01/11/10 1:00 AM EST
New defensive stats starting to catch on
More teams placing bigger emphasis on fielding
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Then again, it's 2010, and things are changing in baseball.
Take, for example, the growing importance of new defensive statistics, which the Mariners used last winter in overhauling their team. Seattle traded for outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez and ended up improving their overall defense so much that they went from an American League-worst 61-101 record in 2008 to an 85-77 campaign last year, the biggest improvement in the Majors, despite scoring fewer runs than they did in '08.
Boston laid out warm welcomes for Marco Scutaro, Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron, and defensive stats are gaining traction every day with Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik and a growing number of executives.
They might not have the same ring to them as traditional baseball stats like ERA and RBI, and they might take a lot longer to explain, but Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Plus/Minus (+/-) and Probabilistic Model of Range (PMR) are all making more and more teams show serious love for the glove.
Shopping around for value
When GM Bill Bavasi was let go by the Mariners and Zduriencik took over last winter, the new GM brought along Tony Blengino as a special adviser. One of Blengino's main tasks, through his position at the helm of the team's first official department of statistical analysis, was to look for some way, any way, to make the most of a limited budget on an unsuccessful roster saddled with hefty contracts not set to expire for another year.
"I think the first thing you're trying to do when you take over a team like we did is look at the big picture," Blengino says. "It's pretty simplee. How are you going to get good?
"Looking at our ballclub, our ballpark, looking at [staff ace] Felix Hernandez, we felt that we were closer to being a pretty good run-prevention team than we were a run-scoring team. Big-name players are very costly, but sometimes you can come across impact players of the defensive sort a little more easily in the marketplace."
The Mariners entered a multi-team trade with vaunted closer J.J. Putz as their main chip and wound up with Gutierrez from the Indians and Chavez from the Mets. Both were relatively inexpensive, Gutierrez was young and under team control, and the results were staggering right away.
"With Ichiro [Suzuki] in right, Gutierrez in center and Chavez in left, we had three center fielders in the outfield. We thought, 'Well, at least we're good at something now, and it was something that was doable without spending a lot of money.'"
The Mariners also had one outstanding glove on the infield with Beltre at third base, and by the end of the team's turnaround campaign, the UZR system featured on FanGraphs.com not only ranked them as the best defensive team in the game, but also pegged Gutierrez as the best individual defender in all of baseball.
The Mariners continue to go in this direction, too. Since last July, they've added plus gloves in first baseman Casey Kotchman, shortstop Jack Wilson and third baseman Chone Figgins.
And Boston is right there with this logic.
"Unless something goes wrong, we really should be one of the best run-prevention teams," Epstein said recently in explaining the acquisitions of Cameron, Beltre and Scutaro, not to mention starter John Lackey. "If we just went out and addressed the offense, I think we would have had a really bad run-prevention year, putting a subpar defense behind a pitching staff with some holes in it."
Getting in the zones
One of the pioneers of these stats, "The Fielding Bible" author John Dewan, says it all seems complex, but it isn't. Dewan's main stats, the DRS metric and Plus/Minus, are the result of logical data culled from comprehensive, painstaking attention to detail throughout a Major League season.
Simply put, Dewan's company, Baseball Info Solutions, has upwards of 2,000 "scouts" who pore over video of every game played in the course of a 162-game MLB season and track each batted ball, analyzing how hard the balls are hit, how close or far they are from each fielder deemed to be responsible for making the play, and the result of what said defender does.
Many factors go into the point totals, including adjustments for things like stadium dimensions, wall height and even the occasional bonus points for home-run-saving catches.
Successful plays are awarded with a positive point total, points are subtracted for perceived failures, and the scores are added up and equated to "runs saved" throughout a year. Dewan and most other defensive-stat purveyors tend to agree that 10 runs saved equals one win over the course of a season.
"For Boston last year at third base, for example, Mike Lowell, who was unable to move well because of injury, cost them 20 runs, and now they have Adrian Beltre, and he added about 20 runs," Dewan explains. "Right there, the Red Sox have added four wins. Plus they've added three wins at short with Marco Scutaro and a couple more in the outfield with Mike Cameron. It's a huge improvement."
UZR, developed by Mitchel Lichtman, is similar to DRS in its variables such as park adjustment, and to Dewan's Plus/Minus in the sense that its scores are based on how often each defensive player is better than average on balls hit into their specific "zones" on the field.
Gutierrez, for example, led baseball with a UZR score of 29.1, while Aaron Rowand of the San Francisco Giants was one of the lowest-ranked center fielders in the game with a UZR of 1.3.
"Gutierrez had as much to do with our success as anybody last year," Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. "He made our outfield better, he made our pitching staff better, he made our whole club better."
For Dewan, Lichtman and David Pinto, who came up with the similar PMR metric, watching the Mariners improve by 24 games gave strong evidence that these stats are legit and the old methods of ranking defense, fielding percentage and range factor, are becoming antiquated.
Doing it the old-fashioned way
Not everyone pays attention to these numbers, of course. While teams such as the Mariners, Red Sox and Detroit Tigers, who improved greatly on defense in 2009, peruse and subscribe to these stats, some teams still just won't buy them -- literally or figuratively.
"I think defensive statistics are the most unpredictable stats there are," says Charley Kerfeld, a former big league reliever who now serves as a special assistant to Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr.
"And since I've been here, we don't have an in-house stats guy and I kind of feel we never will. We're not a statistics-driven organization by any means.
"I'm not against statistics. Everybody has their own way of doing things. But the Phillies believe in what our scouts see and what our eyes tell us and what our people tell us."
The results show that Philadelphia is doing something right, with two straight National League pennants and a World Series title in 2008. But Lichtman points out that the Phillies could be even better if they focus more on defense.
"Look, a team can be a very good team even if they're bad on defense," Lichtman says. "And a team can be a bad team even if they're great on defense.
"That said, scouts do a pretty good job of evaluating defense. The best you can do is use the numbers like UZR or Dewan's Plus/Minus plus the scouts. A combination of the two seems to be the best."
Catching the wave
So where does it all go from here?
Onward and upward for the stat-makers, who are refining their numbers with new wrinkles such as the timing of each batted ball to determine how long each potential out stays in the air.
"We're calling them liners and fly balls, and we even have a category for balls hit that are in-between," Dewan says. "We call those 'fliners.'"
Dewan also said his company is measuring misplays and good plays.
"There are tons of plays that are clearly defensive misplays that no one notices, like missing the cutoff man and allowing a runner to take an extra base. It's not an error, per se, but we're giving them a defensive misplay.
"And if a first baseman makes a great scoop of a throw in the dirt, he gets credit for a good play. We have 54 different categories of misplays and 27 in good plays.
"It's all part of trying to get to where the hitters and pitchers are with stats. We need about another 20 percent and we'll be there."
As far as the open market for players is concerned, Dewan says Boston's recent splurge on expensive leather might jack up the value of defense even more.
"Now you have a big-market team doing it," Dewan says. "Now it's going to be adopted, no question. Teams are going to think, 'If it works for Boston, it should work for us.'
"And that's great to see."
Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.