Identifying the game's best and worst defenders at each position
New stats emphasize range, not the ancient and subjective fielding percentage
Chase Utley, Mark Ellis and Carl Crawford were the three best fielders in 2008
Texas made the right move sending Young to third so Andrus could play shortstop
The human brain's powers of perception, analysis, memory and recall are amazing, but they nonetheless rely on a series of shortcuts. In order to process information faster, the mind fills in familiar information from memory rather than processing it anew. That's how we're able to avoid being overwhelmed with visual information at every turn, how we're able to recognize faces and voices, and why stereotypes are created on a subconscious level. It's also why the brain places undue emphasis on exceptions.
Exceptions interrupt the brain's normal processes and call attention to themselves. That's why so many people are scared to fly or worry about West Nile Virus or terrorist attacks, but don't think twice about getting in a car or eating a cheeseburger. It's also why baseball fans believe certain players are clutch and others are chokers, and why the Gold Glove awards have so little to do with who the best fielders in the major leagues actually are.
That's where statistics come in. They are a cold, hard record of the events that transpire on a baseball field, one impervious to the emphasis memory puts on a single exceptional hit, strikeout or catch. Fielding statistics have long struggled to capture the events on the field as accurately or completely as those we have for pitching and hitting, but as Albert Chen reported in Sports Illustrated's baseball preview issue this spring, the work of statisticians such as Mitchell Lichtman, creator of Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and John Dewan, author of The Fielding Bible, which released its second edition earlier this year, have helped bring fielding stats into the 21st century. UZR and Dewan's plus/minus system (explained in Chen's article) emphasize range and move us away from the ancient and subjective fielding percentage, which is dependent upon many questionable official scoring decisions and tells us nothing substantial about a fielder's ability to achieve their primary goal of turning balls in play into outs.
Imagine two second basemen. One catches everything hit directly at him and consistently delivers chest-high throws to his fellow infielders, resulting in errorless play, but is unable to catch anything more than two steps away in any direction. Another second baseman can cover a huge portion of the field including most of shallow right field and frequently makes plays behind and even to the left of second base; but every now and then, he'll boot a ball on the edge of his range or make a wild throw following a circus catch. This second player thus leads the league in errors, though most of the balls he booted would have been scored base hits had he never touched them. Which player is the better fielder? The old stats would say the first player. They'd be wrong
Lichtman and Dewan's stats, as well as those of other analysts making significant strides in this area, give us the most complete appreciation of actual fielding value we've ever had. In order to compare their findings to the conventional wisdom, let's take a look at the 2008 Gold Glove awards through the lens of UZR (available at FanGraphs.com) and The Fielding Bible, Vol. II.
2008 Gold Gloves: Adrian Gonzalez (NL), Carlos Peņa (AL).
The Numbers Say: Peņa was a fine choice, though UZR also gave high marks to A's rookie Daric Barton. Gonzalez was a classic old-school pick as he's sure-handed but lacks range and was actually below average in the field last year according to UZR. Mark Teixeira, who won the AL award in 2005 and 2006 before splitting each of the last two seasons between the leagues, was the best defensive first baseman in the majors last year. Albert Pujols deserved the award in 2007 (when it went to Derrek Lee) and has been the best-fielding first baseman in baseball over the last three years. But Reds rookie Joey Votto had a better year in the field than Prince Albert in 2008.
The Worst: Both systems rated former Marlin Mike Jacobs as the worst defensive first baseman in baseball. It's no surprise then that the Royals moved him to DH despite the fact that it forced the defensively challenged Billy Butler into the field. Despite his name, Prince Fielder now stands as the worst defensive first baseman in the game.
Biggest Surprise: Ryan Howard has steadily improved his fielding since his rookie year, compensating for his bad hands with surprising range and is among the major league leaders in UZR this year.
The Numbers Say: Phillips and Pedroia were the second-best defensive second basemen in their respective leagues last year, good enough for silver, but the golds should have gone to Chase Utley and Mark Ellis. In fact, according to UZR, Utley and Ellis were two of the three best fielders in baseball in 2008 in terms of keeping opposing runs off the board (Carl Crawford completes the trio). Utley rated as the best defensive player in baseball in 2008 under both systems. An essay in The Fielding Bible explains that Utley's success has a lot to do with positioning, as no other second baseman in baseball shifts quite as far toward first base with a lefty at the plate as Utley. Indeed, Utley made exactly that sort of play on a grounder by Ichiro Suzuki in this season's All-Star Game.
The Worst: Jeff Kent was the worst defensive second baseman in the game before his retirement last January. Also among the worst defensive second basemen in 2008 was Mark DeRosa, who hasn't played an inning at the keystone this year. Unsurprisingly, the Cardinals' converted outfielder Skip Schumaker ranks dead last in UZR among second basemen this year. Among established second basemen, Luis Castillo was The Fielding Bible's pick as the keystone's worst defender in 2008 and, per UZR, is having another poor season this year, highlighted by his walk-off dropped pop-up against the Yankees.
Biggest Surprise: Highly regarded thirtysomethings Orlando Hudson and Brian Roberts were below average in the field in 2008. UZR has been unimpressed with Hudson's defense since he left Toronto after the 2005 season and rates him as just a tick above Castillo this season.
The Numbers Say: A big deal was made out of the Rangers moving Young to third base the year after he won the Gold Glove at shortstop, but the Rangers had it right and the Gold Glove voters had it wrong. Young was below-average last year and has been among the worst defensive shortstops in the game over the past three years. This year, he's dead-last among third basemen in UZR while his replacement at shortstop, rookie Elvis Andrus, ranks as the best-fielding shortstop in the AL. Jimmy Rollins earned his hardware last year, but the numbers say surprising Royals rookie Mike Aviles should have earned the AL honors for 2008.
The Worst: If you thought that Derek Jeter's fielding is controversial, you should have tried telling a Mariners fan that the acrobatic Yuniesky Betancourt was the shortstop the two systems most agreed was hurting his team in the field. Again, the team got it right, as Betancourt, a career .278/.301/.392 hitter, has been banished to Kansas City, where the Royals are smarting from Aviles' season-ending elbow surgery, while the M's are getting solid work at short from Ronny Cedeņo.
Biggest Surprise: Aviles and Betancourt are surprising enough, but it's worth noting that Hanley Ramirez has pulled himself up to average, while Jose Reyes graded out about the same as Ramirez in 2008. As for Jeter, UZR rated him right in the middle of the pack with Reyes and Ramirez last year and rates him above average this year. The Fielding Bible was less kind but did recognize significant improvement in 2008 from his dismal 2007 performance.
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