Stat fever - Catch it (or not)
Can cold, hard numbers rate defense better than a scout's eyes? A new book claims they can - and it offers a cold, hard analysis of the Reds.
BY JOHN ERARDI | ENQUIRER STAFF WRITER
The Reds' two most productive offensive players last year - Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. - were their two worst defensive players, according to a new book by an author who provides defensive analyses to 12 major-league teams.
The Reds are not one of the 12.
Shortstop Felipe Lopez is merely average. Austin Kearns is in the top third of right fielders. The Reds' other positions - third, second and first - are in flux as platoon-type situations, so no players are rated by name, although they are as a group. The book, "The Fielding Bible - 2006" by John Dewan, doesn't rate catchers.
"Of all the areas to measure statistically, even the experts have the hardest time with defense," said Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky. "It's a huge part of the game for me, and one of the most overlooked.
"But it's hard to quantify with statistics. I have to be at the game scouting, visualize what kind of jump the (defensive player) got, his first-step quickness, things like that. It's a really difficult thing to measure."
Krivsky's comments are remarkably similar to those of great talent evaluator Branch Rickey, who 60-some years ago said, "There is nothing on earth anybody can do with (absolutely quantifying) fielding."
At the time - and, actually, almost right up to the present - Rickey was right. And Krivsky still probably represents the mainstream by believing in his scouts first and foremost. But gurus such as Dewan appear to have closed the gap, to borrow a phrase from baseball.
Dewan is the founder of Baseball Info Solutions of Bethlehem, Pa. His statistics firm is regarded as having the top system for evaluating baseball defense. He has applied science to the task and removed the idea that good defense is in the eye of the beholder.
We all know a great play when we see it, but do we know how many other players at the same position would have made it? This is exactly what Dewan has quantified.
He and his staff watched videotape of every major-league game from opening day 2003 through the last game of 2005 and assigned every ball hit with direction, distance, speed (soft, medium, hard) and type (grounder, liner, fly, bunt) and placed its location on an 8,000-pixel grid. It determined which plays were made and which weren't, and placed an expectation value on them.
So, if a slow roller is hit to a shortstop's throwing-hand side and only 30 percent of the time is the ball fielded and the runner thrown out, the shortstop gets a mark of plus-.70 if he makes the play; if he fails, he gets minus-.30.
If 70 percent of the time another ball hit to a different spot results in an out, the fielder who makes the play gets a mark of plus-.30; if he fails to make the play, he gets a grade of minus-.70.
Add up the numbers and compare your player to another guy you're thinking about playing there, or compare him to a guy you're thinking about trading for.
Here is what "The Fielding Bible" says about Griffey: "In the plus-minus system, he's the worst center fielder in the National League with a total of minus-58 ... in the past three years."
Here is what it says about Dunn: "The past three years, Dunn has been a first baseman playing left. He really is a sub-par outfielder who was forced to play the outfield until first base opened up. With the Reds moving Sean Casey to Pittsburgh, it appears that time has come."
As it turned out, the Reds traded for Scott Hatteberg after this book was published and they use him and Rich Aurilia at first base and moved Dunn back to left field.
About Lopez: "...(He) took over the Reds' shortstop job on a full-time basis (early in the year) and wound up having one of the best offensive seasons of any shortstop in the league (.291, 23 HR). However, Lopez's defense isn't any better than Aurilia's - average at best."
Kearns: "(He) is an excellent defender and the best defensive outfielder on the Reds. He has a very good range, takes good routes on the ball and has a strong arm. He has enough range to play center field if necessary, and his arm is good enough to play in right."
Krivsky said he gives defense a lot of weight in building a team.
"Defense was a huge consideration when we acquired Brandon Phillips," he said. "Pitching and defense will make you competitive more quickly than anything else. It's something that's engrained in me from being with the (Minnesota) Twins."
Because Krivsky hadn't read Dewan's book and doesn't know what went into the rankings, he didn't feel comfortable commenting on it. "I'd want to know who is keeping track of the data, where they are sitting, how hard the ball is hit, the field conditions, the sky, a lot of things," Krivsky said.
But - for Krivsky and anybody else who loves defense - Dewan's book is worth purchasing. It is available at most area bookstores and sells for $19.95.