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Smell the Glove: Evaluating Defense in the 21st Century

Posted By Eric Longenhagen On November 1, 2012 @ 8:14 am In MLB | 2 Comments

The Gold Glove awards were announced Tuesday night and, while I don’t especially care about MLB’s awards, I thought it’ be nice to offer up my unique perspective on evaluating defense. Obviously I’m partial to grading defense with my eyeballs first, but I spent this past season compiling data for Baseball Information Solutions, primarily in the name of defensive metrics and the Fielding Bible Awards (BIS’s own take on rewarding solid leather). Quantifying defense is a controversial practice that’s really still in its adolescence. There are several different defensive metric calculations. All of them produce varying results of questionable accuracy and, in turn, create doubt in our trust of these ever evolving numbers. Colin Wyers over at Baseball Prospectus is always stoking the fire of progress in these matters and some of his concerns are spot on while some are superfluous. Go read the things he writes. While it’s topical, I’d like to give my thoughts on the practice of evaluating defense both traditionally and with metrics and quickly opine about this year’s award winners.  Let’s walk through them position by position, shall we?

Catcher:

Gold Gloves- Yadier Molina and Matt Wieters

Fielding Bible- Molina (Wieters was second)

Catcher defense is the most nuanced and unique skill set to grade out and I’d view any catching defensive metric with a giant grain of salt. Part of what BIS does to evaluate catchers is count “wild pitch misplays” which are assigned whenever there’s a wild pitch that the catcher had even a small a chance to block. Not all of these are created equally but they all count the same.  A lot of them should really be passed balls but BIS is at the mercy of MLB’s official scorekeepers.  Combine that with tougher things to quantify like game calling, receiving, framing, preparation, handling pitchers…there are just thing you can’t quantify in catchers. My ballot would have included Sal Perez if he had played enough games to be eligible. I love almost everything about Perez. If only his receiving were cleaner.  I’ll have to write an entire post on scouting catchers one day, I don’t want to short change that process by trying to fit it into one paragraph here.

 

First Base:

Gold Gloves- Adam LaRoche and Mark Teixeira

Fielding Bible- Teixeira (Adrian Gonzalez was second)

My ballot went Gonzalez, Teixeira, Hosmer. One thing to beware of with first base metrics are “scoops”.  At BIS, first basemen are rewarded for picking throws out of the dirt, a stat that is heavily influenced by the quality of the player’s teammates’ throwing accuracy. It’s essentially the RBI of defensive metrics.  Scouting wise, guys tend to end up at first base because they can’t pass anywhere else but exceptional players the position typically have efficient footwork, soft hands and quick reactions.

 

Second Base:

Gold Gloves- Darwin Barney and Robinson Cano

Fielding Bible- Barney (Alexi Casilla and Cano tied for second)

There’s going to be a lot of talk about the way the Cubs shift and how Barney’s positioning padded his defensive metrics.  Half way through the year BIS purged all plays impacted by shifts from their defensive metric calculation.  Here’s the thing, the line between what BIS classifies a shift and what it does not can be blurry.  Often, a team’s pre-pitch defensive movements are too subtle to call a “shift.” Instead, we took to calling it a “shade.” These were not omitted in the calculation of BIS’s metrics. Now we have to discuss whether or not Barney (or any other player that’s helped or harmed {Alcides Escobar comes to mind} by shades like this) should be given credit for his positioning.  Is Barney putting himself in these spots or is he being moved by his bench coach?  Barney’s still really good defensively and I’m fine with him winning the awards, but keep these issues in mind for future metric consideration.  Scouting second basemen is strange because they’re usually shortstops who have one glaring shortcoming (usually the arm) or subjects of an experiment that just kind of worked out (Jason Kipnis, Dustin Ackley, Craig Biggio).

 

Shortstop:

Gold Gloves- Jimmy Rollins and JJ Hardy

Fielding Bible- Brendan Ryan (Andrelton Simmons was second)

Rollins has lost a step but he’s still pretty good (he looked better as 2012 progressed) and Andrelton Simmons probably didn’t play enough to justify getting the award (even though he’s the best defensive SS in all of baseball as far as I’m concerned) so good for Jimmy.  American League? They’re both good, no complaining. Very few humans can play a good shortstop. One needs everything to play it well, not a single skill is superfluous.  A strong, accurate arm, soft hands, a quick transfer, good footwork and tremendous range are all things to look for in a shortstop. The range comes more from quick twitch reactions and acceleration than pure speed. There’s also the vaguely termed “feel” for the position, which is harder to delineate than it is to scout.

 

Third Base:

Gold Gloves- Chase Headley and Adrian Beltre

Fielding Bible- Beltre (Mike Moustakas and Brett Lawrie trailed him)

BIS was compelled to remove shifts from the data when Brett Lawrie was lapping the field at third base thanks in large part to his unique positioning in right field for left-handed pull hitters. When the shifts were taken out, Lawrie was still the leader in the metrics by a wide margin. He doesn’t always make it look smooth and pretty but he’s so physically gifted and athletic that he gets to balls no other third baseman can get to.  Maybe that’s more important than poetically and sensually fielding softly hit choppers in on the grass with grace and fluidity. It’s something worth discussing. The best third basemen are usually range-deficient shortstops.

 

Left Field:

Gold Gloves- Carlos Gonzalez and Alex Gordon

Fielding Bible- Gordon, unanimously

Nothing to say here. Gordon’s great, nobody in the NL particularly is.

 

Center Field:

Gold Gloves- Andrew McCutchen and Adam Jones

Fielding Bible- Mike Trout (Michael Bourn was second)

Playing a viable center field is, in itself, a tremendous feat.  McCutchen and Jones are good defenders, but they’re not better than a host of other guys at the position.

 

Right Field:

Gold Gloves- Jason Heyward and Josh Reddick

Fielding Bible- Heyward (Reddick second)

Great choices.  The only other name I’d throw in is Ben Revere, though Revere lacks your typical right field profile because he has Juan Pierre’s arm.  One thing to keep in mind when looking at outfielders’ metrics is the player’s teammates. Players in the outfield are always positioned relative to the other outfielders’ ability to cover ground.  If the Rockies have Carlos Gonzalez in right field, Dexter Fowler in center and Michael Cuddyer in Right, then Fowler’s positioning might be self-sacrificial in order to mask the squad’s weaknesses (pssst…it’s Cuddyer).  Also be mindful that people like Jim Tracy are in charge of this positioning.

Hopefully I’ve been able to teach you something new over the last thousand words.  I really think defensive metrics will take off when TrackMan develops into something special, but that’s another show.  If you’re thirst for advanced metrics is not quenched, go pick up the new Bill James Handbook that the good folks at BIS put together annually. The new one comes out today.


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