Thursday, April 12, 2012

Defence Wins Championships

Defensive metrics are not perfect, but among advanced statistics in baseball, sabermetric stats such as Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved have come along way in evaluating the actual defensive performance of players. Lookout Landing has done a terrific job breaking down advanced defensive metrics in their post Sabermetrics 101 - Fielding.

With that out of the way, the Blue Jays outfield defence for last three seasons ranks 2nd last in the MLB, and worst in the American League. According to Fangraphs, the Toronto Blue Jays outfield defence between 2009-2011 based on the UZR/150 defensive metric, was -7.1 over the three year span; only the Colorado Rockies had a worse rating over the last three seasons. If we look at Defensive Runs Saved by the Jays outfield over that same span of time, the Jays rank 4th worst in the MLB and second worst in the AL, posting a mind bending -51 runs.

It's clear to see that the Jays outfield defence has not been good for a while. The outfield, however, is only as bad as the sum of its parts combined. So if we are to look to see how this team will improve moving forward, we have to look at where it has faltered in the past.

Blue Jays Outfielders between 2009 and 2011

Needless to say, the Jays outfield defence isn't exactly the gold standard. According to UZR and UZR/150, the two best outfielders for the Jays in the past three seasons have been DeWayne Wise and Mike McCoy. Awesome. Not too surprisingly, the Jays defensive metrics as a team over this span have been pulled down substantially to the fact we trotted out Adam Lind, Vernon Wells and Fred Lewis far too often in the Cito days. Each one of them have posted negatives in almost every single defensive metric in their time in the outfield.

Luckily, moving forward, our fearless leader here on this blog has rid the Jays of both Fred Lewis and Vernon Wells, while conveniently shifting the atrocious defence of Adam Lind in left field to a far more manageable position at first base. That unfortunately only eliminates three of the six worst defenders on the list above.

Let's start with the positive. Jose Bautista is a very interesting player defensively metrically speaking. His range by all accounts, is not good. Using RngR which is the metric that judges the number of runs saved above or below the league average that a player is able to get to, Jose is a -22.9. But what gets interesting, and incredibly important for a right fielder more so than centre or left, his the ratings on his arm. Both metrics rARM (which is used for Defensive Runs Saved) and ARM (used for Ultimate Zone Rating) ranks Jose's arm as having saved 19 and 13.1 runs respectively. Thus while Jose's UZR is a less than impressive -9.6, his DRS of 2 runs over the past three seasons suggests he is roughly an average right fielder.

And on to the negative. Rajai Davis and Eric Thames. Since neither Davis or Thames have logged a significant amount of innings in the OF with the Jays over the past three years, it's best to look at UZR/150 as it compares their defensive performance over a 150 game span. Davis' UZR/150 is rated at a loss of 12.8  runs, Thames is even worse averaging a loss of 15.9 runs per 150 games played. Essentially as a platoon as they appear to be so far this season, we are looking at an average loss of 14.5 runs from the left field position.

In centre, although early in the season, it's safe to say that it's not the position we should be worried about. So far Colby Rasmus has looked to be everything we expected from him, at least defensively speaking. In his short sample size last year according to UZR/150, he was good for saving the team approximately 4 runs. Since the data is available for Rasmus when he played in St. Louis, let's hope he plays a lot more like the 13.6 runs saved player rather than the -10 he was in 2010.

Defensive AbilityUZR
Gold Glove Caliber+15
Above Average+5
Average 0
Below Average-5

Just to put defensive metrics in perspective, the above chart is Fangraphs rough estimation of what a UZR rating reflects in terms of caliber. Eric Thames and Rajai Davis are considered awful defenders by UZR ratings, hard to disagree. Jose Bautista is somewhere between average and below average. And depending which Colby Rasmus shows up, he is either between poor and awful, or great and gold glove caliber; I'm hoping the latter is the one we continue to see this season.

The Blue Jays can settle with having an average defensive right fielder, especially if their center fielder is great. The center fielder if talented enough can compensate for a weak fielder to his right or left, but it requires a truly gifted fielder to compensate for both. Colby Rasmus will help patrol the alleys this season, which should help Bautista defensively. But that still leaves the glaring weakness of the awful defence from the Jays two current left fielding options.

Free Travis. It's early in the season and it's not fair to say Eric Thames has been given a fair chance quite yet (although I'd argue he should have never had the chance in the first place). But, looking at the defensive metrics for the last three seasons, and taking the words of Alex Anthopoulos at face value, he considered it a must for both the team as a whole, and for the pitching staff, to improve the outfield defence this season. It seems evident that as long as a platoon of 'awful' left fielders are in the lineup, this is still going to be a weakness for the Jays. While right and center field already appear vastly improved so far this season, Thames has looked 'awful' already. Given that Snider has been one of the best defensive outfielders for the Jays over the past three seasons (that of which he has played), here's hoping the Jays recognize that not only is it better long term to have Snider develop at the plate at the Major League level, he would provide a substantial boost defensively to a statistically 'awful' left field platoon.

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