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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Where should they be playing?

What follows is (mostly) just for fun. Don't take it too seriously.

One of the themes on this blog over the past year or so has been to stress how important fielding performance is to not only how we evaluate players, but also to how well a team can be expected to perform. The '07 Reds are often said to have several players playing out of position (certainly Dunn, but possibly Griffey and Encarnacion, and maybe Phillips, depending on who you're talking to). I thought it might be fun to use data from the Fans' Scouting Report to try to quantify where each player on the Reds' team would be expected to best perform, and whether there was a better defensive alignment than the one the Reds most often used in 2007.

Some quick background on the methods: the Fans' Scouting Report is based on survey data of (ideally) a large number of "hardcore" fans who see lots of games each year. Each participant is asked to rate players that they saw more than 10 times that season on seven fielding skills, encompassing everything from first-step quickness and maximum sprint speed to throwing arm strength and accuracy. Participants are asked to rate players relative to all other players, not just players at their position. Once the averages are in from those rankings, one can estimate a players' rating at a specific position using a specific set of custom skill weightings for that position.

Below, I've estimated 2007 Reds' fielding ratings at each of the eight positions. Values are on a scale of 0-100, though few players ever top 80. Bold-faced numbers indicate that a player's weighted skill average is above average at a position, relative to MLB norms in '07 (Notes: players had to "qualify" for a position to be bold-faced, so left-handed throwers were not eligible to play C, 2B, 3B, and SS. I also assumed that anyone who could play catcher was already playing catcher, so only David Ross and Javier Valentin were eligible for getting bolded at that position).
Player C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF
A Dunn 24.4 16.5 18.7 25.3 20.7 21.9 21.9 23.1
A Gonzalez 67.0 61.3 64.1 63.3 64.0 59.8 59.1 60.3
B Phillips 78.4 75.9 80.5 76.3 79.1 79.8 78.7 79.6
D Ross 62.8 49.2 51.3 60.3 53.6 46.5 46.5 48.6
E Encarnacion 46.9 52.0 55.2 50.7 52.1 56.8 56.6 55.9
J Valentin 26.7 24.2 25.5 26.0 24.0 24.6 24.4 25.0
J Keppinger 45.8 43.2 45.7 42.8 43.8 44.2 43.4 44.3
J Hamilton 72.8 63.0 67.0 72.6 67.7 67.4 66.8 68.9
J Castro 60.0 55.4 58.2 55.8 56.3 55.0 54.1 55.2
K Griffey Jr. 63.9 55.8 57.6 56.5 55.7 48.6 48.2 49.2
N Hopper 49.0 51.9 56.5 48.6 53.3 61.2 59.8 60.0
R Freel 46.1 51.0 55.8 47.7 51.6 62.7 61.2 61.3
S Hatteberg 39.5 42.9 44.9 36.1 40.1 42.0 41.1 41.0
League Average 45.8 41.3 57.4 52.5 58.7 46.4 63.0 50.9
As you'd expect, there are fewer above-average candidates for the positions near the top of the defensive spectrum--catcher, center field, and shortstop--than there are for those near the bottom, like first base and left field.

