Thursday, June 17, 2010

An old tool for a new question

I have a longer post about sabermetrics percolating on my brain's back burner, but for now I'm going to indulge in some brutal oversimplification and talk about three types of baseball statistics. We have the basic stats that everyone is familiar with or can find in the morning box scores, like RBI, hits, steals, and errors. One step up from that are simple stats like batting average, on-base percentage, and range factor, which you can easily calculate with a simple four-function calculator from the basic stats. Finally, you have your complex stats like UZR, linear weights, xFIP, VORP, WARP, and other strange animals that require access to stats not commonly found in the morning paper along with (at the very least) some scratch paper and/or facility with algebra.

Which explains why I'm going back to Range Factor to look at the Nationals defense. I originally started thumbing through the STATS scoreboard and totting up range factors for second basemen, but then reconsidered, since already did that for me and I'm pretty lazy when it comes to most things except writing. ;) Going here and doing some sorting, we quickly see that the Nationals are allowing 4.74 runs per game against the league average of 4.45. They're actually a little above average when it comes to defensive efficiency, turning 69% of balls in play into outs as opposed to the league average 68.6%, but somehow leading the league in errors with 59. This makes for some head-scratching, no? If we lead the league in errors, the defense must suck, right? It's entirely possible, as Bill James observed almost 40 years ago when he invented range factor, for Fielder A to commit few or no errors while not making enough plays to justify buying him a glove (*cough* Larry Bowa *cough*) while Fielder B commits a bunch of errors on balls that A wouldn't have been in the same zip code with.

Well, let's look at the individual players and see what the deal is. We'll skip over Pudge and Adam Dunn for now, since for a number of reasons I'm not going to bother going into right now, range factor is a pretty useless tool for evaluating catchers and first basemen. Let's start with second base, where Adam Kennedy and Cristian Guzman have nine errors between the two of them. But what's this? Guzman is third among all NL second sackers, with 5.23 plays for every nine innings he's playing second? Kennedy isn't too far behind him, at 5.07 plays per nine. Both above the league average of 4.89 at the position, too. Well, okay, second isn't the gaping void of defensive suck.

Ha! Ian Desmond! THERE'S the culprit! A league-leading fifteen errors! Back to Rochester with him! Oh says here he's making five plays a game. That's above the league average (4.39) too, eh? To say nothing of being better than Guzman's 4.59 from last year? Um. Well. Let's move on to third base, shall we?

At the hot corner, we have Ryan Zimmerman, a very important component of the team's sputtering offense and an okay guy with the glove, too. He's among the league leaders in errors with seven, but on the other hand, his range factor is at the league average. We're not leaking any runs here.

Moving into the outfield, we see Josh Willingham patrolling left field. No errors, but on the other hand, his range factor of 1.92 is a touch under the league average of 1.95. There's balls he's not getting to. As a defensive sub, Willie Harris is making 2.28 plays for every nine innings he plays out in left, but unfortunately his bat can't carry his glove.

In center field, the streaky T-Plush, with his 2.70 range factor is also a little below the league average (2.72) which is especially disappointing given that he was picked up last year specifically to address our defensive weakness in center.* Some folks have suggested replacing him with Roger Bernadina (3.28), but that range factor is based on only 35 innings out there, and I don't think any manager should be making decisions based on a small sample size like that...

...especially when Bernadina is doing such a poor job in right. He's logged two errors out there in 263 innings and only has a range factor of 2.08, which doesn't look too good compared to the league average of 2.32. Mike Morse, Justin Maxwell and (of course) Willie Harris all put up better defensive numbers in right, and I thought it was pretty shabby of the Nats to send Maxwell down after a mere 21 games.

So, there it is. The infield has tightened up, but two-thirds of the outfield isn't pulling its weight on defense. Not good, not good at all. Riggleman and Rizzo have to make some decisions soon about center and right field, because without a good outfield defense, our pitchers are going to look a lot worse than they really are, and it would be a shame to have this season collapse back into the same old futility after starting so well.

*For those of you who tuned in late, it was pretty bad. Willie Harris, Elijah Dukes, and Justin Maxwell (!) were all below average. :(

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