The Unseen Aspects of Fielding

by Russ Roberts on May 15, 2006

in Seen and Unseen, Sports

One of the reasons I enjoyed Moneyball so much was the aspect of the seen and the unseen in baseball. Billy Beane leans heavily on statistics and notes the importance of the unseen or hard to see or hard to perceive the importance of factors like walks or doubles or how many pitches a batter takes. Baseball scouts overemphasize dramatic factors they can see that are tangible–home runs, fielding slickness, speed of a pitcher’s fastball and overall athleticism.

This article in the Washington Post looks at a new book by John Dewan on fielding, a very difficult skill to quantify but where analysts have been making progress.

Are such skills measurable? Author John Dewan has come closer than
anyone else to quantifying defense in his book "The Fielding Bible,"
but some skeptics suggest Dewan — with an assist from noted stats guru
Bill James, Dewan’s business partner and friend — has just tried to do
something that can’t be done…

Dewan’s company, Baseball Info Solutions, employs "video scouts" who
review every major league game, charting every batted ball and
recording its direction, location, speed, type (line drive, fly ball,
etc.) and result. Given any combination of those factors, a computer
can spit out how frequently such a play is made by the average major
leaguer at that position…

Some of the results are not
surprising. Alfonso Soriano, for example, achieved a rating of minus-40
over the previous three years as a second baseman — meaning he made 40
fewer plays than the average second baseman — which ranked
next-to-last behind only Bret Boone.

Derek Jeter, on the other hand, last season’s American League Gold Glove winning shortstop, does not fare so well:

for instance, spends 4 1/2 pages near the front of the book explaining
why Houston’s Adam Everett is a far superior shortstop to Derek Jeter.
In fact, Jeter, according to James, was "probably the least effective
defensive player in the major leagues, at any position" over the last
three years.

But what is seen is easier to accept than what is unseen:

"Some people think you can
[quantify defense]. I don’t really buy that myself," Dombrowski said.
"I’ve looked at some of those new formulas. I’m not sure I would
believe everything I’ve seen there. It’s one of those things where, if
you study [the players] yourself, you can have a better feel for those
things than any numbers can tell you."

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Morgan May 15, 2006 at 1:13 pm

I'm not sure if the Jeter example is typical or an oddity, but if it's typical then I'm suspicious of this particular quantitative method.

Having played around a lot with offensive statistics, one thing that quickly becomes clear is that, while well-constructed quantative approaches certainly provide insights into the value of players that are not obvious, the experts have developed pretty darn powerful insights of their own.

As an example, a few years ago I tested every feasible lineup for the St. Louis Cardinals in an effort to find the one that, on average, produced the most runs per nine-inning game. The simulation "played" a slightly simplified game, but incorporated everything from walks per plate appearance to percentage fly-outs versus percentage ground outs, with varying assumptions regarding advancemement of runners in either case. In other words, it was as "true to life" as I could make it given the available data. The simulation took several days to run.

And the result? My "best possible" lineup was exactly the one that Tony LaRussa had in place for that evening's game (including, by chance, the pitcher).

Of course, that does not automatically carry over to identifying the best fielders. It suggests, however, that a quantitative method that produces results wildly at variance with those produced by the heuristics that have developed over the years merits a skeptical eye.

David May 15, 2006 at 2:27 pm

Other quantitative measures of fielding (e.g., James' "range factor") typically show Jeter to be an inferior shortshop (inferior to his reputation at a minimum). The Yankees' best shortshop is playing 3B, but Jeter has perhaps other defensive and "leadership" abilities that make him better suited to SS than the numbers would indicate (plus he probably couldn't throw from 3B to first). As long as he's hitting, it seems like a pretty good trade off.

Patrick R. Sullivan May 15, 2006 at 3:53 pm

I'm very sceptical of any 'quantification' that is done by none professionals' observations. If Jeter was such a weak shortstop, Steinbrenner (if not Torre) would have had him moved to the outfield and replaced with ARod.

