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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Do MLB Teams Undervalue Defense — Or Just Value It Differently? | FiveThirtyEight

Whether because of Statcast or scouting, the Cubs and now the Cardinals have seen something in Fowler’s performance that current fielding valuations don’t seem to capture. And when two of the smartest front offices in baseball appear to be discarding defensive metrics, it makes you stop and wonder whether the metrics might just be wrong.

Jim Furtado Posted: April 19, 2017 at 08:38 AM | 19 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: analytics, defense, sabermetrics, statcast

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   1. AROM Posted: April 19, 2017 at 09:14 AM (#5437993)
Whether because of Statcast or scouting, the Cubs and now the Cardinals have seen something in Fowler’s performance that current fielding valuations don’t seem to capture. And when two of the smartest front offices in baseball appear to be discarding defensive metrics, it makes you stop and wonder whether the metrics might just be wrong.


I don't get this conclusion. Fowler's compensation seems to be right in line with the public metrics. Let's see: From 2010-2015 Fowler rates as a below average defensive CF, but he's a good hitter who gets on base and runs well. Even with the bad defense, he's a 2 to 2.5 WAR player, consistent as clockwork.

For much of that time he's getting less than market value because of service time. After 2015 he finally reaches free agency, coming off a year where he played like he always does, 109 OPS+, -12 DRS, and 2.2 WAR. He did not receive any lucrative multi-year offers. From what I remember, he was set to sign a 2 year contract with the Orioles for something similar in AAV to what he ended up with. At the last minute he decided to stick with the Cubs and sign a 1 year deal.

Then he has his best all around season - 127 OPS+, a nice shiny ring, +1 DRS, only the second time in his career his defensive runs was in positive territory, all good for 4.2 WAR. The public metrics never loved Fowler as much as they did in 2016. So the Cardinals offer and sign him to a big contract.

I don't see the evidence of drastically different hidden evaluations. Now if the Cardinals had seen something after 2015, and signed him to this deal last offseason, everyone would have laughed at them. Then had Fowler put up 4.2 WAR for the 2016 Cardinals they make the playoffs (seems a fair assumption since they missed by one game) and maybe even get lucky in the playoffs and make the Cubs wait another year. The rest of the Fowler contract might look pretty good right now, and you could even say, "hey, maybe these guys are on to something".
   2. Walt Davis Posted: April 19, 2017 at 06:07 PM (#5438471)
And even with the long-term deal, it's "just" 5/$82.5. It's probably a year longer than it should be but it's price for the guy to produce about 10-14 WAR over 5 years. Over the last 5 seasons, he produced 13 WAR. It's also the case that, historically, Fowler has been a bit fragile. 2015 was the first and only year he made it to 575 PA. Those 13 WAR came in just a bit over 4 years of PT. So he's produced like a 3-WAR player -- those 13 WAR are 4.4 WAA. So the Cards are making a bit of a 2-pronged gamble -- if Fowler either maintains his quality or improves his durability, they should at least break-even on the contract.

I don't know what the observers or statcast think, but Rfield has him at -2 already this year.

Hmmm ... Dexter Fowler = Rick Monday? Monday got an earlier start but was either hurt a lot or platooned a lot in Oakland before becoming full-time with the Cubs. Monday was LHB, Fowler switch (and better as a RHB which was not my impression ... huh), both not that impressive defensively but with very good OBPs and some power. Very similar raw batting lines through age 31, tougher context for Monday gives him a substantial 18 point edge in OPS+. Interestingly, age 30 was Monday's best year with 4.4 WAR for the Cubs; age 30 was Fowler's best year with 4.2 WAR for the Cubs.

From ages 23-30, Monday wins thanks to his offensive edge (about 7 wins) but Fowler closes a bit of ground in most other compoenents so it's 21 WAR to 18 WAR in Monday's favor ... or 7 WAA to 5 WAA, total PA is almost identical.

Hopefully (for Fowler, not the Cards), the rest of Fowler's career goes better than Monday's. Monday remained a solid player but platooned and fragile. He lasted until age 38 but those last 8 seasons weren't even quite 3 full years of PT and he put up just 6 WAR, 0 WAA.
   3. cardsfanboy Posted: April 19, 2017 at 07:23 PM (#5438513)
Of course, analytics experts have been arguing that teams undervalue defense since the days of Moneyball. And in the years since, sabermetrics has gone mainstream.


wow, this is serious revisionistic history.
   4. Brian C Posted: April 19, 2017 at 08:21 PM (#5438543)
At any rate, what's interesting from the Cubs' standpoint, at least, is that they seem to be seriously valuing defense. At the game I was at last Thursday, late in the game they had a defense consisting of:

Contreras, C
Rizzo, 1B
Baez, 2B
Russell, SS
Bryant, 3B
Szczur, LF
Almora, CF
Heyward, RF

I thought, this has to be the greatest defense the Cubs have ever had on the field at any point in the 30+ years I've been watching them. I'd be surprised if it was even close, aside from any alignments they've had with mostly the same players over the last couple years. But there's not a weak link in that chain (I don't think Szczur's a great defender, exactly, but as a LF? Way above average).

