If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that one of my pet projects is the value of outfield defense, especially as it relates to the Mariners. During his time in Seattle, I continually wrote long treatises on the value of Mike Cameron’s defense to the Mariners, and did a bunch of work showing just how tremendously valuable the M’s outfield alignment of Winn-Cameron-Ichiro was during the 2003 season.
That year, the M’s essentially ran an outfield alignment with a mediocre center fielder playing left field, a great center fielder playing center field, and a good center fielder playing right field. They converted long fly balls into outs instead of doubles, and their range also helped them cut balls off in the gaps and keep hitters to singles instead of taking the extra base. Over the course of the season, the gloves of the M’s outfielders saved approximately 40 runs above what an average outfield defense would have allowed. 40 runs!
If you add 40 runs back to the 2003 Mariners earned runs total, their team ERA for the season goes from 3.76 to 4.01, and instead of going 93-69, the team would have gone something like 89-73. The Winn-Cameron-Ichiro group added approximately four wins to the Mariners ledger simply by gobbling up fly balls hit into the outfield.
The Mariners, however, failed to understand what was happening before their very eyes. They non-tendered Mike Cameron (a staggeringly bad decision), moved Randy Winn to center field, and imported Raul Ibanez from Kansas City to act as an offensive upgrade while admittedly sacrificing some defense, but still expected their contact pitching staff to duplicate the results from their successful 2003 season. It didn’t happen.
Ryan Franklin’s ERA rose from 3.57 to 4.90. Jamie Moyer’s went from 3.27 to 5.21. Joel Pineiro went from 3.78 to 4.67. Shigetoshi Hasegawa went from 1.48 to 5.16. Julio Mateo went from 3.15 to 4.68. And the team went from 93 wins to 63 wins.
Now, not all of that regression was due to the outfield defense. Franklin and Hasegawa were going to get worse no matter who was playing defense behind them – they had flukey years that simply weren’t sustainable, and it was obvious before the season started that expecting a repeat was just going to lead to disappointment. But the Mariners failed to recognize the strong connection between the performance of their pitchers and the abilities of the defenders in the outfield.
It’s been 3 1/2 years, and the Mariners still fail to recognize the strong connection betwen the performance of their pitchers and the abilities of the defenders in the outfield. They’re still asking Raul Ibanez to cover the largest left field area in the American League despite the fact that he runs like an 84-year-old grandfather looking for his life alert button. They’re discussing the idea of giving Jose Guillen a contract extension despite the fact that his continuing ankle and leg problems have eroded a lot of his ability to cover ground in right field. They have one very good defensive outfielder flanked by a disaster and a problem. And it’s killing them.
Let’s take a look at some numbers. Thanks to the great work of Baseball Info Solutions and The Hardball Times, we have some raw data on where balls are being hit when they’re put in play. I’ve taken the 2007 data and done the number crunching for you. There are, on average, .21 catchable balls hit into the zone of a left fielder in any given inning. That number is .27 for center field and .21 for right field. These numbers don’t include things like home runs or groundballs – plays that obviously the fielders have no chance of converting into an out. These are balls that, to some degree or another, are catchable in at least some occassions. Adjusting those rates per 150 games (assuming that most players won’t play every inning of every game), we get the following opportunities:
Left Field: 282 chances
Center Field: 377 chances
Right Field: 291 chances
RF is slightly higher because there are fractionally more chances hit to right field than left field leaguewide, but the difference is pretty small. Center fielders clearly get more chances than their corner outfield brethren. This is all intuitive, or at least it should be, and this is why teams stick their rangiest outfielder in center field, then basically split left/right field between which guy has the better arm, with the wimpy throwing armed guy heading to left field.
Now, again, leaguewide, we see that these outfielders don’t turn the balls in their zones into outs at an equal rate. To date in 2007, center fielders have converted 90% of their chances into outs. Right fielders are at 87%, and left fielders are at 85%. Again, this should be about what we expect. The best defenders play center field, and they get to more balls than their less agile counterparts. The right fielders make more plays than the left fielders, which isn’t a big surprise either, as LF is generally the dumping ground for guys who should be DH’ing but aren’t.
Now, where do the Mariners outfielders rate. I’m glad you asked.
Raul Ibanez: 148 opportunities, 117 outs, 79%, 22 “out of zone” plays
Ichiro Suzuki, 226 opportunities, 204 outs, 90%, 66 “out of zone” plays
Jose Guillen: 152 opportunities, 135 outs, 89%, 20 “out of zone” plays
Ibanez is ahead of only Manny Ramirez among American League outfielders in turning balls in his zone into outs, and his 22 out of zone plays is not particularly impressive either.
