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Sunday, September 12, 2004
Updated: September 13, 11:46 AM ET
Judging defense becoming key

By Peter Gammons
Special to

Sept. 12

Some of the characters in "Moneyball" are either in the major leagues (Nick Swisher) or have been used in trades (Billy Murphy and Mark Teahan), and yet still there is debate and conflict about the meaning of Michael Lewis' study of Billy Beane's A's.

While some are still debating the value of on-base percentage, Beane and others have moved, knowing there is now such an industry-wide understanding of on-base percentage (or an OPS formula in which on-base percentage is weighted 1.8 times more than slugging percentage) that the bargains that were once out there for the Oaklands and Bostons -- Scott Hatteberg, David Ortiz, Bill Mueller and Mark Bellhorn -- will be increasingly harder to find.

Mark Kotsay
Mark Kotsay is considered to be among the best defensive outfielders in the majors.

While some dissect the "Moneyball" theories, the A's, Red Sox, Dodgers, Mets, Indians and others are trying to find the next new new thing, which in this case is quantifying what heretofore was considered incalculable -- defense. Why do you think Mark Ellis is so important to the A's? The only AL second baseman who grades out higher than Ellis is Pokey Reese. Oh, yes. Oakland is second only to Tampa Bay in the American League in the Baseball Prospectus defensive efficiency ratings.

There are defensive statistics available beyond errors, chances, percentage, etc. Among the sortable stats are range factor and zone rating, statistical measurements of range and turning balls in play into outs. Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency numbers -- in which the Dodgers and Cardinals rank 1-2 -- seem logical to those who prefer the naked eye. A Google search for UZR returns Mitchel Lichtman's detailed zone factor, a fascinating analysis backed by game reports. Because it is so complex it is released only after the season; UZR currently shows the 2001-2003 numbers. The numbers are excellent, but Theo Epstein believes "defensive decline shows up much faster than offensive decline." The numbers, for instance, don't show the difference between Orlando Cabrera in 2002 with back problems and Cabrera in 2004, healthy and playing, as one executive says, "with so much energy it's as if he has too much caffeine."

Some teams are trying to quantify defensive statistics. "It's not a pure science yet, but we're trying to get to what were the great unknowns -- defense and baserunning," says one club official. "How Theo does it and how we do it entails very different methodology," says Beane. "But we usually come out at the same conclusions."

Last winter, Oakland and Boston agreed that the two best defensive center fielders were Mike Cameron and Mark Kotsay. They agreed the best third basemen were Scott Rolen and Eric Chavez. They agreed that by any method used Jose Valentin came out a much better shortstop than the guy that most people suggest should be made into a super utilityman. The Mets utilized defensive numbers in targeting Cameron.

Since teams have studied the creation of runs and the use of outs offensively, it should be no surprise that teams are trying to quantify outs defensively. No team currently will say exactly how it does its defensive ratings. As Beane said, the A's use a different system than the Red Sox. "We've come to believe that our numbers give us a pretty accurate read," he says.

The Red Sox have their own service that charts games, including how hard balls are hit. "It goes beyond zone ratings," says Epstein. "We try to measure players by what the average defensive player at that position would get to."

Orlando Cabrera

Doug Mientkiewicz

Defensive studies led Epstein to conclude in late July that the Red Sox could not win in October -- maybe not even get to the postseason -- with their defensive alignment. So, flying in the face to those who believe that Epstein, Beane, Paul DePodesta, Josh Byrnes, Chris Antonetti, et al only study OBP, OPS, VORP and RC, the Red Sox general manager acquired a Gold Glove first baseman (Doug Mientkiewicz), a Gold Glove shortstop (Cabrera) and speed for the outfield (Dave Roberts) just as Mueller came off knee surgery playing as well defensively as he did in 2000.

"What no one has yet to figure out is how to measure positioning," says one baseball official. "That can be a team thing that impacts a defensive player's numbers. It can also be the player himself."

"But," adds Beane, "positioning can hurt the player, for instance, when the center fielder is asked to play in right center and the ball's hit to left-center. So you have to play the means."

The Red Sox, who meticulously prepare for games with advance scout Dave Jauss and coordinator Galen Carr, work hard at positioning, but one night the front office contingent watched Bronson Arroyo throw a sweeping breaking ball past an Angels hitter, then looked up and saw that Cabrera had broken towards the hole, having read the pitch and the swing path.

"We believe in the system we use," says Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro. "But I believe in eyes as well. There are no absolutes."

"We absolutely believe in eyes, which is why we emphasize scouts so heavily," says Epstein. "But if you want to run a business successfully, you should have every form of information available to you to make better decisions."

Statistical analysis, whose roots make Bill James an absolute must for the Hall of Fame, is continually changing. Those who read "Moneyball" but didn't grasp it don't appreciate that many of the teams with "Moneyball" ties have moved on to different forms of analysis, often incorporating batters who make contact (my personal favorite simple stat when looking at minor leaguers is to see walks and extra-base hits compared to strikeouts). Ballparks are always taken into consideration (there's a reason that left-handed batters -- on both teams -- hit 40 points higher at Fenway Park, while right-handed batters hit eight points higher at Fenway, all against the norm).

"I think we've gone about as far as we're going to go offensively," says one official. "But there's been a lot of progress [being] made on defense, and we've begun to see come creative ways to judge baserunners. Problem is, Billy's probably already working on some things most of us haven't thought about."