Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Past A Diving...

The defense lately has been brutal. If the batter's putting the ball in play, chances are it's rolling past a rangeless infielder or dropping in front of (or behind!) a clueless outfielder.

Nats pitchers have given up a bazillion runs this month, and a large chunk of that, I suspect, is because the defensive play behind them is crushing them. Whether you've watched on TV and seen with your eyes, or heard Charlie say, "Past a diving Clayton," the evidence is staring us in the face. But what do the numbers say?

First, a note about defensive stats. They stink! Defensive stats are the Enigma Machine, and we're still looking for the rotors. Some have come close, but I think the best way is to sample a number of them. They all have strengths and weaknesses.

As far as this li'l exercise, I'm going to limit it to four positions: shortstop, second, left and center. These are the positions which, to me, seem to have been doing the most harm. (Besides, do we really need to look at stats to determine whether Zimmerman's good?)

  • Range Factor
    This is probably the most basic stat. The easiest way to think of it is the number of plays made. How many balls does a fielder get to? It's simple, but prone to noise. If you're pitching behind Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, there are going to be fewer balls in play (because of all the Ks), lowering the potential chances a fielder has. If you have a staff of lefties who throw groundballs, the third baseman might look better than he is simply because of the people in front of him. I'm sure you can think of some others. Anyway...

    Jose Vidro: 4.51 (11/12 NL 2B)
    Royce Clayton: 4.25 (11/15 NL SS)
    Alfonso Soriano: 2.15 (3/12 NL LF)
    Damian Jackson: 2.95
    Marlon Byrd: 2.92 (Neither have enough appearances to qualify on the leader board, but they'd both be in 3rd place if they did)

  • Zone Rating
    It's range factor on steriods. They pay some guy to sit in the pressbox and chart where balls land. They have a handy dandy chart that assigns each location on the field to a particular fielder. If the fielder makes the play, he gets credit. If he doesn't make it, he loses a notch. Bascially, it's the number of plays made per opportunity (as judged by the pasty, white, non-athletic dweeb in the pressbox -- sign me up for that job!)

    Jose Vidro: .795 (9/12 NL 2B)
    Royce Clayton: .828 (10/15 NL SS)
    Alfonso Soriano: .841 (9/12 NL LF)
    Damian Jackson: .848
    Marlon Byrd: .843 (Both would be dead last among qualified NL CFers)

  • Rate2
    Catchy name, huh? This is one of those Baseball Prospectus stats that looks more confusing than it really is, at least if you don't care about how the sausage gets made. Essentially, it's trying to measure how many runs a fielder contributes or costs a team. An average fielder has a value of 100. A fielder with a value of 110 saves his team 10 runs for every 100 games he plays. A fielder with a 50 costs his team 50 runs for every 100 games he plays.

    Jose Vidro: 92
    Royce Clayton: 92
    Alfonso Soriano: 102
    Damian Jackson: 93
    Marlon Byrd: 98

  • Win Shares
    I'm not even going to attempt to explain this puppy. It's Bill James' grand stat, which makes a lot of complicated adjustments to stats, bascially working back from team results and attributing success and failure on an individual level. Lots of people love it. Lots of people hate it. If you want more, check out the Hardball Times. They're still working with it, and have made some adjustments to it in an attempt to improve it. Again, as with the other stats, we're looking for patterns, not specific numbers.

    Win Share are broken into three parts: hitting, fielding, and pitching. Each Win Share represents 1/3 of a win (don't ask!). Again, patterns, not specifics. (Team Stats)

    Jose Vidro: 1.1 (14th in NL 2B)
    Royce Clayton: 1.6 (13th in NL 2B)
    Alfonso Soriano: 1.6 (16th among ALL NL OF)
    Damian Jackson: 0.5
    Marlon Byrd: 1.6 Because it's a counting stat (meaning it accumulates with playing time), ranking these two agains other OFers isn't fair.

  • UZR
    Probably the best of the new stats, UZR takes play-by-play records, crunches numbers and all sorts of jazz, arriving at what's regarded as the most accurate of the defensive stats. Unfortunately, since their creator's method is proprietary and is/was working for the Cardinals, we only have old ones. And, unless you think that Jose Vidro's value from 2003 is useful today, they're not going to do a lot of good now.

  • Summing it all up.

    Looks about as bad as we expected, huh?

    Jose Vidro is consistenly at the bottom of the league in every defensive metric. Royce Clayton does better, but is still well below average in every category.

    It's the outfield where things get fishy.

    Soriano has an excellent range factor, but his zone rating is very low. I suspect that this is a function of how deep he plays and his arm. Assists count as plays made for range factor, so it's like adding 10 plays to his total -- a slight blip overall, but one that does exist. So he's getting to a regular amount of balls for where he's positioned, but, as we've seen, he's playing really deep, and lots of balls are falling in front of him, lowering his zone rating. Overall, he's probably somewhere in the middle. Rate2 and Win Shares love him. I'd be interested to see a comparison of doubles to left at RFK this year. I suspect they're down this year because of his depth, but that singles are up.

    Center is just as screwy. Range Factor says that Byrd and Jackson are gold glove-type CFers. But zone rating says they stink, by a lot. Some of that, I would guess, has to do with the large CF territory they must cover. There's more territory for a ball to fall in, which would penalize them, at RFK than at, say, Citizen's Bank Park. Still, that's territory that needs to be covered (all the more reason the Nats need a flycatcher in center -- the pitching staff, especially needs it!). Rate2 seems to jive with zone rating. And, at least with my amateur eyes, their range has been poor. What do you think?

    The stats clearly show that the infield stinks on ice. The outfield is a bit muddled, although my eyes lean me towards the stinking direction too.

    This is having a profound impact on the pitching staff. Look at the results this month; they've been hemorrhaging runs.

    The old baseball cliche says that pennants are won with strength up the middle. With some of the worst defenders in the league at second and short, and a questionable duo in center, it's no wonder that the Nats are the team that other teams are looking to beat up on.

    And with a pitching staff that doesn't strike out a ton of batters and playing in a park that maximizes the amount of territory fielders need to cover, defense is especially important.

  • So the next time you hear Charlie say, "Past a diving Vidro," know that a better fielder likely would've made an out.

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