Fielding remains the last Wild West in the statistical analysis of baseball. The value of a batter was measured more or less accurately by Bill James and others in the 70s and 80s; everything since then has been a minor refinement. A decade ago, Voros McCraken realized that all pitchers have similar levels of control on their balls in play, and that strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed were the best way to measure the effectiveness of a pitcher. So in any given season, by the numbers, we have a very good idea which hitters are the best, and we have a pretty good idea which pitchers are the best.
What we don’t have, however, is a great idea which fielders are the best in a given season. The numbers we have now — UZR and defensive runs saved being two of the most popular — seem to work well in huge samples. Baseball-Reference’s Total Zone identifies Ozzie Smith as the best fielding shortstop in baseball history and Brooks Robinson as the best fielding third basemen. It doesn’t seem as though many people would offer passionate arguments against either. But in progressively smaller samples, however, the defensive numbers start to vary wildly. It remains somewhat unclear why. But these huge shifts happen: By UZR, Angel Pagan was one of the best outfielders in baseball in 2010, saving 15.4 runs. In 2011, the UZR system rated Pagan as one of the worst, costing the Mets 14.3 runs in the outfield. I have no idea if Angel Pagan is a good fielder or not. He’s either one of the best, one of the worst, or somewhere in between. That doesn’t exactly narrow it down.
Teams attempting to build around quantified fielding in recent seasons have found mixed results. The Seattle Mariners have constructed their teams around elite fielders, bringing in glovemen Franklin Guiterrez, Endy Chavez, Chone Figgins, the shortstops Wilson, and Casey Kotchman in recent years. Seattle allowed the fewest runs in the AL and won 85 games in 2009, thanks in part to the strength of their fielding, becoming a temporary sabermetric darling. Then they finished last in both 2010 and 2011, losing 196 games along the way. The Oakland Athletics have also focused on run prevention in recent seasons, and have also found mixed results, finishing last, second, and then third in AL West over the past three seasons. It appears difficult to build a team around fielding — partially because it’s so hard to measure fielding as accurately as teams can measure pitching and hitting, and partially because teams that focus on defense at the expense of offense tend not to score many runs. The Mariners and A’s just didn’t score enough runs.
On the other hand, very quietly, a handful of teams have figured out the secret to putting a better defense on the team. And it has nothing to do with trading for no-hit, Gold Glove shortstops — sometimes, it actually involves trading those guys. You don’t need better fielders; you just need to teach the fielders you already have to stand in new places.
Enter the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers, a terrible fielding team that isn’t actually all that bad at fielding. On most days this season, the NL Central champion Brewers used this defensive alignment:
C – Jonathan Lucroy
1B – Prince Fielder
2B – Rickie Weeks
SS – Yuniesky Betancourt
3B – Casey McGehee
LF – Ryan Braun
CF – Carlos Gomez/Nyjer Morgan
RF – Corey Hart
Yuniesky Betancourt has been called a “disaster at shortstop.” Casey McGehee led National League third basemen in errors this season. The Brewers have constantly toyed with the idea of moving Rickie Weeks into the outfield, as they already did with Ryan Braun after he fielded .895 at third in his rookie year. Prince Fielder looks like a fuzzy marshmallow someone tried to blow up in the microwave and then stuck a first baseman’s mitt on. Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan are both good outfielders, but they’re really the team’s only plus defenders, and they split time in center field. The remainder of the team could benefit from a shift or two down the defensive spectrum. By all accounts, this should be a terrible fielding team. For a while, it looked like they might be.
And, in 2010, they certainly were. Using basically the same lineup, only with Jim Edmonds as the center field fill-in in the place of Nyjer Morgan and rookie defensive wizard Alcides Escobar taking the innings of defensive muggle Yuniesky Betancourt, the Brewers finished 29th in defensive efficiency (the rate which teams turn balls in play into outs) and 26th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency. They were brutal defensively, a slugging and error-fest that looked more like beer-league softball than anything else.
