Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Defense Rests

In diagnosing the issues with the 2009 Twins, many people often point to the pitching staff. That's reasonable; the Twins ranked fourth-to-last in the American League with a 4.50 team ERA -- that includes an ugly 4.84 ERA for the starters. Given how promising the team's young rotation looked a year ago, this nearly across-the-board regression is obviously a rather large disappointment that shrouds this group's future in doubt. But, it is important to note that Twins' pitchers are not totally to blame for the drop-off in run prevention. These guys were not generally getting a lot of help from their defense.

The Twins ranked third-to-last in the majors in team UZR during the 2009 season -- only the abysmal Royals and Mets rated worse. The defensive metric -- widely considered to be one of the most accurate -- suggests that the Twins' defense cost them more than 36 runs over the course of the season. The Twins had been below-average defensively in 2008 as well, but that negative figure is more than double the mark from the previous season. The reasons for the plummet? There are plenty of culprits. Carlos Gomez played in center field less; Denard Span played there more. Jason Kubel started playing the outfield more often. Orlando Cabrera was a regular at shortstop for two months. Joe Crede couldn't stay in the lineup consistently. Alexi Casilla had a terrible year defensively.

The Twins have a long-standing reputation as being a strong defensive club, mainly because they don't commit many errors. But they haven't always lived up to that reputation, and they certainly didn't this year. If he wants to get better results from his pitching staff next year, Bill Smith would be wise to keep team defense in mind as he reconfigures his roster. Fortunately, strong defenders tend to be undervalued assets in free agency as well as in trades.

When the Mariners traded away J.J. Putz and a pair of other players in a blockbuster three-way deal last winter, few people viewed Franklin Gutierrez as the gaudy centerpiece of a hefty return package that also included Aaron Heilman, Mike Carp, Endy Chavez, Jason Vargas, Maikel Cleto and Ezequiel Carrera. However, Gutierrez was quietly one of the league's most valuable overall players this season, playing absolutely stellar defense in center field (20.9 UZR) while posting a solid 764 OPS with 18 homers, 75 RBI and 16 stolen bases. Gutierrez was no small part of the reason the Mariners led the majors in UZR, which itself was no small part of the reason they led the AL in team ERA.

It's tough to find players like Gutierrez who can be quality contributors on both sides, but certainly those are the guys Smith should be focused on getting into his lineup. At the very least, though, he should make sure the defense that lines up on Opening Day next season is one that the Twins' starters can count on to make plays behind them.

12 comments:

TT said...

"Gutierrez was no small part of the reason the Mariners led the majors in UZR"

That statement, if true, tells you a lot about the value of UZR as a metric. The Mariners UZR went up by 106 points between 2008 and 2009. The spread from top to bottom for all teams in 2009 was 135 points. That is a truly amazing impact for one player to have on a team's defense.

My guess is that a team's pitching has more to do with UZR than the other way around.

Ian said...

UZR is nice but it's a bit premature to call it "accurate". Even Keith Law has said UZR should be looked at more as a guide than it's actually numbers.

That said, improving the defense up the middle - say JJ Hardy at short and Punto at 2B - shold be a priority. The outfield log jam will get settled but I'm thinking it'll be Young/Span/Cuddy instead of Span/Gomez/Cuddy so the 'd' will suffer a bit. However, Span was considered a strong defensive CF in the minors so hopefully he can get better at the ML level.

Nick N. said...

That is a truly amazing impact for one player to have on a team's defense.

My guess is that a team's pitching has more to do with UZR than the other way around.


I don't think anyone has made the case that Gutierrez is solely responsible for the Mariners' vast defensive improvement this past season.

Endy Chavez played 383 innings in the outfield with a 17.2 UZR. (A Gutierrez/Chavez OF combo is basically comparable to Gomez/Span.) Jack Wilson -- one of the finest defensive shortstops in the league -- was with the team for a couple months, replacing the awful Yuniesky Betancourt. Jose Lopez had a better year defensively.

There was significantly more turnover in the Mariners' defense than there was in their pitching staff from 2008 to 2009, so your hypothesis seems rather weakly supported.