Steinbrenner isn't the type of guy who'll take losing to spare someone's feelings. Anyway, there's an old saying in sports, 'You can't fool your teammates.' It's no secret who is good and who isn't.

It also isn't a secret that defense wins championships in all team sports.

Steve Miller May 15, 2006 at 3:58 pm

Morgan –

From what I understand of other attempts to go beyond fielding percentage, Jeter is well-below average as a shortstop. He has a high fielding percentage, but fewer chances and in most years a very poor range factor. I'm more suspicious of people who disagree with James' rather rigorous analysis, because they're much more subject to availability bias, which is only amplified by watching Web Gems or Great Plays on Baseball Tonight and Sportscenter. For the truly great fielders, btw, the subjective common sense is very much confirmed by range numbers. Ozzie Smith has a lower fielding percentage at short than Cal Ripken, Jr. But his range stats are incredible, better than anyone currently playing that position.

That said, I'm pretty sure David Eckstein has consistently bad range statistics, yet it's not clear how much that really hurts the team. It may be, and this is classic Billy Beane, that his OBP more than makes up for that. Likewise for Jeter

Dan May 15, 2006 at 4:12 pm

I would like to preface this by saying I am a huge Yankee fan, and I love Jeter. But every single sabermetric analysis of his defense says the same thing.

The reason fans dont agree is that we think of him making the play against the A's in the playoffs, tossing the ball behind his back to Posada. Or we think of him diving into the stands against the red sox, or making a strong throw from DEEP in the whole to his right. He makes great plays. But try to remember a time when he made a diving play to his left. He is terrible when it comes to catching balls up the middle.

If you like this kind of analysis you should check out Baseball Prospectus' Baseball Between the Numbers (Why everything you think you know about baseball is wrong). They attack the idea of clutch, lineup protection, the use of relief pitching and more. These guys ARE professionals.

Matt May 16, 2006 at 7:02 am


I wouldn't be too certain about the wisdom of managers and owners in choosing which players play certain positions. For example, consider the 2002 World Series. The Giants had a below-average defensive center fielder (Kenny Lofton) and an above-average one (nude model Tsuyoshi Shinjo). Lofton's hitting, of course, was far better than Shinjo's. During the games in Anaheim, nearly everyone felt Dusty Baker should have DHd Lofton and let Shinjo play CF, notwithstanding Lofton's personal objections. But in an effort to mollify Lofton, Baker relented and kept him in center field.

I do remember one particular play in the decisive Game 6 in which Lofton badly misplayed a line drive that Shinjo almost certainly would have caught. The double came in the middle of a major Angels rally that ultimately swung the WS in their favor.

Baker's decision to play Lofton and not Shinjo in CF didn't cost the Giants the game , but it is indicative of the sort of thing managers do all the time.

I would imagine Torre and Steinbrenner's decision to keep Jeter at SS had a lot to do with keeping him happy.

JC May 16, 2006 at 10:19 am

For what it's worth, I've got the book, and I think the info is truly amazing. Dewan is a real entrepreneur. I suspect he's using the book, and it's publicity, to advertise for his real money-making business–Baseball Info Solutions–which sells its data to MLB teams. This book is a skimpy bikini. He seems to be saying, if this is what I've got to share with the general public, imagine what I'm not showing you.

Patrick R. Sullivan May 16, 2006 at 4:23 pm

'The Giants had a below-average defensive center fielder (Kenny Lofton) and an above-average one (nude model Tsuyoshi Shinjo).'

Since Shinjo had a career of all of three years (I just checked) it's hard to take seriously the idea of replacing the play-off seasoned veteran Lofton with a second year player who'd already made six errors as the Giants centerfielder that year (Lofton had a perfect 1.000 with both the White Sox and SF in 2002).

Lofton clearly was the better player.

Forbes May 16, 2006 at 5:26 pm

Well, let's look at the other player mentioned–Soriano–in order to examine if any insight is actually provided by Dewan.

