Defense wins games?

Posted by Steve

As recently as five years ago, defense in baseball was not examined half as much as it is now.  Moneyball had recently hit the shelves, and on-base percentage was all the rage.  As you recall, the book described how the A’s willingly sacrificed defensive prowess if a player got on base at a high clip.  It worked for them because many teams had not yet realized the importance of on-base percentage, and they could afford to field a team with a great OBP.  That isn’t the case anymore, and guys with good OBPs no longer come cheap.

A common misconception about Moneyball is that it’s all about slow guys who take walks and hit homers.  That isn’t the case–and that should be obvious if you simply look at the makeup of A’s teams of the last couple seasons.  What Moneyball is really about is determining what skillset is undervalued on the market and spending your limited resources to acquire that skillset cheaply.  When Moneyball was written, that skillset was on-base percentage.  Over the last few years, that has shifted to defense–particularly defensive range.

A great case study for evidence is the new club of our savior and former scouting director, Jack Zduriencik.  Seattle went from being a terrible team to having a winning record in one season, despite slashing $6 million from its payroll.  How did they do it?  Well, Jack Z went out and got himself some guys who can flash the leather.

They let slugger but defensively challenged Raul Ibanez walk in free agency (but offered arbitration and got comp picks).  They added Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez, two great defensive outfielders, in trades.  They traded for Jack Wilson, likely the best defensive shortstop in the game, at the trade deadline.  They gave substantial playing time to catcher Rob Johnson, a poor hitter but defensive standout.

Last year the Mariners allowed 811 runs.  This year, with just a few games to go, they have allowed 679 runs.  A gigantic difference, and their starting rotation was largely unchaged.  Most of it is due to improved team defense.

It’s not just Seattle.  This is evident all across the league.  The Angels play Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick up the middle despite their light hitting because they’re good defenders.  Texas moved Michael Young off shortstop and played Elvis Andrus at there all year despite his underdeveloped bat because he’s an elite defender. The Brewers presumably are seriously considering doing the same thing with Alcides Escobar next year.  Even one of B.B.K.T.U.T.H.’s favorite whipping boys, Tony Gwynn Jr., has had positive value due to his defense in center field for the Padres.

Baseball Info Solutions is a leader in defensive analysis.  Their information is used by fangraphs to calculate Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).  Aside from publishing The Fielding Bible, BIS puts out The Bill James Handbook each year.  We were asked to vote for the ten best defenders at each position for the handbook, and I turned mine in yesterday.  Having spent all year watching all the teams, we already had a general idea of who was good.  I also put a significant amount of stock into the information we spent all season gathering–we charted hit locations, which helped determine range, and we awarded Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays to players for every game played by every team this season.

Rather than revealing my entire ballot (why not get the book and see what the seasoned experts had to say?),  I will list a few nuggets.

-The winner of the “Player Steve Likes to Watch More Than Anyone” award goes to Franklin Gutierrez.  He is superb.  I look forward to watching Mariners games because I love watching that guy play defense.  He gets great jumps, takes great routes and has good speed.  Some of the balls he gets to you’d think had no chance of being caught off the bat.

-Other truly outstanding defenders: Chone Figgins, Ryan Zimmerman, Jack Wilson, Carl Crawford, Chase Utley.

-Guys who graded out very well who may not yet have the rep as great defenders: Ryan Sweeney, Nyjer Morgan, Brendan Ryan (absolute cannon for an arm), Paul Janish, Kendry Morales, Matt Holliday, Nelson Cruz.

-Brewers’ best defenders of 2009: Mike Cameron, J.J. Hardy, Felipe Lopez.

-Brewer’ worst defenders of 2009: Ryan Braun, Corey Hart.

Ryan Braun is straight up baaaad in left field.  As in one of the three or four worst left fielders in baseball.  What’s interesting is that he has one of the highest good fielding play totals, which goes to show that the eye can be deceiving.  We see Braun make diving and sliding catches and assume he’s good defensively.  In truth, fielders who get better jumps and take better routes get to many of those balls on the run and don’t have to dive or slide, hence no GFP.  I found it interesting to see that many of the outfielders with high GFP totals graded out poorly in range, which backs up this premise.

It will be very interesting to see what the next wave of undervalued skillset in baseball will be.  Just as on-base percentage caught on in a big way, defensive ability is no longer going unnoticed.

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2 responses to “Defense wins games?

  1. I wrote a longer comment, but here is the synopsis since WordPress erased it all b/c I didn’t write enough info:

    Kendrick isn’t a “light hitter”. Did you know since being called up in June, these are his month by month slashes:

    June: .269/.367/.385
    July: .387/.433/.548
    August: .328/.357/.478
    Sep/Oct: .392/.426/.667

    Even if he played defense like Dan Uggla, he would be starting.

    Agree about everything about the defense, though I do wonder about Nelson Cruz, as he never really showed me anything when watching him.

    Next undervalued asset: Versatility. As performance enhancers and amphetamines get worked out of the game, a player’s ability to play 4 or 5 positions average or better will be a godsend for the team smart enough to assemble them.

  2. You got me on Kendrick. He’s really turned into a solid player.

    You’ve mentioned that versatility thing before. You’re on to something, though I wonder how many of those players you describe actually exist. Not to mention, most good players seem to prefer playing every day at one position.

    Either way, it’s definitely becoming harder to find an undervalued skillset because so much more is going into baseball ops than even ten years ago. Each team has staffs of crazy smart, hard-working people. We certainly won’t see a large aspect of the game go largely ignored like in the past.

    This makes me think. People have all sorts of answers to the question, “What would you do if you could go back in time?” A good one would be to go back 30 years ago and run a baseball team with the knowledge of the game we have now. You could build a juggernaut team of great players who were undervalued in their time!

    Sometimes I think the exact opposite happened to Dusty Baker, except for real.

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