There are a number of problems with the new metrics for evaluating defense that have popped up over the past few years. Most of them assign arbitrary values to fielding events, some of which do not reflect defensive ability at all. They also have a tendency to lump all of a player’s defensive contributions into a single number, not allowing the user of the data to see where a player’s individual strengths and weaknesses lie.
Amazingly, John Dewan’s new book, The Fielding Bible, addresses these problems and a host of others. Not only does it present the most comprehensive and in-depth analysis of both team and player fielding ever, but it does so in an extremely accessible manner. There are no complex formulas to sift through as endured in Total Baseball’s Fielding Runs. There are no amorphous subjective elements as perceived in Bill James’ Fielding Win Shares. Anyone can flip through The Fielding Bible, and in minutes understand the meaning of the swaths of data provided, as well as how to apply that data to the analysis of individual players and teams.
For those familiar with Zone Rating in any of its permutations, the concept of Dewan’s plus/minus system will be even more accessable (which is to be expected, as Dewan himself pioneered Zone Rating in the 1980’s). Basically this system, the "backbone" of the book, compliles every Major League hit, and categorizes them into three different speeds (soft, medium, hard) and three different types (grounder, liner, fly). The system then grades how difficult each type of hit in each section of the field is based on the league’s performance in those situations, and evaluates each individual player against that norm.
While the book presents an overall plus/minus total for plays made above or below the league average, it also gives us the nuts and bolts: how well a player ranged to his left versus his right and how he handled grounders versus flies. Disappointingly, it does not give a breakdown for every player with regard to hard vs soft hits. But it does provide double plays turned per opportunity for middle infielders, bunt ratings for corner infielders, and baserunner kills for outfielders (straght 9-2 type assists differentiated from assists involving a cutoff man).
This allows for unprecedented depth of analysis of player and team defense. We learn very quicly that Derek Jeter’s strengths lie in charging softly-hit balls and chasing down fly balls, but that he’s easily the worst shortstop in baseball in every other measure of range. Alex Rodriguez is ranked as an above average defender at third in all aspects, but gets an F for his bunt coverage. Simply swapping positions for the two would easily save the Yankees twenty runs per season, and boy do they need the help on defense.
How can I estimate the number of runs saved? Because we know from George Lindsay and Pete Palmer’s Linear Weights systems that a single averages out to be worth about .47 runs, while each extra base contributes an extra .31 runs. The Fielding Bible actually seperates hits prevented that normally go for singles from ones that normally go for extra bases. Therefore, we can use these same weights for offensive events to determine the number of runs above average prevented by individual players and teams. We finally have a reasonable Fielding Runs metric to be used in conjunction with Batting Runs to make an exceptionally accurate Total Player Rating.
As much fun as it is to use these components to analyse players yourself, Dewan provides an array of talented and funny writers to analyze some of the most prominent players of the past three years. Richard Hidalgo is now exposed as being one of the best defensive outfielders of our era, for those who haven’t seen him play in person or played High Heat Baseball. We discover that Jack Wilson may be cheating towards third base with the emergence of Jose Castillo as an excellent defender. I would never have bothered to look at David Bell’s exceptional defense had it not been shoved in front of my face.
There are a few problems with the analyses, of course. The treatment of Bobby Abreu is a little harsh, as Dewan’s system rates Abreu as an excellent defender as recently as 2003 (sadly, the first year Baseball Info Solutions began compiling this data). Todd Walker is similarly dogged for having the worst double play percentage among regular second basemen without accounting for the fact that he plays half of his games on the slowest infield in baseball. Yet Craig Monroe, who fares terribly in all three years analyzed, is described as a player who "gets decent jumps on the ball and has good speed and range for a corner outfielder."
Again, that’s what makes this book such a valuable resource. When you look in your Total Baseball and see Nap Lajoie credited with ten zillion Fielding Runs, you don’t see what auxiliary elements exaggerated that total. When you flip through The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract and see Rogers Hornsby rated as the worst defensive second baseman of all time, you have no idea how much James’ well-documented hatred of Hornsby influenes his Win Shares ranking. With The Fielding Bible, each individual element of fielding is listed seperatly. There is no mystery as to why a player or team may be rated poorly overall, as you can judge each component of fielding for yourself.
This is by no means an attempt to disparage the work of Pete Palmer or Bill James. They attempted to create meaningful defensive statistics using the same official fielding statistics that have been around for the past 130 years, and for the most part, suceeded. What I’m trying to convey is how much more accurate, detailed, comprehensive, and readable the statistics available in The Fielding Bible are than even the most successful fielding metrics of the past 130 years. Suddenly, determining who the best defensive players in baseball are is no longer a biased guessing game.
If only Dewan had founded Baseball Info Solutions sooner!Get your Fielding Bible for just $12.95, $7.00 off the retail price, by visiting The Baseball Evolution Store.
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