But was he exactly the same player over the last few years that we perceived him to be? No. And Scott can manipulate his own numbers and “indexes” all he wants. But he can’t explain away those 100 balls a year that Andruw used to catch that he wasn’t catching anymore – until, by some remarkable stroke of fate, he got himself back in A-1 shape this year in a contract year (and now is magically catching them again). Do the math. If the guy was down 100 putouts a season, that’s four balls a week he used to catch that he wasn’t catching anymore.
I said in the book that I was surprised to see those numbers myself. But I didn’t make them up or manipulate them. They’re real. And Scott’s trashing of Zone Rating is purely his way of discrediting research he doesn’t agree with.
I only looked at Zone Rating because my initial inclination, as I wrote in the book, was NOT to believe the raw numbers. I wanted to factor out variables like whether the Braves’ staff had more ground-ball pitchers than it used to, etc. The defensive stat that does that best, in my opinion, is Zone Rating.
I’ve asked plenty of sabermatricians about Zone Rating. And they sure characterize it differently than Scott does. It doesn’t assign wider zones to players like Andruw because he’s so good. All centerfielders are assigned the same zone. So how does it penalize players with more range?
Andruw’s Zone Rating dipped in exactly the way his other numbers dipped. He used to lead the league. Last year, he finished at the bottom of the league. Any attempt to explain that away is an attempt to make the conclusion differ from the facts – which was the opposite of the way I went about it.
First, let’s talk about those 100 balls a year that Andruw is no longer getting to. Well, that is a bit of an exaggeration. From Andruw’s “The Guy” period from 1998–2002 (as defined by Stark in his book), the difference from 1998–2002 to 2003–2006 is 62 raw putouts, not 100. From his best year to his worst year the difference is 128, but it’s a little unfair to compare peaks and valleys, especially because some of this is a function of playing time.
Andruw averaged 449 put-outs per 162 games played from 1998–2002. From 2003–2006, he averaged 397 put-outs per 162 games played. Comparing his best years to his worst years in raw put-outs is deceiving. After you control for games played, the difference is down to 52 putouts a year. If you normalize it by innings played in CF, and assume he played as many innings as he did in his best year (1999) the difference is down to 43. In fact if you include his 2007 campaign, Andruw is on a pace to put out 494 batters in 1447 innings (his 1999 playing time), which is about equal to his career high. The difference from “The Guy” to the present averages is only 26 put-outs.
Year Games Innings PO PO PO (Raw) (162G) (1447 Inn) 1998 159 1373 413 421 435 1999 162 1447 493 493 493 2000 161 1430 439 442 444 2001 161 1435 461 464 465 2002 154 1357 404 425 431 2003 155 1329 390 408 425 2004 154 1347 389 409 418 2005 159 1366 365 372 387 2006 153 1317 378 400 415 2007 63 557 190 489 494 Mean 1998-2002 442 449 454 Mean 2003-2006 381 397 411 Mean 2003-2007 416 428
Now, this is not an insubstantial difference, but it is much smaller that what Stark claims it to be. I don’t think Stark is trying to manipulate the numbers, I just think he’s not looking at the big picture.
Now, let’s move on to Zone Rating, which is a rate statistic. The problem is that the traditional Zone Rating reported by ESPN is deeply flawed. Players are at a disadvantage if they are making plays outside of their zone, because an out-of-zone play is treated as a part of the player’s zone for that play. The out-of-zone put-out goes into both the numerator and denominator of ZR. If a player is making shifts from a standard zone, this can actually hurt a player, and he is not awarded extra credit for making an out-of-zone play (see here for a full explanation). I don’t know of any stat-head who considers zone rating useful, nor would I care if anyone did. Zone Rating is flawed in its design for punishing players who make plays outside of their zone.
While Stark responds specifically to Boras, he has yet to respond to what the superior defensive metrics indicate about Andruw: he is still one of the best in the game. If you want to find a metric that treats all fielders the same, why not go with the Plus/Minus system created by the man to founded Stats, Inc. and invented Zone Rating? It’s a system that employs several video scouts to plot the speed, trajectory, and location of all balls hit to all fielders over several seasons. If you are worried about the influence of the pitching staff, this is the metric that you need to use.
I would like to add that I like Jayson Stark, and I think he is a good writer. I just disagree with him on this. It’s not like he’s an idiot for using ZR. In fact, I applaud Stark for objectively evaluating Andruw. If ZR didn’t measure Jones as declining, Jones wouldn’t have made the list. He has no reason to bash Andruw just for the sake of doing so. It’s not widely known that ZR has serious problems and that a superior defensive metric exists. And it just so happens that it makes a big difference in Andruw’s case.