Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Who's Your Second Baseman?

I'm seeing some interesting things as I work through the positions and rate each baseball team. For example, somehow I miscalculated the average average (yes, I meant to write that) for shortstops, which is mildly embarrassing. It changes some of the analysis for the data points near the batting average axis, but not significantly. I've also settled on two metrics going forward--OPS for hitting to combine reaching on base and power. For defense, I'll use UZR/150 and describe it more fully in a moment.

Here's the graph, with the axis values to follow:

The vertical axis is on-base + slugging percent (OPS), which was a dramatic difference from batting average to reflect that there are plenty of players who can hit for average but not for power. When using average as the benchmark, the players were almost evenly distributed among the four quadrants. The average OPS for this set of 49 players is .709.

The horizontal axis is UZR/150, which stands for Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 Innings. I'll no doubt do a poor job of explaining it, so feel free to reference the full definition at FanGraphs. I'll quote just enough to look dangerous:
[T]he simplified version is that UZR puts a run value to defense, attempting to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess (or lack thereof).
The 150 part of UZR/150 is a normalization factor added in to make comparisons between the different number of innings played. This chart at FanGraphs helps illustrate how to interpret the values:
The actual UZR/150 for this sample of 49 players was .3, close enough to 0 for me to use it as the dividing line. This alone can give some sense of the relative value of fielding vs. hitting--when the very best fielder can save around 15 runs per year, that translates to around 1.5 wins a year--nothing to sneeze at by any means, but nowhere near the value players can add with the bat. Fielding is important, but NOWHERE near as important as hitting. This is what Billy Beane first realized years back, but I think even he would suggest he went too far in undervaluing defense. You may recall the Mariners attempted to be the best defensive team in baseball a couple of years ago, and they did have solid defensive players--how did that work out?

This is the trade-off all teams make at second base--they need some defense, but how much can be sacrificed in return for offensive production? If these players were stellar defensive players or had rockets for arms, chances are they'd be shortstops, so they're already missing something in the eyes of baseball experts. As the four quadrants show, the tilt is moving toward offensive production. Here's how they break down:
Upper right        GREAT (OPS>.709, UZR/150>0)
Upper left           HMMM (OPS<.709, UZR/150>0)
Lower right         MAAAAYBE (OPS>.709, UZR/150<0)
Lower left           RUH ROH (OPS<.709, UZR/150<0)

Like the past posts, we'll begin with the GREATS:
I'm on the verge of adding too much data, but so it goes. Dustin Pedroia, Chase Utley and Ben Zobrist are WAR darlings, playing a position that gets an artificial bump, but playing it well. Joe Maddon appears to have settled on playing Zobrist at 2nd, Utley has bounced back nicely from a rough patch going back to 2010 and Pedroia and Robinson Cano are in the battle for best second baseman in the game--since they're essentially the same age, I"ll take Cano. I'm surprised to see Marco Scutaro on this list, but he's the choice the Giants have made--sacrifice (a little) defense in exchange for the ability to get on base. Neil Walker sneaks on the list by having a little pop in his bat, but overall, second base is bereft of power--only six players listed (or will be) are in double digits for home runs. And again, only 10 players fit this "Great" criteria, suggesting that 15-20 teams would be more than happy to upgrade their second baseman if they could. And when you consider what "Great" really is--an OPS just over .700 and above-average fielding, it stretches the definition a tad. I'm willing to call Pedroia and Cano great, and I very well could include Brandon Phillips as well, and after that...time for another word.

