[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.