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Fielding Bible, Part 1: Royce Clayton

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A couple weeks ago, I purchased John Dewan's new book, The Fielding Bible, which has received much attention, both in the mainstream and among the stathead circles. Columnist Mike Berardinao of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, for instance, calls Dewan's plus/minus fielding system "the Neil Armstrong bunny hop of defensive sabermetrics."

Dewan's book is a fascinating one, and his system---an improvement on the existing Zone Rating model---is more of an enhancement than a novelty. By Dewan's admission, the system is not infallible (especially with respect to first basemen), but it is strong. (For what it's worth, it tracks the Gold Glove winners pretty well.) And, as Dewan details, it certainly is not in existence for lack of effort:

Baseball Info Solutions [Dewan's company] reviews videotape of every game . . . Every play is entered into the computer where we record the exact direction, distance, speed and type of every batted ball. Direction and distance is done on a computer screen by simply clicking the exact location of the ball on a replica of the field shown on the screen. Speed is simply soft, medium and hard while types of batted balls are groundball, liner, fly and bunt. [BIS will introduce the "fliner" next year.] . . .

The computer totals all softly hit groundballs on Vector 17, for example, and determines that these types of batted balls are converted into outs by the shortstop only 26% of the time. Therefore, if, on this occasion, the shortstop converts a slowly hit ball on Vector 17 into an out, that's a heck of a play, and it scores at +.74. The credit for the play made, 1.00, minus the expectation that it should be made, which is 0.26. If the play isn't made---by anybody---it's -.26 for the shortstop. . . .

Add up all the credits the player gets and loses based on each and every play when he's on the field and you get his plus/minus number (rounded to the nearest integer).

As you can see, Dewan's system is far from conclusory; in fact, it tracks several different types of batted balls in dozens of vectors and, as such, enables one to draw conclusions about a player's defense---not just in total, but in tendencies.

In short, I figured it would be worthwhile---for those who can watch the games, obviously---to compare Dewan's findings prior to this season with our observations of the defense of current Washington Nationals. Note that this exercise isn't intended as a confirmation or refutation of Dewan's work; it's just to provide some guideposts and, perhaps, some fun.

* * * *

First up is Royce Clayton. Dewan's summary states:

Clayton is a solid defensive shortstop but may not be as good as he once was. He still has good range and a pretty accurate arm and has learned to position himself smartly to make up for any loss in range and throwing ability he has suffered. Over the past three years, with three different teams, he clearly has been better with balls up the middle than in the shortstop hole.

This last sentence would seem to be the key; Dewan's system, both in one-year and three-year totals, regards Clayton as weak ranging to his right:

YR      RT      STR     LFT
03 -14 +2 +2
04 -7 +3 +8
05 -13 0 +9

What this chart means is that, over the past three seasons, Clayton has been almost uniformly above-average on plays "straight on" and "to his left." However, he has been well below-average on plays to his right. This, according to Dewan's research, is Clayton's primary weakness. When Clayton's weakness going to his right is combined with a rather mediocre double play conversion rate, the result is a shortstop consistently in the back half among qualifying shortstops (which seem to range from thirty to thirty-five, depending on the time frame):

YR      P/M     Rank
03 -8 30th
04 0 22nd
05 -6 23rd
3Y -14 24th

This is not to be interpreted that Clayton is a horrible shortstop; he's just far from good. As Dewan notes, he's generally pretty solid, but declining, with a weakness going to his right. For instance, his three-year plus/minus score of -14 is actually closer to No. 3 on the list (Jimmy Rollins, +40) than No. 31 and last on the list (Michael Young, -73). For the three-year totals, Clayton is, generally speaking, grouped in the "third worst" tier. Young, Angel Berroa, and Derek Jeter (yes, controversial---among the more mainstream-minded readers, or those who watch games with their eyes shut) comprise the worst tier; well ahead of them are the next two (Carlos Guillen and . . . Cristian Guzman), and then Clayton's group follows. The group after that is bunched pretty close to break-even.

Anyway, that's how Dewan's system sees it. Thoughts? For instance, in your observation, is Clayton weak going to his right?