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March 28, 2009 at 10:47 PM

In defense of stats

Been talking for a while now about the defensive stats story I’ve worked on, which has been published in our Sunday edition. This idea was borne out of a conversation I had with Raul Ibanez this winter, after he’d been signed by the Phillies. Ibanez and I had a frank discussion about his defense, And he put up an argument I had not expected about the sabermetric stats that are out there.
Point by point, he listed the holes he perceived in the systems.
When I ran quotes of his as a blog item, I was equally surprised by the reaction of those in the sabermetric community who had been working on and with the various stats systems. They essentially admitted that Ibanez was right on a lot of counts. Not entirely right. But right enough to get me interested in looking into this further.
One thing I’ve enjoyed about covering the sabermetric community in the past is that those who adhere to the true spirit of the movement are not afraid to admit flaws. They will tell you when they don’t have something nailed down. Sort of like scientists. Their interest is not in being the first to get something right. But in making sure it stays that way. Meaning, they make sure to keep exploring new ways to get better at something.
And that, I believe, is what really attracted me to this story. No, baseball’s top defensive stats are not perfect. The believers in each system out there will tell you there are holes to be found. They will tell you the various systems have widespread disagreements. But they are also getting closer to doing something no one has done before — measuring the defensive skills that can’t always be pinpointed by the naked eye.
We all know what a home run looks like. We can tell who is good at hitting balls in the gap, or stealing bases or scoring runs.
But what we can’t easily pinpoint is whether that outfielder who comes nowhere near the ball in left center should be the one making the catch instead of the guy to his left. What we can’t tell is whether that line drive over the right fielder’s head should have been caught. Or whether the reason a shortstop has so few errors is because he’s actually a pylon in the field and coming nowhere near the grounders he should be.
That is the essence of defensive stats. They tell you what you can’t see. Or, that what you think you see may not be the case.
And that, folks, is what makes them very important, even in their imperfect state. They aren’t getting it all perfect. But they’re getting closer each and every season. To the point where the folks who know what they are doing can glean the best of all systems and start to see things that others in their field — even other major league teams — can’t see. The Mariners are making it their business this year to be one of those teams that does know what it’s doing.
Nowhere is this more evident than in center field where Franklin Gutierrez , pictured above (Photo Credit/Getty Images), has been making some extremely tough catches look routine all spring. When the J.J, Putz deal went down back in December, most fans writing in to this blog were not happy campers. They took one look at Gutierrez’s .248 batting average and .690 OPS as a right fielder with the Cleveland Indians and said “Whoa, Nellie!” What they had no real reference point with, was the flip side of the equation.
Had they looked at Gutierrez’s defensive stats — or even known where to find the advanced metrics out there — they would have seen him rated first in all of baseball as a right fielder in John Dewan’s new Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) metric. He was also first in Dewan’s Plus/Minus metric, not surprising as it is the main component of DRS. And first as well in Mitchel Lichtman’s daily-updated Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) stats available for free on Gutierrez was also No. 1 in Dewan’s Revised Zone Rating (RZR) stats available for free on The Hardball Times website. The accompanying stat for RZR, one that measures out of zone (OOZ) plays by a defender also had him Top-10 at No. 7. The complex Probablistic Model of Range (PMR) formula published annually on the Baseball Musings site by David Pinto had Gutierrez at No. 3.
In short, when you get a consensus like that from all the major defensive metrics, it’s a wonderful thing. It doesn’t always work out that way, with so much agreement. As you’ll see from reading my story. But when the numbers all point toward the top like that, you know you’re on to something.
And the Mariners jumped at it.
There are top analysts, like Dewan, who believe Gutierrez should have won a Gold Glove last season. But he didn’t. He was flying under the radar. The Indians, who value defense, already have a tremendous center fielder in Grady Sizemore, who blocked Gutierrez from playing there. Gutierrez does not have the raw power of a right fielder, but in center, his bat becomes a lot more palatable. Cover that much ground and teams will forgive your lack of total offensive pop. Some still believe Gutierrez might produce more offense than expected. But it’s his glove that made this deal happen. The metrics on him, when you can forgive his bat as a center fielder, were jumping off the charts as I just showed you.
