Team Defense and the AL West

marc w · February 29, 2016 at 6:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

August Fagerstrom has a great article at Fangraphs today on projections of team defense for 2016. As you might imagine, a few of the AL West clubs look pretty different heading into 2016 than they did in 2015, with the Angels acquiring perhaps the best defensive player on the planet, and the M’s remaking their outfield by adding Leonys Martin and subtracting the bizarre experiment of Brad Miller/Mark Trumbo/Logan Morrison. Meanwhile, knowing more about some of the players in Houston and Oakland mean we can hopefully make better predictions than last year. To be clear: projecting team defense is really, really hard. This makes some sense at a really high level, but the numbers themselves – the magnitude of a team’s advantage/deficit – are going to be wrong for a variety of reasons. The point of this post is to look at where the AL West defenses stand here on the precipice of the all-important Cactus League “season,” to examine the impact of some of the big off-season trades on defense, and to see how well last year’s predictions did.

1: Let’s start with last year’s forecasts, as if this tool has limited predictive power, your interest in the rest of the post may wane. Last year, the top projected defense in the AL West was Oakland, at…wait! Where are you all going? Houston was projected to bring up the rear, with the M’s and Rangers around average, and the Angels a few runs worse than that. What actually happened is, well, since we’re talking about defense, “what actually happened” is actually a debatable issue. By UZR, the A’s were absolutely abysmal, coming in somewhere around 50 runs – 5 whole wins – below their projected total of 14 runs above average. But by DRS (defensive runs saved), they essentially hit that projection on the head, grading out at +16. The projections saw big contributions from Craig Gentry, Billy Burns and Brett Lawrie, who’d combine to more than make up for weakness at the shortstop position. By UZR, Burns and Lawrie were butchers, and Gentry’s defense very quickly became irrelevant when he couldn’t hit. Lawrie ranked poorly by both systems, but that shortstop position is a big one. By UZR (and errors), Marcus Semien awful – a second-half rebound kept him from late-period-Jeter ignominy, but it was still clearly a poor season. But by DRS, Semien was 4 runs above average. Selectively applying the straight-face test to defensive statistics is both poor analysis and the lifeblood of anti-defensive-stats comments, but I don’t care: Semien wasn’t 4 runs above average at SS.

So, the projections whiffed on Oakland. How about Houston? Er, this one may have been worse, though the reasons are somewhat understandable. A huge component of these defensive projections is estimating each player’s playing time. A year ago, people guessed Jed Lowrie would be Houston’s SS for most of the year. Instead, this fellow named Correa came up and played a solid half of the year, and Jose Altuve – picked as one of the worst defenders before 2015 – turned in a solid year by both UZR and DRS. But here again, the two systems differ markedly in what kind of club Houston was. By DRS, Houston was the class of the division, saving 30 runs, or nearly 5 whole wins better than their projection. By UZR, they were essentially average. Even that mark blows the projection out of the water, but it gives Houston’s pitchers a bit more credit for their suprising 2015 than does DRS.

The other estimates weren’t a whole lot better, with the M’s actual defense grading out far worse than projected, and the Rangers coming a bit better. The M’s numbers were dragged down in the 2nd half when the club punted outfield defense entirely in a bid to score more runs, and both UZR and DRS penalize them for it. The M’s OF was 45 runs below average by DRS, or about 23 runs below according to UZR. In fairness to the projection, nobody saw Mark Trumbo, everyday RF, coming. The Rangers actual results are close enough that it doesn’t much matter, and you can point to a good season from Adrian Beltre as a big reason why. Again, the projections may have assumed less from Beltre given his injuries and age. The Angels came in around 3 wins better than their projection, thanks to better than expected years from 3B David Freese (and back-up Taylor Featherston) and RF Kole Calhoun, who’s projection looks much different going into 2016.

So far, the projections don’t look so hot, but something about the AL West may have proven tricky; overall, they did a bit better. They predicted San Diego as baseball’s worst defensive group, and they were in fact awful. They identified Chicago as one of the worst teams in the AL, and they clearly were. The projections correctly tabbed Kansas City as an elite club, and saw the Rays as a plus team (employing Kevin Kiermaier helps, of course). There were other odd misses, as New York and Baltimore were both projected as great teams, and turned in below-average years, while Minnesota was nowhere near as bad as the projections thought. That’s a bit better than they did in the AL West, but it’s not a great track record overall. What have we proven? Projecting team defense is hard, and it helps to have one or two transcendent (or ghastly) defenders to essentially carry the team projection.

