Archive for Fielding
“Nate McLouth is still a fourth OF masquerading as a starting CF.”
season OPS+ +/- SB/CS 2007 110 -9 22/1 2008 126 -37 23/3 2009 109 +3 19/6
There is no arguing that McLouth is an above-average hitter, and when you add in his contributions on the basepaths it’s clear that he is a valuable offensive player. His lone deficiency is on defense, where he drew the ire of many saber-minded commentators for winning a Gold Glove while having the worst Plus/Minus in the league. He also was the Pirates lone All-Star representative in 2008, because someone had to go. But the justifiable backlash against his mainstream overrating doesn’t justify relegating him to part-time status.
So, let’s tackle the defense. In 2007, he had a poor defensive season with a -9 Plus/Minus that when translated to a full season of work would have been a -16. Not good, but not in -37 territory. In 2009, he seems to have corrected the problem, becoming league average. Maybe it’s a blip, and he hasn’t improved. After watching him for half a season, I don’t really understand how anyone could have awarded him a Gold Glove. Yet, I thought he was adequate and a defensive upgrade over the supposedly solid Jordan Schafer, who posted a -5 Plus/Minus for one-third of the season (Yes, I get it: small sample and he’s young. Just pointing out that the metric that damns McLouth says he was better defensively than Schafer in 2009).
But that -37 may not adequately capture his defensive ability, and the Plus/Minus creator John Dewan seems to agree, “All in all, I no longer think of McLouth as the worst center fielder in baseball. It means something that at least some of the managers and coaches think highly of him.” In addition, Dewan examined McLouth’s performance at a more granular level in The Fielding Bible: Volume II and found McLouth’s biggest weakness: deep balls, especially those near the wall. Does this have something to do with defensive positioning, the park in Pittsburgh, or McLouth’s ability? This is difficult to answer, but the Plus/Minus of McLouth’s replacement in Pittsburgh Andrew McCutchen reveals something interesting. In two-thirds of a season he posted a Plus/Minus of -17. I think BIS and Pittsburgh need to get together and see it there is a measurement or coaching problem that needs to be addressed. McLouth and McCutchen might both have been poor fielders in Pittsburgh, but I think there was also be something else going on.
Even if you take the Plus/Minus values at face value and compare it with his Adjusted Batting Runs per 162 for the past three season is 15 runs above average. His average Plus/Minus for the past 3 years (stretching 2007 out to his 2008 playing time) is -17, which you can multiply times .56 to get about -10 runs. So, he’s still a player who is five runs above average.
In conclusion, I think there is very little evidence to support the claim that McLouth is a fourth outfielder. He may not be an All-Star or a Gold-Glover, but he’s a starting center fielder for most major-league teams.
— Gwinnett Braves next to last in International League attendance, drawing less than their projected annual attendance of over 6,000. Not good when you are experiencing the honeymoon effect of a new park and team. Nice work!
— G-Braves Stadium’s naming rights revert from the County to the Braves on Monday. Braves get first $350K, County gets next $350K, both parties split the remainder. So much for getting $500K to pay off the debt. Lando Calrissian had a better deal with Darth Vader. If I was fabulously wealthy, I would buy the rights and name it Nasuti’s Folly. I encourage use of this name informally.
— Frank Wren deserves much praise for rebuilding the Braves. But, I wonder where the Braves would be if Matt Diaz had been the team’s everyday right fielder from day one and if they hadn’t rushed Jordan Schafer. I estimate that if Diaz and Jeff Francoeur switched their playing time, the Braves would have gained approximately $2 million/year in superior performance.
I didn’t have more than a few minutes to glance through The Fielding Bible II last night, but I see nothing but improvements to what I already considered to be baseball’s best defensive measurement system. If you want to evaluate fielding, then you should be using The Fielding Bible.
Here is an excerpt that describes the newest Plus/Minus-based metric Runs Saved and lists the leaders by position for the past three seasons.
Here are the best defenders by position in terms of total Runs Saved from 2006–2008.
