2010 August 13

Fangraphs — namely Dave Cameron — ranked the Seattle Mariners as the 6th best organization in MLB during this past offseason. In hilariously inept fashion, the Mariners have gone 45-71, spawning the Twitter hashtag “#6org” along the way.

Although this has been a running joke for weeks, if not months, I bring attention to it now because of an increasing focus on defensive metrics and their apparent limitations (moreover, I recently attended the Fangraphs NYC event this past Saturday). Just yesterday, I came across three blog posts attacking the methodology behind defensive statistics. It’s as if bloggers were waiting to see whether the Red Sox would make a late-season push and the Mariners would do ANYTHING before totally jumping on UZR and Plus/Minus and Total Zone.

But before I delve into that, I’ll say that the Fangraphs event and its subsequent afterparty was a damn good time. Almost nothing is better than intelligent baseball discussion while drinking awesome, albeit overpriced, beer. The official Fangraphs event might have had quite a few interesting speakers and some amusing moments, but it was naturally nothing I couldn’t get from just listening to the recording of it — outside of the Bloomberg Sports presentation, which was probably the coolest part of the event. It was also responsible the best #6org moment: as the presenters pulled up video of Justin Smoak’s one HR (Dave Cameron made sure to yell out that he actually had two), someone else yelled out, “Do you have video of him getting sent to the minors?” Sadly, I doubt anyone reading this blog post will comprehend the full scope of this #6org burn. The rest of the event is covered about as comprehensively as possible by this…chick?

The “live” event was just the precursor to the good stuff for me. The meeting down at a bar in the Village wasn’t for a few hours later, so I went go see Inception again in this theater. Perhaps I should have walked around Central Park since it was such a nice day, but I couldn’t resist the pull of the Ziegfeld only 5 blocks away, alright?

There’s not much point in me relaying my baseball conversations with random people, but I did get to mess around with the Bloomberg Sports application that had been showcased at the event. It was fucking glorious. I want a job working for a Major League club just to look up shit all day with it. I would watch video of every 2-0 count of David Wright’s 2010 season for minimum wage. I could see every single sequence a pitcher has thrown in fancy multi-layered pie charts. I could see every ball in the dirt Jeff Francouer has swung at. It’s an absolutely incredible tool.

Besides that, I believe I kept harping on why many Mets fans hate Wright, Reyes, and Beltran. I never even thought of it this way before, but in my drunkenness, I couldn’t help realize that with no one around them for support, the failures of the only good players on the team are magnified greatly. When they suck, the team sucks. And then the natural tendency is to think the team sucks because they suck. SOMETHING needs to be done with the #15org, but it’s not trading Wright or Reyes, even if I’ve almost reached my wit’s end in defending them (mostly against my own dad).

Yet I didn’t take the chance to ask Cameron how he felt about #6org or the apparently failure of focusing on defense this past season. I wish PaulNoonan from Brewed Sports was there to talk to him about thoughts like these:

1. The Zero Bound

You cannot hold a team to fewer than 0 runs. Think about a team made up of average pitchers, 5 Ozzie Smiths (assuming that Ozzie would be brilliant defensively at every position. And let’s leave catcher out of this for now.) and 4 average defenders. Say Ozzie plays 3rd, SS, 2b, CF, and RF, and Mr. Average plays 1st, LF, Catcher, and DH (say we’re in the AL). Already this is a brilliant defensive team. Ozzie in center will cover for most of the deficiencies of the LF, and 1B just isn’t that important a position to defend. Maybe this team gives up 2 runs a game where your normal defensive team gives up 3. Maybe a bit better than that, and maybe a bit worse. Now add another Ozzie. Put him in LF.

How much better did you make the team? The CF Ozzie was already helping Mr. Average LF a lot. Most of the field was covered by brilliant defenders. Most bloop hits were caught. Most plays deep in the hole were being made. Now add another Ozzie at 1st base. How this arguably helps even less. On defense, I would argue that except for catcher each additional investment you make helps you less and less. You are in a situation where you are realizing diminishing returns.

It’s a good point, and one that I’d love to see someone like MGL, the creator of UZR, expound upon. The other points I have some problems with, but this one just seems like common sense. And his last point segues into the biggest problem people have with fielding metrics: there are too many of them.

Tim Marchman over at SI had a good write-up on why defensive stats don’t carry much weight with many fans due to the disparate numbers they supply, even thought they’re attempting to measure the same thing.

This can’t be done with defense because we lack statistics that we can rely on to describe what happens on the field. Colin Wyers of Baseball Prospectus wrote an excellent piece about the problem recently, and it might fairly be summed up “garbage in, garbage out.” The underlying data that feeds systems like Plus/Minus is subjective, not objective, and prone to varying kinds of bias. This does a lot to explain why they arrive at different results.

He also mentions sample size issues and how UZR doesn’t have a strong correlation with team winning percentage. I admit it’s bizarre to see guys go from -10 to +5 from year to year in one fielding statistic, while he might go down over the same two years in another — it just seems WRONG.

Joe Posnanski, while writing about the actual process behind the Plus/Minus system, points out that it’s still better than anything we had before at evaluating performance.

Here’s the main point for me, though: Whatever subjectivity they have in their intensive and painstaking and methodical approach to studying defense seems to me to be NOTHING compared to the subjectivity that you and I get watching baseball even night after night after night. They look at every single play. More than look, they CHART every single play. More than chart, they CONCENTRATE on the defense for every single play. You and I don’t do that. Scouts don’t do that. Announcers, sportswriters, managers, general managers, nobody else does this. We may watch every single play (probably not), but we’re watching those plays in the larger context. We’re watching the pitcher, the hitter, the base runner, the umpires, the fans, the game. They are not. They are watching only defense. It’s a different thing.

Man, I love Joe Pos.

I originally ended this post with that sentence, but that seemed abrupt, no? I haven’t said why I think the Mariners suck (defense at the total cost of offense) or why the Red Sox won’t make the playoffs (injuries and an insane division). I do not believe those two cases have anything to do with defensive stats being wrong or overrated.

Related posts:

  1. The Battle of #6orgs