As the end of year award balloting heats up, it's become increasingly clear to me that the lack of a standard method of defensive valuation is really skewing our notion of value.
Ryan Braun has been a monster at the plate... and disastrous in the field. You can virtually take your pick of stats and he's the worst 3B in baseball defensively.
Prince Fielder is destroying the ball and yet is one of the worst 1B in baseball.
So, as people go about evaluating players, how they account for this? Do they come up with some basic offensive value and some defensive value, add the two together, and then see where people stand? I would suggest they do not.
Rather, I think that most people look at the offensive numbers, decide where everybody stands, and then move people up or down a little bit based on a qualitative estimation of defensive ability. A little extra credit here, a tie-breaker there. In doing so, I think people are severely discounting the effect of defense.
(Big props to Justin Inaz and his superb Reds blog: http://jinaz-reds.blogspot.com)
I won't go through the whole exercise, because Justin did so well, but here's the most blatant example, using THTs +/- Runs metric. (yes, no defensive metric is perfect, and occasionally they even disagree -- this is one I've found to be extremely consistent with scouting and other accepted metrics and is logically sound)
NL MVP Race:
3B Wright: +27.6 runs
1B Fielder: -9.0 runs
2B Utley: +20.5 runs
SS Rolllins: -2.4 runs
SS Ramirez: -22.2 runns
RF Holliday: +8.2 runs
Now, even if we were to assume that these guys were equal offensively (which they are not) and have generated 90 runs each with their bats, look at the effect of defense. There's a net 50 run swing between Wright and H-Ram. It's not even close. Wright gets a 30% boost to his value, whereas Ramirez cuts his by 25%. Wright becomes arguably the best player in baseball and Hanley goes from the 2nd most productive player in baseball, to just pretty good. Crazy huh?
Look at the NL ROY:
3B Braun: -30.6
SS Tulowitski: +27.9
CF Pence: +4.7
If you take a wholistic view of offense and defensive truly added together on the same scale, Bruan loses half his value. Now, if Braun had hit .270/.350/.475, 18 HR with decent defense, would anybody be talking about him as ROY? By Justin's methodology, Braun becomes just marginally more productive than fellow rookie Kevin Kouzmanoff, who is on nobody's radar. Add in some park factors and he might even be worse.
I know the defensive metric debate continues and by no means do I think we have "the" answer. However, I think we should be careful about giving defense it's due. Not having a perfect metric is no reason for not trying to incorporate defense in to our valuation process in some quantitative fashion.
At the risk of starting another "Dunn thread", if Dunner hit just .250/.340/.475 and played a solid LF, would you still want to build the team around him? Some guys who are like that? Ryan Church and Hideki Matsui. Raul Ibanez fits the offensive profile. Using THTs +/- runs, Eric Byrnes was worth 40 runs more than Dunn defensively this year. Even taking away his 50 SB, he might have been more valuable. I think we have a tendency to give lip service to defense, without really considering it's impact. We talk up Dunn's .900+ OPS, but don't think of how much his defense drags that down in terms of overall value.
By no means am I'm saying give me a team of John McDonalds and Doug Mientkiewiczs. However, let's honestly ask ourselves, how much of our run prevention problem is really a function of pitching, and how many runs are we giving away by fielding sub-par defenders? It might be more than you think.