This post today will be about defense.  From a fan’s perspective, defense is often a forgotten trait when taking into account the configuration of a baseball team.   The prevailing “Sportscenter” attitude seems to be one of ‘Show me some homers and some strikeouts and I am a happy guy’.   It is a fair point because that is exactly what sells tickets and generates multiple sources of revenue.  These plays are always part of the highlight package.  ‘Web Gems’ on Baseball Tonight is often pointed to as an example of showing defensive excellence.  To some extent that is correct.  However, making a great single defensive play does not necessarily correlate into consistent defensive excellence over the course of a season.

Defense is often the difference between winning games and losing them.  For this very reason, managers often make late inning defensive substitutions to maximize the team’s defensive ability even when it may sacrifice offensive output.   Defense is the sole reason I am not sold on the Brewers punching a postseason ticket in 2011.  Today, we are going to switch things up and start with the Stat of the Week.  After we have discussed what defensive metrics are out there, we will apply this to the Brewers and attempt to make some sort or rudimentary analysis.

The “What the f*&# does that stat mean” stat of the week.

Defense is much, much more than fielding percentages.  I cringe when a Brewers fan tells me that Braun doesn’t make many errors, so he has to be a good fielder.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Braun often gets a bad jumps and he takes poor angles on the baseball.  If only there was a defensive metric out there that took more into account than fielding percentages…..

Today we are going to be discussing the statistic UZR . UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) is essentially a defensive metric that measures how much above or below average a player is defensively.  It is based upon play by-play data that is tallied using several categories (range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined). The idea is that a player with a UZR of zero is exactly average .   If a player has a plus UZR, he is an above average defender, and if it is minus, he is a below average fielder.  Please click on the links if you would like to delve deep into UZR math.  I don’t want to get too technical (boring!) discussing how the data is acquired, but each play a player is involved in defensively is analyzed and tracked throughout the season.  Now that you have gotten as deep into UZR as you choose and have an understanding of what we are talking about, let’s take a look at some of the downsides of using UZR as a defensive metric.

There are some reasonable objections to the use of UZR.  First, UZR can have wild fluctuations in data from month to month, causing a lack of consistency at times.  Second, the sample size from year to year can often be too small to attain an accurate portrayal of a player’s true defensive ability.  Also, because UZR is a new statistic, the criteria used to judge defense has gotten adjusted from time to time.  Fourth, this statistic does not take Catcher defense into account.  Finally, this statistic is cumulative based, so playing time does get taken into consideration and can make it hard to compare players with different amounts of playing time. Because of these factors, UZR seems to lack as much credibility as some of the other statistics out there.  However, I am convinced it has merit and can be used, in combination with other statistics, to create an overall evaluation of a player.

There are a couple of things we can do to handle a few of these objections. UZR/150 (ultimate zone rate per 150 games) is a statistic that tries to measure the number of runs above or below average a fielder is per 150 defensive games.  This metric allows us to compare players with different amounts of games played.  Moreover, the UZR stat should be reviewed for three years before making any conclusive determination on the prowess of a fielder.  Like any stat, it isn’t the cure-all and it isn’t the only thing to look at, but it gives another perspective on what type of value a player brings to the team.

Many people love to point to the starting pitching of the Reds as the defining reason they went to the playoffs.  I also would like to point out that the Reds played superior defense and often put the pitching staff in positions to succeed.  The Reds set team records for fielding percentage and fewest errors.  Simply stated, even the best pitching staff ever assembled relies at times on the viability of a good defense in close games.   It is for this sole reason that I am not optimistic that the Brewers will qualify for their second postseason bid in 4 years.  For evidence to my conclusion, let’s examine the UZR of the current Milwaukee Brewers.

A Statistical look at the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers

1B- Prince Fielder :  2010 UZR: -7.4 , UZR/150: -7.8 , 3 year UZR average: – 6.1. Everyone knows Prince is not on the team for defense, but his defense took yet another dip in 2010.

2B- Rickie Weeks :  2010 UZR: +1.8 , UZR/150: +2.0 , 3 year UZR average: +.6. Rickie has made tremendous strides to become an above average defender at 2B.  When the ball is hit to second, I no longer say, “Oh No”.  Rickie makes some plays look easy that only a handful of players at second base can make.

3B- Casey McGehee : 2010 UZR: -4.2 , UZR/150: -4.0 , 2 year UZR average:   -6.8. Casey lacks any sort of range, but handles what he can get to.  He only has 2 years of data, but that data clearly shows that he is a below average fielder.

SS- Yunieski Betancourt : 2010 UZR: -9.5 , UZR/150: -9.2 , 3 year UZR average: – 12.5! .  Yikes.  Yuni quite possibly is the worst defensive SS in the National League.  He lacks range and struggles to consistently make the plays expected of a major league SS.

LF- Ryan Braun :  2010 UZR: -9.3 , UZR/150: -8.2 , 3 year UZR average: – 6.6. As I stated earlier, Ryan sometimes gets a late jump on balls and often takes a poor angle to the baseball.  Like Prince, Braun is not on the team for defense and has less of a negative impact everyday in LF, as opposed to his old position of 3B.

