Wrap Up, Part Two
Yesterday, we talked about the offensive contribution of the Mariners hitters and even worked in an adjustment for the position they played. However, we stopped there, as I wanted to give the defensive valuation its own post. So, picking up from where we left off with part one of the wrap-up, we have yet another post with me talking about defensive value.
The Mariners, as a team, allowed 813 runs this year. That’s 32 runs more than the league average despite playing half their games in the lowest run scoring environment in the American League. That’s not good, obviously, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who watched the team play that their weakness was in run prevention, not run scoring. But what parts of run prevention did the team really fail at?
Here are their performances, by outcome type, compared to league average:
Home Run: -15
Hit Batter: +3
Well, we see one obvious strength of the pitching staff – they gave up 15 less home runs than league average. Of course, that’s almost all Safeco Field, but for the purposes of figuring out why the team gave up more runs than average despite playing half their games in a cavern, we can eliminate home runs from the equation. The team wasn’t particularly homer prone. And while they issued a few more walks than average, the difference isn’t huge – that’s not the culprit either.
The glaring weakness? Hit prevention. The team gave up 65 more singles, 23 more doubles, and 3 more triples than league average. That’s a lot of hits, and in turn, a lot of runs, going on the board for the other team.
Now, thanks to some inroads in statistical analysis, we’ve come to understand that hit prevention is not solely the domain of the pitcher, despite what mainstream analysis may still tell you. When a hitter makes contact and the ball doesn’t leave the yard, the outcome of that ball in play is, in part, determined by the quality of the defenders on the field. The Mariners, as a team, were terrible at turning balls in play into outs. On the season, they converted just 68.1% of their opportunities to make an out defensively, compared to a 69.6% league average. You may look at the percentage difference and say “ehh, big deal”, but each team deals with approximately 4,500 balls in play every year, and over the course of the season, that 1.5% difference adds up to about 68 plays not made.
Now, thanks to batted ball data, we can get even better accuracy. The Hardball Times, using data from Baseball Info Solutions that classifies every play as a groundball, flyball, or line drive and gives expected outs based on hit type, has the Mariners at 64 plays below average. Pretty close to our rough metric, but shows that the pitching staff did indeed give up a few more extra hard to catch balls than we’d expect. That’s not a big surprise to anyone who watched Jeff Weaver or Horacio Ramirez get torched on a regular basis this year.
Okay, so, using that 64 plays below average number, and thanks to Tango (as always), we can understand that those 64 plays the defense failed to make cost the Mariners about 50 runs. Fifty runs.
Wait a second – the team, as a whole, gave up 32 more runs than average, but we’re blaming the defense for being 50 runs worse than average? That means that we’re saying that the team had an above average pitching staff?
Well, almost. You have to remember to factor in Safeco Field. An average pitching staff that plays half their games in Seattle would give up less runs than average just thanks to the environment they play half their games in. But, yes, I am saying that the main factor in the team’s struggles at keeping runs off the board was not the pitchers, but instead, the fielders.
And, you know what, the numbers are on our side. The Mariners had a team Fielding Independant ERA of 4.48 compared to a league average of 4.51. Based on walk rate, strikeout rate, and home run rate, the Mariners had an average pitching staff, but their defense was worse than every other American League team besides Tampa Bay (whose attrocious defense also masked a pretty decent group of pitchers).
I know some of you will still want to blame the pitchers for the high ERA, because after all, it’s what everyone else in baseball does. But think of it this way? Do you really think the reality is that Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn, Jeff Weaver, Horacio Ramirez, Cha Baek, Sean Green, and Ryan Feierabend all mysteriously lost about the same amount of ability to prevent hits on balls on play over the winter? All of them posted significantly worse rates of outs on balls in play than in ’07 than they did in ’06. Or, is it more likely that the common denominator behind them, their defense, wasted a lot of opportunities to create outs?
The evidence all points to the same fact – the Mariners defense was terrible this year. One of the worst in baseball. There’s no real way to argue differently – this is basically the same thing as stating that the Mariners hit for a high average or won more games than they lost.
The real question, for the purposes of player valuation, though, is which players were responsible for those 50 runs that the M’s forfeited with their defensive problems.
