Identifying the game's best and worst defenders at each position
The human brain's powers of perception, analysis, memory and recall are amazing, but they nonetheless rely on a series of shortcuts. In order to process information faster, the mind fills in familiar information from memory rather than processing it anew. That's how we're able to avoid being overwhelmed with visual information at every turn, how we're able to recognize faces and voices, and why stereotypes are created on a subconscious level. It's also why the brain places undue emphasis on exceptions.
Exceptions interrupt the brain's normal processes and call attention to themselves. That's why so many people are scared to fly or worry about West Nile Virus or terrorist attacks, but don't think twice about getting in a car or eating a cheeseburger. It's also why baseball fans believe certain players are clutch and others are chokers, and why the Gold Glove awards have so little to do with who the best fielders in the major leagues actually are.
That's where statistics come in. They are a cold, hard record of the events that transpire on a baseball field, one impervious to the emphasis memory puts on a single exceptional hit, strikeout or catch. Fielding statistics have long struggled to capture the events on the field as accurately or completely as those we have for pitching and hitting, but as
Imagine two second basemen. One catches everything hit directly at him and consistently delivers chest-high throws to his fellow infielders, resulting in errorless play, but is unable to catch anything more than two steps away in any direction. Another second baseman can cover a huge portion of the field including most of shallow right field and frequently makes plays behind and even to the left of second base; but every now and then, he'll boot a ball on the edge of his range or make a wild throw following a circus catch. This second player thus leads the league in errors, though most of the balls he booted would have been scored base hits had he never touched them. Which player is the better fielder? The old stats would say the first player. They'd be wrong
Lichtman and Dewan's stats, as well as those of other analysts making significant strides in this area, give us the most complete appreciation of actual fielding value we've ever had. In order to compare their findings to the conventional wisdom, let's take a look at the 2008 Gold Glove awards through the lens of UZR (available at