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A glove affair (cont.)

Posted: Friday February 3, 2006 12:20PM; Updated: Sunday February 5, 2006 11:14PM
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The 'Holy Grail'

The Jeter Quandary
How different metrics rate the AL's reigning Gold Glove shortstop:
System (Source) 2005 Avg./Rank
Fielding Average
.979 .972
Range Factor
4.56 4.17
Zone Rating
.830 16th
Rate 2
104 100
(Mitchel Lichtman)
-16 29th
Fans Scouting Report
59 63
-.0413 31st
-16 25th
(The Fielding Bible)
-34 31st
Relative Range Factor
(Bill James/The Fielding Bible)
-3 0

"If one had exact information on every batted ball," said Mitchel Lichtman, a consulting statistical analyst for the St. Louis Cardinals, "then one should easily be able to say at what rate an average fielder would have turned any given ball into an out, given its exact characteristics, and compare that to whether a fielder actually did or did not turn a ball into an out. That is essentially the 'Holy Grail' of defensive metrics, and is really quite simple."

Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), devised by Lichtman, is considered by many in this pursuit to be as close to a Grail-safe system as baseball has seen. To some extent, it is a victim of its own success -- it led to the Cardinals hiring Lichtman, and removing his data from publication -- and the mechanics of the system are complicated enough to defy easy imitation.

But the philosophy behind UZR is considered sensible enough that alternatives to it are being developed independently. The fact that these aren't exact replicas of UZR becomes an advantage, because the competition ferrets strengths and weaknesses, like different labs racing for a cure for cancer.

Their results are also out for anyone to see, so that fans -- and for that matter, scouts and general managers -- can go right now to David Pinto's Baseball Musings Web site or buy a copy of The Fielding Bible by baseball analyst John Dewan (owner of Baseball Info Solutions and co-founder of STATS, Inc.) and glimpse not only at rankings, but how they were calculated. Other systems, such as those run by Baseball Prospectus or David Gassko of The Hardball Times, try to emulate the play-by-play-based systems through estimation -- which can foster getting results more quickly.

The Eyes Have It

And again, reinforcing the importance of observation -- the same observation that wins Ozzie Smith adulation and Manny Ramirez condemnation -- there is a pervasive belief that statistical findings should be integrated with subjective evaluation. Basically, the shorter period of time that a player has been in the majors, the more weight we should give scouting over stats.

"We now know, or think we know, certain characteristics of the players," said the baseball analyst known best as Tangotiger, who among other projects runs an annual Fans' Scouting Report. "Whatever performance-based metric is chosen, it must be coupled with scouting-based information."

So, now we return to Jeter and his sink-or-swim Gold Glove. Here's what we find: He rates from slightly above average to well below average, and the newer systems don't tend to like him as much as the older ones (see chart, above.) In fact, some disenchantment or even disgust with newer fielding rating systems seems to arise from the fact that they have come across as a witch hunt against this very popular and respected player.

Recently interviewed, the systems had this to say: "It's nothing personal."

The multitude of new systems and their unfamiliar numbers can frighten even the statistics-friendly baseball fan. It's sort of like voting for eighth-grade president -- the class might be full of young Lincolns, but it takes time to get to know them.

We're talking 'bout the next generation, coming of age and waiting for acceptance. The new fielding systems take some time to get to know, it's true.

But baseball is a game without a clock, after all. We've got nothing but time.

A former sportswriter with the Los Angeles Daily News and Los Angeles Times, Jon Weisman writes about the Dodgers and baseball at Dodger Thoughts. His book, The Best of Dodger Thoughts, is on sale now.