Sox rank 29th, ahead of only the lowly Royals. Ranking directly ahead of the organization that's baseball equivalent of the kid who always gets picked last for kickball during gym is not a good thing.

Considering there was not that much turnover for the Red Sox lineup between 2008 and 2009, how could the defense have fallen this far? Today we will break things down by position and get an idea of just what these defensive issues have cost the Red Sox in the standings. For starters, the Sox' Defensive Efficiency in 2008 was .699, meaning they converted 70 percent of balls in play into outs. They also struck out 19.2 percent of all hitters faced, so they had no issues picking up outs. They have improved on their strikeouts a bit this year (thanks, Jon Lester) and are nearing 20 percent of all hitters faced, but are now converting just 67.8 percent of all balls in play into outs. While that may not seem huge, that two percent drop knocked them down roughly 25 spots in the rankings-two percent is a big deal when we're talking about thousands of at-bats, and it's caused the Sox to allow a .263 batting average against last year's .249 mark.

I'll be using Ultimate Zone Rating, converted into run values, as well as BP's own FRAA to gauge the changes in defensive value. UZR doesn't cover catchers, but we know things aren't going too well there, considering Jason Varitek has helped the Red Sox throw out fewer would-be basestealers than anyone else in the league. FRAA also has him at -1 this year against 2008's +4, so there's about a half-win shift in value.

Kevin Youkilis is one of the few defensive bright spots because he's been a few runs above average. UZR has him at +2.7 runs, but that's also split between first and third base. While he's been good enough at first (+5 FRAA), he's posted a Rate of 95 at third and picked up -2 FRAA there. The two systems agree on Youk's value pretty well here, but despite being above-average it's a step down from 2008 when he was worth about a half-win more via UZR. FRAA thought much more highly of his defense, and sees a drop from +23 to +3, basically two wins. That seems extreme though-I'm more inclined to believe the half-win drop in performance here.

At second, Dustin Pedroia has improved ever so slightly, going from +10 FRAA and +10.5 UZR in 2008, to +9 and +8.8 so far this year, meaning his final tallies should add up to something like or slightly better than his '08 marks. He's one of two players on defense with positive contributions in the one-win range on the entire team. Congratulations Dustin, you're part of the solution, not the problem.

Third base has not been a happy place for the Red Sox. Last year, while it was very clear that Mike Lowell was playing hurt, those problems were affecting his performance at the plate more than his defense. Sure, it hurt for him to go to his right, but he was still capable of that motion. This year, post-surgery, things have not gone as well, and he's essentially a one-legged third baseman. FRAA had him at +19 last year, while, UZR had him at +11.1. Both metrics agree that he has been awful in 2009, ranking him at -7 and -11 respectively. Lowell has cost the Sox one win against the average this year, and anywhere from two or three wins relative to 2008 defensively.

Did anyone check to see if Julio Lugo used a glove this year with Boston, or were we all too busy averting our eyes from every play that involved the shortstop? In 37 games played at short, Lugo cost the Sox -7 runs defensively. While UZR isn't split by team (Lugo is with the Cardinals now) it agrees with this severe rating, putting him at -11 for the season. Just like in 2008, when Lugo's replacement, Alex Cora, played average defense at short, his 2009 replacements have picked up the slack, at least defensively. Nick Green put up a -4 FRAA at short in 77 games there-UZR has him at +1.8 for the year, but that counts all his defensive innings (he's above-average at third and second) and Jed Lowrie put up +2.8 and zero according to UZR and FRAA respectively. All three players sucked the life out of the offense with every at-bat, and have cost the Sox far more in offensive wins than their defense can make up for. After shedding Lugo, the Sox picked up Alex Gonzalez, who is nowhere near as good as his flashy style makes him out to be, and is an even worse hitter than I imagine a blindfolded Lugo or Lowrie with one arm tied behind his back to be. This is the one position where offense is a bigger problem than defense, but even with Lugo's already being excused, the Sox at best break even on defense here.

The outfield has been a mess. I'm not sure what FRAA's deal with Jason Bay in 2009 is-after giving him -40 runs defensively in 2008, he's at +7 this year, which seems unlikely given UZR has him costing his teams at least one win (and closer to two) the past two seasons defensively. I'm much more comfortable with the consistency of UZR here when it comes to assessing Bay; by year's end he will have cost the Sox two wins with the glove, so despite his .300+ EqA, he's not the elite player many consider him to be. This may shock you, but according to both FRAA and UZR, Manny Ramirez was basically average defensively in 2008. He put up a -2.5 UZR for the year and was -1 with Boston according to FRAA, so despite the fact Manny's past D is the stuff of comedic legend, his 2008 was solid for the Sox, meaning Bay has cost this year relative to last.