Ichiro has been just about average on getting to balls in his zone, but his 66 out of zone plays is way ahead of the pack – Torii Hunter, for instance, in the same amount of innings, has made 35 out of zone plays, and only Curtis Granderson and Gary Matthews Jr have more than 50. Some of this is a ballhog effect, where Ichiro calls off other outfielders on plays either of them could have made, but just the fact that he’s able to cover so much ground to be able to catch so many balls in left and right field is remarkable.
Jose Guillen has been a tick above average on getting to balls in his zone, but his 20 out of zone catches is rather unimpressive.
Now, I need to stop and make some caveats about this information before we get too carried away – this is rudimentary work, and there are some things that can significantly effect this data that need to be adjusted for. Safeco, for instance, makes it significantly easier for left and center fielders to catch a flyball than the average park, thanks to the air that kills the ball in the left-center field gap and causes it to hang for what seems like years. There are also issues with hit locations – not all balls hit into a zone are created equal, and over a sample as small as half a season, there’s no guarantee that all fielders are getting equal opportunities. To get a real sense of the value of the performances of the outfielders, the data needs to be adjusted in several ways.
Thankfully, a guy named Mitchel Lichtman has done a huge amount of the heavy lifting, creating a run value statistic that does a fairly good job at evaluating outfielders abilities when given a large enough data sample, even including the value of arm strength on outfield assists. MGL’s work on Ultimate Zone Rating got him hired by the St. Louis Cardinals, so don’t worry, this isn’t some idiot in a basement who needs to get out and watch a game or two. UZR isn’t perfect, and if you’ve read any of my takes on defense before, you know that I still believe there’s a fairly decent margin for error in the numbers, so I prefer to present individual defensive data in ranges. But, contrary to a lot of generally accepted knowledge, we really can quantify defensive value with some degree of certainty – at least enough to put people into groupings such as “terrible”, “solid”, and “good”. And when we get agreement in opinion between the data and scouting reports (both think Adam Everett is one of the great defensive shortstops of all time), we can be fairly certain that the information is right on.
So, we know what the raw data says. What does UZR, with its adjustments for parks and hit type, say about Mariner outfielders year to date?
Raul Ibanez: 14 runs below average
Ichiro: 3 runs above average
Jose Guillen: 11 runs below average
If we project that out over a 150 game season, we get -29 for Ibanez, -24 for Guillen, and +5 for Ichiro, or a season total of 48 runs below average. 48 runs below average. According to UZR, the 2007 Mariner outfield defense is as bad as the 2003 Mariner outfield defense was good.
Now, again, we’re only working with a little over a half season’s worth of data, and the margin of error is higher with defensive statistics than offensive statistics, so we have to temper our conclusions a bit. Regression to the mean needs to be a vital part of any defensive analysis, and since we have other data (previous years, scouting reports, injury information, etc…), we can use these inputs to create a realistic projection of what the actual talent level of the Mariners currrent outfielders defensive level is. Using what we know about Ibanez, Ichiro, and Guillen, I’d say that their expected defensive value over the course of a normal season would be -20 runs for Ibanez, +10 runs for Ichiro, and -10 runs for Guillen, with a margin of error of about 5 runs in each direction. Ibanez might be -15 or -25, but either way, he’s horrible. There’s no way around that.
A lot of people are kvetching over the Mariners lack of pitching, blaming the guys on the mound for the team’s inability to keep other teams from scoring runs. But, as a whole, the entire city of Seattle, including the team in it, is missing the boat on the other aspect of the run prevention formula – defense. The Mariners defense, especially in the outfield, is terrible – one of the very worst in the league.
This is one of the reasons I’m not particularly concerned with the alignment of the Mariners outfielders. It doesn’t matter much if Adam Jones is in left field, center field, or right field. The key is to simply have the terrific defensive outfielders actually out there. Alignment doesn’t really matter. A center fielders defensive value isn’t wasted in left or right field, especially in a park like Safeco Field, as long as you still have an actual center fielder playing center field.
The Mariners need to allow fewer runs. They have yet to figure out how to identify good pitchers and bring them to Seattle, so it’s time to go another direction. Surround your mediocre pitchers with great gloves and then just watch the pitching magically improve.
Sticking Adam Jones in left field instead of Raul Ibanez will save the team more runs than trading for any starting pitcher. Forget the offense – forget his Triple-A numbers. Adam Jones could hit .200 and help this club win games.
This is a move that absolutely has to happen. The Mariners have ignored a glaring weakness for far too long. It has to end tonight. Improve the defense – improve the team.