As for Fowler, he's a fun player and I seriously wish him the best, adjusted for the fact that he plays for the Cards now, obviously. But I'm not sure how much the Cubs miss him, especially defensively. He seemed pretty good to me in the field last year, but both Almora and Heyward (who's been starting out there almost half the time) are both obvious upgrades, and Jay is perfectly capable as well and probably at least Fowler's equal. Offensively, Schwarber has supplied the OBP that was Fowler's main contribution.

The sign of a good front office isn't just knowing which players to acquire - it's knowing which of your popular players to keep. Obviously, all the Cubs are fan favorites after last year, so there's minimal hand-wringing from fans or media over letting Fowler go even though he was very well liked by all. But I think the front office was wise to a) wait for very team-friendly circumstances to re-sign him last season, and b) not make it a priority to re-sign him this season. Indeed, that the Cubs were so obviously reluctant to throw huge money at him directly undercuts TFA's argument that they have some secret insight about his defensive value. It sure appears that they were as unconvinced as everyone else.
   5. cardsfanboy Posted: April 20, 2017 at 12:00 AM (#5438676)
ay is perfectly capable as well and probably at least Fowler's equal.


Fowler has a huge advantage defensively over Jay, Fowler is much faster. Jay gets good first steps, has sure hands and is someone that isn't going to hurt you out there in center because he's (almost) never going to miss a ball you think he should have off of the bat, but he is also never going to surprise you with a surprise catch in the gap. Jay is solid, but he just don't have the tools to be "good".
   6. Brian C Posted: April 20, 2017 at 12:26 AM (#5438685)
I guess I disagree - I don't remember Fowler getting to a lot in the gap either, to be honest. He just didn't get to a lot of balls that he wasn't well-positioned to get to. In fact, this was precisely the issue that led to him being supposedly positioned much deeper last season than he had been previously. He just couldn't chase balls down despite his speed, and his defensive stats until last year weren't just bad, they were downright wretched. And again, despite what TFA says, there's no reason to think the Cubs' front office thought any differently.

I don't see any reason to think Jay is worse. Fowler's a better hitter, of course, but defensively I think Jay's no worse than even.
   7. Walt Davis Posted: April 20, 2017 at 02:38 AM (#5438711)
wow, this is serious revisionistic history.

Certainly at the time the Moneyball season happened, we thought defense didn't matter. Genius that I am, I do recall questioning whether Beane had taken it too far with 8 DHs in camp (or whatever it was) ... admittedly, I didn't hold out much hope for Hatteberg being a good 1B.

But the worm started to turn a few years after that, basically whenever Rfield/bWAR started was widely available -- so what year was that and what year did Moneyball the book come out?

Ack, nevermind, the book was 2003 and bWAR didn't show up until 2010 ... has it really only been 7 years?

On the question of the headline ... 1) Teams have always and will always value offense first; 2) Maybe they value defense differently or maybe they apply a more severe aging curve to defense or (one would hope) they have a much better understanding on the level of uncertainty in defensive measures and once you throw that into your risk model, you find that paying for defense is a bad investment. In short, they may have decided that paying FAs in their 30s for past defensive value is even dumber than paying for past offensive value.

On the last bits, once they/we have enough statcast data, maybe we'll have more reliable defensive measures, maybe they're more stable year-to-year than we think and maybe defense ages better than we think.
   8. cardsfanboy Posted: April 20, 2017 at 07:41 AM (#5438726)
Certainly at the time the Moneyball season happened, we thought defense didn't matter. Genius that I am, I do recall questioning whether Beane had taken it too far with 8 DHs in camp (or whatever it was) ... admittedly, I didn't hold out much hope for Hatteberg being a good 1B.


I think the feeling was that defense didn't matter provided you could get someone to play the position competently enough. Even then there was a group of people arguing that Jeter didn't play shortstop competently enough to rate being a starter over there.

But the worm started to turn a few years after that, basically whenever Rfield/bWAR started was widely available -- so what year was that and what year did Moneyball the book come out?


Agree about that, when a stat that kept track of runs on defense got paired up with runs on offense, it became a real thing to many people. Before that you had people talking about runs saved, but it felt more abstract than real runs(or arguably maybe a different scale/measuring system, kinda like with catchers pitch framing)
   9. JJ1986 Posted: April 20, 2017 at 07:54 AM (#5438732)
But the worm started to turn a few years after that, basically whenever Rfield/bWAR started was widely available -- so what year was that and what year did Moneyball the book come out?

Ack, nevermind, the book was 2003 and bWAR didn't show up until 2010 ... has it really only been 7 years?
The Fielding Bible came out in 2006 and I remember there were other analysts also arguing for the positive value of Adam Everett.
   10. AROM Posted: April 20, 2017 at 09:06 AM (#5438742)
At any rate, what's interesting from the Cubs' standpoint, at least, is that they seem to be seriously valuing defense. At the game I was at last Thursday, late in the game they had a defense consisting of:


The catcher and infielders in that lineup are pretty good with the bat as well. It's a pretty easy call to play a great player, and players who give you plus defense and offense are great players.