Pos. Player Runs Saved 1B Albert Pujols 61 2B Chase Utley 63 3B Pedro Feliz 50 SS Adam Everett 48 LF Alfonso Soriano 42 CF Carlos Beltran 44 RF Alex Rios 49 C Jason Kendall 27 P Kenny Rogers 27
I just received a copy of The Fielding Bible II in the mail today from ACTA Publishing. I can’t wait read through it. I loved the first edition, and I think highly of the Plus/Minus System. In fact, Hal Richman’s cover blurb says exactly what I think of the system.
John Dewan’s Plus/Minus System is the best statistical system I’ve ever seen for evaluating the defensive abilities of Major League Baseball players.
I will write more about the book as I read it.
This season, Jeff Francoeur hasn’t lived up to expectations. (Not that it is really his fault, because he hasn’t really performed much different than his minor league numbers suggested he would.) He’s batting .256/.309/.422/.731, which puts him last in the National League in OPS(14th of 14) among qualified right fielders. But, this really isn’t news: everybody is aware of Francoeur’s hitting problems…except fans at Turner Field who still give him more cheers than a .400-chasing Chipper Jones.
Yesterday, I was poking around Bill James Online (subscription required) and looked at Frenchy’s Plus/Minus numbers. If you are not familiar with Plus/Minus, it is the principal metric of John Dewan’s The Fielding Bible, which is based on objective video analysis of all players. It is the best defensive metric out there. According to the metric, this season Frenchy is not doing so hot in the field this season. So far, he has made seven plays below what the average right fielder ought to be making, which ranks him 31st among major league right fielders. It’s not what you expect from a Gold Glove winner.
And this is not just some bias against Francoeur in this metric. The system has rated Francoeur positively in the past. In 2006 and 2007 he ranked eleventh and sixth with three and ten plays above average. In The Fielding Bible Award voting, Bill James, John Dewan, and the BIS video scouts rated Francoeur 2007’s best right fielder in the majors. Frenchy isn’t just struggling at the plate this season.
This may just be a product of random variation; but if it’s not, what could be the cause? This past offseason, Francoeur adopted a weight-lifting program in an effort to increase his hitting power. The other day, he stated that the lifting may have made him too tight.
Saturday’s was his third home run in 11 games. Before that, Francoeur had gone six weeks without a homer. He had some doubts about his offseason workout routine of lifting weights four days a week, which brought him to camp heavier and hoping to improve on his 19 homers of a year ago.
“My dad and I talked last night,” Francoeur said. “I don’t know if I did too much weightlifting, if I got too tight.”
Though he is referring to problems with his swing, the bigger problem may be on defense. Tightness and the extra weight may be slowing him down in the outfield.
Another explanation may be the departure of Andruw Jones. If Jones’s superior defense allowed Francouer to cheat toward the line to get balls that other right fielders usually miss, then Jones may have made Francouer look better than his true ability.
The Plus/Minus system has ranked Jones first and third among center fielders in 2006 and 2007. Mark Kotsay, Jones’s replacement, has been a below average center fielder for the past three seasons. The Braves’s primary left fielder for the past three years has been Matt Diaz. In 2006 and 2007, he was an above-average defender making ten plays above average. In 2008, he has been just about average. This is some evidence that Jones may have made Francoeur look better than he was.
I suspect that luck, extra weight, the departure of Jones, and possibly an injury are all contributing factors.
The 2007 defensive Plus/Minus Leaders and Trailers are out. I consider the Plus/Minus system to be the best defensive measurement system out there. Although, the numbers will not be released for all players until after the 2008 season, seeing the top and bottom is useful.
In particular, I wondered how Andruw Jones would fare. In a series of posts this summer, Jayson Stark and I debated Andruw’s defensive ability. Stark argued that scouts and Zone Rating said Jones was on the decline. I countered that Zone Rating was flawed and that I preferred the Plus/Minus system, which showed Jones was still among the best center fielders in the game. Though Andruw’s performance fell off quite a bit at the plate this year, I wondered how his defense looked.
Plus/Minus rates Jones as the second-best fielding center fielder in baseball in 2007, making 24 more plays than the average center fielder. That is one less than Carlos Beltran. Over the past three seasons, Plus/Minus rates Jones as the best, making 63 more plays than average. So, it looks like even if Jones has lost a step, he’s still near one of the best defenders in the game.
