“Shortstops make most plays. One remembers good plays made longer than one remembers plays not made.”
Let’s dub this a “Derek Jeter.” By now, better defensive stats have become somewhat mainstream in baseball analysis. In general, we should now know that errors and assists aren’t the only statistics available. On the highest and most nerdtastic level, there’s Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), two of the increasingly popular and far more complicated defensive metrics. Each takes into account a whole ton of factors, including range and standardization to a baseline player at that position.
That above quote was from a recent article by FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan. The article was about Adeiny Hechavarria of the Florida Marlins, a moderately obscure flashy young shortstop who is not viewed too favorably by said advanced metrics. Similarly, Jeter, ye’ of five career Gold Gloves, was perennially one of baseball’s worst defensive shortstops per these statistics, but he certainly wowed with the occasionally highlight (or six).
While reading Sullivan’s article, I couldn’t help but think of a certain Cleveland Indian: Michael Brantley. Yes, you know Brantley. The one who is having an MVP-like offensive season, as Sullivan himself recently wrote at FOX Sports. But on defense, despite his impressive 11 outfield assists, it appears he’s actually not as elite as we might think. Consider:
Michael Brantley's UZR/150 by season: 2012: -0.6 in 1,237.0 innings 2013: -4.9 in 1,297.1 innings 2014: -7.8 in 1,014.1 innings
— Jacob Rosen (@WFNYJacob) August 21, 2014
Updating through yesterday’s games, Brantley now has a -6.9 UZR in 1,058.1 combined outfield innings. That’s impressive improvement in just one week … but it’s still not quite good. The stats aren’t pretty.
Sporting News’ Ryan Fagan recently awarded him an Anti-Gold Glove for left field, where his UZR is actually a horrendous -12.5 in 685.1 innings (counter-intuitively compared to 1.3 in 373 innings in center). On the DRS side of things, the 27-year-old isn’t performing too poorly. He’s at -5 for this season, down from the mostly average production of +2 in 2013 and -1 in 2012.
Either way, the eye test doesn’t seem to match the math. These defensive statistics are not necessarily perfect, of course. Here’s a fantastic example, via FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron:
Small sample size? Well, not anymore. We’re now on year four of [Jhonny] Peralta being rated as an excellent defensive shortstop by UZR. Since the start of the 2010 season, he’s played over 4,600 innings at the position, and he has a UZR/150 of +10 runs per season over that stretch.
Yes, that’s the same Jhonny Peralta once booted from Cleveland’s shortstop position for Asdrubal Cabrera, who subsequently ranked as one of baseball’s worst defenders. It’s funny, isn’t it? Peralta was excellent in Detroit at short. He also got booted to left field upon his suspension and the acquisition of Jose Iglesias. Then, the Tigers didn’t keep him in free agency. Peralta’s now in St. Louis and having a career defensive season. Go figure.
How can this all be? Let’s go to another example, this time in the form of Kansas City’s Alex Gordon, a surprising contender for best WAR in baseball. That’s mostly due to a one-win uptick in his defensive value. Via Cameron again at FanGraphs:
We’re really talking about evaluating a player based on his performance on something like 50 marginal plays throughout the course of the season. It would be ludicrous to expect performance over an N of 50 to be the same every single trial, especially when the result of the play made or not made has such a large swing in run value.
How has Brantley performed when breaking down his Inside Edge data? He’s grabbed 100% of seven likely (60-90%) opportunities. He missed on his only even (40-60%) opportunity. He is at a good 50% on four unlikely (10-40%) opportunities. And he missed on all seven remote (1-10%) chances. That’s a total of 19 plays making the difference of his season. And he hasn’t done too bad.
The biggest knock on Brantley’s defensive resume, however, is his range. It’s at -5.9 this season, thus costing the Indians nearly half a run himself on just his inability to get to certain balls a typical outfielder might. So it’d perhaps make sense he’d only even have 19 marginal plays; he’s just not getting to the usual 50. Last year, this actually was even worse at -7.0. But he had an even better season in 2013 with his arm and at avoiding errors.
So when we talk about the Indians defense, we have to consider that Brantley is regarded as solidly below average by the advanced metrics. And yes, this Indians defense is near historically bad. From two weeks ago by Sullivan at FanGraphs:
The Indians are on track to have the second-worst UZR since 2002, and the third-worst DRS since 2003. Where is this coming from? According to both metrics, the Indians have had a lousy defensive infield. According to both metrics, the Indians have also had a lousy defensive outfield. So, again, you’re getting an idea of their consistency.
Alas, Brantley is a Jeter is a Hechavarria, per the metrics. They al have the ability to be great defenders, but while showcasing for the highlight reel, they too often miss the routine plays. And it’s one of the many issues contributing to a terrible, terrible defense holding back a frustratingly .500 Indians squad.