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The Unseen Aspects of Fielding

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One of the reasons I enjoyed Moneyball [2] so much was the aspect of the seen and the unseen [3] 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 [4] looks at a new book by John Dewan [5] 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."