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Early Season Results On the Defensive

By Mike Silva ~ April 20th, 2010. Filed under: Mike Silva, Sabermetrics.

Defensive statistics have been a hotly contested debate, especially at this site. Just three short years ago, when I started the radio show, the only defensive statistics I bothered to look at were errors and my mental database on range. Now every website (radio as usual hasn’t caught up) cites UZR or plus/minus when discussing a certain players defensive prowess. Will Leitch of NY Magazine wrote an in depth piece about the new metrics, the business behind it, and how it has changed behaviors in the Yankees and Red Sox front office.

Last summer I was taken to task for questioning the validity of UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and WAR (Wins Above Replacement). My main premise behind the knock was each stat has manmade bias towards the creators view on baseball. In the case of WAR, part of the player’s value was tied into how “difficult” their position was. For some reason first base isn’t a particularly difficult position to play, but I assume Mike Piazza wasn’t asked his take on that.

As time evolved I came to understand, and in some ways, appreciate the information each was providing. I still only use it as secondary measures, but at least I can evaluate a player I haven’t seen in a “quick and dirty” manner. Before advanced metrics there was very little information about defense outside of assists and errors and was basically a world unknown.

The modern executive, whether it’s in business or baseball, is looking for an advantage. In a game where overhead is extremely expensive doing “more with less” is always a desired goal. In the case of the Red Sox, they decided to take the philosophy that saving a run is just as good as driving one in. A year earlier, the Seattle Mariners rode defense to 85 victories. Just like how “moneyball” and on base percentage became the cool thing to do ten years ago, defense is now the new black. The problem is you can’t win scoring zero runs, so even the best defense is a little offense to get you through a ballgame. The early returns on the revamped Red Sox aren’t good (4-9) and Seattle is off to a pedestrian 6-7 start.

No one could question the value of defense. In 1999, the New York Mets had what some would say “the best infield ever” defensively with Robin Venture, Rey Ordonez, Edgardo Alfonzo, and John Olreud. We don’t have advanced metrics to prove that statement, errors were the premise of that Sports Illustrated article, but from having actually watched those guys they were very good. As a matter of fact, the 1999 Mets had a very average starting staff and defense is one reason they were able to win 97 games with a big three of Leiter, Reed, and Kenny Rogers. Despite their defensive prowess, that group could actually hit. Olerud, Ventura, and Alfonzo averaged an OPS just under .900. Can the Red Sox say the same of their defensive imports of Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron?

The Red Sox took the great concept of defense and used it to justify not giving Jason Bay a five year deal. I have to believe that Theo Epstein is a smart enough guy to know that Mike Cameron is, quite simply, a bad hitter that pops the occasional home run. He has yet to put together even one offensive season that matches even the most pedestrian of Jason Bay. Better yet, for all the knocks I haven’t seen Bay play poorly in the outfield and Fenway Park’s leftfield, although not easy by any stretch, isn’t like the spacious Citi Field.

For the first time in his career this ballclub has Theo Epstein’s fingerprints all over it. Remember, the 2004 club was primarily Dan Duquette. The 2007 bunch had two players, Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, who were acquired while Theo was hiding in a monkey suit. Most believe he never would have traded Hanley Ramirez and who knows if the Sox win without Beckett that season. My guess is probably not.

Is it time to panic? 4-9 for the Red Sox is a small “sample size” (tell that to the 5-8 Mets and Jerry Manuel), mainly because many in the media loves Theo Epstein. Many love advanced metric ideology even more. To say the Sox are “flawed” would be admitting the whole plus/minus philosophy isn’t all what it’s cracked up to be. Do you think even the best defense is going to stop the Yankees from scoring? Did it during the opening series? What the Sox could have used against the Yanks was a few clutch hits. Will Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron provide that? Don’t hold your breath. Yes, the Yankees went with Brett Gardner, but only because they surrounded him with 8 other offensive players. Their main pickup, Curtis Granderson, plays defense but can hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs to boot. If the Sox wanted a new outfielder other than Bay it was Granderson, not Cameron, they should have acquired.

There is nothing wrong with focusing on defense and using advanced metrics as the guideline. The Sox have some good starting pitching and a core of top offensive players, but their lineup lacks depth, especially in the American League, and the bullpen is suspect. To me, the defensive philosophy was a ruse to justify not paying Bay the contract. Maybe they will be proven right in the long run, but you only have so many opportunities to win and, right now, they appear to be a distant third in roster construction behind Tampa and the Yankees.

The key to building any baseball team is balance with offense, defense, and pitching. The Yankees have been fortunate to accomplish that, but they acquired offensive players who also have a good glove. In the end, Boston may have to go back to the laboratory and build the 2011 team more in the traditional Red Sox mode and import some sluggers because, right now, it appears they took a statistical tool (defensive metrics) and made it the ideology behind their roster. That is preposterous.

Yes, a run saved is just as good as a run scored, but only if you actually score that run. I suspect the early season results are no fluke, but a failure in the making.

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Mike Silva has hosted sports shows on 107.1 FM Champions ESPN Radio Long Island ,1240 AM WGBB , Blog Talk Radio and live from Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant. He’s also built and maintained two popular social media hubs: New York Baseball Digest and Sports Media Watchdog. Mike has broken national and local stories, as well as been mentioned on the YES Network, SNY.tv, WFAN, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NY Daily News, New York Magazine, Journal News and the NY Post. Contact Mike professionally at mikesilvamedia.com

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1 Response to Early Season Results On the Defensive

  1. swedski

    I gotta agree with you 100% on this one. The Red Sox line about pitching and defense is fine but offense wins games. I was overjoyed when the Yanks went after Tex and Granderson because no matter what you don’t get Giambi in the field. He must have cost the Yanks 20-30 games with his defense alone during his tenure. Some of those were BIG games.
    I think that there is something the Red Sox are not saying about the financial situation (like the Mets) that is stopping them from making any big deals and making Theo talk about Pitching and D.
    Just to harp a little more other than Bay who has Theo brought in that has done great. Pedroia? Did he draft him? I know he signed Drew.
    They look terrible. No continuity.

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