For the outfield, that is a defense-heavy lineup, but the Cubs give most of their time in left field to Schwarber, who is there for the bat. Sure, they value defense, but doesn't seem to be to an unusual degree. I think they are just using whoever gives them the greatest combination. Schwarber isn't going to give any better than passable defense. If he hits 375/500 he plays, but if he only hit something like 340/425 they'd probably put a glove out there instead.
   11. AROM Posted: April 20, 2017 at 09:14 AM (#5438745)
Even then there was a group of people arguing that Jeter didn't play shortstop competently enough to rate being a starter over there.


I think Jeter's defense started to become an issue sometime around 2000-2002. We didn't have BIS, and I think MGL was starting to publish UZR on this site but acceptance was not immediate. Criticism of Jeter's range would have come from either Stats zone rating, or range factor compared to league. I don't remember where ZR had him, but I can see his range factor went from below average to being a problem around 1999-2000.
   12. Covfefe Posted: April 20, 2017 at 09:35 AM (#5438759)
One theory that Cubs fans - well, at least I - kicked around a lot last year is that Fowler's surprise bump in defensive metrics came in no small part because the Cubs FO/coaches played the OF much deeper than previously....

Baez and Russell are both awfully rangy - and had/have more than their share of loopers they get to that lots of MI do not, while Zobrist and Bryant both have extensive OF experience (leading one to at least guess they'd be more solid than most IFs on those grey area IF/OF pop-ups), so it probably made sense for all sorts of reasons.

Won't offer a guess as to where Fowler's bump came - simply better positioning prior to batted balls, or, that he's just better coming in than going back... or what proportion of each.
   13. Jesus Frankenstein Posted: April 20, 2017 at 11:18 AM (#5438863)

Won't offer a guess as to where Fowler's bump came - simply better positioning prior to batted balls, or, that he's just better coming in than going back... or what proportion of each.


Defensive metrics have some relative value, but the field has tilted way too far in taking them as objective fact.

Also, players have strong sides and weak sides, sime outfielders are better at coming in than going back. And of course you haveto consider who plays beside them.... It's not that you can't quantify defense, it's that the variables make quantification suspect.

I didn't even mention shifting.
   14. cardsfanboy Posted: April 20, 2017 at 11:26 AM (#5438871)
Won't offer a guess as to where Fowler's bump came - simply better positioning prior to batted balls, or, that he's just better coming in than going back... or what proportion of each.


If Fowler's weak side was ranging to his left, with Heyward over there, balls that used to drop might have instead been caught by Heyward, so Fowler isn't getting penalized like he might have had in the past.

If so, then his numbers might drop a bit, as Piscotty doesn't have Heyward's range, but Grichuk does, so the team could cheat Fowler more towards rightfield(his left side).

   15. Captain Supporter Posted: April 20, 2017 at 11:49 AM (#5438890)
when two of the smartest front offices in baseball appear to be discarding defensive metrics, it makes you stop and wonder whether the metrics might just be wrong.


Sandly Alderson and Brian Cashman have also expressed a great deal of skepticism about the current value of defensive metrics. I see no reason to think any of these guys are wrong.
   16. Covfefe Posted: April 20, 2017 at 12:05 PM (#5438910)
Sandly Alderson and Brian Cashman have also expressed a great deal of skepticism about the current value of defensive metrics. I see no reason to think any of these guys are wrong.


How many ringz do they have in the last 1 years?
   17. Tom Nawrocki Posted: April 20, 2017 at 12:07 PM (#5438912)
Whether because of Statcast or scouting, the Cubs and now the Cardinals have seen something in Fowler’s performance that current fielding valuations don’t seem to capture. And when two of the smartest front offices in baseball appear to be discarding defensive metrics, it makes you stop and wonder whether the metrics might just be wrong.


Dexter has been a centerfielder ever since he came up - he's played exactly one inning in his career anywhere other than in CF. It's bizarre to single out the Cubs and Cardinals for recognizing his defensive value when the Rockies and Astros did exactly the same thing. I guess his value can't really be accepted until the cool kids start doing it.
   18. Walt Davis Posted: April 21, 2017 at 12:33 AM (#5439549)
The Fielding Bible came out in 2006

Forgot about that one, it certainly had a strong influence ... I think mainly because of the great title.
   19. PreservedFish Posted: April 21, 2017 at 08:15 AM (#5439581)
Beane was clearly a bit ahead of us - in 2003, when Moneyball was released, and we were still enamored of the rise of the softball multi-DH A's of Matt Stairs, Geronimo Berroa etc, his outfield was Chris Singleton, Terrence Long, and Jermaine Dye. Three skinny athletes. The Ben Grieve for Johnny Damon trade was a couple years in the past.

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