FRAA and UZR are split on just how good J.D. Drew is-UZR likes him as a guy worth about a win, whereas FRAA thinks he's a few runs above average. Either way, he joins Pedroia and Youkilis as a positive contributor. Center field has not been as lucky, with Jacoby Ellsbury having some issues. Last year he was so good defensively that the Sox traded away Coco Crisp, thinking Ellsbury could handle the job all by his lonesome. While he excelled in center last year (and was even better in the corners) according to both UZR and FRAA, he's struggled to repeat that success. He's down from +21 FRAA to -12 this year, and from +16.5 to -11.1 via UZR. This could just be a one-year blip, but whether it is or not, it's hurting the Sox in the present. Anecdotally, Ellsbury doesn't seem to be as reckless defensively as he was last year-if he's concerned about his health, he should rein it in on the basepaths and keep the speed showcase for the outfield, but that's just my opinion on what I have seen. (If anyone has something to contribute on Ellsbury, please share in the comments.)

Taken in total, the Red Sox may have lost something like seven or eight wins' worth of value just on defense, relative to the 2008 club that fielded so well. Relative to just the average, they have lost 4-5 wins with the glove thanks to Lowell's limited range and movement after hip surgery, Bay's inept play in front of the Green Monster, and Ellsbury's sudden loss of value on defense, not to mention the fact that Coco Crisp is no longer around to help beef up the late-inning glove work in the outfield. If the defense was better, then John Smoltz (.390 BABIP) might still be on the Red Sox, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett's early issues would have been harder to notice, and Brad Penny (.326 BABIP, 4.57 FIP) would look like a credible fifth starter. Best (or worst, depending on your team of choice) of all, the Sox would most likely be in first in the AL East with a bit more cushion than their current Wild Card-leading status gives them.

As for how you start to fix this problem, the Sox have already started in by acquiring Victor Martinez to take some of the load off of Varitek and Lowell, and by showcasing Josh Reddick to the fan base. If Reddick's bat isn't as ready as his arm and range, then picking up someone like Matt Holliday rather than re-upping on Bay this winter would solve a lot of problems-Holliday would hit well in Fenway, and his glove would give them a multi-win upward swing. That's the future though, and it's a bit hypothetical-for now, the Sox defense is broken, and there isn't much they can do about it besides hope the rotation and offense can carry the load for the next two months.

Related Content:  Defense,  Boston Red Sox,  UZR,  FRAA

27 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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The difference in Ellsbury is the most shocking to me. The rest seem almost expected, but then again I watch a lot of the games. There do seem to be fewer 'laying out' catches for Ellsbury, but that's subjective memory and not hard fact. Did having Coco there push him to try and catch everything? Did he and Coco have the challenge of always trying to outdo each other? Did he take criticism of his lack of batting improvements personally to the point where decided to try and be less banged up by playing it safer in the field? Is he already banged up is some manner that effects him defensively (I remember him jamming a shoulder at least once this year?) It'll be interesting going forward as to which year is the more accurate baseline for his abilities.

Aug 21, 2009 10:53 AM
rating: 0
Matt Kory

To my eyes Ellsbury seems to take too much time to judge balls in front of him. Other than that, I haven't seen him make too many misjudgments. I'm inclined to believe that this is more of a blip in the stats than anything in Ellsbury's game that really needs fixing. Lowell is another matter: he's been a statue at third, and with the revolving door at shortstop the entire left side of the infield has been a sieve. I see that as the front office's biggest priority this off season.

Aug 21, 2009 11:51 AM
rating: 1

Ellsbury will be dealt in the next two years to clear room for Kalish or Westmoreland.

Aug 23, 2009 08:35 AM
rating: 0

Don't worry. Everytime a runner steals on 'Tek, it's always the pitcher's fault.

Aug 21, 2009 11:20 AM
rating: 26
Marc Normandin

If I could give you +1 more than once, I would.

Aug 21, 2009 11:34 AM
rating: 0

I've watched a lot of games too and the stats on Ellsbury are shocking to me as well. I cannot think of many times when I said to myself "why didn't he get to that?" I know this is subjective and I am being an apologist, but I can't help but wonder if this is an instance that is more a reflection of the unreliable nature of defensive metrics rather than an indictment of Ellsbury's defense.

