I think that there are a lot of big picture baseball stories that we saw unfold this offseason. A lot of important things happened. As written by Joe at RAB, the top end of the free agent market has taken a serious hit. Nearly all GMs, including Brian Cashman, have been on a very strict budget this year. Both as a necessity of the recession and as a part of the gradual evolution toward more rational decision making, these same General Managers have seemed to be a lot smarter than in past years – avoiding the overpriced, aging, overrated players. Except for Ed Wade.
However, I think that the big picture story that we’ll look back on years from now and judge this offseason by is the reevaluation of defense by major league teams, and at other times by fans. Defense has always been the hardest thing for us to quantify online.
For the most part, we’ve figured out how offense works. Runs are scored at a predictable rate (with some random variation) based upon hits, bases, walks, baserunning, etc. We also know pretty well that hitting is 50% of the game – since a run scored is as valuable as a run saved.
The question that is still up for debate is the other 50% of the game. Run saving has two components – pitching and defense. Some people will tell you that pitchers control the vast majority of the remaining 50% – somewhere around 39-40%. Some will tell you that the reality is more evenly split – pitchers control maybe 30-35% . That’s a huge difference – the difference between defense-heavy players being assets or liabilities.
Major league teams have bet on defense this offseason. The Red Sox replaced a very productive hitter in Jason Bay with a less productive defensive specialist in Mike Cameron, and are doing everything they can to jettison Mike Lowell. The A’s paid good money for Coco Crisp, and appear to be strongly considering Adrian Beltre. Jason Bay couldn’t find a decently huge deal that guys like Carlos Lee got a few years ago, but Chone Figgins and Placido Polanco did.
Teams that have showed unexpected and prolonged strength in the past few years have mostly been strong defensive clubs. Most notable have been the Mariners and Rays. Neither had a particularly strong set of pitchers – the Mariners practically were picking people out of the stands to pitch after Felix Hernandez – but both had top notch defensive arrangements. Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and the rest in Tampa Bay provide almost as much value according to Fangraphs on defense as on offense. The Mariners took this strange paradigm to new levels in 2009 – Gutierrez, Ichiro, Beltre, and Jack Wilson are collectively impotent with the bat, but gold glovers on defense.
This is a very pertinent condundrum for the Yankees. Brett Gardner is probably a very good to elite defensive player. How good is subject to debate, but our eyes as well as our aggregated eyes (statistics) confirm that he tracks down a lot of balls in center field. Our eyes as well as our memories confirm this about Curtis Granderson too, but for now let’s leave him out of the question.
If defense is more valuable than we used to think it was, we need to rethink what we assume about players like Brett Gardner. Melky Cabrera had a slightly, by some accounts significantly, better bat, but much poorer glove, and the Yankees let him go without much hesitation. The Yankees look to head into 2010 with their second straight year of well-improved defense on paper. Four years ago, we all saw through Brian Cashman stating that he was prepared to go into the season with Bubba Crosby as his center fielder. While Crosby was a lot worse player than Gardner, I don’t think that we should be too surprised if the Yankees go into 2010 with Brett Gardner as their starting center fielder, or a big part of a platoon.
Update: One more thought that I’d like to add on. Part of this problem is that we don’t have an openly-available, reliable defensive measure. The best we have is UZR/150, which has its problems. Teams have professional scouts and professional statistical analysts at their disposal, so they have a much better read on how good players are on defense. That’s why reading the decisions of smart MLB teams is so important. We shouldn’t try to be super-precise with defensive evaluations as fans, and instead recognize that the best we can do is reasonably estimate plateaus. Its more important for us to correctly value what it means to be a “very good center fielder” in terms of value than try to estimate an individual player’s value.
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