Thursday, November 12, 2009

Defense in left field far too overlooked

It might have raised some eyebrows when Fox Sports reported that the Red Sox were among the teams interested in the Marlins' Dan Uggla -- to play left field.

The news brings to mind a question that already should have come to mind given how much money the Red Sox are prepared to pay Jason Bay: How important is defense in left field?

The answer: More than it's given credit for.

The more you think about it, in fact, the more outrageous it seems that teams routinely stick their worst defensive outfielder in left field. Righthanded hitters outnumber lefthanded hitters by about a 1.5-to-1 margin in the major leagues, and that means far more fly balls end up being hit to left field instead of right field.

Most teams, however, stick their best defensive corner outfielder in right field because he'll have a chance to throw out a runner going from first to third on a single a couple of dozen times a year. Even the Red Sox do it: J.D. Drew played right field last season and Jason Bay played left field -- and Drew is a significantly better defensive outfielder than Bay.

According to FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement metric, a statistic that measures both hitting and fielding to determine how much better a player is than an average Triple-A replacement, defense among left fielders is tremendously undervalued.

Matt Holliday led all left fielders in WAR thanks in part to the fact that his fielding ability was on the plus side of the ledger rather than the minus. Here's how the top half of the leaderboard looked (with Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games in parentheses):

Holliday, 5.7 (6.0)
Carl Crawford, 5.5 (17.5)
Nyjer Morgan, 4.9 (30.8)
Ryan Braun, 4.8 (minus-13.6)
Raul Ibanez, 4.2 (10.7)
Denard Span, 3.8 (16.7)
Adam Lind, 3.7 (minus-24)
Jason Bay, 3.5 (minus-11.2)

Funny thing: Five of the top six spots are taken by left fielders who make a positive rather than negative impact with the glove. Conventional wisdom would suggest that you'd take Ryan Braun over Nyjer Morgan every day of the week and twice on day-night doubleheaders. But that just shows how undervalued defense among left fielders really is.

Like first basemen, left fielders always have been judged solely on their ability to hit -- which is strange given how many fly balls tend to be hit to left field. A team that can find an speedy left fielder with good instincts -- a Crawford or a Morgan, for example -- has an upper hand on one that has to stick a statue in left field and hope for the best.

Fortunately for Uggla, he doesn't hit like a second baseman. He hits like -- well, he hits like a left fielder. His OPS'es over the last three seasons:
2007: .805
2008: .874
2009: .813

The .813 OPS he recorded last season would have ranked him 25th out of 62 full-time outfielders -- right in between Carl Crawford and Denard Span and ahead of names like Jacoby Ellsbury, Nick Markakis and Shane Victorino.

That, by his standards, was a disappointing season.

The next question that comes to mind: Can Uggla play a left field decent enough to make a trade -- and an expected $7 million salary -- worthwhile?

Nine players have played at least 30 games at second base and in the outfield in a season over the last three seasons -- and all but two were significantly better in the outfield than at second base:

(Sorry for the weird white space here. There are no HTML experts in these parts, and that means formatting experiments kind of go awry.)

NameUZR at 2BUZR at OF
Skip Schumaker, 2009-8.5-46.5
Chris Burke, 2007-2.8-21.4
Ben Zobrist, 200930.831.6
Delwyn Young, 2009-17.1-2.6
Esteban German, 2008-15.66.0
Mark DeRosa, 2008-15.911.5
B.J. Upton, 2007-25.83.6
Joe Inglett, 2008-9.122.1
Eugenio Velez, 2009-28.117.9

Other than Schumaker -- who might be the victim of small sample size, as he played a pretty decent outfield with more playing time in 2008 -- and Burke, just about everyone else was a bad defensive second baseman who turned into a pretty solid defensive outfielder.

Here's the caveat: Most of the above players moved because they were lousy defensive second basemen. You just don't take a guy who can handle second base competently and stick him in left field.

Uggla is not a competent defensive second baseman, either. His bat just provides enough thump to compensate for his defensive shortcomings. Check out his UZR/150 numbers for the past three seasons:
2007: minus-11.3
2008: 2.0
2009: minus-9.6

Among second basemen in the major leagues this season, only Luis Castillo was worse.

Maybe Uggla can do what Mark DeRosa and B.J. Upton have done -- that is, take the athleticism that makes them to look like second basemen and use it to chase down fly balls in the outfield. If he can do that, he might turn himself from an infielder who makes a negative impact defensively into an outfielder who makes a positive impact defensively.

And if he can hit the way most teams expect he can hit, well, he might not be such a bad fit in left field at Fenway Park.

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