Thursday, October 22, 2009

Phoning It In: Denard's Defense

Sorry gang, but I'm cooked. The night was spent standing on frigid Fort Snelling fields watching The Boy™'s soccer playoffs. Then a late dinner, an Always Sunny In Philadelphia episode featuring the Phillies "Phranatic" kicking the crap out of Charlie, and I'm pretty much cooked at 9:30.

So I was relieved to see that Parker Hageman from Over The Baggy stopped by yesterday's comments section and brought some insight to why Denard Span's defense might be rated poorly by UZR. In short, the baggy in right field doesn't allow him (or Micheal Cuddyer) to catch balls in the Metrodome that would be likely be caught in other parks. He points out that an alternate system ranks Span's defense much higher.

There's lots more to explore here, but tonight, that's going to be good enough. We'll come back to UZR later this offseason. If you're looking for more debate about it's merits and demerits, yesterday's commentators brought up plenty of good points.

Thanks for stopping by. See you Monday.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

There's a Stat for That: UZR

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 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

So I was excited to stumble across this interview with the developer of UZR, Mitchel Lichtman at, 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.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Geeking Out: The #2 Batter

As the Voice of Reason™ and I are kicking back and watching her Phils tonight, I notice #2 Shane Victorino's stats: .292/.358/.445. And I thought - now there is a guy Parker would like.

Because in the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook, Parker wrote a great essay on the importance of the Twins finding a solid #2 hitter, called Never Break the Chain. It starts like this:

In 1986, Bill James constructed a poignant analysis on lineup composition and revealed that the total runs scored and second spot in the batting order had the strongest correlation among any player in the lineup — more than leadoff, third or cleanup. Mr. James noted in his 1986 Baseball Abstract that “many managers tend to waste the second spot in the order by putting somebody there who isn’t one of the better hitters on the team...Too many managers will say ‘bat control’ as if these words were a magic wand, and place some .260 hitter with a secondary average of .150 batting second…”

Someday I want to compose a poignant analysis. Anyway, Parker's essay then covers the Twins woes at the second spot in the order and options they might have this offseason. To get a better sense of the essay, you can download the free 1/3 book at

I wondered what trait of the second batter was most important? On-base percentage makes sense, but so does batting average. Or maybe it's a patience-power mix, like OPS? So I ran a quick correlation between runs scored by teams and the stats their #2 hitter put up. The higher the number, the higher the correlation. Here are the results:

OBP - 0.526
OPS - 0.523
BA - 0.469
SLG - 0.446

It looks like on-base percentage or OPS are a little more important than batting average. That's not exactly ground-breaking, but it's good to know. Because I had also copied all the other stats for #2 hitters, I ran correlations on them too. Here they are:

R - 0.680
H - 0.532
RBI - 0.525
TB - 0.508
AB - 0.451
HR - 0.255
2B - 0.247
GP - 0.158
3B - -0.037

Heh. Shocking. Runs is the most important. So a team that scores a lot tends to have a #2 hitter that racks up a lot of runs. Whoulda thunk?

Still, it's nice to clarify a little what we're looking for from the #2 hitter. As we might suspect, we want them to set the table.

If anyone has any other correlations that they would like to see, make sure to enter them into the comments section. Thanks.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

J. J. Hardy

Supply and demand is a bear. Or at least I suspect it it in this case.

You're going to hear his name a lot. In fact, you probably already have. Every offseason there is one name that rises above the others as a trade target. It's a little silly to speculate who that's going to be this offseason, because the Twins are gathering and planning their offseason priorities. this week. But the early leader is Hardy.

On the left is his writeup in the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook. I didn't write it (I think Nick Nelson did) but I like it because it gives a thumbnail sketch of the important points. Namely:

1) Hardy is young and supposedly very good both offensively and defensively
2) He's available because the Brewers have a decent replacement and because he had a bad year in 2009
3) The Brewers would probably require pitching in return.

By the say, if you would like a dozen or so more thumbnail sketches of trade targets, stop by at check out the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook. You can download 1/3 of it for free! Even Bill Bavasi would recognize that as a great deal.

It's a good overview, but we have a little more room here, so let's break it down a bit.

He is (or at least was) very good both offensively and defensively. Defensively he has graded above average every year he was in the majors, and his minor league reviews mention that it's his defense that will compensate for his bat if he's to have a major league career. Even last year, when he struggled with back problems, his defense suffered a little, but was still above average.

Offensively he was worth drooling over in 2007 and 2008, averaging a .280 batting average with 25 home runs and an OPS around 800. Just to put that OPS in context, Marco Scutaro, who will probably be the highest paid shortstop in this year's free agent market, posted an OPS of 788.

If that was the full story, then it's obvious he's exactly what the Twins need. Of course, if that was the full story, he wouldn't be available. And if he was, he certainly wouldn't be affordable.

Last year was a nightmare for Hardy, medically, athletically and ultimately financially. He had a fantastic spring training, but struggled for most of April before revealing he was having back problems. It turns out those back problems are something that he had been dealing with for years. In fact, it's often overlooked that he had some real injury issues early in his career, missing most of 2004 and 2006 with ankle and shoulder problems.

He surged early in May, and his back problems reappeared in late May. He struggled the rest of the year, posting a 229 batting average and a 659 OPS, about 50 points lower than Orlando Cabrera. The season ended especially disastrously (and possibly litigiously) when he was sent down to AAA in August. That 3-week stint in Nashville is going to put off his free agency a full year, so he'll be a free agent after 2011.

The Brewers are looking for pitching in return, but there was a lot of debate about how much pitching. Others think and offer of Glen Perkins and a high prospect might get the deal done. After all, he struggled last year, he's due at least $4 million this year, and he'll be a free agent after 2011.

I expect it would take more, and it would take more of exactly what the Twins don't have - veteran pitching. The Brewers don't want "kind of" pitchers. They are built to win now, and they want veteran pitchers. The ideal fit for the Brewers would be Nick Blackburn, and given the starting pitching depth (or lack thereof) the Twins have, I can't imagine that happening. Nor would I advocate it.

The problem is that even with all his issues, Hardy is still young, solid defensively, affordable and capable of being a stud offensively. There are a LOT of teams interested in someone like that at shortstop. The Red Sox have been rumored to be interested. He would be a great fit on the Cardinals. The Jays would have a lot of interest if they don't re-sign Scutaro. The Tigers might if they lose Placido Polanco. Ditto Astros and Miguel Tejada. You can count on the Padres, Reds, Cubs and Orioles possible also being interested.

The name is great, and worth talking about. He's appropriately placed near the top of the list of trade targets. But that's also what makes it so hard to get him. Supply and demand is a bear.