And The Fielding Bible Awards, determined by a group of voters, gives Jones the nod over Beltran—probably because of his superior throwing arm, which the Plus/Minus system does not measure.
Center Field – Andruw Jones, Atlanta
Last year Carlos Beltran won the award with Andruw Jones coming in second. This year Jones returned the favor, tipping the scales at 86 points to 80 for Beltran. Jones and Beltran both have great range, but it was probably Jones’ intimidating throwing arm that swayed the voters. It’s interesting that just a year ago Jones seemed to be slipping slightly from the consensus best center fielder he was a few years before. Perhaps we should also crown him “Comeback Fielder of the Year.”
It’s also interesting to note that all of the Braves outfielders score well. Willie Harris and Matt Diaz are +21 and +12 in left field, and Jeff Francoeur is +10 in right field. It will be interesting to see how Andruw Jones does away from the Braves next year, and how the Braves outfield changes without Andruw Jones in the lineup.
I was referred to your latest blog by a friend. And I found it reasonable and insightful. I appreciate the way you framed the debate, as opposed to the way some people have been interpreting it.
I’ve never claimed Andruw was now an inferior centerfielder, or a below-average centerfielder. And I certainly have never said he’s some broken-down stumblebum, as Scott (Boras) has been insinuating. But it seems to me that we both agree with the premise that he has regressed somewhat since his peak — at least until this year, when he happened to get back in tremendous shape in what was (coincidentally, I’m sure) a major contract year. Even if he has regressed 52 putouts a year, that’s still two balls a week he’s no longer getting to that he used to. And the fact was, I didn’t only use his best year as a comparison. Even his second-best year, in 2001, represented nearly 100 more putouts than last year, in only two more games played.
Did I break this down as closely as you did? Obviously, I didn’t. But there HAD been a definite decline no matter how you break it down. Basically, we’re only debating how much of a decline. Am I correct?
And I didn’t just use stats as my guide here. As I said in the email I sent Dave O’Brien, Scott would be shocked by what scouts and GMs and other club executives have been saying about Andruw over the last few years. THEY think he has declined. I know that. And I still hear that. In fact, after I wrote in that email that I would still take Andruw over Torii Hunter, one scout who read it called me and said, “You’re wrong. In that series in Minnesota last week, Andruw was the second-best centerfielder on the field – by far.”
It would be tempting to pass along some of the even more harsh assessments i’ve heard. But I have no desire to do that because I’ve been consciously trying NOT to bash Andruw, who I still think (and say repeatedly) is a tremendous player in many respects, and highly employable, obviously.
I also wanted to make the point that when I first started talking about Andruw, this was not all about defense. Andruw’s offensive issues are readily apparent. And as I wrote in the book, even his 50-homer season was misleading in some ways, because all the Sabermetric indicators rate it as the least productive 50-homer season of all time. But I’ve found that the conversations and interviews have evolved away from the offensive part of the topic and gotten us stuck in a debate over Andruw’s defense. That was never my original intent. But especially in these interviews, there’s limited time to get into everything.
So all I really attempted to say in that chapter was that here we have a guy who burst onto the scene in the ’96 World Series, was so good so young he had his GM invoking Hank Aaron as a comparison, and he hasn’t really been all that we expected. Now maybe we expected too much. But that’s a separate debate.
The other part of this argument is that we have this impression now of Andruw as this 50-home-run-hitting, nine-0time Gold Glove winner — and when you hear that, you’d think he was Willie Mays reincarnate. In fact, Scott loves to drop Willie Mays into all the Andruw conversations. But the fact is, THAT impression is misleading and over-inflated. And THAT’S where Andruw is overrated.
This book is about perception, and performance relative to that perception. And what’s been lost in this is that THAT’S what I wrote. People have been focusing way too much on defense, and this chapter was really more about the big picture. So I want you to know that your blog has helped remind me to readjust the focus of this conversation, so that future discussions ARE about the big picture and not just on how we interpret defensive numbers.