This is where subjectivity comes into play a bit. On a macro team level, we’ve just about got defensive evaluations nailed down. Splitting that pie up becomes a bit tougher, and the level of confidance goes down somewhat. Thanks to a lot of good work by a lot of people, we know that a great defensive player is about 20 runs better than the average for his position and a terrible defensive player is about 20 runs worse than the average for his position. Beyond those limits, teams realize that the defender is playing the wrong position and make an adjustment. It’s very rare to see a +20 or -20 player stick at one position, and everyone else falls somewhere in that range at pretty much each position.
However, as you’ve seen me talk about before, I’m still more comfortable using a +/- 5 run margin of error on both sides of the run values that the advanced defensive metrics come up with on an indvidual player basis – there are variations within teams that could affect the ratings, such as positioning of the fielders, handedness of the pitching staff, or a player “ballhogging” and always calling off all his teammates on plays that multiple players could make. This won’t affect the team’s totals, but it will affect the way we dole out credit/blame to the individual fielders, and so I’d rather use the ranges around the run values while people figure out how to solve those issues.
So, what do the numbers tell us about the Mariner fielders this year? Using a variety of inputs, we can safely come to the following conclusions:
Raul Ibanez – disastrous left fielder, -15 to -25 runs
Ichiro – above average center fielder, +0 to +10 runs
Jose Guillen – below average right fielder, -5 to -15 runs
Adrian Beltre – above average third baseman, 0 to +10 runs
Yuniesky Betancourt – below average shortstop, 0 to -10 runs
Jose Lopez – average second baseman, -5 to +5 runs
Richie Sexson – terrible first baseman, -10 to -20 runs
Kenji Johjima – who knows? – we don’t really have any idea how to evaluate catcher defense properly.
If we used the median value of those ranges, we’d come out with Ibanez at -20, Ichiro at +5, Guillen at -10, Beltre at +5, Betancourt at -5, Lopez at 0, and Sexson at -15, for a total of 40 runs below average. Toss in the part-time players (Broussard’s nothing to write home about with the glove either) and it ties pretty closely to the -50 that we see from the team wide total.
The controversial numbers, I’d expect, will be the “above average” ratings for Ichiro and Beltre, both of whom have stellar defensive reputations. Ichiro, I’m pretty comfortable with – he was consistently in the +10 to +20 range as a right fielder, and now that he’s being compared to a better crop of defenders in center, we’d expect his relative performance to decline. As good as Ichiro is defensively, he’s not head and shoulders ahead of guys like Curtis Granderson and Corey Patterson, who are also terrific defensive players in their own right. There’s nothing wrong with being a +5 center fielder – this still makes him one of the best defenders alive.
Beltre, I think, is just getting hurt by stiffer-than-normal competition at third base. Beltre’s really good, no doubt, but I’m not sure we appreciate just how good Brandon Inge and Mike Lowell are as well. You may not think of third base as a position with good defensive players, but there are some really, really good fielders manning the hot corner in the American League right now. With those kinds of peers in the group, it’s a little less surprising that Beltre’s defensive prowess doesn’t rate as well as we might expect from watching him play everyday.
This team, essentially, had two good fielders, a couple of average ones, a couple of below average ones, and two of the worst guys taking the field on a regular basis in baseball. Richie Sexson and Raul Ibanez just killed the Mariners with their gloves this year, and the rest of the team wasn’t good enough to make up for the organization putting two designated hitters behind their pitchers on a nightly basis.
Okay, that’s enough long-winded writing. If we apply the defensive run values to the position adjusted offensive run values from yesterday’s post, here are the results, and I’m comfortable using these as definitive metrics of value from the Mariners regular position players for 2007.
Ichiro Suzuki: +30 to +40 runs
Adrian Beltre: +10 to +20 runs
Kenji Johjima: +10 runs offensively, ? defensively
Jose Guillen: +5 to -5 runs
Below Average Players
Raul Ibanez: 0 to -10 runs
Yuniesky Betancourt: 0 to -10 runs
Jose Vidro: -3 runs offensively, no defensive adjustment
Jose Lopez: -15 to -25 runs
Richie Sexson: -30 to -40 runs
Ichiro carried the position players, while Beltre and Johjima added positive value and Guillen provided league average production and consistency. Ibanez, Betancourt, and Vidro were small negatives, Lopez was a big problem, and Richie Sexson was one of the very worst players in baseball.
Add it all up and you have a group of position players that’s simply not playoff caliber. If the Mariners want to win consistently, they have to make some significant upgrades to this group – there are too many holes and not enough stars. It would take one of the best pitching staffs in the league to carry this group to a division title.