Aug 21, 2009 11:22 AM
rating: 2
BP staff member Chase Gharrity
BP staff

I'm looking forward to the Holliday pickup.

Aug 21, 2009 11:24 AM
John Collins

OK, I'll bite: which BP staffer goes by "speedchaser9"?

Aug 21, 2009 15:58 PM
rating: 1

Kevin G.? Or is he veloking87?

Aug 21, 2009 16:21 PM
rating: 0

Ellsbury has looked underwhelming in the OF at times this year, but I find it hard to believe he went from +1 wins to -1 wins just like that. Probably what we're seeing is an off year coupled with some shakiness from the defensive measures.

Bay is slow as molasses in left, so I'm not that surprised he's rated poorly; but is he REALLY a -2 win player in left? That FRAA of -40 last year is kind of unbelieveable. Is it even possible to cost a team that many wins from his position?

Aug 21, 2009 12:07 PM
rating: 0

Isn't this why they got Kotchman- to shore up 1b and 3b (by shifting Youk over there)?

Aug 21, 2009 12:32 PM
rating: 0
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

One more case of "if a product doesn't meet the specifications, change the specifications." In this case the specifications are the perceptions of a fielder's abilities. In science, when the results of an experiment don't match up with what the theory predicts, the theory must be rejected or modified. In this case, the theory consists of the statistical model used to rate defensive ability, your so-called FRAA and WTF or whatever the other one was called. Having watched almost every Red Sox game this year and many other baseball games, I can tell you that in my opinion, Jacoby Ellsbury is the best at his position in baseball. This would lead me to believe that the statistical model needs tweaking. How much weight is placed on errors? I know that, also in my opinion, Ellsbury's first error of the season was on a ball that few other fielders could have even touched. Is there no review of the "official scorer's" scoring? On my own score card, I keep track of star plays by *, and stupid plays by ?. Until there is a better method of equalizing the unfair and subjective scoring system, all defensive rating methods will be far too subjective for me, and as much as I hate it, the terribly biased "gold glove" awards probably still remain the better judge of defensive ability and could be improved by selecting an unbiased group of voters who wouldn't be swayed by a player's popularity and/or offensive statistics (hmm, is there a jeter in the house?)...

Aug 21, 2009 14:28 PM
rating: -17

Why in your scientific experiment is your (presumably) layman's opinion priviledged over the two statistical models? In other words, why, when confronted with two different systematic tools that reach similar conclusions, do you decide that they are wrong and your opinion is right instead of concluding that your opinion is wrong and they are right?

While UZR does include errors as defined by the official scorer, it also includes balls-in-play data to determine whether the fielder in question made an above- or below-average number of plays given the number of plays they had an opportunity to make. While the error component might be mistaken if the scorer's decisions are flawed, the second component is purely objective. Also, you'd have to believe that Ellsbury has faced a systematically different set of of scorer decisions than the average CF for his UZR to be wrong. Why would this be the case?

Aug 21, 2009 14:54 PM
rating: 3

I am curious if this is an area anyone is researching further - basically, if there is this much year-to-year variance in player defensive performance by these metrics, are players actually that variable, or are the metrics not that good?

Aug 21, 2009 14:40 PM
rating: 2

We just saw a post detailing the year-to-year variance in home team advantage. Might the same variance be at work here also to SOME degree?

Kind of hard to believe that Ellsbury is more responsible for the Red Sox defensive woes than was Nick Green.

Standing ovation to a BP writer for addressing the Red Sox shortcomings this year.

Aug 21, 2009 17:20 PM
rating: 1

re: variance

generally speaking yes... one season of defensive stats on a player should be treated as about as large a sample as like a month of offensive stats, or something like that

Aug 21, 2009 19:34 PM
rating: 0
Marc Normandin

That's why I'm interested in Ellsbury's numbers for next year. It's good to look at his three-year averages for things like UZR, but right now that would make him basically a little above average out there since he has an extreme on both ends and played at an average rate in 2007. I think next year will be pretty telling, since he has to repeat one direction he's already ventured into.

Aug 22, 2009 08:07 AM
rating: 0
Adam Madison

Where'd you get that from?

Aug 24, 2009 15:05 PM
rating: 0
Morris Greenberg

With the emergence of Hanley Ramirez as (perhaps) the best all-around player in the MLB, and the Red Sox continued woes filling the SS position as is well documented in the above article, The Trade must be revisited. If Theo believes it would have been too costly to give up Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester for CC Sabathia last year, or Clay Buchholtz, Jon Lester, and Lars Anderson for Roy Halladay this year, how is he not vilified for trading away Hanley? I know he got Beckett and Lowell in return and they were key cogs, but Theo still sacrificed the best player at the most central position on the field -- a true game changer. I would love to see a thoughtful analysis of the overall impact on the Red Sox over the past several years of hypothetically undoing that trade.

