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Baseball's Next Top Models

April 06, 2009
April 06, 2009

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April 6, 2009

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Baseball's Next Top Models

Statistical models, that is. Systems for analyzing defensive play are feeding the new rage in the poststeroid era—run prevention. Teams are investing big money not only in slick fielders but also in the advanced metrics that are the game's last stat frontier

ASK TORII HUNTERwhere he ranks among the best defensive centerfielders, and he appearsperplexed. "You mean, where I rank with guys now, or in history?" hesays. The Angels' Hunter takes his defense as seriously as you'd expect fromsomeone who says, "To catch a ball, I'd commit suicide." And to most ofthe baseball world, for that matter, it's conventional wisdom that he's one ofthe best fielders, period. Try to prod Hunter into naming another AmericanLeague centerfielder in his class defensively, and he just shakes his head. TheIndians' Grady Sizemore, perhaps? "Nah," Hunter says. "He's gotsome work to do. He takes bad jumps." The Tigers' Curtis Granderson?"He's up there, but he has to learn to take better routes," Huntersays. "You shouldn't dive as much as Grandy dives." Hunter'sreplacement in Minnesota last season, Carlos Gomez? "Dude is quick, but healso goes from points A to B to C to D when he should be going A to B,"says Hunter. "And he's too aggressive with his throwing. Just look at hiserrors. [Gomez had eight.] I had none. Zero." He flashes a smile andshrugs. Case closed, as far as he's concerned.

This is an article from the April 6, 2009 issue

And few woulddisagree. Certainly not the managers and coaches who last fall voted him to aneighth straight Gold Glove award. (Only five outfielders in history have wonmore.) Certainly not the Angels, who last winter lured him off the free-agentmarket with a $90 million contract, as much for his defensive reputation as hisbat. And certainly not the fans, players, scouts and other baseball cognoscentiwho favor traditional fielding statistics—errors, fielding percentage (Hunter'swas a perfect 1.000) and putouts (his 350 were fifth among AL outfielders)—andwatch the familiar sight of the 33-year-old gliding gracefully over the grassand, on occasion, scaling the outfield wall to rob a batter of a home run. Tothe eye, there is nothing to indicate that Hunter is anything but what hethinks he is: an elite centerfielder, the best in the American League, possiblyone of the best ever to play the position.

But here's aflash for Hunter: Comparing players' defensive skills is no longer asscientific as sizing up Best Supporting Actress performances before the Oscars.In his first Bill James Abstract, in 1977, the oracle of statistical analysislamented the inability to quantify defensive success with anything other thansuch antiquated statistics as errors and fielding percentage. It has takenthree decades, but the mystery of defensive analysis, perhaps the last frontierin the statistical ether, has been cracked by sabermetricians who have devoted15, 20 years to the cause. The clunkily named metrics that have emerged withinthe last five years may sound like topics at a symposium for mechanicalengineers—Probablistic Model of Range, Defensive Regression Analysis, SpecialAggregate Fielding Evaluation, Ultimate Zone Rating—but not only have theybecome accepted by analysts like James as accurate tools, they have alsoinfiltrated the daily vernacular of front offices.

But major leagueclubhouses? Not so much. "The Probablistic Model of who?" asks Hunter,after he's told where he stands by measure of the metrics. Not only does herate below Sizemore, below Granderson and below Gomez, Hunter was also regardedacross the board as a merely average fielder, and in many instances, belowaverage—which is the case according to Bill James's disciple John Dewan, authorof The Fielding Bible and creator of the Plus/Minus Runs Saved metric, whichsix years ago did rank Hunter as the league's top centerfielder. Now Dewan'snumbers show that Hunter has been steadily slowing down, and that last seasonhe made plays on five fewer balls than an average centerfielder would beexpected to make, costing the Angels four runs. The best defensivecenterfielder in the AL? Dewan's calculations says it's Gomez, who tracked down14 more balls than the average centerfielder and saved Hunter's old team 16runs. "If I've lost a step, I'm still better than the average person,"Hunter huffs. "When I need a walker, I'll go to rightfield and be the bestrightfielder in the game."

