Sunday, June 16, 2013

Best and Worst Fielders in Baseball History

In the wealth of data that is available on FanGraphs, one that can give the best snapshot of a player's career is labeled Value. Clicking on this tab shows FanGraph's WAR value and the components which make up that overall value. You can click on any of the tabs to sort the values and show the best or worst, and the data can be exported if you want to play around with it. I'll have some comments on WAR values overall as I go through this, since this is one of the best opportunities I'll have to illustrate them.
This first table shows the best fielders in Major League Baseball history, going back to 1871:

An argument can be made that I shouldn't lump different positions together, which I'll use as a springboard to my first discussion of WAR makeup. The table is sorted using the Fielding column, with the number being runs saved due to a player's fielding. To put that in context, consider Brooks Robinson--according to FanGraphs, he saved the Orioles 294 runs in his career. 10 runs are generally considered the equivalent of one win (divide the  number of runs scored by the number of wins--it varies from 9-10 and is relatively stable throughout baseball history), so it's estimated that Robinson's fielding was worth around 29 wins--over a 23-year career. That's a little over one win per year.

FanGraphs (and Baseball-Reference as well) also have a measure that credits players for certain positions, usually catcher and shortstop and to a lesser extent second and center field. That is the Positional column, used to make it easier to compare players who play different positions. Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith played primarily shortstop in their careers and were given healthy WAR bumps because of that. First basemen and designated hitters receive negative values, which is why Carl Yastrzemski has a negative value--he fielded his positions (primarily left and first) well, as is shown by his fielding number, but he played positions that aren't valued for their defense. Nobody asked me, but I'm not a fan of this number--I understand why it's there, but my solution is much simpler--I compare position to position and make my comparisons in that manner. To illustrate this I routinely write "That Barry Larkin was no Ken Griffey Jr."--of course he wasn't. Larkin was a shortstop and Griffey was a centerfielder, positions with completely different expectations.

There are no surprises at the top of this list. This is from a population of approximately 3,800 players who had around 2500-3000 plate appearances in their career. Andruw Jones will give Hall of Fame voters fits when the day comes for his consideration--as good as he was in his first twelve seasons, he was that bad in his last five. He hasn't played yet in 2013, but he redefined center field play in the prime of his career, and I'll be very curious if the voters will remember just how dominant a player he was.

I know for sure I had no idea how good a fielder Cal Ripken was--I knew he was good, but this puts him third for shorstops behind Belanger and Smith, and his batting was significantly better than theirs. Franklin Pierce Adams apparently was aware of Joe Tinker's fielding prowess a full century prior to the development of advanced fielding  metrics, but even today, fielding is the poor cousin of metrics developed to measure hitting and pitching. The day is coming soon when FIELDf/x becomes as standard as PITCHf/x, and when that happens, the true range of players can be quantified (it's probably fairly well-known already) as well as how often a player is positioned to make the play, which in my mind is the true measure of fielding efficiency: if a player is positioned correctly for the hitter, expected pitch, game conditions, etc. and the ball is hit RIGHT AT HIM, shouldn't that be considered outstanding fielding? I contend yes.

Here's the next 10 in fielding all-time:

Jim Piersall was an outstanding fielder--just ask him. Germany Smith played in 1800s,which is why you (like me) have no idea who he is . Ivan Rodriguez is the first catcher listed and widely considered one of the best defensive catchers in history, but it can already be determined that one of baseball's oldest adages doesn't hold up:

"What he lacks in his bat he makes up with his defense"

The ONLY way this is possible is to add the positional adjustment with the fielding. The largest component of any player's WAR is his value over a replacement player, or a typical 4-A ball player. This year, someone like Ramon Hernandez or Chris Getz--folks that  play regularly but don't have much impact. It's HARD to have significant impact defensively--players bat 4-5 times a game, but field the ball (depending on the position) less than that. A player can drive in four runs with one swing of the bat, but rarely ALLOWS four runs to score on an error, although it can happen. If Earl Weaver were managing today and had access to modern data and analytics, I seriously question if Mark Belanger would've had the career he had--Weaver was far ahead of his time regarding on-base percentage and dislike for the steal, and I suspect he'd be willing to sacrifice some defense for more offense at shortstop. I could be wrong--after all, three of the top 20 fielders (Belanger, Robinson and Paul Blair) were 1970s Orioles, so maybe Weaver had a greater love for defense than I credit him with.

So if these are the Gold Glovers of all time, who are the Lead Glovers, players whose defense screams "DESIGNATED HITTER!":

I always knew that Gary Sheffield wasn't the greatest fielder, but I had no idea he was this bad--he's about 30% worse than the next-worst fielder in baseball history, Manny Ramirez, who is a surprise to no one. I also was totally clueless as to how bad Bernie Williams was, but he clearly managed to overcome it with his hitting--a .297 career average and .858 career OPS covered up a multitude of fielding issues. Consider the implication, however: at least in 2005, the Yankees were using an outfield of Sheffield, Williams and Hideki Matsui, who's lodged in the 3700s for defense--THAT'S a challenged outfield, and it hurt them so bad they only won...95 games.

And they also had Derek Jeter at short. Using FanGraphs numbers, Jeter is easily the worst-fielding shortstop in baseball history (Gutierrez is next-worst) and it doesn't matter--Jeter SHOULD be a first-ballot Hall of Famer because his offense overcome his defensive shortcomings. Juan Samuel and Bobby Bonilla are well-known for their defensive shortcomings. Adam Dunn--well, Dunn isn't the Dunn of 2010 anymore when his hitting overcame his strikeouts and stiff fielding, and now he's just a dinosaur, the likes of which won't be seen in baseball in the near future once he's gone. Teams will not pay $15 million for a stiff in the field who strikes out and bats under .200--shoot, they won't pay $1 million, and the question is what happens to Dunn after this year--will the Sox just eat his 2014 contract and move on? I don't have the slightest idea who would replace him, but they have no shortage of bad defensive players who can strike out, so they'll be just fine.

Spend some time at the FanGraphs site and play around with these numbers. It will become apparent that good hitting is FAR MORE valuable than good defense and that the good-field-no-hit player was more a myth (except for extreme exceptions like Mark Belanger) than reality. Fielding IS important--just not as important as hitting.


  1. "[M]aybe Weaver had a greater love for defense than I credit him with." There is no maybe about it. Weaver's oft-quoted managerial philosophy was " pitching, defense, and the three-run homer."

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