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An improved defense may mean more than you think

I’ve thought for a while that a pitcher can help out his defense by working quickly and throwing strikes. When I was young and still played, I found that being in the field was a whole lot more fun when the pitcher was putting the ball over the plate (and, in turn, the batters were putting the ball in play). If you can reasonably expect a ball to be hit at you at any time, you’re engaged the entire time — and if you’re not, the manager notices your crappy defense and attitude sticking out from the rest of the team who are engaged.

On the other hand, when the pitcher couldn’t find the zone, was stalling between pitches, and was walking guys, I wasn’t alone among the fielders in getting bored. And when you’re bored, you’re less ready to leap into action on the off-chance the ball actually does come into play.

So one area in which I think defensive metrics have plenty of room to improve is in figuring out just how much this interplay between a pitcher and his fielders exists and (more importantly) how much it matters to run prevention. Does the efficacy of the defense change depending on anything the pitcher does? When Scott Baker or Mark Buehrle work quickly, does their defense play better than when another pitcher wastes as much time as he can out there? Does Kevin Slowey’s propensity to pound the strike zone encourage his defenders to stay more alert than, say, Clayton Kershaw or AJ Burnett?

I don’t know. Nobody has any numbers for that yet.

But there’s also the possibility that this interplay works in the opposite direction. From an interview with CJ Wilson:

The moral of the story is that a guy like me or Feldman or whatever, who was a reliever, that wants to be a starter for Texas, that should be just an overall positive thing that the organization has come a long way (from years ago) when we had such a stigma attached to being a pitcher in Texas. Now, it’s like people are really excited to play here, to pitch with Elvis Andrus at shortstop, and Mike Young at third base, and Kinsler at second and Chris Davis at first. For me, that’s a big thing for us, is that our defense is so much better that people are excited to be pitchers now for us.

And that’s definitely interesting. For the longest time, pitchers didn’t want to pitch in Arlington, and free agents wouldn’t sign with the Rangers for that very reason. At the time, everyone blamed that on the “bandbox” nature of the stadium; after all, pitchers don’t want to pitch in an environment virtually guaranteed to induce more home runs.

But maybe, just maybe, it was never the stadium after all? If pitchers don’t like giving up home runs, maybe the reason is that they just don’t like giving up runs in the first place. And there’s no doubt that for many years, the Rangers were an offensively-oriented team, with sluggers and run producers throughout the lineup but nary a defensive whiz to be found.

And that’s changing now; they have a strong defensive infield and a small outfield that minimizes the impact of their outfielders’ range. And suddenly the pitchers are a lot happier.

David Pinto writes: “Better defense means less frustration for the pitcher and less work as he doesn’t need to get four outs in an inning.”

One of the reasons Twins fans are excited about 2010 is the drastically improved middle infield — JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson figure to combine for some good-to-excellent defense, and third base is Punto’s best position (ie, the one at which he plays the best defense).

I don’t think it’s possible to guess how many runs the Twins’ new infield will save over 2009; but we can take a look at some UZR numbers and compare them.

2009 Twins infield

Actual 2009 UZR/150, sorted by playing time (decreasing)

  • 2B: Nick Punto: 9.4 UZR/150, Alexi Casilla: -20.9 UZR/150, Matt Tolbert: -12.7 UZR/150
  • 3B: Joe Crede: 23.4 UZR/150, Brendan Harris: -26.3 UZR/150, Brian Buscher: -12.2 UZR/150, Matt Tolbert: 10.6 UZR/150
  • SS: Orlando Cabrera: -14.8 UZR/150, Nick Punto: 4.7 UZR/150, Brendan Harris: -14.8 UZR/150

2010 Twins infield

Career UZR/150

  • 2B: Orlando Hudson: 2.6 UZR/150
  • 3B: Nick Punto: 19.9 UZR/150
  • SS: JJ Hardy: 11.2 UZR/150

Hudson is getting older and his defense probably won’t be as good as everyone thinks it is — but there’s little chance he’s as bad at it as Casilla and Tolbert were in 2009. Meanwhile, 3B stays close to constant with Punto manning it most of the time, and SS takes a huge jump up.

