There is a question that TwinsCentric didn’t answer, or even raise. We’ll raise it today. Maybe we’ll answer it tomorrow.
One thing we tried to do within the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook is pay increased attention to defense. For instance, I mentioned it in the first half of this review of Orlando Cabrera:
Last year at this time, Orlando Cabrera had plenty of reason to be hopeful about his impending free agency. He was a .300 hitter, a veteran shortstop, and had been a key component to a number of playoff teams over the latter half of the decade. He’d been so good that he easily found himself listed as a ‘Type A’ player by Elias in their year-end rankings.
That last fact turned ugly in a hurry. The White Sox offered Cabrera arbitration when neither side wanted him to return there. Since Cabrera turned down the arbitration and was an ‘A’ player, any team signing him would need to forfeit a first-round draft pick to the White Sox. And with that additional (and artificial) cost, the market for Cabrera dried up like a Sham-wow.
He finally signed with the Athletics in March, but he could only procure a one-year deal for $4 million, essentially signing a “make-good” contract after he had already made good. But give him and his agent credit for having learned their lesson. They reportedly made sure the new contract specified that whichever team has him can’t offer him arbitration if he’s a Type A free agent again.
It looks like he’ll be just that. Alas, the Twins won’t be offering him arbitration, so he might get a better deal despite having a worse year. His batting average and OPS fell to .284 and 705 respectively, but his defense was a bigger concern. The 34-year-old isn’t getting to groundballs the way he used to, and defensive metrics like a UZR of -14.9 confirm that.
(And yes, you can download that, along with 1/3 of the Handbook, absolutely free at TwinsCentric.com. Thanks for asking!)
You’ll notice in that last paragraph that we use UZR or Ultimate Zone Rating. It’s cited a few times in the Handbook, and we referenced it behind the scenes multiple times. It’s become a standard defensive metric, but I worry a little that it’s popularity stems mostly from being readily available at FanGraphs.com.
So I was excited to stumble across this interview with the developer of UZR, Mitchel Lichtman at BaseballDailyDigest.com, conducted by Joel Hamrahi. (Who, apropos of nothing, calls the Handbook “every baseball fan’s dream.” But I digress.) So let’s see how this thing works.
UZR starts with a map of the field that divides it into 22 slices and then divides those up into distances of 30-35 feet. (Just so you can picture it, I threw together the dreadful little drawing on the left.) For each of those spots they know from lots of major league data what percentage of the time a ball is turned into outs.
But it doesn’t stop there. Each of those probabilities are broken down into more granular probabilities based on further conditions. Those other conditions are important, so he specifies them. They are:
- Type, which I think he means as type of hit, but the values are hard, medium, and soft
- handedness of the batter, because it influences positioning and he claims it influences the speed, which I don’t quite understand
- game situation, meaning the baserunners and outs, because is also influences positioning
- ground ball/fly ball ratio of the pitcher, which again he says influences the speed
So, basically you have a huge table that has location and the rest of these conditions as columns, and for every possible combination of those, it has the percentage of time a ball is turned into an out by each fielder.
Based on those percentages, a fielder gets or loses varying amounts of credit for their performance. For instance, if Jermaine Dye catches a ball that 90% of right fielders catch, he gets credit for 10% of an out. If he misses a ball that 60% of right fielders catch, he loses 60% of an out.
Then UZR turns those plays into runs using a very high level metric. It counts an out as .28 runs, an infield hit as .5 runs and an outfield hit as .6 runs. Since every ball is one or the other, I’m assuming that a play by an infielder credits or subrtracts .78 runs, and an outfielders play counts as .88 runs. So I think that if we go back to our outfielder who got credit for 10% of a catch, he gains .088 runs for that catch.
Lichtman goes into more detail, and I think a few of them are important. First, he rightly points out that in his system “fielder positioning is inherent in the results.” He only tracks flyballs to outfielders and groundballs to infielders, so an outfielder who misplays ground balls isn’t penalized. He also adjusts the final numbers based on the outfielders throws. He adjusts for park factors. And finally, an outfielder is never penalized if a gap hit is caught by another outfielder, but is if it is a hit.
That final point is an important one to me, because all this research was driven by a simple question – why is Denard Span listed as such a poor defender by UZR? That’s a topic we didn’t tackle, or even raise, in the Handbook. I hope to jump into some possible explanations tomorrow.