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A glove affair

New methods shed light on evaluating defense

Posted: Friday February 3, 2006 12:20PM; Updated: Sunday February 5, 2006 11:14PM
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Derek Jeter's defense seldom looks bad to the naked eye, but the numbers say otherwise.
Derek Jeter's defense seldom looks bad to the naked eye, but the numbers say otherwise.
Chuck Solomon/SI

The eyes can deceive like the dickens, can't they? The earth is flat. That putt's a gimme. She's a witch! She's a witch!

In baseball, one trendy test is to toss Derek Jeter's Gold Gloves into the Bronx River and see if they float. But like 1692 Salem, people can't agree on what to believe.

Throughout baseball's history, fielding evaluation has been more art than science. Even the century-old method of fielding averages draws derision from many traditionalists.

But with new statistical methods that incorporate fan-friendly observation, all of fielding's great mysteries, from Jeter to infinity, may be solved.

Just be patient. The earth didn't go from flat to round overnight.

The Jeter Debate

"If someone came up to me and said, 'You have 60 seconds to tell me why Derek Jeter's not a good defensive shortstop,'" began baseball analyst David Cameron of U.S.S. Mariner, "I'd probably say something like, 'We've made all kinds of terrific inroads in defensive analysis in the past few years ... and, when it comes down to it, Jeter turns fewer balls hit into his area into outs than other shortstops, and really, that's what matters.

"'I agree that he looks terrific on the plays that he does make, and he has great fundamental techniques, but he simply doesn't cover as much ground as other players with more lateral movement, and that hurts the Yankees, though obviously his offense more than makes up for his defensive shortcomings, and he's still a Hall of Fame player. But, defensively, he's great at the things that don't matter that much and not so good at the one thing that matters a lot. And if you're interested, I've got some really cool data to back all these claims up.'

"And then they'd call me an idiot and walk away."

At the heart of this conflict is the fact that there is no single, universally accepted system to rate fielders. There are several, with varying degrees of reliability, accessibility and comprehensibility.

Nevertheless, you can be optimistic that someday even the most casual fan will enjoy definitive and digestible fielding results, because the most respected rating systems are founded not only upon mathematics, but also the very first baseball instruction anyone ever gets: keep your eye on the ball.

Organizations such as Baseball Info Solutions record the speed, distance and type (line drive, fly or grounder) of virtually every single ball in play at every major league game. They note whether the fielders are shifted, how many runners are on base, the pitcher on the mound and the ballpark configuration.

Subsequently, a few folks with a limitless capacity for analysis -- consider them baseball's version of experts on the Alternative Minimum Tax -- accumulate the play-by-play data, calculate the probability that an out on a given play should have been made, and then figure out how the Jeters, Ichiros and Izturii measure up.

They are keen not to make snap judgments, but rather build as large a sample size on a player as possible.