2: So, the M’s re-made their defense, adding perennial gold glove candidate Leonys Martin while subtracting a declining Austin Jackson+Brad Miller+Dustin Ackley. How much will that do for the club? A lot, hopefully! The M’s ranked 17th in outfield putouts last year, 140 behind the Angels, thanks to a pitching staff that yielded a lot of ground balls. Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma are clearly elite GB% guys, and James Paxton’s above average himself. For 2016, they’re bringing in Wade Miley – another GB guy – and Nate Karns, who’s more of a fly ball pitcher. It’s possible that the starting rotation could see four GB pitchers around Tai Walker. The OFs will still get plenty of opportunities to make plays, but it’s interesting, and I wonder if it gives Karns a slight advantage over Paxton as spring training looms (Paxton will start the first Cactus League game, so maybe not). The M’s bullpen figures to be much more fly-ball oriented, so the M’s team GB% will undoubtedly go down, but their rotation figures to keep the ball down more than most.

The opposite’s true at SS. Last year, M’s shortstops racked up 505 assists, 5th most in the league, and over 100 more than the Rays/Angels SS. The Rays and Angels posted the lowest GB% in the league, and that played to their defensive strengths. Trout/Calhoun or Kiermaier/literally anyone are formidable defenders, and their pitchers acted accordingly. But what do the Angels do now that they’ve acquired the Kiermaier of the infield, Andrelton Simmons? Their rotation figures to be much the same as it was last year, with fly-ballers like Jered Weaver, Andrew Heaney and especially Hector Santiago penciled in, with Matt Shoemaker (another FB guy) adding depth. Ace Garrett Richards is another elite GB% pitcher, so Simmons won’t get bored out there, but I wonder if his UZR/DRS numbers will take a hit when his chances drop, because his chances are going to be slashed. A healthy second half from Tyler Skaggs might mitigate this somewhat.

3: So where does that leave the division? Well, the Angels rank #1 defensively, thanks to Simmons and a very good OF, while the M’s are slightly above average thanks to improvements in OF canceling out a drop at catcher*. The A’s are now forecasted as one of the worst clubs in baseball, with Semien the worst offender, and 3B (Danny Valencie) a problem as well. Houston’s above average this year thanks to a whole year of Carlos Correa, a much more neutral forecast for Altuve, and very good OF play. The Rangers have fallen a bit, as their OF’s dropped off significantly as Martin’s replacement, Delino DeShields, rated below average last year.

The M’s at around average feels about right, though I think we’d all say there’s a lot of volatility there, as the starting SS has a big league track record of 60 games or so. They were *good* games, but he played a lot of 2B in the minors and the Rainiers started him in CF a few times as well, thinking that as long as they were going to yank around their big league SS, they could do the same in AAA. Marte looks the part of a good defensive SS, though his arm isn’t quite up to big league average standards. They have depth at the position, but are apparently looking for more, so if Marte faceplants defensively, they can swap someone else in. The M’s rank below average everywhere on the IF but 3B (thanks, Kyle!), but again, I don’t know anyone who’d put money on that. Adam Lind has been around average at 1B, and a few runs better than that last year. Robbie Cano’s defense has been sliding, but he’s not a serious problem, and could easily grade out at average. There’s downside risk here too, of course, with aging players at 1B/2B/C and an untested SS. There’s more depth this year, but Clevenger is clearly on the team for his bat, and Luis Sardinas/Chris Taylor need to show they can hit enough to get meaningful time. It feels like a cop-out, but I think the projected figure of about 2 runs above average seems right. This not dissimilar from a coin flip or just discarding the defensive projection altogether, but it’s not: the M’s changed so much between March of 2015 and the end of the year, and then once again between the end of the season and February of 2016. The fact that they’re a bit better than they were last year obscures the fact that they’re a hell of a lot better than they were the last time we saw them, and that average-ish is a hell of an improvement in a short amount of time.

* These rankings don’t include catcher framing – this is about blocking pitches, throwing out runners and fielding the position.


10 Responses to “Team Defense and the AL West”

  1. Microsoft Zunino on February 29th, 2016 7:16 pm

    Which raises an interesting point: does DiPoto’s concept of “control the zone” include framing pitches?

  2. Notfromboise on February 29th, 2016 10:06 pm

    Hey, any chance you get to pay a 32 year old B- defender 5.5 million, who hit 14 points higher than your (entering peak years) incumbent backstop, you kinda have to do it. Even if it might be the only catcher in the league who *only* hit 14 points above your incumbent… sigh.