In addition totelling us that Hunter is an average defensive outfielder, the metrics alsosuggest that the Yankees should relocate Derek Jeter, long rated by the metricsas the worst-fielding shortstop in baseball, to the outfield and that the Cubs'Alfonso Soriano, because of his strong arm, has saved more runs than any otherleftfielder since moving from second base in 2006. In a poststeroid era, whenscoring and home run totals have fallen as fast as the NASDAQ and speed anddefense are becoming as important and as appreciated as they were during theWhiteyball days in St. Louis two decades ago, these metrics are becomingessential tools for winning organizations.

"There arestill teams stuck in the Dark Ages," says one American League generalmanager, "but the secret's getting out. Defensive metrics have almostcaught up to the offensive side. Some people would say they didn't think they'dsee this day. But the revolution's here."

IN 1982 JohnDewan was an actuary living in Chicago when a coworker handed him a copy of theBill James Abstract. Dewan, a die-hard White Sox fan who grew up playing thebaseball simulation board game Strat-O-Matic, was instantly hooked. Two yearslater he was sitting at his kitchen table reading one of James's articles aboutcreating an organization of volunteers who would record detailed play-by-playinformation not found in the box scores of every major league game. "I putthe book down, and I went to the phone and called directory assistance inLawrence, Kansas," says Dewan. "I got Bill James's assistant on theline and signed up immediately."

Dewan became thedirector of the organization, Project Scoresheet, a year later while continuingto hold down his day job. Soon after quitting his actuary job in '87 to devotehimself full-time to statistical analysis, he invented a metric called ZoneRating, in which he took play-by-play data and calculated the percentage ofballs fielded by a player in his defensive zone, as well as balls outside ofhis zone. (By these metrics, Jeter always ranks among the lowest shortstopsbecause he doesn't get to many balls outside a shortstop's zone.) Ten yearslater companies such as STATS Inc. and Baseball Info Solutions (which Dewancofounded in 2002 with Steve Moyer) began hiring armies of new college gradswho collectively would watch every game and keep a detailed log of whathappened to every batted ball: what kind of pitch was hit, where the ball washit, how hard it was hit, who fielded it and how it was or wasn't turned intoan out.

The data¬†hasgiven Dewan and other analysts the power to compute, with great precision, aplayer's ability to turn batted balls into outs. In 2003, in a forum on thewebsite Baseball Think Factory, a professional poker player living in Las Vegasnamed Michtel Licthman introduced, in a 6,800-word primer, a metric that hecalled Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). Lichtman was crunching numbers with data hepurchased from STATS Inc.—paying nearly $10,000 for it annually—and, likeDewan, was measuring the runs saved or lost by every fielder compared to theleague average at his position. His UZR model was similar to the plus/minussystem that Dewan had come up with, but with more parameters for each battedball; among them, the ballpark, whether the pitcher and batter were left- orrighthanded, and the ground ball and fly ball tendencies of the pitcher.

Graduallybaseball people outside the sabermetrics community began to take notice. Duringspring training in '04, Dewan was giving a presentation to the White Sox' frontoffice in the team cafeteria when manager Ozzie Guillen and his playerswandered in to have lunch, their game that day having been rained out. Dewannoticed that Guillen would occasionally glance over at the presentation.Eventually he walked up to Dewan and started flipping through his statisticalsamples. "If they had this s--- when I was playing," the managerannounced to the room, "I would have been the best f------ shortstop whoever lived."

That same yearthe Cardinals hired Lichtman as a consultant. But during his time with theorganization Lichtman was mostly frustrated that even a team open-minded enoughto hire him—he had been recommended to the team's ownership by vice presidentof player personnel Jeff Luhnow—was so hesitant to embrace his analysis. "Imet [manager] Tony La Russa once," says Lichtman, "and he had nointerest in what I was saying. Tony was not into it; [general manager] WaltJocketty was agnostic."

This winterLichtman, who left the Cardinals after the 2005 season, made UZR—considered bymany to be the most comprehensive defensive metric out there—available to thepublic on the website FanGraphs, which will update player stats weekly duringthe season. "The funny thing is, all this information is now available freefor anyone to see, so there's really no reason for teams to do their ownthing," says Lichtman. "Yet it's clear that half to three quarters ofthe teams still have no clue how to evaluate defense on that level and how tointerpret that into a player's overall value."