Now, I don’t think these numbers can tell us how much the Twins’ run prevention will improve in 2010.* But I think it’s fair to say that the improved infield defense will help with preventing runs — though less than it might given the staff’s propensity for giving up fly balls.

* But if you believe UZR is an accurate statistic, we’re talking in the range of 3-5 wins. As in, the Twins got 5 wins better simply by improving the infield defense, without taking into account the offensive production of either Hardy or Hudson. Like I said, maybe UZR can’t be trusted. Either way, this sounds like a whole lot of improvement. More than I would have guessed … and it sure paints the projections of the Twins struggling to reach 85 wins in a different light.

So this summer, when all the Twins’ pitchers seem happier than usual, will it be because of their lower ERAs? Or will both the happiness and the lower ERAs be because of the improved defense?

7 comments

7 Comments so far

  1. thrylos98 March 16th, 2010 12:38 pm

    The infield will be better in 2010 because there are better defensive players. On the other hand, using UZR/150 to quantify might be a bit misleading, because to get meaningful UZR and UZR/150 numbers you need at least 2 full seasons (324 games on a particular position). Your 2010 UZR/150 data is kosher, because these guys meet the requirement, but the 2009 is lacking confidence.

  2. sirsean March 16th, 2010 12:45 pm

    Completely true. (I’ve always read that you need 3 seasons to have a meaningful sample for defensive data.)

    But for the purposes of this discussion I figured the 2009 UZR data was fine because it was what we got rather than an attempt to measure the true talent level of the players involved.

  3. Heineken-77 March 17th, 2010 8:36 am

    I would think that the grass will have an effect as well. Before the ball would fly on the metrodome turf. Now it should slow down on the target field grass.

  4. rghrbek March 17th, 2010 9:37 am

    They should benefit from an improved infield, which of course will be nullified by a poor outfield.

    Sirsean, it would be interesting to note, our projected 4 starters (hell we know Cisco is going to be the 5th), and what their fly ball ratios are compared to the league average, as a team.

    To me that’s the most important issue. In a smaller ballpark, with the 2nd least amount of foul ball territory in baseball.

    Well, the infield will help, but how much?

  5. FunBobby March 17th, 2010 1:10 pm

    Check this out (insider only, sorry):

    http://insider.espn.go.com/blog/tmi-mlb/post?id=906

    This year we are starting two of 2009’s five worst OFs. That can’t be good. Please don’t use the argument “but Cuddyer has a good arm” to try and convince me we actually have a decent OF defense. Because we do not. Its pretty terrible.

  6. sirsean March 17th, 2010 1:20 pm

    First, infield defense is more important than outfield defense — nothing is more frustrating for a pitcher than getting the groundball he needed but having it go through for a hit — even for a flyball-heavy pitching staff.

    Second, I’ve always wondered about the Cuddyer RF numbers; like the Green Monster at Fenway, everyone always says the baggy at the Metrodome takes getting used to. It was the stated reason for keeping Cuddyer in RF rather than playing Delmon there, who is a natural RF. The Green Monster messes up defensive metrics, and defensive stats guys admit that. Does the baggy have a similar effect? Since we’re in Minnesota rather than a real baseball town like Boston, nobody gives a shit. But I think it’s worth thinking about. Or at least, it used to be.

    Third, we are moving to a smaller ballpark, with a less-spacious outfield, and less foul territory. That means the outfield defense’s impact is lessened, and the importance of their range is minimized.

    So even if it’s a bad outfield defense, and I don’t think anybody’s disagreeing with that, the Twins are in exactly the sort of situation where it’s not a huge deal. The only thing that’d make it better is if we had a different pitching philosophy, but that takes longer to change.

  7. Ragstoriches March 18th, 2010 7:19 am

    Plus, Cuddyer has a good arm.

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