Charting the defensive spectrum, and other notes

Add this to the list of “I think I’ve talked about this before, but don’t remember”, but it seems defense has become a much more talked about topic in the last few seasons. You know I’m not one for pumping other people’s products and telling you to buy stuff, but I am going to tell you to buy something here. John Dewan’s “Fielding Bible“, which I own, and the Fielding Bible 2, which I will buy, are essential if you care about understanding the game of baseball. Dewan’s method involves using video, and the core of his work is the +/- system, which attempts to determine who is average, above average and below average defensively. Dewan’s work is groundbreaking, in that its the first real system that uses video instead of just putouts/assists/errors/doubleplays and so forth. If you are a subscriber at BillJamesOnline you have access to the +/- scores for every major leaguer, and the Fielding Bibles also give you a bunch more in depth analysis on the various facets of the game. Check below the fold for more…

Now that I’ve recommended you these books (I don’t receive any financial benefit, that’s not why I’m recommending them), lets dig in. Today at Baseball Prospectus, Jay Jaffe talked about the defensive spectrum again, and the site also published a Q/A with John Dewan. If you’re completely new to the concept of the defensive spectrum, I’m going to give a very brief overview, which you can also find here. The spectrum basically looks like this;


This of course moves from easiest (1B) to hardest (C) and the dropoff between 3B and CF as well as SS and C are largely the two biggest jumps in the spectrum. Nate Silver at BP came up with a very interesting diagram that shows the logical movement among players along the spectrum. For the full article, check here.


The interesting part of this diagram is in the thickness of the arrows, the thicker the arrow, the more likely the path.

Back to the John Dewan Q/A from today. This, I think, is an interesting point he made;

DL: Can you give a good example? (of an interesting fact that has come from this in depth defensive analysis….added by me for clarity)

JD: I’ll give you an example which came out in my book: When we did our analysis of defense by team, we took our various metrics and broke them into Defensive Runs Saved. What we found is that the best defensive team in baseball last year was the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies—their defense saved 78 runs over the course of the year compared to the average team in baseball. The worst team in baseball was the Kansas City Royals, who allowed 48 more runs than the average team. If you put those two together, you get about 130 runs difference between the best and worst defensive teams in baseball. If you look at that same analysis on hitting, you’ll see that the Rangers scored about 900 runs, the Padres about 640, so the difference is about 260 runs. That is exactly twice what the defensive impact was, which is almost like saying that defense is exactly half as important as offense, which no one would ever give that kind of credit to. And I’m not sure I believe it entirely myself, but it is one analysis. There are other analyses to do, but I think that what we’re getting to is realizing the magnitude of the importance of defense. We’re starting to move in that direction, and it’s not just me. There are all kinds of people doing defensive analysis, whether it’s David Pinto with his Probabilistic Model, or if it’s Mitchel Lichtman with UZR, or the folks at Baseball Prospectus who are doing some new stuff this year. There are also the guys at The Hardball Times. So a lot of people are doing work on defense, and I think it is enlightening everybody in the field.

This isn’t an entirely new concept, Bill James has long held the theory that 10 runs is equal to roughly 1 win. So if you contribute 20 runs more than average on offense, and 10 runs more than average on defense, you’d contribute 30 runs more than average, or 3 wins more than an “average” player. Conversely, if you contribute 20 runs above average on offense, but 10 runs below average on defense, you’d only be contributing 10 runs above the average player, or 1 win. Simple enough, not 100% scientific, but its backed up by lots of research. Dewan’s findings here confirm this, to a degree. I do think he overstates his findings though, as I don’t think you can just say run scoring is 50% more important than run prevention. Run scoring is more predictive, but run prevention it would seem has long been underrated. The notion that you could just put a butcher in the field anywhere because of his bat is still true to a degree, but when you’re trying to determine value, where to spend free agent money, where to move players, and which players to target, the answer isn’t quite as simple as it once seemed. I’m planning on looking at this in a bit more detail later, and I’ll touch on it again at the end of this piece.

Now that you have the back story, here’s what I wanted to look at. I want to first look at what is required for each position (in brief) and then how it relates to our current prospects in question.

1B – The “easiest” position on the diamond. The biggest “need” here is an accurate arm. 1B have to cover the bag on every play, so putting stone statues at 1B will work, but it will limit the player’s range (ie, how close he can move toward the 2B hole to cut off groundballs), but the toughest play a 1B will have to make is the throw to 2B on a 3-6-3 double play. Ryan Howard obviously has issues with this play. Scooping balls in the dirt is a definite skill, but one that I don’t really know can be measured. 1B defense is underrated, because a 1B who has great hand/eye coordination defensively (as well as a big frame) can save his infielders a boatload of errors during the course of a 162 game season.

LF/RF – The outfield corners require more speed than 1B, and what separates them on the spectrum is the throw from RF to 3B, which requires more arm strength. The LF isn’t throwing the ball to 1B, so that isn’t an issue. Guys with noodle arms often end up in LF. Your home ball park also has a lot to do with these two positions. In a small park like Citizens Bank Park, there should be less emphasis on speed in the outfield corners because of the shallow alleys. In a place like PETCO with huge power alleys, playing a guy without much speed could mean death to your pitchers or your centerfielder.

3B – This one is a tough position to gauge. The position is predicated largely on reactions (its not called the hot corner because of temperature), which would indicate a need for some athleticism. I think 3B is a position you can stick a number of different players. Last year, Adrian Beltre ranked atop the leaderboard at 3B with a +32, while the 10th ranked 3B (Chipper Jones), finished at +9, a difference of 23 runs or a bit more than 2 wins. More than anything, it seems that the position requires athleticism and a modestly strong arm.

CF – The toughest OF position by far, it requires both speed (two gaps to cover) a strong arm (but not as strong as RF) and athleticism/the ability to read balls off the bat hit directly at you, one of the toughest parts of fielding in general. To me, the gap between 3B and CF is vast. Ryan Zimmerman is a good defender at 3B, but could you see him playing CF in Washington? Scott Rolen was a gold glove defender here at 3B, but could you have imagined him playing centerfield?

2B/SS – The two up the middle positions are obviously premium spots, which makes the Phillies luxury of having two of the best in the game all that more impressive. Shortstop requires more because of the longer throw, especially the throw from the 5.5 hole, but it also requires tremendous athleticism to turn double plays, which may be the most under the radar aspect of the position. Just ask Skip Schumaker, who is attempting to move from the outfield to 2B.

C – The most demanding position on the diamond, and one of the toughest spots to evaluate. Catchers require not only a specific set of skills (blocking balls on the dirt, fast lateral movement), but they also require a strong, accurate arm, as well as the proper body type to be able to handle the rigors of catching 140+ games a season. If you are too tall, the constant squatting destroys your knees. If you’re too short or thin, the grind of the position wears you down too fast. If your arm is strong but not accurate, runners will exploit you, and if your arm is accurate but not strong, any hesitation by your pitcher means you have no chance. Learning the nuances of the position also take a long time, and it generally slows down a player’s path to the majors. Often times hitting skills are the last to develop because so much time is spent on learning the fundamentals of receiving, blocking balls in the dirt, calling a game and neutralizing the running game. Consequently, the type of hitter who might profile at catcher could be a .275/.345/.400 guy, not bad for a catcher, but below average at lots of other positions, and if you are moving off of the position, chances are your body type is going to limit you to an outfield corner or 1B, where the offensive standards are much higher.

So that brings us to two of our current guys;

Anthony Hewitt, SS > 3B. Hewitt was drafted as a shortstop and immediately moved to 3B. I don’t really think this is the best deployment of his skills. He’s a legitimate 5 tool player and has more than enough speed and a cannon for an arm. Why not move him to CF? As I showed above, CF is higher on the defensive spectrum than 3B. Its easy to look at our current 3B situation and say “but we need a 3B of the future!”, and while that might be true, Hewitt won’t be an answer for at least 4-5 years, and in 4-5 years, maybe we’ll have acquired a cornerstone 3B and then we won’t have the same pressing need we have today. 3B is a position that will take adjusting to, but the move from SS to 3B is very common, as seen in Nate Silver’s diagram. To me, its so easy to compare Hewitt to BJ Upton. Upton had much more baseball skill when he was drafted, but both are freakish athletes. Upton struggled first at SS, then at 2B, as he was way too mechanical in the field. The Rays moved him to CF to allow him to think less on defense and just react. He’s still new to the position and has kind of learned on the job. The Phillies have a chance to move Hewitt there now, which might allow him to think less about defense and more about learning how to identify a breaking ball.

Jason Donald, SS > 3B. A similar debate is going on right now with Jason Donald, though CF doesn’t figure into his long term plans. Most scouts indicate Donald is not a starting shortstop for a top tier big league team, but could be an average SS for a second tier club. The logical step is moving him to 2B, but obviously that position is blocked as well. And while I don’t have much research on this, I wonder what kind of adjustment period is needed for a SS moving to 2B. You’re moving to the other side of the diamond, the ball is coming at you from a completely different angle, and your turning of the double play is completely backwards (and tougher) than it is at SS. His arm is more than good enough, but I suspect his range will be about the same at 2B as it is at SS. Moving him to 3B reduces some of the mechanics from the game, as its more a reaction position, and he certainly seems to have solid baseball instincts. If the Philles plan is to make him the starting 3B in 2010, then this switch is very much justified. If the plan is to use him as a utility man, then he should split time in AAA between all 3 infield positions, as he’ll need to remain sharp at SS and 2B. If the plan is to trade him because they feel he can’t produce enough at 3B (which is a really shortsighted view), then they need to keep him at SS, which is still much higher on the defensive spectrum.

As a followup to this piece, I’m working on something else with regard to batting runs and fielding runs. Its going to take some time to compile, so I’ll post it later next week, but I figured this post would be a good starting point.

20 thoughts on “Charting the defensive spectrum, and other notes

  1. That”s a very interesting thought on Hewitt. Having not seen him in the field at all, it’s hard to know where his talents lie, but you make good points. Whatever can be done to allow him figure things out at the plate has to be considered.

  2. So far in the minor league camp both Mattair and Hewitt were doing the third base drills today side by side in Working Group 3. Interestingly Cody Overbeck is above them in Group 2 and might be on track to open the season at High A. Looks like Mattair is on track to repeat Lakewood and Hewitt appears to be on track to remain in extended spring training and be the opening day starting 3B in the short season.

  3. Overbeck is a college guy so it wouldn’t be unheard of to jump him over Lakewood…his performance in Williamsport didn’t really warrant such a jump…at least on paper.

  4. I never really thought about putting Hewitt in center, but it seems (at least initially) like a glorious idea:

    1. He’s so unlikely to be a MLB player that it’s not like the Phillies can realistically count on him as the “3rd baseman of the future.”

    2. His athletic tools player better at the more valuable defensive position of center.

    3. Letting him play CF allows him have to do less fielding practice (since it’s more instinctive anyways) and focus on improving his hitting. I don’t mean to say that he shouldn’t take any fielding practice, but he won’t have to do ground ball drills.

  5. Too late at night to digest this much only have to say Whity
    Herzog rated 3rd base more important than SS not sure why
    unless the doubles thing

  6. Well, that’s an odd thing from Whitey because he had Ozzie Smith. In any event, I can understand that given Herzog’s generation. I am just old enough to remember a completely different era in baseball. The era where your shortstop was never intended to hit the baseball. I exaggerate only slightly but, in all candor, your average shortstop was a guy like Bud Harrelson or Larry Bowa. With extremely rare exceptions, the shortstop always hit 8th in the line-up. In that generation, a guy like Freddy Galvis would be on the cusp of making the big leagues (truly, Galvis would have been on the fast track to the show – they wouldn’t have cared at all that he can barely hit his weight).

    The plus, however, was there were always a whole lot of great-fielding, no hit guys you could throw in there and make all the plays from that position. They never hit, but nobody cared.

    By contrast, at the time Herzog was managing, third base had become a hitter’s position (by the way, this was not always true – third base used to be a fielder’s position like short and second – I think the new trend started with Eddie Matthews and was in full force during Schmidt/Brett era when Herzog was managing). And, let’s face it, it’s tough to find someone who can hit a ton and field third base well.

    My point is that I think Herzog’s impressions may have been influenced by the fact that, during his era, one could pretty much always find a good fielding shortstop so defense at that position was something that he (and, especially he, with Smith patrolling short) never needed to worry about while I am sure he did have to worry about the fielding at third.

    Just a theory.

  7. Remember the Big Red Machine? What I remember most wasn’t the power and hitting ability but the defense up the middle. There was a lot of talk about Davey Concepcion and Cesar Geranimo. Neither one was a big hitter but they had 9 gold gloves between them. With Rose, Morgan, Foster, Bench etc., hitting wasn’t needed. Their fielding saved a bunch of runs and probably won some big games for the Reds. Of course, Maddox and Bowa had 10 between them. Bowa would have a lot more if Concepcion wasn’t playing at the same time.

