Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Dodgers do well defending the corners, could use help up the middle

The standard theory of baseball defense says to be strong up the middle. If you have a good shortstop, second baseman, center fielder and maybe a catcher, you have good defense.

The corner positions don't matter as much. Certainly, the middle positions are harder to play and you need to be a better athlete to do well there. An average SS is a better defender than an average first baseman (or even a good 1B). Because fewer people can play an adequate major league SS, you're more willing to put up with a weak bat there. That's the essence of the rationale for the positional adjustment in the WAR framework.

First defense is rated relative to others at your position in terms of runs saved over/under average and then you get the positional adjustment thrown in -- more runs for middle defenders and runs taken away for corner defenders as you move down the spectrum C, SS, 2B, CF, 3B, RF, LF, 1B. It's about five runs per season for each notch down (although 2B/3B are about the same and LF/RF are about the same) -- so catchers get +12.5 and 1B get -12.5. Designated hitter would be another notch below 1B.

What about chances? First basemen get the most chances by far, if you count catching throws from other infielders. But that's such an easy job, the average 1B fielding percentage is around .994 (vs., say, 3B is at .959 -- seven times the error rate). If you try to ask about just batted balls, these also have varying grades of difficulty. Fly balls are easier than opposite field grounders, which are easier than pulled grounders, generally speaking.

On the individual side, the atomic measurement of all the modern fielding metrics is something like plays made - expected plays made, where expected plays made depends on how many balls were nominally the responsibility of a fielder and how fieldable each were (i.e. how likely is an average major league defender at that position to make that play). As a result, the runs saved above/below average defender at your position is a really nice idea for a metric. It is labor-intensive and somewhat subjective, but analysts are doing it fairly well nowadays. Of course Adrian Gonzalez is not a better defensive player than Matt Kemp, but he's better at 1B than Matt Kemp is at CF, and that's what's interesting in terms of the Dodgers defensive situation

The Dodgers have turned the standard theory inside out. They have above average defenders for their position at all four corners, and below average at all four middle spots.

In 2013, counting everyone who played at the position, the Dodgers were rated as follows (in units of runs saved per 150 games) in terms of each position relative to average at that position:

7 8 3 23 -20 -4 4 -6

That's +41 on the corners and -26 up the middle. This difference of 67 runs between the two groups -- the biggest in baseball. Next were the A's at 54 and the Yankees at 45. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Nationals' middle defense was 46 runs better than their corner defense. The Cardinals, Brewers and Red Sox were also toward the bottom.

So, there are both winning and losing teams, big market and small market teams, at both the top and bottom of the list. How can we judge if this non-traditional strategy is effective? First off, we can just add up all the numbers. A run is a run. That's a total of 14 runs above average from all fielders. That's in the top third of baseball teams.

Going into 2014, the situation is about the same. Mark Ellis is gone, but hopefully replaced by other average defenders. Otherwise it's the same starters. I'll get into details about my projections later, but based on who I think is going to play how much where, I see the 2014 picture as substantially similar to 2013.

Certainly all four corner spots should be above-average, while all four middle spots have a pretty good chance of being below-average. Is this going to work for them? Well, team defense is perhaps even harder to measure than individual defense. The Dodgers' outfield situation makes a point about team defense -- it doesn't matter if Kemp is not a great center fielder because he's surrounded on both sides by guys with incredible range in Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig. So, if they race over and catch a ball in his zone, it's still an out.

The simplest way to measure team defense is just how many balls in play became outs. That's called defensive efficiency. Various attempts have been made to spruce it up for double plays, park effects, etc. The Dodgers ranked about in the middle of the pack last year, maybe a little above the median. A lot depends on Alex Guerrero and Kemp. With Guerrero, we'll just have to see he has to offer this spring -- not much to go on yet. Kemp was looking less and less like a viable center fielder before his injuries. Given his serious ankle injury and hamstring issues, a reasonable person might expect him to be terrible out there this year (although, I do think we're going to see him hit like we're used to).

We can hope for the best, but the team's best lineup in the second half might be Kemp in a corner with Puig or Andre Ethier -- or even Joc Pederson -- in CF.

Photo credit: File photo

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