THERAYS were one of the organizations that had a clue before most others did.One of the priorities of the Wall Street--trained front office that took overthree years ago (a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, Matt Silverman, isthe Rays' president) was to put an advanced statistical model in place thatcould measure defense with the same precision that has been applied to offensefor years. "It's been a big focus of ours to get to a point where we feelcomfortable taking information that we get internally, statistically, and useit with what our scouts are saying," says general manager Andrew Friedman,who was an analyst at Bear Stearns. "We've come a long way." Like themore advanced organizations that over the past few years used Zone Rating andUZR and plus/minus as road maps in developing their own models, Tampa Bay'sinternal metrics are closely guarded, proprietary secrets.

The rest ofbaseball, however, is starting to catch on, perhaps no team more quickly thanthe Mariners, who last year were the major leagues' Ishtar—the biggest flop inhistory, the first team with a $100 million payroll to lose 100 games. Alongtime scout who rose through the ranks because of his reputation as aneffective talent evaluator, Jack Zduriencik would seem to be one of the leastlikely general managers to use UZR in a sentence. But the new Seattle G.M. hassurrounded himself with advisers who have a sabermetric bent, such as Tom Tango(author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, cowritten withLichtman and Andrew Dolphin) and Mat Olkin, formerly an analyst at STATS Inc.Zduriencik's top assistant is Tony Blengino, a former C.P.A. who was theBrewers' scouting director responsible for drafting and developing theacclaimed core of players that last year led Milwaukee to its first playoffappearance in 26 years. Zduriencik, the old-school scout, and Blengino, thenumbers guy who keeps a copy of The Fielding Bible on his desk and can reciteRevised Zone Rating stats of players off the top of his head, come from"pretty much the opposite ends of the spectrum," Zduriencik says. Butthis winter they were in agreement on how to turn the worst team in the leaguein '08 into a winner in the shortest amount of time. They would follow theblueprint of the worst-to-first '08 Rays: Focus on improving the defense.

"Last yearTampa scored 10 fewer runs than they did the year before," says Blengino."Seventy percent of the innings pitched in 2008 were from the guys whopitched the year before. And yet they gave up 273 fewer runs. It wasn't thehitting. It wasn't the pitching. It was the defense."

Tampa'simprovement—from the worst team in defensive efficiency in 2006 and '07 to thebest last year—was the result of the front office's calculated effort, afterthe '07 season, to catch the ball better. They replaced the shortstop combo ofBrendan Harris (-10.5 career UZR, meaning he cost his team nearly 11 runs) andBen Zobrist (-7.5 career UZR) with Jason Bartlett (34.7 career UZR). They movedAkinori Iwamura from third to second (where his UZR was 1.3 runs higher) toaccommodate the call-up of Evan Longoria (14.9 UZR), and they dumped JohnnyGomes (-16.9 career UZR) and Delmon Young (-18.1 career UZR) from the outfield."People saw the drop in our pitchers' ERAs, and [the pitchers] did a greatjob," says Friedman, "but a lot of credit goes to the runs the defensesaved. Based on our internal numbers, a lot of credit."

"If, forexample, you can put together three defensive superstars in the outfield,that's an opportunity to save a lot of runs," says Blengino. "You canwin with run prevention as easily as [with] runs scoring."

This off-seasonthe Seattle front office put together a superstar defensive outfield. TheMariners were part of a three-team, 12-player trade with the Indians and theMets in which they received eight players, including Franklin Gutierrez, whohad an off-the-charts 21.8 UZR in rightfield last year while hitting .248 witheight home runs in Cleveland, and Endy Chavez, a fourth outfielder on the Mets,who has a .311 career OBP but had a 6.8 UZR in '08. On the days they playGutierrez in center, Chavez in left and Ichiro Suzuki in right (how often thathappens will depend on how much playing time manager Don Wakamatsu gives to KenGriffey Jr.), the Mariners will have arguably three of the top 10 defensiveoutfielders in the majors on the field. Entering the 2009 season, the Mariners(who also have good gloves in the infield with Adrian Beltre at third and JoseLopez at second) have a top five overall defense in the American League, andthat's why, even with an offense projected to be one of the worst in theleague, Seattle can conceivably contend in the AL West.

