Since the Gold Glove awards were handed out the other day and many people feel that Mike Trout got the biggest snub of them all, with Adam Jones winning the award over him, I decided to continue my quest to get a better understanding of how exactly defense is evaluated by those involved in the voting process and also if there is a better way.
In an effort to do that I reached out to Andrew Gibson, a writer over at Camden Chat, IT Associate at Baseball Info Solutions (he is a part of some pretty cool research and analysis projects), and a very in-the-know baseball fan/analyst. You can also find Andrew on twitter at @gibsonandrew if you’re interested in following someone as knowledgeable and passionate about the game as the rest of us, as well as a guy who’s just really laid back and fun to talk to.
BSL: Adam Jones was just awarded his second Gold Glove award and there is a bit of controversy surrounding it because many believed Mike Trout to be deserving of it. Many people have realized that MLB’s Gold Glove awards shouldn’t be taken as the end-all be-all when evaluating a player’s defensive worth to his team.
What’s your take on how exactly these winners are decided upon and should these awards be taken with a grain of salt, per se?
Andrew Gibson: I had the pleasant opportunity to have a ballot in ESPN’s “Defensive Player of the Year” vote, which Mike Trout won. I had him first on my ballot ahead of Brenden Ryan and Yadier Molina, though it’s a complete toss-up between those three in my book. So, obviously I think this year’s Gold Gloves are just another example of the various biases that the coaches who vote on these things hold. It’s not exactly groundbreaking to tell you that the coaches have biases in favor of veterans over rookies, guys who can hit over glove-first players, guys with good word-of-mouth, and guys with high fielding percentages.
Which is to say of course they don’t take this as seriously as they ought to. It is what it is, and the only way it changes is if everyone starts to demand better answers. That I think is why the BBWAA awards are becoming smarter – or at least the conversations around them are improving. The readers got more contextual information, starting challenging the writers, and the writers got younger and more interested in keeping up with that stuff. The coaches, though, there’s no reason at all to think that guys who have been in the game for 40+ years are going to suddenly embrace all of it.
I hear a lot (indirectly) from an AL front office about how there’s a constant battle between the coaching staff and the front office techs over even simple stuff like advance scouting video software. Those guys have been using the same stuff for years and years and that’s their comfort zone, regardless of its clunky or slow or outdated. I certainly don’t blame them for not wanting to add to their enormous pile of work learning new software every March, and I certainly don’t blame the front offices around baseball for wanting to improve everything they can. Again, it is what it is.
So, “better answers” in this context means taking the vote away from the coaches. That’s why the Fielding Bibles are at least a step in the right direction. The voters there are – and I say this mostly as an educated guess – almost certainly taking it more seriously than the Gold Glove voters. It’s just too bad that the one has way, way, way more popularity than the other. For now, anyway.
BSL: You make some great points regarding how the voting shakes out with MLB’s Gold Glove award and the coaches being fairly resistant to changing the way they evaluate players and do things in general. Let’s focus more specifically on Adam Jones though, since he has won his second Gold Glove award and some say he was fairly undeserving of both.
I get the opportunity to watch him play on a regular basis, so his inefficiencies in center field are probably far more apparent to me than most people. I’m not saying he’s a bad center fielder, although FanGraphs certainly has him rated as below average in that respect, but I’m also not sure if he’s at that Gold Glove level either. How do you feel about Jones as a center fielder overall and do you think a move to left field would better serve his defensive abilities?
AG: One of the big things I learned this year is that most fly balls are really easy to field. I had known that for a while – BABIP on fly balls is lower than any other kind of hit, which seem counter-intuitive when we’ve been inundated with “groundball pitchers are good!!” – but at the beginning of the season I was working on something with one of our video scouts, and he gave me a pretty good rule of thumb: any ball that stays in the air 5 seconds or more is pretty much a gimme.
For a while, I would pay special attention to Adam Jones, because the scouting reports and his perception don’t jive even remotely with his stats (outside of FRAA) and it seemed like every time I thought about him in particular, he would get these really routine fly balls hit at him. He might have to run a ways to get there, but they hung up a lot, and they’d look like good plays, but they weren’t really.