By all accounts, the Brewers’ already poor fielding should have taken a hit over the winter. Edmonds retired and the Brewers traded Escobar in the Zack Greinke trade, bringing back Betancourt to play shortstop. But the Brewers’ fielding didn’t get worse. It got better. This season, the Crew finished 13th out of 30 in defensive efficiency and 14th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency in 2011, cruising to the NL Central crown and advancing to the NLCS. They weren’t the best fielding team in the majors, but they certainly weren’t among the worst anymore, enough to qualify as an accomplishment in its own right.
The difference isn’t the fielders, because the fielders are almost exactly the same. It’s where the fielders are standing. Under new manager Ron Roenicke, the Brewers have heavily utilized spray charts and put on aggressive defensive shifts against both lefthanded and righthanded hitters this season:
Under Ken Macha in 2010, the Brewers shifted less than any other team in baseball. With Roenicke taking the helm this year, the Brewers shifted on 157 balls in play, more than any team except for Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays. Roenicke is more aggressive than Maddon against righties, however. Dan Uggla, Carlos Lee, Albert Pujols and Geovany Soto have all faced Roenicke’s shifted infield alignment, as have a dozen other right-handed hitters.
Not only do the Brewers move into Ted Williams shifts against lefthanded sluggers, as many teams do, but they often send second baseman Rickie Weeks to the left side of second base against righthanded batters, with Betancourt playing deep in the hole and McGehee on the line. The shifts forced opposing sluggers to make a choice: They could try to hit past the shift, or they could refuse to pull the ball and become singles hitters, trying to punch the ball into the opposite field.
The results suggest most tried, and failed, to hit the ball past the shift. After opposing hitters batted .253 on ground balls against the Brewers last season, 12th out of 16 in the National League, that average dropped to .229 on ground balls this year, fourth out of the 16 teams. The Brewers’ defense significantly improved in 2011 from 2010 by defensive efficiency, park-adjusted defensive-efficiency, UZR, and defensive runs saved, despite the fact they downgraded their shortstop over the winter and remained about the same everywhere else. They still made a ton of errors (their fielding percentage actually dropped a point this year) but they were cutting off balls other teams never reach to more than make up the difference.
“Our club doesn’t have a lot of plus-defensive players, not a lot of Gold Glovers,” Brewers GM Doug Melvin told Sports Illustrated in April. “Our shifting has improved our defense. You always have a better chance to making a player from a natural position as opposed to taking three, four or five steps to field a ball and throw it.’
And unlike the Mariners and Athletics, the Brewers upgraded their defense without cost to the offense. They finished fourth in the league in scoring in 2010 and fifth in 2011, able to run the same lineup of softball sluggers without having to worry about the fielding.
(It should probably be noted that the Tampa Bay Rays, the runaway best fielding team in baseball this season, use a combination of aggressive shifts and talented fielders. I suspect this partially explains why they keeping winning way more games than anyone predicts.)
The implications for the Mets, or really any team that struggled catching the ball in 2011, should be obvious. They don’t have to import no-hit, all-glove fielders to improve their defense, at potential cost to their hitting. They just have to move around the players they already have. The Mets don’t have to get Daniel Murphy to improve his range at second base. They just have to get him to stand ten feet to his left or right against certain batters. If Mets fans are looking for a sign of hope, with their deep offense and miserable fielding and pitching, the Mets aren’t in that different a position from where the Brewers stood a year ago.
And what the Brewers are doing likely represents the next phase of baseball. In a post-Moneyball game, where players are increasingly valued equally by all teams, getting the most out of the players you already have appears to be the newest way to gain a competitive edge. Keeping your pitchers healthy and on the mound, minimizing time spent on the DL, player development, and getting the most out of your fielders – that is the future of baseball. Which players are good at hitting and which players are the best at pitching, those codes have been cracked and written about and put on the big screen. The teams that can accurately measure fielding, that final Wild West, should have an advantage. But apparently not as much as the teams like these Brewers, who get the most out of the fielders they already have.