  8. I had the pleasure to meet Whitey one on one He didnt seem like one easily influenced but I can tell you he had a remarkable personality. In 5 minutes you felt like his best friend.
    Third base defense at home is a little discounted because the small outfield tends to doubles into singles. e.g. a double down the line in Florida usually clears the bases.

  9. Moving Hewitt to CF was my first thought when they drafted hi. Why waste all that athleticism at a position that demands a big guy that can stop hard hit balls, a good arm, a little quickness and good instincts. To me, he never profiled there. Either CF or RF might be his best position, speaking strictly from a defensive POV.

  10. Tremendous post! The chart is awesome.

    Defensive stats have always left a lot to be desired. I’ve also have an issue with ERA since it muddies the line between defense and pitching. The new efforts are welcome and as you say, more work needs to be done, particularly with keeping defense independent of pitching and vice versa.

    I agree with the chain: 1B—LF—RF—3B—CF—2B—SS—C. As far as drop-off goes, I think the biggest drop-off is between CF and 3B and then from 3B to RF. C and SS are fairly close in my opinion, mostly because of the ground a SS has to cover, which requires a different level of athleticism and conditioning. The C, on the other hand, has to learn the nuances of the entire pitching staff.

    Your suggestions are spot-on for both Hewitt and Donald.


    PS: is this a typo? “So if you contribute 20 runs more than average on defense, and 10 runs more than average on defense, you’d contribute 30 runs more than average, or 3 wins more than an “average” player.” First one should be offense, right?

  11. Glad to hear Overbeck is with Group2–I actually thought they should have moved him to Lakewood last year with Mattair struggles–this make most sense–Overbeck-Clearwater-mattair Lakewood-hewitt Williamsport

  12. Great stuff.

    I agree, it’s too early to move Hewitt based on need at the big club. He should be moved where he would have the most value.

  13. Enjoyed the article ; however I disagree with the statement
    ” To me, the gap between 3B and CF is vast. Ryan Zimmerman is a good defender at 3B, but could you see him playing CF in Washington? Scott Rolen was a gold glove defender here at 3B, but could you have imagined him playing centerfield?” I don’t disagree that CF is a more athletic position and higher on the defensive spectrum, but the argument of Zimmerman and Rolen doesn’t follow. CF and 3B require different skill sets. Could Garry Maddox play 3B ? To me, the interesting position is catcher. Catcher is a very physically demanding position and requires the non athletic skill of being able to call a game and be a field general. And by making someone a catcher, you are probably limiting their ABs per season and their offensive output. However, I think several players with the requisite arm strength could be converted to catcher if done so early enough in their development. Same cannot be said for Shortstop.

  14. The defensive grades are just fascinating. Just when you think you’ve learned to fully appreciate Chase Utley, another gem like this comes along and you realize he’s even greater than you’ve imagined. I

    t also makes you realize how important it is that he just remain at second as long as possible. I think the Philles know this and, certainly, Utley, who has worked tirelessly to hone his skills at the position, won’t be volunteering for a transfer anytime soon.

  15. I would hate to see Utley at 1B. In my mind that is idiotic, you can bring in a 1B ranked 15 in the league and the drop off in terms of pure numbers between Ryan Howard wouldn’t be nearly as signficant as the drop off between Chase and a top 15 2B. Why people suggest that is incomprehensible. I get that his offensive numbers play at 1st but what a huge drop off in his value. I’d love to hear someone justify that move.

  16. And just to add another thought that just occured to me, in my mind, his defensive skills at 2B have been improving over the last 2 years, if everyone remembers, when he first came into the league he was thought of with questionable defense, there were times last year that I thought he deserved a gold glove. And regarding Hewitt, CF sounds like an excellent idea and way to improve the kids value and to focus on hitting off-speed pitches. Regarding donald at 3rd, becuase he’s so close to the majors if he wants significant playing time, he’ll move to 3rd. That’s a shame though, because I believe this kid could play a solid 2B in the bigs.

  17. According to John Dewan, Chase was BY FAR the best defensive 2B in the league last season, and Dewan’s group analyzes every play using video, giving a very reliable defensive anlysis. IIRC, Chase’s D was worth 20 runs more than the next-best 2B, and he was playing injured and missed time. Why would anyone want to move him?

  18. Billy Mac I have to agree with you after some thought Personally i could catch ground ball but anything in the air was a mystery. Different positions do call for different skill set so the chart is an oversimplification.

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