I don’t trust my eyes. I watch the Orioles a lot, but I’ve got all my own biases going on and whatnot, so I have to lean on the numbers. This year Jones really fared poorly in almost every fielding stat. But he excelled in getting a lot of putouts – more than any other center fielder – and that (as far as I understand it) raised his FRAA and fielding percentages up a lot. But he also led center fielders in what FanGraphs calls “balls in zone” which is just balls in play hit to an area that over 50% of center fielders make that play. That seems to show that while Jones makes a lot of plays, he might also just get way more opportunities to make plays. The Orioles’ fly ball pitching staff helps, but it might just have been that for whatever reason more balls went to center than to the corners.
What surprised me is that his arm wasn’t a factor all year. His defensive runs saved breakdown over the past couple of seasons is actually pretty consistent: -14, -12, -12, -13 (and the range is always tilted negatively to balls over his head) for range, +10, +5, +8 for arm…but then it was -1 for his arm in 2012. That arm score incorporates assists, kills (that is, an assist with no relay), and the times a runner wouldn’t test his arm. So you look at his DRS total, and there’s a big drop-off in 2012, and it’s almost all the arm.
That could be lots of things. He could have been hurt, it could just have been a bad run for him. But over the preceding three years, he had one of the very, very best arms in the game, and he didn’t have it in 2012. It’s a red flag. I guess I still expect him to rebound next season, but the red flag is there. And of course, age is never kind to fielding abilities.
Which brings us to the idea of moving him to left or right field. In a vacuum it’s a really great idea. His bat obviously plays in the corners, and I’d expect any center fielder’s defense to improve substantially by moving over. But there’s two or three big questions raised by the potential move that you have to be able to answer entirely for it to work:
1) How would he react to it? How would his teammates?
2) Who’s playing center field?
It’s not like the O’s are bringing in Mike Trout to force Jones over. And I doubt that sliding him over for a fringy guy like Rick Ankiel or even a non-superstar-but-really-good-player like Angel Pagan would play out well, because this is for all intents and purposes a demotion unless it’s done because the Orioles are bringing another player with the same kind of reputation as Jones.
Obviously I don’t have any sense of the Orioles’ clubhouse, but that’s how I would look at any generic situation like this. Jones is the face of the franchise now, and with that caliber of player this stuff really matters. There’s lots of bad stuff that can happen with that kind of move, the kind of stuff that could potentially derail a fledgling franchise, and I’m not sure any of it balances out the upside of 3 wins or so in 2013.
BSL: Very interesting perspective on Jones in center field. I myself am a fan of moving him over to left field if a) he would be okay with it and b) we brought in someone like a Michael Bourn to take over for Jones.
Anything short of that though, I just have to hope that Jones improves enough to not make a negative mark on the defense next season. Part of his problem, from what I’ve seen, is that he likes to play aggressively shallow sometimes and then has to run for his life to catch up to anything hit over his head – thus making it appear as if he’s made a highlight reel play even though it should’ve been routine if he were playing at a normal depth.
His arm was the other thing that was really surprising to me as well because he didn’t seem to have the zip on it that he has had the previous three seasons. He also had a dip in performance during the second half after being on fire the first half – I never heard anything about an injury or soreness but you never know. He’s tough and he’s a gamer so I imagine he’d play through just about anything.
Something I’ve been really curious about over the years is how much a ballpark has an effect on an outfielder’s zone rating, perception of fielding ability, etc. What’s your take on the impact a ballpark such as Camden Yards would have on a center fielder or any outfielder really? A more pronounced example of this would probably be Minute Maid Park in Houston with their crazy CF dimensions.
AG: Yeah, Bourn’s the interesting guy this year. I don’t think the O’s have the budget room for him, but he’d be the interesting case.
Certainly, Jones’ shallow positioning has been the story for a while. The other thing worth mentioning, though it isn’t as big a factor as his range, is his propensity to make mistakes out there. He’s pretty aggressive, and we’ve got him listed with 32 misplays/errors this year, which is 2nd most with center fielders, and he doesn’t have enough good plays (14) to keep him out of the cellar: he’s the worst good play to bad play ratio of center fielders in 2012.
That’s mostly bad throws and some bobbles fielding, but there are some bad routes and misreads of the ball in there, too. I suspect that while positioning is a factor in his range, he might just not get very good reads off the bat unless the ball hangs a while. If that’s the case – and it’s just a theory – he might not really be able to play deeper, maybe it’s tougher to read the ball the farther back he is. Just a thought.
Again though, the good play/misplay stuff is a small part of the defensive stat puzzle. It’s really easy to overvalue that stuff (see: Reynolds, Mark).
