Sunday, September 2, 2007

Reasons to fear 2008 (AKA: The Importance of Defense)

It seems like the more light that statistical analysis sheds on the game of baseball, the more the importance of defense is revealed.

Over the years, it has always been difficult to determine where pitching ends and defense begins. The two are so intertwined, that it has been difficult to separate them out to determine the true abilities and deficiencies of a team. However, modern analysis is beginning to effectively separate out the difference.

Two team defensive statistics, Defensive Efficiency Ratio (DER) and Team +/-, have been developed that effectively quantify the defensive abilities of a team.


Here is the definition for DER:

"Defense Efficiency Ratio: The percent of times a batted ball is turned into an out by the teams’ fielders, not including home runs. The exact formula used by the Hardball Times is (BFP-H-K-BB-HBP-Errors)/(BFP-HR-K-BB-HBP). This is similar to BABIP, but from the defensive team's perspective. Please note that errors include only errors on batted balls."

Here is how the National League teams have performed so far in 2007 and their NL DER rank:

Team: Team DER (NL DER Rank)
Arizona: .696 (8)
Atlanta: .698 (7)
Chicago: .712 (1)
Cincinnati: .677 (15)
Colorado: .699 (6)
Florida: .669 (16)
Houston: .683 (12)
Los Angeles: .686 (11)
Milwaukee: .681 (13)
New York: .711 (2)
Philadelphia: .687 (10)
Pittsburgh: .681 (14)
San Diego: .703 (4)
San Francisco: .701 (5)
St. Louis: .691 (9)
Washington: .704 (3)

TEAM +/-

Now, this is how Team +/- is explained by The Hardball Times:

"Our team "plus/minus" stat is an improvement over DER, because it corrects for the type of batted ball allowed. In other words, it adjusts the thinking behind DER by the number of infield flies, line drives and all other types of batted balls allowed by each pitching staff. I explained the system in more detail when we rolled it out last year.

In addition to adjusting DER, the "plus/minus" stat expresses each team's fielding performance as the number of plays above and below the expected number of plays an average team would turn. This is a more concrete and useful way of thinking about fielding."

Team: +/- (NL Team +/- Rank)
Arizona: +42 (3)
Atlanta: +36 (5)
Chicago: +54 (T1)
Cincinnati: -31 (11)
Colorado: -13 (10)
Florida: -81 (16)
Houston: -40 (13)
Los Angeles: -4 (9)
Milwaukee: -40 (14)
New York: +54 (T1)
Philadelphia: -34 (12)
Pittsburgh: -50 (15)
San Diego: +40 (4)
San Francisco: +24 (6)
St. Louis: -2 (8)
Washington: +22 (7)


So, if you average out the Team ranks for DER and Team +/- to determine the team's overall defensive prowess, then it breaks down like this:

Chicago Cubs: 1
New York: 1.5
San Diego: 4
Washington: 5
Arizona: 5.5
San Francisco: 5.5
Atlanta: 6
Colorado: 8
St. Louis: 8.5
Los Angeles: 10
Philadelphia: 11
Houston: 12.5
Cincinnati: 13
Milwaukee: 13.5
Pittsburgh: 14.5
Florida: 16

This is how the NL teams rank defensively from best to worst. So, the Cubs are the NL's best defensive team and the Marlins are the NL's worst defensive team. Something interesting comes to light if you look at the Winning percentages of these teams broken down into quartiles.


1st quartile: Cubs, Mets, Padres, and Nationals.
2nd quartile: Diamondbacks, Giants, Braves, and Rockies.
3rd quartile: Cardinals, Dodgers, Phillies, and Astros.
4th quartile: Reds, Brewers, Pirates, and Marlins.

Here's how these quartiles stack up when broken out by 2007 winning percentage.

W% of 1st Quartile: .517
W% of 2nd Quartile: .506
W% of 3rd Quartile: .500
W% of 4th Quartile: .458


To me, it is becoming clearer that the Reds cannot win as currently configured. A team that is built around Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., and Edwin Encarnacion is built on unstable foundation. The offensive prowess of those three is outweighed by their defensive deficiencies. Both Dunn and Griffey are leftfielders, so you can't have both of them in the lineup at the same time. At least one of them has to go. Edwin has taken a step forward defensively, but he's still league average at best.

The problem seems to be that the Reds are going to continue attempting to build their team around poor defensive players. That kind of strategy just doesn't work, as generally speaking: the better the team defense, the better the W/L record.

The general thought is that the Reds need better pitching and I agree, but how much better would the pitching looking with a top notch defensive playing behind it?

If the Reds want to have a better season in 2008, then the first priority has to be improving the defense. That would have the biggest impact of anything that could be done for 2008. Unfortunately, the Reds continue to lock themselves into a roster of defensively deficient ballplayers, which offsets much of the advantages of a good offense and a strong pitching staff.

Sadly, it's difficult to envision the Reds as a winning organization until they improve the defense.

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