The last two sets of columns--the first are FanGraphs batting and fielding WAR values, followed by their WAR--you can see FanGraphs rates the second basemen the same way I do. The last columns are FanGraphs creations that I might even understand, and since I'll be using them going forward, I'll explain them here:
BIZ--balls in zone, or a measure of how many balls a player should have been able to field
Plays--the number of balls fielded
RZR--revised zone rating, which is simply the plays/BIZ
OOZ--out of zone, or plays made on balls that were NOT considered in the zone, a very intriguing number that I'm going to look at for shortstops
UZR/150--you already know this
It can be tempting to look at some of these numbers all by themsleves, in particular the OOZ, but view them as a fuller picture of how effective the player is in fielding his position. For example, in yesterday's (July 14th, 2013) White Sox-Phillies game, Chase Utley made this unassisted double play that HAS to be viewed--he fielded a popup pretty much right over second base and stepped on second to double up Alejandro De Aza. If you watch that play, I have a hard time saying that ball was anywhere near his effective fielding zone.


Matt Carpenter, yeah, I'll take him--I did a comparison between him and Darwin Barney during last night's Cardinals-Cubs game:

Those are pretty subtle differences, so don't feel bad if you can't tease them out--300 points of OPS aren't much. Gordon Beckham started out the year hurt and since returning has done TWO things very different from his career arc--he's hit BETTER and fielded WORSE, and I'm pretty sure the Sox can live with that if it continues. It won't, but perhaps he's made the adjustments necessary to be able to hit big league pitching, but as long as he's their answer at second, they'll need power from somewhere else. Dan Uggla has been playing uggla since signing with the Braves prior to 2011, but the end is in sight--he's only owed $26 million through 2015. Jason Kipnis is probably a little better than this analysis shows--just ask White Sox broadcaster Steve Stone, who is pretty savvy evaluator of talent. Same with Ian Kinsler, who just misses being great. Any team would do just fine with any of these players as second-line players, which is pretty much the working definition of "Maybe"--they're all right, teams could do better, but they could do worse as well. With the exception of the Braves, just about every team has bigger issues than their second baseman.

There's a number of these guys I could live with if I had to--a better way to put it would be that there's a number of these guys I'd take over Darwin Barney--Mark Ellis...actually, I take that back. Barney's no reincarnation of Ryne Sandberg, but if the Cubs can get offensive production from the other positions, they'll take Barney's glove. Steve Lombardozzi is used all over the field by the Nationals, but at least he's not Danny Espinosa--that's quite the combo for Davey Johnson to trot out. Jordy Mercer was filling in for an injured Neal Walker and very well could be the next Pirates shortstop. I'm not sure what's up with Brian Roberts of the Orioles, but he's 36 and hasn't played much the last two years--I thought the Orioles would've been smart to pick up Chase Utley if he was available. The rest of these guys? Well, at least they're not...

Jose Altuve may or may not be harshly judged, but if he's going to be a light hitter, he better field a lot better than he has. Rickie Weeks has been flirting with the bottom of the WAR list for position players for the entire year but has shown signs of coming around. Even so, his 2012 wasn't good and the Brewers might have another problem in addition to first base. Jeff Keppinger WAS at the bottom of the WAR list but...hey, look at that, he's back there againSkip Schumaker deserves very special mention--take a good look at his UZR/150. It's -71.7. 

Let me write that again: -71.7

Take another look at the chart at the beginning of this post--the UZR/150 values range from -40 to 40. Schumaker's UZR/150 was SO BAD it skewed the chart beyond recognition, so I left that data point out. Yeah, he's THAT BAD in the field. He's not the worst fielder in baseball, just the worst to play at least 100 innings in the field. I can only speculate on what this means for the Dodgers when Don Mattingly considers him the best alternative at second.

Second basemen don't lead their teams to victory except in very rare occasions, Joe Morgan being the best example I can think of, maybe Roberto Alomar. They don't do well in MVP voting, with Pedroia, Jeff Kent and Ryne Sandberg the only ones in the past 30 years. How the position is filled often depends on how the REST of the team is constructed--if there's decent hitting elsewhere in the lineup it can be counterbalanced with good fielding at second base, but very rarely do teams build teams around second base. That's not to diminish the position, because like every other position, the teams with bad second basemen aren't doing well. However, it's not because of them--other than Cano and Pedroia, these are all complimentary players.

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