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December 19, 2008 at 10:19 AM

For the defense

Seems the Raul Ibanez comments in our blog yesterday stirred up quite the hornet’s nest. Never saw that coming. Anyhow, I’ve been impressed by the debates spawned nationwide over his criticisms of the way some defensive metrics are gathered. There have been some intelligent rebuttals on both sides of the Ibanez defensive equation. There have also been some interesting items out of Philadelphia that have nothing to do with what we wrote, but still add fuel to the debate over whether Ibanez was a better signing than the Phils simply taking back Pat Burrell.
Anyhow, I liked this post on Lookout Landing, which argues that there are flaws in the metrics, but that Ibanez is still a sub-par defender. Thought it was phrased slightly better than this similar post at USS Mariner. Anyhow, I liked DMZ’s second post on Ibanez better than his first post on that site, which merely served to inflate our hit count. Thank you very much.
But essentially, the two sites conclude the same thing. That Ibanez could have a point about the unreliable nature of defensive metrics. But that, unless those stats are completely conspiring against him, he’s still not very good with a glove. I guess, the big question for me is, how “not good” is he? Because if, as Jeff at Lookout Landing suggested, there is a margin of error factored into every equation, Ibanez could be either slightly below average or downright horrible. And it makes a difference because we all know his bat is above average by a big margin.
Here’s one sabermetrically-inclined guy who, before yesterday’s post, had written that Ibanez was a good deal for the Phils from a money perspective. And another guy right here (Tango Tiger, from my hometown of Montreal no less), who, completely disagrees with him. Point being, sabermetrics are far from absolute. If there is room for this much disagreement over how much money Ibanez is worth, and we know that defensive metrics have an obvious margin for error, how certain can we be about the value (or liability) of Ibanez’s glove?
This post out of Philadelphia makes the case for why Ibanez was an improvement over Burrell and that the defensive argument is overstated. Talks about things I rarely hear discussed in Seattle, like Ibanez’s ability to play the field every day. That point is vastly understated here in the Emerald City. Safeco Field is a nightmare for left fielders. And Ibanez did not play it only four days a week. He was a true everyday player. And not only that, but the same post points out that, in the NL, where double-switches are a fact of life, Burrell benefitted from having late-game substitutions take the defensive heat off him. Also, that the smaller confines of Citizens Bank Park will make it easier for Ibanez to play to his defensive strengths. That a capable center fielder in Philadelphia will enable Ibanez to better position himself towards the third base line and cut down on balls getting by him. I guess we’ll see about that.
But let’s get back to that whole “every day” thing. Because I truly believe it’s the key to understanding the vast difference of opinion out there between teams willing to pay for Ibanez to man the outfield and those in the blogosphere who insist it’s a foolish idea.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

What does being a true “every day player” mean? It means, Ibanez delivered offensive production on a daily basis while playing the field. I have nothing against Jeremy Reed or Wladimir Balentien. But if either of those two had shown they could handle the outfield on a daily basis while still maintaining production at the plate, Ibanez likely would have been moved to a DH role. The Mariners wanted to play Balentien in left field as early as last May. But he could not hit when thrust into a daily role.
The same fears proved true about Reed. Mariners manager John McLaren and GM Bill Bavasi worried that Reed was not an everyday player and that his bat would plummet once thrust into that role. Check out his numbers as the season progressed and Reed played more often. His bat stats did drop. Now, I know that there are folks out there who assign win values to defense and will argue that a sub-.700 OPS hitter with vastly better defense can be an improvement overall to an .800 OPS guy with terrible defense. The folks running baseball teams generally understand this theory as well, believe it or not. Trouble is, as we mentioned, these defensive metrics are not as absolute as some would have us believe. How good was Reed as an outfielder? Because I’ve spoken to scouts who will tell you that his much-lauded range was overrated. That the reason he keeps getting hurt diving for balls is that he gets terrible jumps on balls off the bat to begin with.
And his offense was nothing to get excited about. He began with an .814 OPS in June when first given the chance to play every day. After that, his monthly numbers ranged between .508 and .757. So, let’s say around the mid .600s on average. Which is roughly where his .674 season-ending tally wound up, inflated somewhat by that great month of June. That’s not everyday outfield production. Not in the majors.
This is not the same as the Mariners, under new GM Jack Zduriencik, trying to upgrade the team by moving Franklin Gutierrez in as the everyday center fielder. Gutierrez is widely considered a better defender than Reed and posted better offensive numbers with a .691 OPS. Still not great, but — in his first full season as an everyday major leaguer — his numbers grew stronger as the year wore on. The more he played every day, the better his bat became. Is Gutierrez a sure thing? No, but he’s a better gamble as an everyday defender than Reed was. The M’s are hoping he’s a guy who can be an above average defender and a mid-700s OPS hitter (or even better) now that he knows what it’s like to play a full season in the bigs. If Gutierrez remains a sub-700 OPS hitter, he may not stick around as an every day player.
If Ibanez was still in Seattle and someone made the argument that, say, Gutierrez in left and Ibanez to DH in 2009 could help the team overall, I’d be more inclined to buy in. The point is, you need a certain amount of offensive production from your everyday players. You can’t simply say defense is just as important as offense and try to assign a math equation to justify this because: offensive numbers are much closer to being absolute than defensive stats. Admittedly so, even by the staunchest proponents of the new defensive metrics that are out there. And if your defensive numbers have been misjudged on the far end of the “margin for error” scale, that .650 OPS hitter is going to wind up hurting you big-time. With a mid-700s OPS guy out there, you mitigate the chance that you’ve overvalued defense in assigning your “wins” equation.
Make sense? I hope so. It might help explain the difference of opinion between the Mariners of 2008, the Phillies of right now, and some of the sabermetrics folks who are out there when it comes to Ibanez and why he remains an everyday left fielder. It’s too simple to dismiss folks who disagree with you as know-nothings. Pat Gillick teams have made the playoffs in four cities over a 15-year span. He just won the World Series with his second team. Gillick still has an influential role with the Phils and does know what he’s doing. And he has evidence to back that up. Real concrete hardware, which matters more in professional baseball than theory.
So, we can either try to understand the reasoning, or we can keep dismissing it as irrelevant, even as Gillick’s approach continues to win championships.
In Ibanez’s case, the ability to play every day and produce high numbers offensively is given far more value by those running baseball teams than it is in corners of the blogosphere. That is the main disconnect, the way I see it. It’s not that major league clubs are unwilling to consider defensive metrics and their impact on a team. It’s just that they place a greater weight on offensive metrics.
Advanced offensive metrics are more absolute. Defensive metrics are still in their infancy and not as certain. No big mystery there. But still plenty of ground for intelligent debate.
Photo Credit: Jim Bates/Seattle Times



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