When it comes to defensive analytics, two things are certain: It remains an inexact science and Baseball Info Solutions is at the forefront. Much of BIS’s groundbreaking work is included in the aptly-named “The Fielding Bible” — volume III is now available — which was edited by John Dewan and Ben Jedlovec.
Dewan was a panelist at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and between sessions he talked about a notable improvement to the Defensive Runs Saved system — and why Derek Jeter costs his team a lot of runs.
On Derek Jeter and Brendan Ryan: “In the first book, six years ago, Bill James wrote an article comparing Derek Jeter to Adam Everett. He showed that, no matter how you cut it, Derek Jeter couldn’t carry Adam Everett’s glove. At that point, Jeter had two Gold Gloves. Did Bill’s article have any effect? No. Jeter won three more Gold Gloves. My conclusion is that whomever is voting didn’t read his article.
“For the new edition, I decided that we needed to take another shot at comparing Jeter to some of the best shortstops in baseball. Last year, the best shortstop in baseball was Brendan Ryan. Ryan saved 18 runs and Jeter cost his team 15 runs. That’s a 33-run advantage for Ryan over Jeter.
“There’s a line that goes out to the normal shortstop position, and to the right of that line — toward the second base side — shortstops fielded 13,000 grounders last year. To the third base side, they fielded 7,000 balls.
“To the second base side — the side where more grounders are hit — the average shortstop fielded 65 percent over that area. Interestingly, Ryan and Jeter — the best and worst defensive shortstops in the league — had essentially the same percentage. Ryan was league average, at 65, and Jeter was at 64.
“Why did Jeter finish last at his position? Let’s look to other side of the line and break it down [by segments]. On balls hit to the third base-shortstop hole, MLB shortstops averaged 82 percent on balls hit to that [nearest] 7-foot slice. Ryan was at 86 and Jeter was at 73. You go another 7 feet to the right and the average is 61, with Ryan at 78 and Jeter at 40. Go another 7 feet and the average is 34 with Ryan at 56 and Jeter at 16. Go even deeper in the hole, where the average is just 8 percent, Ryan is at 13 and Jeter is at 0. He can’t make that play at all. Essentially, the whole difference between the best and worst shortstops was on balls hit to their right.”
On the Batted-Ball Timer: “We’ve improved a couple of areas that are really going to make a big difference to our metrics. A lot of people are familiar with the plus/minus system, which is a primary component of our Defensive Runs Saved System, and we’ve basically revamped that.
“One of the things that we did was include a batted-ball timer, which measures how long it is from the time the ball hits the bat until it reaches a field-able location. Using that, we’re now able to get a more objective estimate — a more objective decision — of how long a fielder has to get to a ball. We have video scouts accumulating that data for us and we do multiple pass checks to make sure that it’s correct.
“We feel that the batted-ball timer gives us very accurate and objective information, and combined with the location of the batted ball, we’re able to more precisely determine [range]. Say, for example, a ground ball is hit 65 mph and 10 feet to the right of the shortstop position. We can see how often a shortstop gets to that ball, with an example being the comparison between Jeter and Ryan.
“We break the whole field down into buckets, so we know by 10×10 regions in the outfield, in different amounts of time, how difficult those plays are. Using those difficulty elements and comparing, say, Austin Jackson in a bucket 50 feet to his right, when the ball hangs up for 4.2 seconds, he makes that play 80 percent of the time while the average centerfielder only makes it 50 percent of the time.
“The data is pretty consistent with the old system, but there are some changes. Some players improved under the new system and some got worse. One example of a player who got better is Alex Gordon. He’s not rated quite as well for his range, but his arm is unbelievable — he won a Gold Glove because of his arm — and he was among the league leaders in Runs Saved at his position. Even so, when you measure his entire defense, he’s not as good as Brett Gardner. Gardner was the best defensive left fielder in the game last year.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.