I’m a reasonable guy, just trying to raise reasonable issues. But people’s emotions have caused this debate to veer into a whole different sphere. So if you could do your part to help redirect us back into an arena where normal people can agree to disagree and debate in a more relaxed, this-is-what-baseball-fans do kind of climate, I’d be greatly appreciative.
Thanks for hearing me out.
After discussing this a bit further with Jayson, it seems that we agree on what type of player Andruw is, but we differ on how the general public perceives him. And Stark may have the edge in gaging this perception, because most of what I hear from Braves fans is how he is responsible for all Braves losses…and possibly the Iraq War. Thus, Stark thinks he is overrated, and I don’t.
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.
I first became aware that Andruw Jones was going to be the lead story in Jayson Stark’s new book The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History during a radio interview several months ago. In the discussion Stark mentioned that Andruw Jones is not as good as people think he is and that he would be explaining why in his upcoming book. I was anticipating what he had to say when, lucky for me, ESPN.com published an excerpt from the book on Jones.
What does Stark mean by overrated? Well, that is a tough one, which he admits. It is certainly subjective, and while some people might think Andruw Jones is the greatest center fielder in history this is not the consensus. Stark clearly doesn’t think the public sees Andruw in this class, just in a class higher than he should be.
What does the baseball public think of Jones? Well, in his 10+ year career he has made five All-Star teams, all during excellent offensive seasons (OPS+ > 120). His career OPS+ is 117, which is good, but not outstanding, offensive production for a center fielder. On defense Jones is considered to be one of the best in the game winning nine straight Gold Gloves. I’d say the baseball watching public considers Jones to be a good hitter and an excellent defender. So, how does Jones stack up to Stark’s case?
Luckily, Stark gives up a reference point for judging excellence in center field.
[Center field is] the position of Mays, Mantle, and DiMaggio. Of Cobb, Puckett, and Griffey. Those aren’t just names on a lineup card. Those are names that conjure up magic. This is the glamour position in baseball. Nothing else is close.
Did you catch that? Read over the list of names again. Kirby Puckett? Are you kidding me? Don’t get me wrong. Kirby Puckett was a very good player, but is nowhere close to the class of the other players on the list. In fact, Andruw Jones’s career OPS of 117 is quite similar to Puckett’s 124—and don’t forget that Puckett was forced to retire near the top of his game. Hey, I’ll grant that Puckett was the better player, but I’m a bit uneasy saying that Jones falls well short of of Stark’s own standard. Puckett is more similar to Jones than he is to the other players on the list. Maybe Puckett would have been a better choice for an overrated center fielder if people really do consider him to be as good as Mays, Mantle, DiMaggio, and Cobb.
Let’s look at offense first. Stark quotes a scout who describes Jones’s offense as “not very good.” Now, I’m not sure how to interpret the quote. Taken literally, Jones is not a very good hitter; but, when I’m at a family reunion and someone says, “this congealed salad isn’t very good” I skip it. It’s not like Jones is known for his bat: he’s garnered only one Silver Slugger award, and three are handed out every year. While his offense wouldn’t be anything special for a corner outfielder, he’s more than adequate for his position. For the previous three seasons he’s finished second in OPS among center fielders (2004, 2005, 2006), and I have little doubt that he will finish this season near the top.
Now let’s move to defense. Here is where Stark makes most of his case. He acknowledges that Jones was once one of the best defenders at his position, and he believes he is living off a reputation that is no longer deserved. As he did for offense, he cites the opinion of a few scouts that Jones’s defense has declined.
“I first noticed it two or three years ago,” he said. “Just from sitting there, scouting, watching balls dropping in that should have been caught. I’m not talking about balls that needed to be dived for. I’m talking about balls that should be caught.”
I surveyed other scouts. They’d begun to see the same things. Not getting the same jumps. Not reacting. Not putting in the defensive effort he used to. His body getting thicker. A sudden obsession with home-run hitting over everything else.
Stark doesn’t just believe these words, he goes to some numbers. There is no denying Andruw’s putouts are down from the mid-400s to the 370s—though Jones is on a pace for around 450 putouts in 2007. Stark says this can’t be because the composition of his pitching staff as changed, because his zone rating has fallen. Here is where Stark’s argument falls apart. There is no denying Jones isn’t a zone rating wonder, but zone rating doesn’t tell us much about defensive prowess.
