Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Red Sox are good at defense

Tony Massarotti says defense is more important to the Red Sox than ever before. With so many question marks surrounding the team's bats -- David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, Mike Lowell, J.D. Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury and whoever it is that ends up playing shortstop -- the Red Sox might have to win a few games on the strength of their defense.

Some snippets from Mazz:

* What we could see, from start to finish, is one of the best defensive Red Sox clubs of all-time. Last year, after Lowrie replaced Julio Lugo at shortstop, the improvement in the Red Sox' defense was considerable. Through July 11, when Lugo served as the starter, the Sox ranked ninth in the league in fielding percentage. From that point forward, after Lowrie took over, the Sox ranked first. After the trading deadline, when the Sox effectively swapped Ramirez for Jason Bay, the Red Sox had an average or above-average defender at every position on the diamond.

* "I think Ellsbury in center field grew last year into being a pretty good defender," manager Terry Francona said. "I think that'll only get better as he learns the league and gains confidence. It's something we talked about today. Go around the outfield, J.D. and Bay are both good. Rocco is very good. Youk and Pedey are Gold Glove-caliber. Lowell's Gold Glove-caliber. And we think our catcher's really good."

* The 2006 club that featured Alex Gonzalez at shortstop set club records for fewest errors (66), highest fielding percentage (.989) and most errorless games (106). The Sox now could be very much in the same class, though the club refrains from evaluating its capability in traditional ways.
Example: Let's say 10 balls each are hit to Lugo and Lowrie. The former gets to all 10 and makes one error, producing nine outs and a fielding percentage of .900. The latter gets to only nine and handles them all cleanly. Though Lowrie's fielding percentage would be 1.000, Epstein would view them as equals based on the fact that each produced nine outs in 10 chances.
"Basically, what we're trying to measure is how often fielders' chances turn into outs," Epstein said. "As a whole, our teams have been good about turning balls in play into outs and that's an important part of run prevention
, which makes it important in terms of winning."

Massarotti doesn't take a look, though, at those nontraditional stats -- meaning pretty much everything other than fielding percentage. Fielding percentage can be very deceiving; if a shortstop stands in place for 162 games and only goes after anything hit directly to him, he'd finish the season with a fielding percentage of 1.000.

Bill James and the Fielding Bible have come up with a system to measure overall defensive ability in a plus-minus format. It's still not totally scientific, but it's far better than the archaic system that still doesn't charge an outfielder with an error if he misses the ball entirely.

Here's the system: A player gets credit (a "plus" number) if he makes a play that at least one other player at his position missed during the season, and he loses credit (a "minus" number) if he misses a play that at least one player made. The size of the credit is directly related to how often players make the play. Each play is looked at individually, and a score is given for each play. Sum up all the plays for each player at his position and you get his total plus/minus for the season. A total plus/minus score near zero means the player is average.

This is the type of measurement Theo Epstein is talking about; Epstein and the Red Sox, after all, hired James as a special advisor in 2003.

And what that measurement shows is, if we look at defensive statistics from 2008 and apply them to projected lineups for 2009, the Red Sox do, in fact, have a pretty good defensive team -- but that not everyone is quite as good as Francona is making them out to be.

(Note: Catchers aren't measured on the plus-minus scale and thus are disregarded here.)

Red Sox
1B -- Kevin Youkilis, +6
2B -- Dustin Pedroia, +15
SS -- Jed Lowrie/Julio Lugo, +8/-2
3B -- Mike Lowell, +8
LF -- Jason Bay, -13
CF -- Jacoby Ellsbury, +6
RF -- J.D. Drew, -4
Total: With Lowrie, +26. With Lugo, +16.

* Bay, statistically the team's worst defender last season, turned a minus-19 in 2007 but a plus-12 in 2006. The downward trend isn't a good sign, but a full season with the Monster might help.
* Drew had a plus-12 with Los Angeles in 2006 and a plus-5 in his first season in the American League in 2007 before slipping last season.
* In case you're wondering how Ellsbury, based on his reputation, was only a plus-6: Those numbers only count his time in center field, where he split time with Coco Crisp. He was a plus-7 in left field and a plus-9 in right field, too.

Compare that to the:

2006 Red Sox
1B -- Kevin Youkilis, +9
2B -- Mark Loretta, -15
3B -- Mike Lowell, +6
SS -- Alex Gonzalez, +4
LF -- Manny Ramirez, -31
CF -- Coco Crisp, -7
RF -- Trot Nixon, +2
Total: -32.

* Surprised about Gonzalez's relatively average number? He earned a +12 when going to his left, according to the video scouts, but evened it out with a minus-11 when going to his right.
* Crisp turned in a plus-26, tops in baseball, in 2007.
* Look at the upgrade Pedroia has been over Loretta -- 30 points on the plus/minus scale between 2006 and 2008. No wonder Gonzalez had to spend so much time going to his left.

And, just for the fun of it, a look at the projected lineups for the Yankees and Rays, too:

1B -- Mark Teixeira, +24
2B -- Robinson Cano, -16
SS -- Derek Jeter, -12
3B -- Alex Rodriguez, +2
LF -- Johnny Damon, +7
CF -- Nick Swisher/Melky Cabrera, -9/+6
RF -- Xavier Nady, -4
Total: With Swisher, -8. With Cabera, +7.

* Cano's defensive stat line over the last three years looks like a yo-yo -- minus-4 in 2006, plus-17 in 2007 and minus-16 in 2008.
* Jeter, on the other hand, is no yo-yo -- he was minus-22 in 2006 and minus-34 in 2007.
* Damon has turned in a pretty consistent minus-2 or minus-3 in center field over the last three years, but left field seems to fit him better.
* Cabrera was a minus-21 in 2007 before bouncing back in 2008; odds are that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

1B -- Carlos Pena, +14
2B -- Akinori Iwamura, -3
SS -- Jason Bartlett, -1
3B -- Evan Longoria, +11
LF -- Carl Crawford, +23
CF -- B.J. Upton, -9
RF -- Matt Joyce, +3
Total: +38.

* Crawford, who has the speed to play center field but who apparently is more comfortable in left field, had an even zero in 2007 before making a gigantic leap forward last season.
* If Bartlett didn't merit even a plus-1 on the defensive scale, with his hitting stats, in what way was he the Rays' Most Valuable Player last season?

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