Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Red Sox. Defense. Over-rated. Significantly.

What I'm about to say does not match the conventional wisdom. But I think that the conventional wisdom, that which we all "know," is wrong. Badly wrong. And I want to address it.

Before I do so, there are a couple of things that I want to say.

1) Yes, I watch the games. If you want to tell me, "get your nose out of the book and watch the game!" don't bother. It's a waste of my time to read it and yours to write it. I watch the game as much as anyone does.

2) No, numbers can't tell you everything. Particularly on defense.

3) The number of errors that the Red Sox have made is staggeringly low. They've been phenomenally sure-handed. And some of them have looked really good, and there have been some spectacular plays.

Now, here we go.

You've heard it said that real problems come, not from what we don't know, but from what we do know that's just plain wrong. Well, there's something everyone knows about the Red Sox that's wrong.

There's been a constant drumbeat, a refrain that talks admiringly about how good the Red Sox defense has been. "Wow, a ground ball pitcher would do great in front of that infield." "The best defense in baseball." "The best Red Sox defense in 50 years!" "Alex Gonzalez prevents more runs with his glove than anyone in baseball - who cares what he hits?" "This pitching staff's been really lucky to be playing in front of that defense." Chris Lynch, for example, wrote, last week, that "the Red Sox' defense has been the best in baseball this year." This isn't to pick on Chris - everyone's said it. I've addressed it a couple of times in a couple of different forums. They say it every night on NESN and WEEI.

You know what? I haven't seen any evidence that that's the case. None. It looks to me like the Red Sox defense is below average this year. Sure-handed, certainly. Stylish, smooth, occasionally spectacular, check. Making the plays on everything they get to, no doubt. I don't deny any of that - I affirm it.

But they aren't out there to look good. They have a specific function - take batted balls, and turn those batted balls into outs. They're not doing a good job, at all, at turning batted balls into outs. A player who makes 45 plays and 5 errors is a better defender than someone who makes 30 plays and no errors given the same opportunities. There has been a tremendous focus on the errors that the Red Sox haven't made, and no consideration at all to the plays they haven't made.

Let's think about defense for a minute. There's really not a great way to measure what an individual defensive player does, without a rigid methodology and multiple spotters working with the same parameters at every game. But we can look at the pitching statistics to get a feel for what the defense is accomplishing. Basically, every time there's a plate appearance, there's the potential for the defense to make a play, unless the pitcher does something to prevent it. The pitcher can allow a HR, he can strike out the batter, he can walk the batter or he can hit the batter with a pitch. Everything else that happens provides the opportunity for a defensive play to be made.

So, if we look at it in gross terms, this is what we can divide it down into. First, there are balls in play. Balls in play consists of Plate Appearances minus HR, SO, BB and HBP. Then, there are hits on balls in play. These are hits that aren't HR. (There are exceptions, and Fenway hurts the Sox a little bit, but it's a reasonable approximation.) So we can calculate what happens against every defense when the offensive player puts a ball in play. Here are the numbers for the AL through Monday:

AL defense - Batting Average on Balls in Play - 2006
Balls in PlayHits in PlayBABiPRankH + E in playBABiP (w/E)Rank

Detroit Tigers33539230.27519990.2981

Chicago White Sox353210290.291311050.3132

New York Yankees34009790.288210660.3143

Oakland Athletics349910410.298611050.3164

Seattle Mariners339510170.3710860.325

Los Angeles Angels33089650.292410620.3216

Cleveland Indians349810810.3091211260.3227

Toronto Blue Jays33719990.296510840.3227

Baltimore Orioles340710300.302811070.3259

Boston Red Sox339810410.3061011030.3259

Texas Rangers352910810.3061011500.32611

Kansas City Royals356210850.305911650.32712

Tampa Bay Devil Rays351510930.3111411690.33313

Minnesota Twins329510170.3091211050.33514

So when an opposing batter puts a ball in play against the Red Sox, he's hitting, on average, .306. That's tied for 10th in the AL. Even if you assume that every error results in a batted ball not being turned into an out, they only move up to 9th. They are not doing a great job, not even an average job, at turning batted balls into outs.

Which is what a defense is supposed to do.

Here is the BABiP for the Red Sox since 1995:

Red Sox defense - Batting Average on Balls in Play
Balls in PlayHits in PlayBABiPRankH + E in playBABiP (w/E)Rank













So, contrary to having the "best RedSox defensive infield in 50 years," it looks like they've had better defensive teams several times in the last decade.

None of this is an exact science. That said, the evidence that I see suggests that the error total is leading people to vastly overrate the Red Sox defense. I don't think they're anywhere near as good as they're getting credit for. As smooth as Lowell and Gonzalez are, as good as they look playing the positions, as sure-handed as they've been, there have been a lot of ground balls get through Boston's infield this year. I'm not buying, at all, that the defense has been an asset...



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