Aug 22, 2009 07:22 AM
rating: 0
Marc Normandin

That's actually something I've wanted to look at for awhile. The one issue you run into, of course, is that flags fly forever, and the Sox won a World Series without Hanley. Since the playoffs are such a crapshoot, and the best team does not necessarily always win, it's hard to guarantee that having Hanley still would have guaranteed at least one World Series, never mind more than they have won without him.

It's definitely an intriguing topic though, and I think you could still learn a lot from exploring it.

Aug 22, 2009 08:04 AM
rating: 0
Morris Greenberg

Point well taken that flags fly forever. But even if the Sox had not won it all in 2007, a proper analysis of the hypothetical scenario -- undoing The Trade -- demands equal consideration of the possibility that they would have been better positioned in 2006, 2008, 2009 and for the next many years to replace that 2007 flag with one or more other ones.

Aug 22, 2009 08:56 AM
rating: 0

Remember, Theo Epstein did not make the Hanley Ramirez plus three prospects for Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell trade. That trade was made during his hiatus. He's been very careful never to say whether or not he would've made that one.

What would've happened? Well, the Red Sox released Carlos Pena to keep room for Lowell, Youk and Big Papi, so without Lowell Boston probably would've had Carlos Pena, an All Star first baseman, after the midpoint of the 2006 season. (Jeff Bailey or a different replacement-level player would've started 2006 at first base for Boston.) AJ Burnett signed as a free agent for less than the salary of Beckett and Lowell combined, so Burnett probably would've gone to Boston instead of Beckett. That still leaves salary room for one more free agent signing for Boston in the 2006-2008 timeframe, so I'd suggest that Boston would've contended in 2006 as well as 2007 and 2008 with Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Pena, and AJ Burnett on the team instead of Lowell and Beckett. Over those three years, I'd expect Boston to have had about three chances in eight to win a World Series. That's less than the guaranteed win in 2007 (given hindsight), but it's more than the zero percent chance of winning they enjoyed (with hindsight) in 2008 and, especially, in 2006. Going forward

Aug 23, 2009 08:21 AM
rating: 1

This is all hard to determine, even in hindsight. The Red Sox organization was probably a little too focused on the problems with Hanley Ramirez, rather than his skills, and he might have developed less and more slowly in Boston. I think they'd have gotten frustrated with his poor defense early in his career and tried to move him to rightfield instead of signing JD Drew.

Aug 24, 2009 07:01 AM
rating: 1

Theo didn't trade Hanley. Hoyer and Cherrington did during Theo's hiatus. Theo has steadfastly refused to say whether or not he would have done so. That's why you see the difference in the RS stance regarding Sabathia and Halladay. It is a different guy making the final decisions.

Aug 23, 2009 08:44 AM
rating: 0
Morris Greenberg

I forgot that Theo had his Halloween hiatus. Thanks for stting me straight. So putting the Hanley trade to the side, it seems ot be the case that far more of the player moves that Theo has made -- trades, free agent signings -- have not really worked out compared to those that have. In the end, his skill in building a top-tier organization may be almost entirely due to the impressive minor league system he has created.

Aug 24, 2009 07:24 AM
rating: 0
Jay Y.

I have to respectfully suggest Theo's "skill in building a top-tier organization" is due to winning 2 World Series and building a playoff team in every year of his tenure, save one, so far. It seems an implied standard here of "most moves should work out," how do all of the GM's fare on that standard, not just Theo? Hard to judge him in isolation, and hard to complain about the results, speaking as a Red Sox fan. He has made mistakes, but he addresses them and recovers. Seems hard to ask for more.

Aug 24, 2009 09:36 AM
rating: 1
Morris Greenberg

Fair enough. I am not a trash Theo kind of guy, and that was not the thrust of my comment. But I do wonder how to rate GMs in terms of their relative focus on the various routes to talent acquisition and nurturing, as well as their relative success in going down each path (i.e., minor league system, trade, free agent). If there is a well accepted notion of Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), what I am searching for is a Value Over Replacement General Manager (VORGM) that adds up these different domains in a coherent way and compares the total to a low-bar benchmark.

Aug 24, 2009 11:50 AM
rating: 1
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