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[ed. - This post was written by Kyle Novak on the BN Message Board. I warned you folks that if you posted quality, interesting stuff on the Board, it might get promoted to the front page (with a minimal number of edits, hopefully). So, here you go.

Kyle's post was in response to an interesting article eschewing some of the purported benefits of two advanced stats: WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating). The former is a purportedly-all-encompassing stat that allows you to compare the relative value of all baseball players. It's fundamental flaw, or at least one of them, according to the article, is that it includes the UZR stat, which, as an advanced defensive metric, is subject to criticism for being not-too-terribly reliable. Advanced statistics are valuable for a number of reasons, and every year there are advancements that make their use even more valuable. But, at present, there is an open debate about the utility of these two particular stats. Kyle weighed in.]

Let’s face it. Data accumulation and analysis is a very real and important part of baseball. Many sabermatricians believe that defense is the “new frontier” in the search to get an edge.

Defensive numbers are still primitive and raw compared to what they will become. Thus, I wouldn’t be surprised if the following isn’t A ) already in use or B ) in the planning stages of many teams:

A series of HD-cameras that give team analysts the precise location of every ball hit and the distance each fielder had to move to make the play. Charting the distance, trajectory, and velocity on every single throw that an outfielder makes when trying to throw out an advancing runner or when an infielder makes a throw across the diamond on a force play. Having on-field stopwatches that time every baserunner’s speed from home plate to first, first to second, and so on. Comparing the conditions of the playing field as well as the layout of the infield grass in each stadium (and the effect it has on grounders).

You can take that data and compare true defensive ability across your own team and across the league. For example, you can easily look at where all of the balls in play were hit and by whom. Where and how were any errors committed? Using this kind of analysis, you can determine what constitutes an “average” fielding performance (range to each side, fielding accuracy, throwing accuracy, “dig or scoop” accuracy, particularly at first base).

A true fielding advantage can be assessed when you clearly see that Player A actually prevents more baserunners than his counterpart Player B simply because he has the ability to make tougher plays as noted by the data, even if he has a few more errors than Player B. It is this way that plays can be considered “routine” while others are considered “tough.” A successful bare-handed charging play made on a weak infield dribbler hit on the grass by Jacoby Ellsbury is going to be a better indicator of fielding prowess than a slow chopper hit right at the fielder by Jim Thome, even though they get both get counted as a groundout in the box score. It can also take away certain visual falsehoods, such as the whole “crowd sees me dive for a ball and cheers me yet doesn’t seem realize I HAD to do it to make the play because I’m slow/getting older and lost a step/or constantly get a bad jump” bias.*

It’s going to be interesting to see how fielding metrics evolve in the next handful of years. Whatever the case, I think we can agree that data supported by VISUAL evidence is going to be key.

In 2011, I can look at the hitting statistics of any player and get a clear, unbiased snapshot of how they perform without ever having to see them play an inning. Power numbers. Patience. Contact rate. Any piece of data you want is available. That is why I really like WAR, particularly the offensive variety, as it makes me dig a bit deeper into the reason they ended up with that particular rating. Player A had a 7.5 WAR last year? Seriously, how was that the case? Then I start to look around their advanced stats, maybe noticing a high OPS with RISP, great isolated power numbers despite some bad hitting luck (low BABIP compared to league average), possibly even noticeable success stealing bases, and so forth. A high offensive WAR means you can that find facets of a player’s offensive game that were clearly very valuable.

That being said, WAR has its issues. There is no universal way to calculate it, and the defensive contribution to the score brings us right back up to the first point of this post: How do we even calculate good defense?

I agree about the “apples to oranges” argument, with the Jacoby Ellsbury and Prince Fielder debate being a great point [ed. - the original article notes that Ellsbury is currently out-WAR-ing Fielder, which is probably ridiculous]. Baseball-Reference has a “position adjustment” section in its WAR calculation. Why should a first baseman be penalized for his position and what arbitrary number was agreed upon as said penalty? Should Ellsbury be considered more valuable just because his numbers are so much higher than other center fielders? Fielder is compared to Albert Pujols and Joey Votto (along with a large number of other NL first-basemen who are solely responsible for raising the league average hitting statistics) while Ellsbury (along with Curtis Granderson) pretty much stands way above the much closer-to-average crop of center fielders in the AL. Using WAR isn’t necessarily going to make it easy comparing players across eras either.

WAR is just another piece you can use to help justify an argument or support your facts, just like any other statistic. I wouldn’t want to base an opinion solely on WAR alone.

*Example: Jim Edmonds was a good center-fielder, but was often accused of getting a poor jump on a large number of flyballs, thus resulting in him having to dive to make what would have been a much easier play had he gotten a better jump. While the dives were impressive to say the least, it often overrated him as a fielder. (Web Gems on SportsCenter are definitely guilty of this). This same criticism has been leveled at Andruw Jones when he was in Atlanta. While I am choosing neither to confirm/deny the criticism of either player, this method of fielding data collection could very well provide evidence in similar cases.

