Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Derek Jeter's Pyrite Glove

The Gold Glove Awards are voted on by coaches throughout the league and are given to whom they perceive to be the best fielders at each position. The American League incarnation of the awards was released today. Here they are:

Pitcher: Mark Buehrle

Catcher: Joe Mauer

1B: Mark Teixeira

2B: Robinson Cano’

3B: Evan Longoria

SS: Derek Jeter

OF: Carl Crawford

OF: Franklin Gutierrez

OF: Ichiro

For the most part the coaches did, in my opinion, a terrific job. Lots of players that deserved Gold Gloves (Brett Gardner, Mark Ellis, Daric Barton to name a few) did not get them, but the guys the coaches picked are fine and I won’t argue with any of them. Except one: Derek Jeter.

For years debate has raged about the quality of Derek Jeter’s defense. Stat heads say he is lousy, Yankee apologists want Derek Jeter’s defense to make sweet, sweet love to them. Jeter has become the linchpin in the debate about the usefulness of numbers in baseball. Many baseball traditionalists have been beaten into submission by the nerds and their math as far as offense is concerned, but the one thing Joe Morganites have held onto for a while has been defense. “You have to watch the games to determine who is good defensively, not just look at numbers,” they say, “you fuckin’ nerd.”. I totally agree. Allow me to explain………

For as long as baseball has been around, there have been errors. Errors and Fielding Percentage (the % of plays on which a player doesn’t make errors) are the mainstream benchmarks for evaluating defensive ability. These stats are deeply flawed for two reasons. First off, errors are based on the subjective judgment of the team’s official scorer. Second, and most importantly, the fundamental flaw of the Error lies in its definition. An Error is credited to a player when it looks like he should have made a play but did not record an out. So there are two ways to avoid errors. You can make every play, or you can make it look like a play could not have been made. A lead-footed fielder (Pat Burrell, Adam Dunn, Fatty McInfielder) won’t come close to fielding a ball that even average fielders would get to but won’t be credited with an error because he didn’t misplay/bobble/drop the ball. It just fell or whizzed past his slow, lumbering ass. Conversely, great fielders who flub balls that most fielders wouldn’t even come close to making a play on are credited with errors. Errors don’t work.

“Eric, didn’t you say you agreed with the people who say you have to watch games to determine who is good defensively? Get to that shit.”

In 2004 Baseball Info Solutions (headquarters in Coplay, PA) began Plus/Minus. Every play of every game is watched and charted by by game charters who enter the outcome of the play into a computer. They record the exact distance, direction, speed and type of every batted ball and whether or not the fielder made a play on the ball.

Say, a ball hit softly into the hole to the right of the shortstop (Baseball Info. Solutions has very detailed “vectors” mapped out on the field but I’m being less detailed for simplicity) is fielded successfully and converted into an out 26% of the time. If the shortstop converts the play he is awarded +.74. The player gets credit for the play being made (1.0) minus the expectation that he should have made it (.26). If they play is not made he receives a -.26. The sum of these debits and credits are added up over the course of a season and published in various publications.

I have issues with this process. Namely, cumulative stats have problems. It is possible that the reason Chase Utley is perennially toward the top of 2B Plus/Minus is due to the fact that he has lots of playable balls hit his way. His stats are padded because his pitchers induce more groundballs or just by randomness. To account for this, Baseball Info Solutions also publishes the totals from the past 3 years. This gives a larger sample size and is more representative of players’ actual defensive prowess. So you see, YOU DO have to watch the games to know who the best defensive player is. All of them.

It just so happens that I have a copy of this year’s Bill James Handbook, which has the results from Baseball Info Solutions’ exploits during this past (2010) season. Guess who is in the bottom five Shortstops when it comes to Plus/Minus in 2010? Guess who is in the bottom 5 for the past 3 years?

Derek Jeter.

So while Jeter has been part of some of the most iconic defensive plays of the past decade, he’s not a good defensive shortstop. At age 36, his free agency case is one that will be a lot of fun to follow. While it will be fun to watch the Yankees overpay for a mediocre player well beyond his prime, it won’t be fun when your favorite team is negotiating an extension with their shortstop, and the player’s agent is citing the contract the Evil Empire gave to The Captain’s corpse as precedent for a deal. We shall wait and see.

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