Tuesday, November 22, 2005

More On Center Field

You know it’s the heart of the off-season when the same topics are revisited on a daily basis. Yes, we all know the Yanks need a center fielder and a few good arms in the bullpen. From what I’ve gathered though reading newspapers, other blogs, and message boards, there have been plenty of discrepancies about who should fill what role. Or, rather (at least in the center field case), what type of player would be best suited for the job.

Center field was such a gaping hole last year not only because of Bernie’s lack of range and arm, but also because of his dead bat. Since the Yankees lineup is for the most part filled with more than capable bats, the focus seemed to lie on the defensive aspect, leading to an outcry for a defensive outfielder with little consideration for plate performance.

According to Baseball Prospectus, the Yankees ranked 10th in the AL in defensive efficiency, ahead of only Boston, Tampa Bay, Texas, and Kansas City. Yikes. Problem is, it’s tough to gauge the defensive abilities of a player, since defensive statistics are, in my opinion, very unreliable. But, even though it’s tough to prove statistically, anyone who watched the Yankees this year clearly saw that Bernie just wasn’t getting to balls in center that he should have. Combined with the minimal range of Gary Sheffield (I’ll give some defensive props to Matsui and leave him out of this discussion for the time being), this meant a lot of fly balls dropping in where they would have been gobbled up by more efficient outfields.

I want to list some defensive statistics here for context, like Range Factor, but I still believe they are highly misleading. Range Factor multiplies assists plus put outs by nine and divides by innings played. The problem is that it does not take into consideration the pitchers on the player’s team. If Team A has a slew of groundball pitchers, an outfielder isn’t going to have as many put outs as a player on Team B, whose pitchers induce mostly pop-ups. So what we really have to judge an outfielder is our eyes, and little more.

This is the question I’m getting at: was Bernie’s defense so egregious this year that nearly any available center fielder could provide a relative defensive boost? I think the answer is a sure yes. Even Brian Giles can provide more ground coverage than Bernie could. So the Yanks probably shouldn’t be going for the top of the defensive spectrum with on regard to offense; they just need an improvement in any form on defense, which shouldn’t be a problem. Where the Yanks could make a real, discernible improvement is with the stick.

Just take a look at the offensive production of the 14 starting AL center fielders in 2005 (if a team juggled the position, the one with the most games started at the position is listed):
Johnny Damon.316.366.439.123
David DeJesus.293.356.445.152
Grady Sizemore.289.346.484.195
Luis Matos.280.337.373.093
Mark Kotsay.280.324.421.141
Aaron Rowand.270.327.407.137
Vernon Wells.269.320.463.194
Torii Hunter.369.337.452.183
Nook Logan.258.295.335.078
Gary Matthews.255.319.436.181
Jeremy Reed.254.320.352.098
Bernie Williams.249.321.367.118
Damon Hollins.249.295.418.170
Steve Finley.222.270.374.153

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 12th in batting average, 8th in OBP, 12th in slugging percentage, and 11th in isolated power. Additionally, and this can be taken at whatever the reader thinks it is worth, there isn’t a single player on that list who ranks below Bernie in every category. Even Steve Finley and Damon Hollins, who both rank below Bern in average and OBP, beat him out in slugging and ISO (though Nook Logan only scores higher in batting average).

We can be pretty sure that Bernie was worse defensively than everyone on that list. And, by way of batting statistics, we can prove that he was among the worst, if not the worst himself (depends on how you look at it) in offensive productivity. Oh, and just in case you were wondering, here are Giles’s numbers in these categories: .301/.423/.483/.182, ranking 2nd/1st/2nd (by .001)/4th if placed in that group. Now here’s a complete look at the other center field candidates:

Brian Giles.301.423.483.182
Milton Bradley.290.350.484.194
Juan Pierre.276.326.354.078
Corey Patterson.215.254.348.133
Aaron Rowand.270.327.407.137
Torii Hunter.369.337.452.183
Gary Matthews.255.319.436.181

Notice how every one of them is an offensive upgrade over Bernie (okay, maybe not Corey Patterson, but we've been over this). And, as I have determined by ears and eyes, each presents a more favorable option defensively as well.

I believe it was Billy Beane who emphatically stated in Moneyball that defensive is overrated. Of course, defense still plays a role, but what Beane means is that a killer hitter should be favorable over some flashy leather. And as we all know, the Yankees do in fact possess some killer bats. Listed in order of Bill James’s defensive spectrum (by difficulty of position defensively), here are the 2005 Yankees, their Value Over Replacement Player and the rank among AL players of the same position.

Pos.PlayerVORPAL Rank
1BJason Giambi58.42
LFHideki Matsui52.92
RFGary Sheffield56.52
3BAlex Rodriguez99.71
CFBernie Williams7.315
2BRobinson Cano27.58
SSDerek Jeter66.33
CJorge Posada32.64

It should also be noted that Cano was fourth in the AL among rookies in VORP, which puts his rank of eighth among second basemen in better perspective. Having said that, well, just look at the table and you know what I’m getting at. The only non-rookie to rank outside of the top four at his position ranked FIFTEENTH! Oh, and Brian Giles had a VORP of 65.1 and was ranked first among NL right fielders in 2005 (even with Andruw Jones, he still would have ranked first among NL center fielders).

The Yankees should be looking for a bat to replace Bernie as hard as they are searching for some legs and a glove to do the same. Defense is difficult to quantify, but offense is not. With the addition of Brian Giles, the Yankees stand to have each of their starters rank in the top five in VORP for 2006 – considering no one goes into dramatic decline and Cano does what young players do and develops.

(Yes, I know that Giles might just sign elsewhere. I'm just pointing out that he's the best man for the job, regardless of whether he takes it or not)

By focusing on defense too intensely, the team will be trying to fill a gap that is tough to measure. By turning their attention to the offensive side, they can make a drastic improvement in an area that can be measured.