"Looking backthrough the years, most really good teams have had really good defense,"says Blengino. "The Yankees have struggled defensively the last few years,but when they won, they didn't. With a really good defense, you can't be a badteam. You can be a .500 team. But it's hard to be really bad with a gooddefense."

THERE'S STILLmuch work to be done, of course. Some teams are still trying to get their headsaround precisely how important defense is in relation to offense. The analystsare just beginning to get a clue. "Last year, based on my metrics, thePhillies' defense saved about 80 runs for the team," says Dewan. "Theworst team, the Royals, lost 50 runs. The difference between the best defensiveteam in baseball and the worst defensive team in baseball is about 130 runs. Onthe batting side, the difference between the best and the worst team is about260 runs. To think that the value of fielding is worth as much as half thevalue of offense, I don't think anyone would have thought that. That's asignificant number."

When asked howmuch further defensive metrics can go, Lichtman says the analysts are "90percent there." The other 10% will be reached when teams and companies suchas Baseball Info Solutions and STATS Inc. start tracking the hang time of aball and the exact positioning of a defender, as well as the player's route tothe ball.

When that daycomes, teams and statistical analysts alike will have a nearly complete pictureof the value of a player. "After [the 2003 Michael Lewis best-seller]Moneyball, people stopped undervaluing on-base percentage, and now they'vemoved on to defense," says an American League G.M. "As teams aregetting smarter and smarter, there will be no more secrets, nothing undervaluedin the market."

There will be aday when metrics like UZR will be as accepted by the mainstream as they are inthe sabermetrics community; a day when a player's plus/minus carries as muchweight in a Rotisserie league as his offensive statistics; a day when a33-year-old centerfielder who has lost a step won't be considered one of thebest defensive outfielders in the game; a day when the eye and the brain willno longer be able to deceive.

Until then, therevolution continues.

RANGE ROVER

CARL CRAWFORD
Leftfield, Rays

During the season Baseball Info Solutions tracks everyball put in play in every game, data that can be used to determine each majorleaguer's fielding prowess. The findings for Crawford and three other standoutglovemen on the following pages are reflected in the accompanying spray charts(above). The light pink dots • denote each ball that a player turned into anout, the dark purple dots • each ball that was not converted into an out. (Darkpink • or light purple dots • show where there were multiple instances of outsbeing made and not made in the same location.) No leftfielder in the majors wasbetter at running down shallow fly balls in 2008 than Crawford, who also got to16 more balls overall and saved 13 more runs than the average major leagueleftfielder, according to The Fielding Bible. "The fact that he hasn't wona Gold Glove is craziness," says Rays G.M. Andrew Friedman.

HOT CORNERMAN

BRANDON INGE
Third Base, Tigers

He played so many other positions in 2008 (catcher,centerfield, leftfield) that it's easy to forget that Inge is an elitedefensive third baseman especially adept at going to his right, as his 2006fielding chart (left) shows. With the Tigers' renewed emphasis on defense, Ingehas been moved back to the hot corner, where in '06 and '07 he saved more runsthan any other major league third baseman (38 total).

ZONE BUSTER

JOHN MCDONALD
Shortstop, Blue Jays

A ballplayer with a lousy .586 OPS, like McDonald, canthrive in the big leagues for 10 years as long as he fields as well as this34-year-old. By most metrics the number of balls he converted into outs lastseason decreased (above), but in 2007 only the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki had ahigher plus/minus than McDonald, whose +20 that year (he saved the Jays 20 moreruns than than the average big league shortstop in '07) was 18 points higherthan AL Gold Glover Orlando Cabrera's plus/minus.

DEEP RECEIVER

CARLOS GOMEZ
Centerfield, Twins

According to Hardball Times' Revised Zone Ratings,only one centerfielder (the Mets' Carlos Beltran) ran down more balls outsideof his fielding zone than the fleet Gomez, who was second to none in trackingdown deep fly balls. As a rookie with the Twins last season, he saved 16runs—the highest total of any big league centerfielder and 20 more than ToriiHunter, the man Gomez replaced in Minnesota, saved for the Angels.

FOUR PHOTOSPhotographs by Walter Iooss Jr.FOUR CHARTSCharts by Baseball Info Solutions