UZR is nice but it's a bit premature to call it "accurate". Even Keith Law has said UZR should be looked at more as a guide than it's actually numbers.

I never claimed the metric was foolproof, I simply noted that it is "widely considered to be one of the most accurate." I don't put huge faith into any current defensive metric, but UZR is a well designed statistic and certainly the cases of the Twins and Mariners provide strong evidence in its favor.

David said...

I could not agree more, Nick. The Twins defense last season was vastly overrated. I think the Twins need a ++ defensive shortstop and a good-hitting 2B. Span is an outstanding corner outfielder but only an average CF. Move Span to 2B? :-)

CA said...

Good article. This is exactly why, if the Twins are smart, the regular outfield next year simply has to be Span-Gomez-Cuddyer. I don't think it's even close. The Twins' bad team UZR is primarily the result of their outfield, which contributed -29.7 runs, worst in the majors. That's almost three wins below replacement level defense. Even if you don't fully believe the actual value of that number going forward, it's pretty clear that the Twins were well below average in OF defense. When you consider that the Twins will probably have a fly-ball heavy staff next season, the difference between Young-Span-Cuddyer and Span-Gomez-Cuddyer becomes even more important.

As the Mariners have demonstrated, getting good defense is still a relatively easy and cheap way to improve. The Twins should really hear that message. They've got a potential top-five CF in Gomez, and they shouldn't bench him in favor of a bottom-five LF (Young) unless the bad LF is a good enough offensive player to more than offset the worse defensive alignment that results from him being in the lineup (which obviously is not the case for Young).

Bryz said...

Unfortunately, the Twins probably won't mimic the Mariners. With hiring Jack Zduriencik as GM, the Mariners announced they would start focusing more on advanced statistics. Now we all know that the Twins do not do the same, and thus unless their scouting reports agree in the same way the Mariners' view available players, the Twins probably won't see that Gomez is vastly more valuable than Young. They'll overrate the offense and underrate the defense, most likely.

Anonymous said...

If the Twins are indeed in the Akinori Iwamura trade talks, I believe this would improve the defense. Hopefully, the Twins would be able to trade for Aki, then for Hardy, and then re-sign Crede.

If this could be done, I think that the Twins defense would improve dramatically this next year. Having an outfield of Span/Gomez/Cuddyer would also improve the defense. Get it done Twins!

Nick N. said...

Sounds like Iwamura is going to Pittsburgh.

TT said...

"
There was significantly more turnover in the Mariners' defense than there was in their pitching staff from 2008 to 2009"

That appears to be completely inaccurate. The Mariners had about 6000 chances in 2009. Of those, Chavez 107 chances and Wilson had 127. They were completely insignificant.

By contrast, in 2009 only about 90 starts came from pitchers who had started the year before. Silva, Dickey, Batista and Feierabend combined for 70 starts in 2008 and Silva had 6 in 2009.

"your hypothesis seems rather weakly supported."

Only if you don't bother to check the facts.

Nick N. said...

That appears to be completely inaccurate. The Mariners had about 6000 chances in 2009. Of those, Chavez 107 chances and Wilson had 127. They were completely insignificant.

Just so everyone's clear, more than 2,000 of those 6,000 chances came from first basemen and catchers, essentially for catching be ball when it's thrown to them and fielding bunts. Two hundred and thirty OF/SS chances are not by any means insignificant, nor are the 450 chances in the outfield that Gutierrez amassed.

What's the point of bothering to look up the stats if you have no idea how to use them, and must rely on exaggerating and misleading people into believing your point?

TT said...

So there were "only" 4000 chances by players not the first baseman and catcher and 700 of them made all the difference in the team's UZR? I don't think so.

"Two hundred and thirty OF/SS chances are not by any means insignificant"

As a matter of fact they are in this context. Combined they are a little over 5% of those 4000 chances. Any difference they caused in the team's overall UZR is going to be completely drowned out by statistical noise.

"What's the point of bothering to look up the stats if you have no idea how to use them, and must rely on exaggerating and misleading people into believing your point?"

Good point. Its easier to just form an opinion and assert that it is manifestly obvious that it is true.

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