Zone rating is a seductive statistic because it seems like a batting average for hitters. How many outs did you generate from chances withing an a somewhat objective zone? What a nice idea! The problem is that zone rating is very sensitive to balls that players catch outside of their assigned zone. It’s one of the reasons that the inventor of zone rating, John Dewan, abandoned his creation and developed an entirely new method for evaluating defense—more on that in a moment.
Three years ago I wrote a post, Thoughts on Zone Rating, using Jones as an example of why zone rating is flawed (it comes up number one in the Google search for “zone rating problems“). The basic problem is that defensive shifts allow fielders to catch more balls outside of the zones, but also causes them to give up balls hit in zones. Fielders are asymmetrically punished and rewarded for players made and not made in and outside of the zone. I’m not going to rehash the argument, but the quick summary is that the way outfield defense is played today, zone rating has some problem evaluating players, especially when they are catching balls outside of assigned zones.
The problems with ZR extend beyond my critique, and its flaws became so obvious that its creator John Dewan developed two new defensive measures: Revised Zone Rating and the Plus/Minus System. Both are presented in Dewan’s amazing book The Fielding Bible. (I’m also excited to learn that a new volume is scheduled for 2008…Yes!) While the latter measure is superior, I want to focus on Dewan’s revised ZR, because of some information presented in the book that shed’s light on traditional ZR.
Rather than include balls out of a fielding zone in the traditional ZR metric, the revised system credits balls caught out of the zone separately. On page 234 we see that from 2003–2005 Jones made 218 out-of-zone plays—40 more than Juan Pierre (in 53 more innings played), 49 more than Johnny Damon (in 10 fewer innings played), 63 more than Vernon Wells (in 92 more innings played), and 64 more than Carlos Beltran (in 53 more innings played). Long story short: Andruw Jones is good at getting to balls outside of his zone, and because one of weaknesses of traditional ZR is handling balls out of the zone we ought to be wary when using it to judge Jones.
Next, let’s go to the Plus/Minus System. This is Dewan’s masterpiece: a system based on objective video analysis of how players field balls according to the speed, trajectory, and location of batted balls relative to other fielders playing the same position. It’s frickin’ awesome. To use zone rating to evaluate fielders when this system is available is like using a wooden tennis racket at Wimbledon today. How does Jones do in the Plus/Minus system? Using the original Plus/Minus metric presented in The Fielding Bible, from 2003–2005 Jones made 26 more plays than the average center fielder, putting him behind only Torii Hunter (+44) and Aaron Rowand (+34). Furthermore, Dewan awards Jones Gold Gloves in all three seasons.
Dewan published a few results from an updated system that more precisely measures fielding in The Bill James Handbook 2007. Jones performs even better in this system. From 2004–2006 Jones made more plays than any other center fielder—48 more than the average center fielder and three more than the next closest player (Corey Patterson). In 2006, Jones finished second only to Patterson (+34) by making 30 more plays than average. He’s still got it!
The funny thing about this is that before the Plus/Minus system came into being I thought Andruw was underrated as a defender. Rumors of Jones’s defensive decline have been discussed openly for years, but I never saw it. I believe that the main reason for this is that Jones isn’t as skinny as he used to be. Hey, who isn’t? And though his speed may have declined some that was never what made Andruw Jones so good. I have never seen any player take routes to balls as well as he does. His defensive gift is less about his legs and more about his ability to know where any ball is going faster than anyone else. It is almost as if he folds space as he runs, because he consistently gets to balls that I expect to be hits.
I was happy that Dewan’s system confirmed my thinking, and I would have been prepared to admit that my eyes had been deceiving me if it had shown otherwise. Quantifying defense is difficult and only now are we coming close to understanding how to evaluate fielders. Zone rating has its heart in the right place, but it has little value. I would rather judge a hitter solely by his batting average than judge a fielder by his zone rating.
So, is Jones overrated? Well, I think it’s pretty clear that he is a good-hitting center fielder who is one of the top defenders in the league. That is how I have him pegged, and I suspect the perception of the public is not much different.