  • De Jesus to Trillo to Buckner

    “Why should a first baseman be penalized for his position and what arbitrary number was agreed upon as said penalty? ”

    Because it’s way easier to find a first baseman who can put up reasonable offensive/power numbers than it is to find a CF who can put up reasonable offensive/power numbers. It’s not so much that Fielder is compared to Votto or Pujols, but that teams are choosing from a player pool at 1B where your mediocre-level player is carlos pena or ryan howard–still very competent offensive players.

    Meanwhile your replacement level centerfielder is going to look more like Alex Rios.

    Also, it’s not arbitrary, the position adjustment is recalculated every year.

  • http://calebshreves.blogspot.com Caleb

    Brett, you do know that behind this objective analysis of baseball statistics, Kyle is still just trying to tell you that replacing Barney at second should be very low on the Cubs priority list, right?

    Also, I reiterate my bid for a co-GMship between Kyle and myself.

    I’ve already condensed our style to a funny movie reference:

    “You handle all the scientific stuff, I’ll go get a pizza.” – Tommy Boy

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      “If I wanted a kiss, I would have asked your mother.”

  • Jamesjones

    This.

  • KB

    I really think this was a great article.
    My only beef is his confusion over position-value, which is a cornerstone of sabermetrics. Heck, it’s a cornerstone of all economics; what is scarce is valuable.

    Joe Posnanski is constantly picking on Ryan Howard and Mark Texeira for this very thing; sure they can hit, but almost EVERY 1st baseman can hit. Howard and Tex aren’t even that outstanding when compared to all the other 1st basemen in MLB. Their contracts are absurd.

  • Kyle N

    Brett,

    Much thanks for the putting the post on the front page!  
     
    I guess I’m a bit like the Dos Equis guy:

    “I don’t always post on Bleacher Nation. . .
    but when I do. . . It’s probably going to be long.”

    Maybe someone can make up some quick meme art.  Anyone?  :)
     
    @DeJesus to Trillo to Buckner, @KB

    Good points have been made.  I believe you both touched on the fact that the regular center-fielder with better numbers is harder to find then a first-baseman with better numbers.  Very true, I agree.     
    And yes, I also should have replaced “arbitrary” with “yearly” when talking about position adjustment.  My bad.      

    However. . . 
    Allow me to play a little devil’s advocate here.  

    The beautiful thing about baseball is that batters are given more equal statistical weight regardless of position (NL pitchers withstanding).  Using the existing knowledge of hitting and baserunning statistics, you can rate and compare anyone against everyone else.  It’s interesting that one portion of your worth (a MUCH larger portion for many) to a major league baseball team renders your defensive position completely irrelevant.  I think that is the point the linked article is trying to make.  Why should a guy like Jacoby Ellsbury get a bonus simply because his hitting is compared to the likes of Alex Rios or the Ben Revere-Denard Span pupu-platter?  When ONLY looking at hitting, shouldn’t he be compared against EVERYONE else in the league?  Ellsbury is just one guy in a lineup of nine just like Mark Teixeira.  The fact that the best hitters in the league are at power positions doesn’t take away from the fact that they are still the best hitters in the league.  The current trend is that teams are choosing to put their most valuable hitters in those positions.     
          
    Flip the coin over and you have defense.  Nine different spots, nine different skill sets, all of which have specific attributes that have to be quantified to determine value.  
          
    So, determining a player’s total value should consist of:  
    A)  Batting and baserunning contributions (WAR, win shares, runs created, other advanced metrics) 
    plus (or minus) 
    B)  Defensive contributions compared to replacement at his position (He made X plays that saved his team X runs more or less than average) 
    plus (or minus) 
    C)  The quantitative measurement that values the difficulty of his defensive position (position adjustment) SOLELY based on the physical and skilled demands required to perform at DEFENSIVE replacement level.
     
    A+B+C.  Independent hitting value combined with independent defensive value.  So in theory, add them up and whoever has the most, wins.  
     
    “B” can be calculated with the advanced fielding data techniques similar to those mentioned in the main post above.  This can point out that a fielder experienced certain degrees of luck (more easy plays, more or less chances and putouts than normal) and challenge inflated fielding percentages (much like batting average can be).  

    It’s incredibly obvious that playing a position like center-field or shortstop is harder than first base.  The thing is, a gold glove first-baseman might end up saving his team just as many runs over the course of a season as a gold-glove center fielder when compared to their respective replacement-level counterparts.  Which brings us to the next point. . .

    “C” is the head-scratcher.  How do we give props to the center-fielders of the world and say your “athletic ability” to play the position even at a average level is worth a certain value?  It does warrant value, that is why teams don’t put a guy like David Ortiz in center.  Hell, we’re still having trouble determining what aspects of playing catcher are most valuable.  I think this will be the biggest area of sabermetric research and evolution going forward.             

    If a future DH comes along, puts up a Barry Bonds-ian season, thoroughly obliterates his competition in providing an obscenely high WAR, should he be given the MVP even though he doesn’t regularly play any defense?  This will be a question we can answer more thoroughly over the next handful of years as we continue evaluating the true value of defense.    
     
    It makes for interesting debate. 

    Thoughts?

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