Prior to this season–if memory serves–Soriano, over the prior three seasons, led all 2nd basemen in errors, and by a factor of nearly two times. Quantitatively illustrating–by other means–that he made 40 fewer plays, as compared to the average 2nd baseman, tells me nothing new. Is this insight?

Jeter has always been somewhat controversial in terms of his range, especially going to his left on balls hit up the middle (as was mentioned). But then so what? These differences, ranked in order of fielding pct or some other quantification, while demonsrating an ordinal difference, are unlikely to demonstrate statistically significant differences. That's why these players are in the majors, and not the minors.

(How many games does a fan have to watch before observing the game scorer making some boneheaded error vs. hit determination that favors the hometeam player? I'd say five games.)

The Billy Beane/Bill James/Moneyball insight that OBP (and SLG), is more important tool for evaluating batters, than BA, is self-evident. Other insights supplied on the basis of a cost/benefit analysis, e.g. that outs–in short supply–shouldn't be sacrificed for extra bases, provide tactical information that Prof. Roberts characterizes as the unseen effects of the game, and properly so.

These attempts at fielding quantification supply grist for the mill, but do they provide decision-making data? I think not.

Remember Billy Beane's background as a 5-tool prospect that turned out to be a bust was his personal realization that baseball scouts' are overly enamoured with the beauty show–and not enough with determining what turns prospects into major leaguers.

Timothy May 16, 2006 at 5:41 pm

While I'm happy to see Adam Everett get a mention (GO ASTROS!), and while I do think Everett one of the most underrated defensive short-stops in the game…Jeter is in every way superior at the plate. Jeter's batting .333 versus Everett's .244, and Everett didn't hit so well in the World Series last year.

With as strong as the Yankee's offense usually is, and with Matsui in left, the Yankees can afford to have a mediocre guy at short.

Timothy May 16, 2006 at 5:44 pm

Jeter also has an OPB of .430 and an SLG of .511 versus Everett's .293 and .366, respectively.

Neal Phenes May 17, 2006 at 10:46 am

No one has commented on the unseen effect of the security of a solid fielder on a pitchers choice of pitches and general attitude.

When a pitcher knows the guys behind him can competently handle the routine plays, he can pitch without the worry that a less than perfect pitch (location and speed) will not be handled. This is especially a problem for sinker pitchers. When the pitcher lacks such confidence, he needs to throw strikeouts to avoid fielding mishap opportunities. Such deliberation often ends up as walks and homeruns.

Yankee pitchers have the ease of mind that grounders to the left side, the most common location for groundballs, will be handled well by Jeter and A-Rod.

However, the fielders do not have a similar confidence in Giambi's handling of their throws. A Gold Glove first basemen will give fielders confidence to attempt quicker, less than perfect, throws that may sail or hit the dirt on their way to first.

Tim Wakefield will pitch much better for the Red Sox with the return of Doug Mirabelli on hand to catch his knuckleball. Wakefield had to throw more fastballs with men on base with the prior catcher.

It is the issue of confidence in each case. Confidence in consistency.

Jeter provides that despite some criticism about his fielding deficiencies. As a Red Sox fan I can tell you that he is the best player on their team. There is a reason he play short-stop. And the way he hits makes up for everything.

The above discussion also applies to the stock market. If there is confidence in a consistent treatment of corporate earnings, as is the case with Bush, the market will generall trend well. A lack of confidence causes it to tank.

Ray May 19, 2006 at 2:20 am

I've never managed a pro ball team, but in all my years of playing, and then coaching young players, there is definitely an intuition to setting certain line ups that the data just can't pick up on.

Not that I, if I were a professional, would be dismissive of such research. As in everything else in life, the more info the better. However, I've set teams up before where the same style player didn't always fit into the same role on the team. Some of it came down to how their personalities matched up, some of it just knowing what their attitudes were goint to be a certain time.

All in all, though very interesting.

Raphael French October 2, 2007 at 4:13 pm

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