The M’s knew where to look.
And it’s amazing how many MLB teams do not. As Dewan said in the story, tradition is a tough thing to shake. Old habits die hard. That, and these stats are not infallible. Some players, coaches and executives just don’t trust them. You have to hire people who know the systems inside and out and can figure out ways around their shortcomings.
The Mariners hired one of those in assistant to the GM Tony Blengino, who has authored articles on sabermetric advancements in baseball. He also has hands-on scouting experience. That’s a killer combination. He knows where to look. Knows how to pull the best from all systems the way most of you know how to fix a pot of coffee. The Mariners are also producing their own, in-house statistical data through a department Blengino is overseeing. They will be in a position to combine the best of their data with that of other systems.
They will, in theory, see things other teams can’t see.
And that is how you get an edge in an extremely competitive sport where just about every stone is turned over well before you arrive on the scene. Think about it. You can’t run off to Venezuela to grab the hottest young talent without anyone knowing any more. Even the previously clueless Tampa Bay Rays have built a complex there. All teams have eyes. But right now, with defensive stats still coming into their own, the best eyes offer the knowing teams an edge.
Writing this story was one of the toughest things I’ve ever tried. There’s a reason you don’t read stuff like this — 2,300 words worth — in major daily newspapers. This data is tough for folks to comprehend right off the bat. Some of it is being put out in digestable form and after a while, it starts to look familliar.
But my story, long as it is, barely scratches the surface. It had to be written and re-written to make it interesting and easier for the average reader to want to understand. Doing so required me to keep it as simple as possible, given the limitations of newspaper space. You could write thousands of words explaining the differences in one or two cases between UZR and DRS alone.
Those used to reading about defensive stats on websites will find my story rather Kindergarten level, I’m afraid. For the majority of you, really seeing this for the first time. try to view it as a basic introduction. Not as the be-all, end-all story on defensive stats. It’s not. I guarantee you there are some shortcomings in the story. Some angle left unturned. I asked the M’s Blengino at one point if he wouldn’t mind reading over a draft of the story to tell me if I was on the verge of writing something really silly. In the end, I opted not to do that. I’ve always kept a distance between myself and the teams I cover and figured — as good as Blengino was to offer — that I would go this one alone and take any lumps that came my way.
It’s not easy writing about such stats, in their triumphs and missteps, and making it palatable for the average reader. But I tried.
I also tried not to do a disservice to Ibanez, who made a number of valid points.
His point about the inability of analysts to scientifically gauge the angles and speed of balls coming his way was perfectly valid. And it’s not to be dismissed. Many ballplayers, knowing analysts never played the game in the majors, are leery of these stats, espeically given the scientific inaccuracies. Watching a game from the press box, or a video booth as Dewan’s employees do, will never be the same as trying to catch a screaming line drive to left in real life.
And when I started this project, I never dreamed that any of these information gatherers could possibly come close. But they’re getting closer. The developments mentioned in the story — the timing of fly balls and the expected introduction of Hit F/X technology — could bring Ibanez a whole lot closer to the realism he rightfully expects from those rating his defense.
It’s no joke. This area is lacking. But it’s about to get a whole lot better.
The thing to always remember is, no stat is perfect. Even those offensive stats we think are infallible. Remember, Jose Vidro was a .300 hitter not too long ago. We’ve learned a lot about empty batting averages the last few seasons. Some stats are better than others, just like a hitter’s OPS tells you far more than his average or RBI total.
They are still sorting through what means what in the land of defensive stats. There are some fierce and interesting arguments from all sides — like whether Chase Utley of the Phillies is a brilliant strategist, or just benefitting from an extended shift towards first base to cover for Ryan Howard. This story had no time to get into any of that. The Utley argument would take up an entire magazine article.
Nope, this was just my Stats 101 attempt for all of you. To give you a tiny glimpse of what your Mariners are looking at beyond hitting.
I had some interesting conversations with leading men in the field, legends like Dewan and Litchman. And they helped open my eyes to a lot of things. Any mistakes, as the good authors always write, are of course, mine alone. Please enjoy.



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