How important is fielding? Here are some quick numbers to help you decide.
First is a look at the pitching. I am told that there are three things that pitchers control. Walks, strikeouts and how many autographs they sign, err, and homers. Someone much smarter than I am (I am thinking Tom Tango for some reason) took these three factors and created a stat called FIP. I looked up the FIP for the Reds pitching staff in both 2008 and 2009 from Fangraphs. It seems you also include HPB and subtract out IBB.
Here is the pitching side stats:
The 2009 staff struck out fewer batters, walked more batters and allowed fewer home runs. The result is that FIP would favor slightly the 2008 staff over the 2009 staff by approximately .09 runs per game. If you multiply that by 162 games you would get a little over 14 runs over the course of a season.
Year K/9 BB/9 HR/9 HBP IBB FIP
2008 7.66 3.48 1.25 67 40 4.54
2009 6.60 3.56 1.16 65 36 4.63
Advantage 2008 staff by 14 runs.
Next up is the defense. For this I went to Baseball-Reference and used a stat called DER. This stat simply measures the efficiency with which a team's defense converts balls put into play into outs. How did the 2008 and 2009 defenses stack up against each other? Glad you asked.
But what do those numbers really mean? To put it into context the 2008 Reds had the league worst DER. The league average 2008 DER was .689, with the 2008 Reds stuck at the bottom with .671. In comparison the league average 2009 DER was .690. The 2009 Reds DER of .702 placed them near the top. I think it is safe to say that the 2009 Reds defense was much improved.
How much improved you ask? Let's attempt to find out.
The number of runs a team gives up is made up of two parts - pitching and defense. Okay variance (or luck) probably plays a small part as well. But since I have no idea how to measure that, variance (or luck) is, well, out of luck today. Let's just concentrate on pitching and fielding.
One way to get an estimate of the value of defense is to start with what you know and work backwards. (The Tubes called this The Completion Backwards Principle)
What we know is this:
We know that the opposition scored 77 fewer runs in 2009. (Thank God because the 2009 offense was pitiful). Now let's make two adjustments and call it a day.
2008 800 1442
2009 723 1458
First adjustment is for Innings Pitched. How did IP get in here? Well it seems intuitive that the more innings played the more runs will be given up even if the pitching and defensive components are exactly the same. Right? In 2009 the team played 16 more innings - almost two full games. At the rate they were giving up runs this means that about 8 additional runs were scored. In other words if the 2009 team had played just 1442 innings they would have given up 8 less runs all things being equal. So subtract that from the 723 and you now have 715 runs and adjustment number one is complete. We are halfway to paradise now.
Second adjustment is for pitching. We know from above that the 2008 staff was about 14 runs better than the 2009 staff via the FIP computations. Another way of saying that is that if the 2008 staff pitched in 2009 the team would have given up 14 less runs, more or less. So subtract an additional 14 runs and that brings the 2009 total down to 701.
The adjusted runs against now looks like this:
99 runs better. Wow!
Now there is an obvious trade off when you sacrifice hitting for defense. But I can't help but reach the conclusion that defense is very important. Maybe even more important than has been generally thought. Was the 2009 defense 99 runs better than the 2008 defense? I am not sure. Variation (or luck) played an unknown (I think a not so significant) part. But no matter how you slice, dice or slap chop it, the defense was markedly improved. And defense is an integral part of the game.
Now for those who think 99 runs is way out of line and a totally unrealistic number look at the UZR/150 figures from Fangraphs:
These numbers do not include pitchers or catchers, however they fall in line pretty nicely don't you think? In 2008 the Reds defense was -42.2 runs compared to the league average defense for 150 games. In 2009 over 150 games they were 46.6 above league average. An 88.8 run improvement for 150 games sounds a lot like a 99 run improvement for 162 games. Maybe it is just coincidence.
POS. 2008 2009 DIFF
1B 8.4 -2.6 -11.0
2B 11.4 5.4 -6.0
3B -15.0 -5.3 9.7
SS -17.6 13.8 31.4
LF -21.2 16.2 37.4
CF 7.3 18.1 10.8
RF -15.5 1.0 16.5
-42.2 46.6 88.8
The outfield defense improved a whopping 64.9 runs, 37.4 runs alone attributed to LF! The shortstop position showed a staggering 31.4 run improvement! Third base also improved quite nicely.
This makes a person wonder if Janish and Stubbs should be in the lineup on the basis of defense alone, at the bottom of the batting order perhaps.
I know there was some mixing and matching of statistics here. I do not claim to be Saber-knowledgable. However, I think a clear enough picture emerges that defense is underrated and the defense took a huge step forward in 2009.