If you've seen the Washington Nationals play---if you have the capability to watch the games, in other words---you might have noticed that Jose Vidro is not what he once was. Vidro is off to a fine start with the bat, but most of us realize that he's skating on rather thin ice, kneeologicaly speaking. Have Vidro's ailments in recent seasons affected his fielding at second base? Why yes, according to John Dewan's Fielding Bible, they certainly have:
If one can trust that Vidro's 2003 season accurately reflected his abilities at the time (and that Dewan's methods accurately accounted for Vidro's defense), then it would appear his defense went from just fine to substandard overnight:
YR INN P/M RNK
03 1158 +1 16
04 879 -15 32
05 665 -6 24
While the "INN" category certainly is the category that bears watching for our broader purposes as fans of the Nats, I will note that the Fielding Bible's 2005 specialized data for Vidro indicates that he was most vulnerable to plays to his right (a minus-four plus/minus rating) and dealt with balls in the air better than grounders. Vidro's ground ball double play rate was poor, ranking thirtieth among qualifying second baseman.
But the long and short of it is that Vidro's injury-riddled '05 significantly cut down on his opportunities to prove his defensive chops---or, alternatively, to good harm to the Nats.
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While I certainly find the defensive data collected by The Fielding Bible's research arm, Baseball Info Solutions, interesting---and while I "scored" a few minor league games for BIS last summer in Richmond---my intent is not to champion Dewan & Co.'s methodology or findings. In fact, my real intent is to look into whether the BIS data harmonize with our observations as fans of the Nats. But I do want to note a recent article on The Fielding Bible, by Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post.
Sheinin seems to possess a knack for drawing these interesting assignments, as his article on the sacrifice bunt last August demonstrated. In his fielding article, Sheinin approaches the subject as fodder for a good bar stool brawl---which, to a certain extent, it certainly is. As Sheinin notes, defense eludes firm quantification; unlike hitting or pitching, the benchmarks tend to be either completely observational or sorely crude (like simple "fielding percentage").
To that end, I understand the reasoning behind this quotation from Dave Dombroski:
"Some people think you can [quantify defense]. I don't really buy that myself," Dombrowski said. "I've looked at some of those new formulas. I'm not sure I would believe everything I've seen there. It's one of those things where, if you study [the players] yourself, you can have a better feel for those things than any numbers can tell you."
It's reasonable to be skeptical, and it's good to view new concepts with skepticism. I have little doubt that Dewan's work is merely the first mission in colonizing a new frontier of baseball understanding; maybe BIS will be at the vanguard of it, or maybe someone else will be, but "analytical observation" will emerge as a more standard way of doing things. As Charles Euchner noted in The Last Nine Innings, games of the future will be tricked out with cameras from all angles and elevations---sensitive tools that will track data in areas and zones, like BIS, but also in terms of speed and height. Traditional scouting will never been replaced, nor should it be; however, I do think that it will be supplemented by other aids.
The scout and the analyst are both concerned with viewing defense as accurately as possible. However, it is tough to change perceptions, especially ones that are deep-seated and conflated with opinions on a particular player's general reputation, encompassing factors other than defense.
And so, some players are safe targets of criticism from Dewan, and some others (fewer others, I assume) inspire "fighting words":
However, other conclusions reached by "The Fielding Bible" are the equivalent of fighting words.
James, for instance, spends 4 1/2 pages near the front of the book explaining why Houston's Adam Everett is a far superior shortstop to Derek Jeter. In fact, Jeter, according to James, was "probably the least effective defensive player in the major leagues, at any position" over the last three years.
This is where baseball people begin to have problems with Dewan's book -- and for that matter, with the entire notion that defense is wholly quantifiable.
"The problem with statistical analysis on defense is that it can't give you the breakdown of a guy who is the better ninth inning guy," said one AL scout. "Do [the Yankees] want the ball hit to A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez] in the ninth inning even though he's the better fielder? No, you want it hit to Jeter, even though the numbers say he's not as good. . . . It's something you can't quantify."
I'm sure there is such a thing as "clutch fielding"---or certainly clutching fielding plays---but it's illustrative to me that the scout apparently does not consider that such circumstances are outside Dewan's scope; perhaps more accurately, they are but one part of Dewan's scope.
I could be off-base, but my perception is that many people view Jeter's defense emotionally, as if his numerically-minded detractors have some sort of agenda against the guy. It's a curious phenomenon, in my view, and representative of effort spent on very few players---Jeter most passionately.
Maybe the scout is right; maybe the majority of people in baseball are right about Jeter's defense. I tend to doubt it to a great extent (every so often, you will hear writers acknowledge in hushed tones that he's "not the best," especially with respect to his range to his left, which is obviously lacking), but I think the discussion would be enhanced ten-fold if Jeter's defense---like everyone else's---were viewed dispassionately and systematically.
Ultimately, is defense "wholly quantifiable"? I'd imagine not. But is it "wholly observational" either? Of course not. No one coach, scout, or executive can watch every second of every game that every team plays. Even if one could, though, I guarantee you he would derive ways to categorize things---to "quantify" them, if you will.
Why? Because no one can watch every second of every game that every team plays without missing and forgetting quite a few important things along the way.