I guess for a while Jones and Markakis put up some weird home/road UZR splits (fangraphs doesn’t publish that split anymore because of the overhead involved in it, and BIS has never published home/road DRS splits…but that’s just a demand thing. Believe me, if ESPN asked for it, we’d give it to them), with their Camden Yards stats big negatives and their road stats moderate positives. John Dewan wrote an article about that in the latest Fielding Bible, so I’d point you that direction. The gist of it is that there’s no obvious reason in our methods why just those two guys would get singled out like that, and that there’s nobody else really coming in like that in the data, including other Oriole outfielders and of course the guys the Orioles play against. It is, as far as Mr. Dewan could tell, most likely just one of those weird fluke things that happens in small sample sizes.
Just coming at it from a common sense point of view, I don’t really get it. OPACY has the weird right field wall and corner, but center field is pretty straight-forward. It’s not like Minute Maid or Fenway or AT&T. On top of all of it, we know that defenders should have a natural boost in their stats from playing at home (for one reason and/or another). So it contradicts a lot of common sense for that to have happened at all, much less to have happened for a couple of years in a row. But I don’t think it has anything to do with the way the data is collected or the way Camden Yards is built or even the true talents of the Oriole outfielders. I think it’s just a weird fluke thing. I’d be interested to see if it happened again this past season.
BSL: I wonder if the split differences with Jones and Markakis in OPACY compared to road ballparks they play in has to do with the fact that they are more comfortable at home, therefore they may be more likely to take more chances on defense there. I know it’s a rather simplistic explanation, but there are psychological aspects of sports – and athletes in general – that statistics don’t exactly capture.
Do you think that’s fairly plausible?
AG: Not especially. Why just those two guys and nobody else?
BSL: Yes, very good point. It’s certainly baffling and to be honest – I’m not one who likes to leave certain things unsolved. Personally, I just feel that there has to be an explanation but without more data over a longer period of time it could be incredibly difficult. It’s certainly something worth paying attention to for next season.
When evaluating a player’s defensive value to their team and around the league – do you prefer any specific metrics over others, or do you take a more rounded approach with all data currently available?
AG: It’s frustrating for sure, believe me. I wish a great deal that we had better answers.
The company line is that Defensive Runs Saved is the best thing around, your one stop shop. John Dewan’s even gone so far as to say we understand defense “at about 80% of all possible understanding”. I think that’s overstating it a little bit. What I personally really like is blending DRS and UZR with scouting evidence and the players and coaches themselves. FanGraphs‘ David Laurila is really good at that sort of thing and I usually go out of my way to find his interviews about defense. We did a weekly defensive stats conference call with some of the ESPN guys, and one of the best calls I sat in on had Doug Glanville just doing this sort of riffing on “hey, why are Harper’s number worse in the corners than in center?”, where he’s blending his experience and a more scouting-type background into the numbers. I’m not even necessarily looking for agreement or common ground, just give me more information.
As we’ve seen, you can’t always get to a satisfying answer, but you can often find a satisfying journey. Maybe we can’t shed definitive light on “why isn’t Adam Jones as good as Mike Trout”, but we can work in the corners a little bit and explore his arm, his reactions, his routes. It’s all added context, and that’s all I’m looking for with stats anyway.
BSL: What are you guys over at BIS currently working on? Anything that baseball fans or analysts would find especially interesting or something they would get really excited over?
AG: There’s a couple of things, and some of the new stuff we’re going to be scoring will undoubtedly find its way to ESPN. Nothing super revolutionary – last year we started collecting pop times, and it’s mostly stuff on that kind of level. It’s interesting, actually, that we’re trying to get more precise (pop times to the millisecond) and at the same time somewhat less precise (baserunning good plays/misplays, which have inherent subjectivity to them). I think most of the new stuff we start doing is going to be in service of more analytic writing, whether it be on ESPN, in books, or somewhere else. Good news for me, since that’s right up my alley.
You should find a copy of the Fielding Bible Vol 3 if you want a better idea of the home/road issue. I don’t have it in front of me and might have forgotten some major part of it or gotten something wrong.
BSL: You have definitely shed some more light on this particular subject for me and you have most certainly added to the overall value of the piece I am writing. I really appreciate your time and I feel like I’ve gained a better understanding of how “best” to evaluate defense going forward.
Also – I’ve actually ordered myself a copy of the Fielding Bible Vol 3, so I’m really looking forward to getting that in the mail in a few days as well as your work in the future.
AG: Thanks! This was fun. If you need any more help in the future, you know where to find me.