Nevertheless, we are increasingly getting better and better tools to evaluate player fielding performance. I think even the most advanced metrics currently available, such as MGL's UZR or BIS's +/- system, are still fairly "primitive" in what they do compared to what we eventually can expect to have at our fingertips, but they're good enough to give us a good idea of how players perform on defense.
What I wanted to do was sit down and try to get a comprehensive view of how position players have contributed to the Reds' success over the past several years--both on offense as well as defense. This is my first stab at this, and therefore I'm going to be extremely simplistic in my approach:
- Production estimates for all players are based on comparisons to hypothetical replacement players at the same position(s).
- Offense was measured as Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), a BPro stat that estimates runs produced above what would be expected from what a waiver-wire player could produce. Replacement players at defensive-oriented positions like SS or CF have lower production than replacements at offensive-oriented positions like 1B or LF, so real players must produce more at those offensive positions to get the same offensive credit.
- Fielding was measured using Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), one of the more advanced fielding metrics available, which reports runs saved above or below league average. I am making the assumption that replacement players will provide league-average defense. There is precedent for this assumption (though perhaps it works better at some positions than others--I didn't worry about that). If players played more than one position, I simply summed their UZR values at all positions.
- Total player production, which I'll call total run value, is estimated by simply summing offensive and defensive contributions (VORP + UZR). While one can argue that the value of an offensive or defensive run varies depending on how many runs a team is otherwise scoring or allowing, this is not an unreasonable way to estimate total player contributions.
- I ignored catchers, because UZR doesn't address them and I didn't feel like trying to come up with my own estimate of their defense (perhaps opposing team SB-CS runs?).
The horizontal axis shows player VORP, while the vertical axis shows UZR. The diagonal line is replacement level--where VORP and UZR sum to zero. One would hope that everyone on the team is either at or (hopefully mostly) to the right side of the line. Data points are player seasons (one per player per season), and all represented at least 20 games that season.
The immediate thing that has to concern you as a Reds fan is that there are a number of points well below (to the left of) the line. That means, based on this definition of replacement level, that the Reds have had several players from '03 to '06 who were performing substantially (by 10+ runs) below replacement level. It's pretty darn hard to win if you are playing guys who are performing at a level below what could reasonably be expected of a waiver wire claim (think Jason Ellison or Pedro Lopez).
Let's look at the individual values. This table lists the data for '03 through '06 Reds, sorted by total run value. I set a cutoff of 20 games played to keep the table size under control (players below this threshold were mostly grouped near the middle of the table). I'll also note that I've occasionally encountered oddities with the UZR data, especially in terms of games played. Hopefully those are clerical mistakes in the output spreadsheet that don't affect the defensive estimates, but it's worth keeping in mind:
|2003||Boone, A||106 ||2||25.2||27|
- Sean Casey checks in with three of the top 10 performances in this dataset, thanks to excellent--or at least fair--offensive production, combined with solid defensive performance according to UZR. I should add the qualifier that UZR looks primarily at range, which doesn't always tell the whole story for first basemen--though Casey was generally considered a good at saving errant throws from infielders, so I think his rankings here are not unreasonable.
- Adam Dunn turns up twice in the top 4, thanks to outstanding offensive production in '04 and '05 (perhaps his peak seasons), and defense that wasn't nearly as bad as his critics would have you think in those years. Of course, '06 was a different story (see below).
- Felipe Lopez's All-Star (and probably career) year in '05 comes in at #3. His defense wasn't good that season, but it was certainly good enough for a 40+ VORP shortstop to be a real asset to the team. It's in '06 that he fell off the wagon.
- Jimenez, Aurilia, Freel, Boone, Kearns, Hatteberg, and Randa all show up as having made good contributions on offense and defense, all producing at least 20 total runs above replacement level in at least one season. ... it's notable that Aurilia, at least, was rated by other defensive metrics as well below average defensively last season, so a little skeptical of these numbers.
- The single worst season in this analysis was Ken Griffey's in '06. His lack of OBP last year caused his offensive value to plummet, while he continued to struggle horrifically in center field. Overall, the data indicate that he may have cost the Reds almost 20 runs compared to a replacement-level player in center field last season when you evaluate both offense and fielding together. Yikes--that's two wins!
- If you look things on a per-game basis, however, Wily Mo Pena probably wins the title of worst performer. In two seasons, '03 and '05, his defense was atrocious, especially (for whatever reason) in right field. And his offense was certainly nothing to write home about either.
- Other remarkably bad performers include Brandon Larson (offense), Ruben Mateo (everything), and (to my surprise) Ray Olmedo in '03.
- How much did Adam Dunn's awful slump over the last two months in '06 cost the Reds? His offensive production was rated at only 23.5 runs over replacement level in the same year that his defense collapsed to -22 runs vs. average! Ouch. This season, his offense seems to be close to its '04-'05 form, though his defense has been only slightly better than '06 (-8 runs through the All Star break). When he has hit like he is capable, Dunn's been extremely valuable...but when he has struggled ('03 and '06), his value has literally disappeared.
- Griffey's best contribution in the '03-'06 time period was 2005, but even then, his wonderful +52 VORP was almost canceled by his terrible -40 run effort in CF. Overall, this analysis estimates that he has performed slightly below replacement level for the Reds over the scope of the study (4-3+11-18 = -6). I have a hard time believing that...but there it is.
- Juan Castro got a lot of playing time in '03, and hit right at replacement level for a shortstop--which is the weakest offensive position. And yet his very good defensive skills resulted in a net contribution of about 10 runs over replacement. Not great, but it's the 25th (of 78) best performance by a Red in the time period of this study.
- I remember there being a lot of concern about Larkin's defense at the end of his career. These data indicate that he really wasn't all that bad. Even in his last season ('04), his offense made up for his reduced range.