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Recently we’ve been running a series by Gary Huckabay in which Gary
evaluates major-league fielders using a combination of the available metrics
and his own visual observations. Defense has proven difficult to quantify,
and without a "killer app" for the task, we’re left with a
combination of flawed tools.

One of the problems with evaluating defense was brought into sharp relief
for me last night while watching various highlight shows. On nearly every
one, a play by Shannon Stewart in the Blue Jays/Rangers game was
singled out as a "great" play, even making one popular Web site’s
listing of the plays of the day.

On the play, Stewart made a running, over-the-head catch in moderately deep
left-center field. The problem with singling the play out was simply that
its "greatness" was entirely a result of Stewart misjudging the
fly ball and taking a horrific route to the ball. From his position in left
field, Stewart took about ten steps directly to his left, then ran straight
back. It was actually a better post pattern than anything you’ll see on
football fields in August.

Had Stewart made a good read, he would have caught the ball in a
much-less-exciting manner, and he wouldn’t have been all over Internet
Jewels or whatever other silly features have cropped up. It would have been
F7 and on the to the next batter. It was a bad defensive play, but because
he made the catch at the end and looked awkward in doing so, it’s hyped as
great defense.

This is one of the biggest problems in how defense is judged. Because the
metrics are flawed and have a low acceptance rate, because no one can see
enough players play enough innings to make accurate relative assessments and
because our brains aren’t wired for that kind of work, perception of defense
is driven by appearances on highlight shows. And appearances on highlight
shows are driven by athletic plays made at the edge of a player’s range,
irrespective of that range, as well as significant self-selection by the
producers of those shows.

This rant isn’t meant as a knock on Shannon Stewart, who has generally
struck me as a center fielder playing left field because he can’t throw. It’s
just that he stood out as a shining example of how highlight plays get
made, and how those plays can be misleading as a tool for evaluating
defensive performance and establishing defensive reputations.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.