Nation STATion: Playing the field
By Bill Chuck
After watching three Red Sox/Yankee games this weekend my biggest takeaway (other than by the 3rd inning on Saturday I was begging for Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy) is that I’ll take Co vs. So-Ro-Mo. That is to say, against the Yankee triad of Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera, of all the Sox batters, I’ll take Marco Scutaro. Co, when playing for Oakland in 2007 hit a three-run walkoff off of Mo to give the A’s a 5-4 win, then Sunday night hit a double high off the Monster in the 9th off Rivera and then eventually scored the tying run on Pedroia’s sac fly.
The other thing that I appreciated about watching these two teams play is that they can field the ball. The only error in the three games was an errant throw by Jarrod Saltalamacchia on a steal attempt. The Sox have been particularly impressive making only 55 errors this season, while the Yankees 69. But it’s not all about errors when you look at fielding, and the fewest errors don’t necessarily equal success. The White Sox have committed the fewest errors in the majors (50) and they are 55-58 this season. However, the Phils have committed the fewest in the NL (52) and they have the best record in baseball. The Rangers (64-51) and the Cubs (49-66) each have committed 94 errors, the most in baseball.
Numbers like that are just part of the reason why the Gold Glove Award is by far the most overrated of all the postseason trophies. Way too frequently, voters simply counted errors as a means of determining winners. This is not to say that all the Gold Glove awardees since its creation in 1957 are unworthy, but too many times, when it was simply awarded based on an error count, the award was given to a player out of respect for his body of work, not exactly for fielding prowess (hello, Derek Jeter). Then there are the players who once they were awarded the trophy gave it up as frequently as an incumbent is voted out office in Congress (take the case of Rafael Palmiero who won in 1997, ‘98, and ’99 despite the fact that in 1999 he was a DH for 128 games and a first baseman for 28 games).
This is not to blame the folks at Rawlings for creating the award, it was good for their business, and it was good for MLB to have some additional postseason awards to gather some press. The biggest problem was that statistically the awards primarily were really based on errors and fielding percentage, with a little bit of assists and putouts tossed in the mix for seasoning.
Then along came Bill James and John Dewan. You know that James is the Einstein of baseball stats. John Dewan, was the CEO of Stats Inc, and is the author of The Fielding Bible, in which he and James developed the Plus/Minus System, which measures how many plays a fielder made above or below an average player at his position. Since he first started tracking fielding, Dewan and others have created all sorts of measurements. Here’s a few as defined by HardballTimes.com:
• UZR – coined by John Dewan, the stat was created by Mitchel Lichtman. UZR looks at the trajectory and speed of every batted ball and, based on overall major league averages, assigns a probability that a certain position will field it. If a player at that position fields it, he gets credit above the overall major league average. If he doesn't, he gets negative credit.
• RZR - Revised Zone Rating is the proportion of balls hit into a fielder's zone that he successfully converted into an out.
• TotalZone – Created by Sean Smith, it is similar to UZR in that it evaluates fielders on a plus/minus scale compared to average.
The problem that I have, and most of us have, is that you can’t figure this out on your own. I mean batting average is basic math: hits divided by at bats. Simple and sweet, just like me. But with all these fielding metrics, we are totally dependent on the folks who have access to the video of the zones and they then can figure out the numbers. On top of that, the value of the numbers can often be obscured by the complexity of what is being measured. This is why I use Rtot -- Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Avg: The number of runs above or below average the player is worth based on the number of plays made as found on Baseball-Reference.com as my primary tool for comparison.
Here’s what I found when I looked at the eight positions:
• Kelly Shoppach of the Rays leads with 11 Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Avg.
• Jarrod Saltalamacchia – minus 3 Rtot – Salty catches Tim Wakefield and his knuckleball, need I say more?
• Jason Varitek – minus 2 – Tek has totaled -2 for his career
• Russell Martin – plus 1
• Francisco Cervelli – minus 4
• Adrian Gonzalez - plus 10, leads the league – Gonzo has totaled plus-42 for his career
• Mark Teixeira – plus 1
• Dustin Pedroia – plus 13, leads the league – Pedey has totaled plus 50 in his career. There is no better right side of the infield defensively than Boston’s.
• Robinson Cano – minus 3
• Adrian Beltre – plus 14, leads the league
• Kevin Youkilis – plus 3 – Youk is plus 16 as a third baseman and plus 28 as a first baseman in his career.
• Alex Rodriguez – plus 11
• Eduardo Nunez – minus 1
• Alcides Escobar – plus 14, leads the league
• Marco Scutaro – minus 3 – Marco is plus 13 for his career at short, but those plus runs were when he played on the turf in Toronto.
• Jed Lowrie – minus 4 – Jed is still plus 4 runs overall at short, but in his first two seasons he was 6 and 3 respectively and has headed downward ever since.
• Derek Jeter – minus 8
• Brett Gardner – plus 20, leads the league, the highest rated fielder in baseball
• Carl Crawford – minus 1 – Crawford has been a big disappointment in the field. I note that he has trouble going to right, particularly at Fenway, but he could be feeling the effects of playing all those years on the turf at the Trop. He is still plus 66 lifetime.
• Denard Span – plus 17, leads the league
• Jacoby Ellsbury – plus 10 – As with everything, what a difference in Ellsbury in the field. Have you noticed that you haven’t seen those diving plays from Jacoby this season? That’s because he gets a much better jump on the ball and reads the ball better off the bat. He’s plus 9 for his career in center, which means he started the season minus 1.
• Curtis Granderson – minus 9
• Nick Swisher - plus 19, leads the league
• Josh Reddick – plus 2 – It’s too early to really judge Reddick’s play in right, the only thing we know is that he is not a negative.
• J.D. Drew – plus 2 – The “J.D.” stands for “Just Declining.” In 2009, Drew was a plus 21 rightfielder and last year he was plus seven. It’s a good thing his contract is up at the end of this season.
We should never underestimate fielding when judging the strength of a team or a player. Los Angeles Dodgers Executive Fresco Thompson said describing his team’s number one nemesis, "Willie Mays and his glove. Where triples go to die."
We all remember the walkoffs and the homers, but those are rarities compared to the 20 or so outs per game the Sox fielders produce and the untold number of hits they take away. Spend some time watching the Sox in the field and you will indeed see a first place ballclub.