    I’m fearing Ianetta is going to pull a Rickie Weeks and homer a couple times early in the year to earn an extra 100 at bats he doesn’t deserve. I hated this when the signing was first announced and I will continue to hate it when we are laughing about it in June.

    Honestly if the ‘difference’ is Ianetta hitting .210 and walking enough to put another 25 runners on base for Martin and Marte to strand, I’d rather have the defense and pitch framing and… all around upside of Zunino. At nine percent of the cost of Ianetta. I dunno, the OBP of my #8 hitter seems worth a lot less than the OBP of Marte/Aoki/Cano at the top of the lineup. And if its honestly that big of a deal just have Montero catch. He’ll blow defensively, but he’ll hit appreciatively better than Ianetta… also at a fraction of the cost. Let’s just hope Zunino hits .600 in spring training, because that last sentence made me throw up in my mouth a little.

    Just my personal feeling. As a Mariner fan, that kind of trade off (Ianetta over Zunino) foreshadows a quick leash on Martin in center and AnyoneBesidesCruz in right. We are a couple knee jerk reactions away from submarining our UZR gains entirely.

  3. ivan on March 1st, 2016 10:05 am

    I’ll just be happy when the games start, so I can come to this blog and read about baseball again, instead of reading the first sentence of a post about projection systems, and immediately going elsewhere.

  4. Longgeorge1 on March 1st, 2016 1:44 pm

    Other than anticipation of the regular season this spring will be “boring”. Catching, infield (OK 1B has 1 spot) and outfield are basically set. SP is just down to #’s 5 and 6 Maybe #4, but it is 3 guys for two spots. The pen basically has just two openings.
    It’s all about how much “bound” is there in rebound. The difference between 75 and 85 wins seems so huge but it can be decided by just turning around 5 games that turn on “little” things.

  5. djw on March 1st, 2016 5:08 pm

    any chance you get to pay a 32 year old B- defender 5.5 million, who hit 14 points higher than your (entering peak years) incumbent backstop, you kinda have to do it. Even if it might be the only catcher in the league who *only* hit 14 points above your incumbent… sigh.

    Oh, come on. This is one of DiPoto’s best moves.

    First of all, projection systems are pretty consistent here, Iannetta is a solid 1 to 1.5 wins ahead of Zunino. Focusing on a similarity in 2015 batting averages to obscure this is ridiculous. 5.5 for 1+ WAR is below the going rate.

    Second, and more importantly, getting someone to play over Zunino (but not on a long term contract) is exactly the right thing to do. I don’t know if Zunino is ever going to be a major league asset again, but running his sorry ass out there every day is a way to ensure that he won’t be. Bringing in a one year starter who’s not a major investment allows the team to do whatever it needs to do to try and give Zunino the best chance to actually learn to be a major league hitter is exactly the right call. Zduriencik’s indifference–if not outright hostility–to the player development process was one of his worst qualities as a GM.

    In a year we’ll have three options:

    1. Zunino looks fixed; let’s go with him.

    2. Zunino still dubious, Iannetta bounced back nicely, let’s exercise his option, see if Zunino or other prospect develops for 2018.

    3. Zunino still broken, Iannetta old and bad, decline option, hit the FA market.

    It’s a great signing because it allows us to be averageish while attending to player development, while preserving options for the future. Fixating on Iannetta’s 2015 batting average to obscure this is terrible analysis.

  6. Notfromboise on March 2nd, 2016 12:08 am

    djw: and 2014 was the first year he topped .240 since 2008… in Coors Field.

    I’m on board with the concept, I’m just not sold Ianetta is the guy. I also agree Zunino could benefit from someone else holding down the fort while he figures himself out. It’s extra scary that Ianetta’s backup, Clevenger, has logged more innings at DH/1B than catcher in the last couple years, hence my allusion to Montero behind the plate. Our real life situation isn’t much different than having Montero as the backup.

    We’ve very lazily done the bare minimum to improve our most glaring weakness… As we enter spring training with 6 legit starting pitchers on the payroll…

    It’s not averagish.. we still have essentially the worst catching situation in the league. We’re just paying for it now. 🙂

    In other news, Mariners sign Cuban outfielder Heredia to a 1-year deal:

  7. Mid80sRighty on March 2nd, 2016 1:11 pm

    First a comment about reading the first sentence of a post about projection systems and immediately going elsewhere, then comments about batting average? Do you not realize what this site is about?

