Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Question No. 11: Has the Outfield Coverage Improved?

Here I go again, delving into a subject matter that I have little more than a pedestrian knowledge of: outfield coverage. Of course, I am privy to Bernie’s recent bouts with futility, but that’s nothing provocative.

What is provocative is Dave Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range. If you’re at all interested in the workings of defensive metrics, this is an ideal starting point. The idea is to figure out how many opportunities a fielder SHOULD have to make a play, and comparing it to the actual results.

Since the foremost area of concern is centerfield, let’s start by comparing Bern to his replacement, Mr. Damon. But before launching into this analysis, it may be of use to head to the Hardball Times and read this article by Dave Studeman on Defensive Efficiency Ratio. The numbers used in Mr. Pinto’s charts may make a bit more sense with this background knowledge (in addition to the links that Mr. Studeman provides in his article).

In essence, Pinto’s chart says what we’ve all known for years: Johnny Damon is a better defensive center fielder than Bernie is. He’s not in the league elite, but he’s a vast improvement over Speedy McBernabe. There is one interesting aspect of Bernie’s defense that the chart makes clear. Well, at least to my pedestrian understanding.

Apparently, a flaw in the PMR system was that fielders were penalized when someone consistently fields balls out of their zone. Pinto explains it much better in his ball hogs article. Before the ball hogs were screened out, Bernie ranked right in the middle of the pack and actually ahead of Damon among center fielders. Yet when the ball hog was factored in, Bernie finished third to last on the list. How I interpret this is that Sheffield, Matsui, Jeter, and Cano were consistently getting to balls that should have been property of Bernie. If this is falsely interpreted, someone please correct me.

If this is true, both Matsui and Sheffield should look relatively good at their respective positions. While I’m surprised that Matsui ranked at the tail end of the upper half of left fielders, I was even more astonished that Gary Sheffield ranked in the upper third among right fielders. This is exactly why I don’t take much stock in the current state of defensive statistics. There are some good ideas floating around there, but instances like Sheff’s make me take them with a grain of salt.

(Another observation that has me scratching my head: when the ball hogs were factored in, Jeremy Reed ranked 9th, and with a significantly larger sample size than his superiors. Yet before the ball hog factor, he ranked second to last. No explanation from Pinto, however. Maybe Jeff over at Lookout Landing can take a stab at this one.)

I really do wish that Cashman used a bit more creativity to fill the outfield void rather than throw a truckload of cash at Johnny Damon. But even with the Damon signing, I wanted to see something done with right field, where I don’t need a defensive metric to tell me that Sheff doesn’t have much range. Something as simple as signing Jacques Jones for a platoon would have sufficed. But with Bernie signed on as the supposed full time DH and no backup outfielder with an arm strong enough to play a consistent right field, we’re stuck with another season of Sheff dogging it to fly balls.

There is still hope, though. If Sheff continues to prove his ineptitude in right field and Bernie does what everyone expects of him at the plate, Cashman should be looking into a right fielder around mid-July. Outfield defense alone shouldn’t be enough to bury the team before that point, but it sure could bolster an otherwise solid team in the second half. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Thankfully, the coverage certainly has improved over last year, mainly because it couldn’t get any worse. Bernie may be a big man among fans and in the clubhouse, but all the pitchers are going to be thanking their lucky starts that Johnny is patrolling the centerfield grass. Now let’s just hope he can avoid leaping shoulder first right into the 408 sign.