Let's take a quick tour of the Reds' 2007 Starting Lineup:
  • Dave Ross - Ross is rated as an excellent defensive catcher, and that's clearly the only place his meager hitting could even be slightly tolerated. And even that's questionable.
  • Scott Hatteberg - Hatteberg used to be a catcher before blowing out his arm. Now, his arm skills are rated below his other four skills...and overall, he's only rated above average at first base. He's a fine hitter, but his lack of defensive ability really limits his value.
  • Brandon Phillips - Phillips qualifies as an above average fielder at every single position, with the possible exception of catcher (I'm assuming that Fans' ratings of catchers relative to other positions is incomplete). His single best rating, however, was at second base. ... though he'd likely be more valuable at a more challenging position, with little apparent drop-off in skill.
  • Alex Gonzalez - Gonzalez is interesting in that, while not as good at Phillips at any position, his skill set seems a bit more tuned to shortstop than Phillips'--mostly due to his high arm rankings relative to his other skills.
  • Edwin Encarnacion - Here's one that's interesting. Edwin is rated as a tad below-average at third base, mostly due to his poor ratings on release and throwing accuracy. His good ratings for speed and acceleration, however, indicate that he could potentially become a good left fielder, perhaps upwards of +7 runs above average. That would more than make up for the -3 run value penalty associated with moving from 3B to LF.
  • Adam Dunn - Yikes. Dunner is rated below average at every position. His highest absolute score was at third base, but there he'd be 27 points (~19 runs) below average. The smallest difference between his rating at a position and MLB averages at that position was... left field, at -24.5 points! I was surprised he didn't do better at first base (-24.8 points), which has a lower threshold, but his terrible ratings for Hands, Instincts, and Acceleration absolutely killed his rating at that position. Maybe moving him to first base isn't the answer...?
  • Josh Hamilton - The Fans loved Josh, and if he threw with his right hand, he's be just like Phillips--above average anywhere you put him. As it is, even though he's just slightly above average in center field according to these numbers, he's most valuable there...though his outstanding throwing arm makes him a more naturally superb right-fielder.
  • Ken Griffey - Junior's poor speed scores make him a poorly suited for the outfield, but the fact that he throws with his left hand rules out most infield positions. Because of the weak fielders at first base and left field, however, he rates as above-average in those spots.
Of course, just because a player is best suited for a particular position doesn't mean that's where the Reds should play him. They have to determine where each player can be placed (or hidden) to maximize the total fielding of the team. Assuming that the above eight players were going to play, I tried every combination I could think of to maximize the team fielding score. Here's my best alignment, along with the expected runs saved vs. average per season according to the Fans' Scouting Report data:
Pos Name Runs
C D Ross 11.9
1B S Hatteberg 1.1
2B B Phillips 16.1
3B E Encarnacion -1.3
SS A Gonzalez 3.7
LF A Dunn -17.1
CF J Hamilton 2.7
RF K Griffey Jr. -1.2
Huh. Looks familiar, eh? I did try, but I couldn't find a better alignment than what the Reds used last season. The biggest roadblock is Hatteberg, who prevents me from moving Griffey, Dunn, or Encarnacion to first base.

Ok, just for fun, here's a lineup of '07 Reds that maximizes defensive skill and ignores offensive value altogether. Think of this as the ultimate run-prevention lineup for the '07 Reds. Runs values are per-season numbers, so this is what Fans say we'd get from Castro defensively if we played him a full year at third base:
Pos Name Runs
C David Ross 11.9
1B K Griffey Jr. 10.1
2B B Phillips 16.1
3B J Castro 2.3
SS A Gonzalez 3.7
LF
N Hopper
10.3
CF
R Freel
-1.3
RF
J Hamilton
12.6
Fans data indicates that this lineup would save 50 more runs per season than the standard '07 lineup! That's primarily done by benching Dunn and Hatteberg, moving Griffey to first base, and starting Hopper and Freel in the outfield (there was also a very small boost to starting Castro and third instead of Encarnacion, but we'll ignore that because that's clearly not a worthwhile exchange).

Ok, so would it be worth it to use that lineup instead of the one the Reds actually used? Well, if we assume a full season is 700 PA's, and then pro-rate '07 offensive production using runs above average per plate appearance (RAA/PA, which, I was recently told, is the best-behaving rate stat for offense) for these four players, here's how a season of Dunn and Hatteberg compares to a season of Freel and Hopper on offense:
Name PA RAA RAA/PA pr-RAA
Dunn 632 31.0 0.049 34.3
Hatteberg 417 13.7 0.033 23.0
Hopper 335 -0.4 -0.001 -0.8
Freel 304 -11.3 -0.037 -26.0
Ok, so based on this (very crude) estimate, the offensive difference between a full season of Hatteberg and Dunn vs. Hopper and Freel is roughly 84 runs! That difference outweighs the fielding bonus we estimated using the Fans' data by something on the order of 3.5 wins. Even if we just substitute Hopper in RF for Hatteberg at 1B (moving Griffey to 1B), the offensive dropoff (-24 runs) isn't enough to pay for the defensive bonus (+18 runs). So it looks like the Reds were right to play the guys they played, where they played 'em. :)

...

Now, admittedly, there are about a billion holes where I could tear this little study to pieces. But it was a fun exercise, and I think we'll be able to do this sort of thing with much greater accuracy over the coming years as our ability to quantify and assess both fielding skill and fielding performance continues to improve. If nothing else, though, these data indicate that there's not an obvious way in which the Reds could have gotten more value out of their players last year, which has to be considered the null expectation in any study of this sort. I'd be more suspicious of this study if it showed a clear inefficiency!! :)