The U Files # 66: The Detrimental Defense

The Mets have made it a focus to aspire to good team defense. After fielding a team lauded in the popular press for it's defensive prowess in 1999, the Mets have deteriorated to the point of being one of the league's worst defenses in 2002. The moves the team made before the 2003 season did not put a premium on good defensive play. The Mets defense in 2003 was improved over it's condition the prior year in the end, though that's hardly glowing praise. (Free Preview of Premium Content)

For our purposes we will use measures of fielding more advanced than simple errors. Fielding percentage is a valid defensive statistic, but it measures a very limited cross section of the defensive game. Plus, it hinges on a rather small number of plays that make the difference between the most and least sure-handed players.

The most important aspect of fielding in baseball is making an out, out of a ball in play. A measure of how often a ball that is caught is not converted into an out does have a certain meaning, but misses the most important way a defense can succeed or fail. The ability to catch as many balls in play as possible is the central point of fielding. A fielder with poor range will allow more hits than a set of iron hands commits errors, and a fielder with good range will prevent more hits than a set of sure hands prevents errors. Hits saved or let through are the mark of a players fielding prowess.

There are simple measures as far in the mainstream as to be posted at a site such as ESPN.com, which attempt to measure this area. Range Factor (RF) is a very elementary attempt to explore this territory, but is too severely flawed to be useful. At best it requires a great deal of interpretation, as one must nail down precisely the context in which the factor was achieved. It is simply, the number of assists plus putouts a fielder makes per game (more recently, per nine innings played). It is affected by such things as the strikeout rate of the team's pitching staff (which determines how many total balls in play the team faces), the lefty/righty split of the pitching staff, the ground ball/fly ball orientation of the pitching staff, and so on.

Zone rating (ZR) is an improvement over range factor. It is a statistic published by STATS, inc which is "the percentage of balls in a fielder's ‘zone' which he catches." It may fail by treating all balls in play, in all areas of a large "zone" equally, plus the zones it considers do not add up to cover the entire field.

Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is the most advanced defensive metric generated to date; an expansion upon the basic principle of zone rating. It breaks up the field up into a number of sub-zones which give a more precise assessment than the broad areas of ZR. It considers the number of balls caught out of the total number of chances in each sub zone for each player, compared to the league average out rate in that sub-zone, and multiplied by the average value of a ball in that area (in terms of runs). These assessments are made in each sub zone and added up for all sub zones a player makes a play in, and then adjusted for certain factors to make the final grade more accurate (it having been determined by careful evaluation of the system that this is needed).

UZR is stated in terms of runs saved or allowed, which makes the final product easy to understand – unlike RF or ZR (what exactly is the significance of your center fielder making 2.67 plays per nine innings or catching 87.4 percent of the balls in his zone???)

The version of UZR to be quoted here is the work of Mitchell Lichtman of Baseball Primer, and is posted at the Primer website for free viewing.

Without further ado, the 2003 Zone Ratings of the Mets:

Name

UZR Runs

DP/Arm Runs

Alomar, Roberto

-6

-2

Bell, Jay

-10

-1

Burnitz, Jeromy

-3

-1

Cedeno, Roger

-3

-1

Clark, Tony

-8

0

Duncan, Jeff

19

-2

Floyd, Cliff

-9

-1

Garcia, Danny

-3

0

Gonzalez, Raul

5

2

McEwing, Joe

-3

-1

Perez, Timo

-1

-2

Phillips, Jason

-1

0

Redman, Prentice

-1

0

Sanchez, Rey

-1

0

Scutaro, Marco

0

-1

Shinjo, Tsuyoshi

9

4

Valandia, Jorge

6

0

Vaughn, Mo

-4

0

Matt Watson

-2

0

Wigginton, Ty

-23

0

TOTAL

-39

-7



Notes:

Jose Reyes struggled in his first taste of ML play, though in a short season. Anecdotal evidence suggests he struggled immediately upon his promotion and improved his play with time.

Roger Cedeno, who had established himself as one of the worst defensive players in the universe, must have strained himself terribly to limit the damage he caused to just four runs.

Tony Clark has not lived up to his excellent defensive reputation.

The Mets got a break with the early retirement of Mo Vaughn. In recent years he had deteriorated into the worst defensive first baseman in baseball. In a full season he could have cost the team close to 30 runs. Tony Clark did hurt the team somewhat in limited time at first, but Jason Phillips played nearly average defense and limited the harm caused at the first base position.

The Mets have seen a great turnaround from the days when Robin Ventura provided solid defense if nothing else; Ty Wigginton is just about the worst defensive third baseman in baseball.

Jeff Duncan was a major force in keeping the Mets total as high as it was. He saved an astounding 17 runs in 45 games. Due to the small sample, it is extremely unlikely this is a true representation of his defensive ability; if he could save 61 runs per 162 games he would be one of the greatest defensive players in the history of baseball.

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