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Debates about defense in baseball can be extremely contentious and
frustrating. There’s very little in the way of a generally accepted canon of
evidence upon which people will agree, and a great deal of weight is place
on personal observation. That makes it very difficult to question someone’s
position about a particular player without at least implicitly impugning
their observation ability. I’ve seen grown, mature men nearly come to blows
over the defensive prowess of Corey Koskie. Arguments over defense
can even ruin a romantic cruise.

Last year,
I did
a partial series on who I thought were the best and worst defenders at each
position
. Typically, I get perhaps 50 to 100 e-mails for
each column I write, and that number has increased a bit as we’ve drawn a
bigger readership. When I wrote the piece on shortstop defense, I received
more than 3,000 e-mails from people, and they fell basically into three
categories:

  1. How could you not include Omar Vizquel in the top ten, you
    hermaphrodite carny?

  2. Dear Imbecile: how could you put Derek Jeter at the bottom of
    your list?

  3. I’m curious about Shortstop X, who was in neither the top nor the
    bottom.

There were at least 1,000 e-mails in category 2, and they kept coming in for
months after the column actually ran.

This isn’t really surprising. If you’ve had a chance to see a number of
Yankee broadcasts over the past four or five years, the announcers have been
effusive in their praise of Jeter’s defense, and the public at large has had
a lot of exposure to him due to the Yankees’ domination of the postseason in
recent years. Considering this, and the number of media products that have
been in front of people’s eyes (such as the ESPN: The Magazine cover
with Jeter’s photo and "Killer D" prominently featured), it’s not
surprising that people hold Jeter’s defensive performance in high regard.

I’m not going to get into the merits and flaws of the various defensive
metrics here. We can do that in future columns here at BP. I am going to
present some summary data, and I will be more than happy to publish a
well-reasoned counter-argument if you want to send one in–and that could
certainly include criticism of the metric I’m using here.

So let’s get down to it. I asked for some help from Gary Gillette for this
column, and he was kind enough send summary data my way for 1996-2000. Mr.
Gillette is someone whose work you should seek out, purchase, and read
voraciously, and his work is a major part of the inspiration that led to the
creation of Baseball Prospectus in the first place. The information
and concepts he provided were developed by him and Dave Nichols, and the
same schema was later used by Sherri Nichols to create Defensive Average.

The metric I’m using is Adjusted Fielding Range. Adjusted Fielding Range
(AFR) is calculated using Adjusted Balls Fielded (ABF) and dividing it by
Defensive Equivalent Games (DEQ). AFR=ABF/DEQ.

Adjusted Balls Fielded is a pretty simple concept: when a ball is hit
in play, one and only one ball can be fielded. This mitigates the biases
caused by putouts or assists that result from events other than fielding
batted balls. (e.g. making the tag on a caught stealing.)

Defensive Equivalent Games counts balls hit into play while the
fielder was at his position. This is effectively "batters faced"
for fielders. This mitigates the biases caused by quality of pitching
staffs. If you use innings played as a counter, you miss the extra balls in
play as another Paul Wilson Whiplash Shot (PWWS) screams towards the
fielders.

A final adjustment is made to normalize for the proportion of left- and
right-handed batters faced by each fielder.

Let’s take a look at the last five complete years, 1996-2000. The population
we’re looking at here for these years are all MLB shortstops who started at
least 81 games at the position. The chart below shows the average AFR for
all shortstops during that season, Derek Jeter’s AFR for that season, and,
on the right-hand axis, Derek Jeter’s Percentile Rank among all shortstops
for that season.



In a word, yecch. A lot of people have sent me conjecture that Jeter was
injured last year, which is certainly true, and that he’s somewhat out of
sorts this year as well. It appears to me that while he may in fact be
injured, he’s never been a good defensive shortstop, and I’ll wager that he
never will be. To play armchair GM, I wouldn’t have traded D’Angelo
Jimenez
for a generic middle reliever.

It’s quite possible that Jeter could be an outstanding defensive third
baseman, and that his already excellent offensive performance might improve
if he could avoid a few of the nicks and bruises one gets playing in the
middle infield. With Jimenez gone and Deivi Mendez disappointing in
full-season ball, the Yankees need to hope that Jeter stays healthy, and
ends his four-year defensive decline.

Is he likely to end that defensive slide? It doesn’t look like it. Through
the first half of 2001, Jeter ranks 12th out of 14 shortstops in the AL in
Zone Rating, and is dead last in range factor.

This doesn’t mean that it might not make sense to continue to play Jeter at
shortstop. Derek Jeter is an underrated offensive player. He’s displayed
every offensive tool there is, and he’s just entering his prime. I expect
him to have a run of seasons in which he hits something like .325 with 30
home runs and 80 to 100 walks. If you can get another great bat into the
lineup by taking that defensive hit, it may well make sense to keep Jeter in
there in the six spot. It certainly hasn’t hurt the Yankees too badly for
the last five years.

Jeter is a great ballplayer, and worth every cent he earns. He’s just not a
good defensive shortstop.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
clicking here.

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