CF- Carlos Gomez :  2010 UZR: +4.1 , UZR/150: +8.9 , 3 year UZR average: +9.9. Carlos is a terrific defender.  Given the poor defense flanking him on both sides, his glove is essential to provide some stability defensively.  His struggles at the plate are well documented but Gomez is the only superior defensive starter on the team.  As much as it angers Brewer fans, much of the fate of the 2011 Brewers may rest with Gomez’s ability to provide a minimum offensive output.  Braun and Hart are so bad defensively that his defense needs to be on the field everyday for the Brewers to succeed in the coming season.

RF- Corey Hart :  2010 UZR: -6.4 , UZR/150: -7.0 , 3 year UZR average: – 5.4 .  Some fans suggest that Hart can play CF.  No.  No he can’t.  Corey is a below average right fielder and could be moving to 1B after Prince takes the cash and heads for the exit.

Bench -

Craig Counsell :  2010 UZR: +2.5 , UZR/150: +13.6 , 3 year UZR average: +1.0 .  These numbers are for SS only. I feel Counsell is a better fielder than these numbers give him credit for.  Much like McGehee, Counsell certainly fields what he can get to, but has lost some of his range.  Because of just how awful Betancourt is, if healthy, Counsell may get to play in as many as 120 games as an obvious late inning double switch candidate.

Chris Dickerson :  2010 UZR: + 3.0 , UZR/150: +21.9 , 3 year UZR average: +4.0. These numbers are for all three outfield positions. I included Dickerson because he is young, he has good range, and he can play all three OF positions.  In my opinion, he is a sleeper candidate to eventually claim the CF job.  While not as terrific defensively as Gomez, Dickerson is solid and may give the Brewers a more stable offensive presence.

The evidence clearly suggests that the Brewers will be a poor defensive team.  This lack of defense will put more pressure on the offense to produce and more pressure on the pitching staff to get out of high leverage situations with runners on base.  One little talked about aspect of poor defense is the extra pitches needed in extended innings.  These extra pitches add up over the course of a year and can cause a bullpen to become overextended, which directly leads to injuries and inconsistency.  A poor defense can cause shockwaves throughout a baseball team and can reduce the margin of error to essentially nothing.  Currently, I do not feel as if the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers have enough talent in the other phases of the game to overcome their poor defense. However, that opinion on this has been known to change after one of these .

Throwback of the week.

Often forgotten in the history of Milwaukee baseball is the lineage of the Milwaukee Bears .  The Negro league team played in Milwaukee for only year in 1923.  They have a sharp jersey that the Brewers have celebrated in the past.

For old school today, we are looking at one of my favorite players growing up, Tom Seaver .  Seaver had a mound presence that made me take notice at a young age and poorly attempt to emulate .  Tom Terrific would not back down from a hitter and played the game in the manner it was intended.  Here is another awesome Seaver throwback that would be a great addition to your sparse collection.

Dates Appearing Closer on the Horizon

THIS Sunday , January 30.  Brewers On Deck .  10AM- 5PM.  $15 advance and $20 at the door.

Thursday, February 17.  Pitchers and Catchers report.

No video today because I am FAILING at using a college education to figure out how to attach them.  Evidently it is just technology beyond my grasp.  Next week I will be looking at the minor leagues and discuss who is left you should know about and start following.

 

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  • Shane

    Very good article. I am the average fan and your statistical prowess is second to none.

  • Jeff P.

    I never hear of UZR but i like it, and after seeing the stat applied to each brewer i’d say its a reliable stat…yeah, Braun is not a good outfielder, even that year he had 1 error, bad instincts, decent arm, but a slow delivery!

  • joel e

    i think uzr is only BARELY better than fielding percentage, which i agree isn’t very good. but applaud you for including all the objections to it along with all the reasons for it, as well as for including 3 year averages (6 year averages, like fangraphs uses, would have been even better). but what bothers me most about uzr is how useless it is for explaining what’s going on in the game. for example, if the bases are loaded with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th, and prince fielder is coming up, i can tell by his stats that there’s a 26.1% chance he’ll get a hit (batting average .261), 40.1% chance he’ll get on base, etc. (fully realizing that his hit could just as easily be a line drive as a little squibber just out of the 3rd baseman’s reach.) but if a ball is hit to him and i know his uzr is -7.4, that doesn’t tell me anything other than he’s below average. which i can see just by watching him.

    but all in all i appreciate the article, particularly how you analyze the figures an put them into context. i just hope folks don’t buy into the myth going around that these advanced stats do anything but confirm even more what the simple ones were already doing.

  • Bernie

    The other thing that this article didn’t account for is the relatively fewer plays that fielders will have to make if (a big IF) the pitching staff does its job – more of the balls will be routine grounders or fly balls of medium depth and the fielders won’t have to work so hard. As good a hitter as Braun is, there have been times in LF when it seems he’s jogging after the ball. I’m not discouraged by Prince’s defense at first, but for all that money I’d like to see Braunie hustle just a little more.

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