    Last year, Ianetta posted his worst OPS since he came into the league at .628 and his normal wRC+ is around 100, last year 80. Zunino had a wRC+ of 47 last year…47! Now, you might say that was the beginning of a downward trend for Ianetta, but it’s still almost double the production of Zunino. And to me, it looks like Ianetta’s biggest downward trend had to do with his walks. If he can get back to controlling the zone better (see what I did there, haha), it seems to me he can be pretty close to what he was 2 years ago, which was a 3 WAR player.

    Defensively, Ianetta had 32 PB and WP last year, Zunino 54. Catcher defense is hard to quantify, but the Fielding Bible has a metric for defense runs saved about average. Ianetta came in at 0, Zunino -1.

    Bottom line is as long as he’s not horrible, he will earn his 5.5 million and be a significant upgrade. I’m still on board with Zunino, but he clearly needs more time in AAA. He’s just not capable of learning on the job like GMZ envisioned.

  8. djw on March 2nd, 2016 4:52 pm

    djw: and 2014 was the first year he topped .240 since 2008… in Coors Field….

    we still have essentially the worst catching situation in the league.

    You’re fixating on batting average, a tiny fraction of a player’s value and a volatile one at that. Fangraph projections see a higher WAR for Ianetta than the starting catchers for the Rays, Red Sox, Tigers, Twins, White Sox, and Angels (tied with the Rangers.)

    A) Why do you think projection systems are wrong to see him as a 1.6 WAR player, as good or better than half the current projected starters in the American League? and if so, what special insight do you have into his disvalue that projection systems are unable to detect? Is it because you’re convinced projection systems underrate the significance of batting average?

    B) Do you really think the pressure to play every day at a level he’s demonstrated he’s not capable of hitting at is a positive for Zunino’s development?

  9. Notfromboise on March 2nd, 2016 7:17 pm

    I’ve thrown enough slash lines and WAR out on this forum that there’s no need to venomously denounce me as a Batting Average junkie. You’re dismissing my core concepts of our catching situation here:

    1.) I throw out Ianetta’s BA as a simple measure to suggest that anyone who spent most of his career in Anaheim and Coors and barely ever hit .240.. isn’t a great hitter. He has a good batting eye, but Justin Smoak proved getting on base for the Brendan Ryans of the world doesnt translate to added value:

    Someone hitting in the 7th or 8th slot who is inadequate to drive in the runners laid before him combined with a weird ability to draw some extra walks to put ducks on the pond for people who subsequently won’t drive him in is almost a *wasted* quality. Ianetta’s core strength is going to translate into a LOB, and his inherent weakness is going to leave Seager/Guti/Smith/etc stranded on second. I don’t necessarily like Zunino: Mid80 had the right of it with a damning 47 wRC. One can argue Zunino has more proven power in a Safeco environment, but eff it, anyone who watched him swing wildly last year knows we need to improve this position.

    2. ) Ianetta has been solid defensively even as he grows older. I was a bit harsh throwing out the B- defender line, his PB/WP allowed was really good in 2015 and 2012, and …. not good in the two years between.. The weird thing is both catchers have exactly 16 PB in their last 2500 innings and roughly equivalent ability to throw out base stealers. I was unjustified taking shots at his defense. I apologize.

    3. ) Clevenger. Punch and judy hitter who doesn’t walk, doesn’t hit for extra bases, and… has started 78 games behind the plate in his 5 year career. His defensive metrics are below average (small sample size, I know), but it does raise the question: With Lee and Lind in the 1B/DH rotation, would it be that bad to have Montero starting a dozen or so games behind the plate, just to get his bat into(and eliminate Clevenger from)the lineup? Just food for thought. Clevenger does not strike me as much of a difference from Sucre and Baron.

    On a side note – I just looked at the Rays and Sox catching core going into spring training at djw’s suggestion. Yowza.

  10. djw on March 3rd, 2016 11:51 am

    isn’t a great hitter

    Huh? No one is saying he’s a great hitter. He’s an average hitter, who is inconsistent from year to year. He doesn’t need to be a great hitter for his signing to make sense. If he were a great hitter and a solid to decent defensive catcher, he couldn’t be had for a one year, 5.5 mil deal.

    If my recollection of Tango’s work on the subject is correct, your that walks are significantly less valuable depending on where you hit in the lineup doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It might render those walks trivially less valuable, but we’re slicing it pretty thin here. The ordering in the lineup of different offensive skillsets, beyond “better hitters early for more ABs” has far less effect on run totals than is generally assumed. Best to just ignore it.

    Yes, our non-Zunino back-up catcher options are dubious. How big of a problem this is is debatable, but it doesn’t make Ianetta’s signing any worse.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.