Defensive stats are now on the cutting edge. I particpated in a public AOL online discussion with baseball historian and statistical guru Bill James over 15 years ago about a new defensive metric he was proposing. Apparently that system didn’t work, for I didn’t see it ever published. Mr. James didn’t really appreciate my question…I just may not have asked the right way or maybe I just missed the point. 😳

Anyway, I’ve read more and more about how the Red Sox are abandoning power for defense, which, frankly, is almost hard to believe considering the Red Sox long history of sluggers.

So, why would the Red Sox, and possibly all of baseball, be choosing defense over power?

1) Steroids power backlash
2) Speed and athleticism making a comeback (see #1)
3) There are now some real defensive stats that baseball management is comfortable with.

Keep in mind that Bill James is now employed by the Red Sox. The Red Sox owner, John Henry, is a huge fan of sabemetric baseball study. GM Theo Epstein subscribes to the theory. For these reasons alone, I was surprised that the Red Sox traded for Alex Gonzalez last year. AGon was having a miserable season, but may be the Red Sox hoped that a return to Fenway scenery would rejuvenate him and bring back his very good 2006 season.

My feeling is that teams returning to defense will be the trend to watch. First, on-base percentage took off with the Moneyball crowd. OBP won’t go away, but now the sabermetric attention is on improving defensive metrics. OBP will still matter, only now the focus will be on prevention; that is preventing the opposition from getting on base.

Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) has become a popular metric, too. That is, the pitcher really only has control over the walks and home runs allowed, and how many hitters he strikes out. So, BABIP measures the percentage of struck balls that fall for hits within the playing confines of the ballfield, and that defense (or luck) has a lot to do with that percentage.

I believe the game of baseball will move back toward defense and speed at this time in history. Baseball has changed many times since its major league inception. What seems like a simple game that doesn’t change much, has, in fact, changed many times. In the early days, batters could call for their pitches and at other times, batters used wide bats to help them bat the ball in whatever direction they wanted. At other times, the speed game ruled, especially when defense was poor in the early 1900’s. Then Babe Ruth introduced power into the game and power ruled. The 1930’s had offense that equaled the offensive output of the 1990’s. When the 1960’s came around, baseball had reverted to an odd mix of speed and power while pitching dominated the game. Then power erupted, speed disappeared, and now we have a steroids scandal. Speed is returning to the game, and it will start with defense and keeping the other team’s hitters off the basepaths.

Reds’ GM Walt Jocketty has recognized this trend with the Reds. Jocketty wasn’t known to have embraced sabermetrics while serving as GM for the Cardinals, and I can’t say he’s embraced this sports science while with the Reds either, but his trades and deals since joining the Reds have been predicated on improving the Reds’ defense.

While Willy Taveras did not pan out for the Reds, his reputation was that of a speedy, quality defensive centerfielder (you decide if he was that good last year). Paul Janish and Chris Dickerson were both promoted and known to have good gloves, as was Drew Stubbs. Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera have both been acquired and both are known to have provided Gold Glove defense in the past (you decide if they’re too old…). Adam Dunn, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jeff Keppinger were all known as offense-first players. They were dealt in an effort to improve overall team defense.

So, the trend has begun. The ticket-buying public is going to be skeptical of players who develop surprising power. Those who remember the Big Red Machine think about “small ball” and lots of steals and action, but most forgot that those Reds teams won because they had high on base percentages and slugging percentages to go along with their outstanding defense, especially up the middle of the field. For our 2010 Reds, we will have a 34-year-old catcher in Ramon Hernandez, and two thirty-five year olds on the left side of the infield in Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera.

While Jocketty may have identified defense as being the new trend, it remains to be seen if our senior players, the ones who provide “veteran leadership,” will be able to maintain their defensive wizardry. Defense is usually the first skill to decline as players age, and few teams win with older shortstops (older than 30) unless that shortstop is of Hall of Fame quality. We’ll have to see how far the Reds’ defensive plan (and players) can carry us.

One Response

  1. Andy

    Thanks for posts like these Steve. I really enjoy reading them and thinking about these concepts.

    You are right, Defense is the new OBP. There are some defensive metrics out there now that are much more accurate than they were in the past, but I think the reason is that the whole “Moneyball” concept is about finding inefficiencies in the marketplace. (Not unlike sports gamblers, not the degenerates that do it for the thrill, but the real professionals).

    OBP has lost its value. Everyone is aware of it, and now in the open market it is much more expensive. Currently the stats guys feel that it is defense that is undervalued, but like OBP this will lose value over time if it is successful.

    There will always be the next OBP, I just think it is fascinating that defense is the “In” thing now, but in Moneyball, Beane didn’t care for defense or stolen bases.

    I think it will be very interesting to see how these concepts develop over the next 10+ years.

    Maybe Toothpick was ahead of his time and fast guys that can’t get on base will be the next undervalued metric. :mrgreen: