A defensive shift

What do the following 5 players all have in common: Jason Bay, Ken Griffey, Jr., Jermaine Dye, Brad Hawpe, and Adam Dunn? The answer: they were named in Matthew Carruth’s article over at fangraphs as being baseball’s 5 worst defensive players over the last 3 seasons. They are also either free agents this offseason or have been linked in trade rumors.

Griffey recently resigned with the Mariners for a slight increase in the two million dollar salary he received last season while Dye recently had his twelve million dollar option bought out by the White Sox. There’s little doubt, of course, that Griffey’s best days are behind him but Dye has posted above average wOBAs every year since 2004. Offensively, in 2009, fangraphs had him at 5 runs above average which would have made him roughly a 2 win player even at age 35 if he were only average defensively.

Bay, named by most as the second best position player free agent on the market, has cost his teams nearly 65 runs defensively by playing poor defense as a corner outfielder over the past 3 seasons. His defensive ineptitude has completely nullified his offensive value since 2007, making him just an average major league outfielder over those 3 seasons. Partly due to his defense, Dave Cameron made the argument that not only would signing Mike Cameron be a better free agent value but that the nearly 36 year old center fielder was actually a better player than Bay is right now.

**It will be interesting to see if Jason Bay’s free agent contract reflects his above average offense or his below average defense.** (Icon/SMI)

As for Hawpe and Dunn, they’ve been the two worst defensive players in the big leagues since 2007. Dunn is signed for one more season while the Rockies have one year plus an option on Hawpe. Theoretically, these two players are productive enough at the plate that they should be in high demand this offseason, particularly considering the relatively weak free agent market. So why are their teams interested in getting rid of them? Could it be because their overwhelmingly disastrous defense sucks away any value they gain from their offense?

Looking back at Carruth’s list, we see that J.J. Hardy is number three on the list of the best defensive players over the previous three seasons. While he was traded to make room for Alcides Escobar, the Brewers were able to use Hardy to acquire Carlos Gomez from the Twins. Gomez is a guy who gets all of his value from being able to play center field very well. He has yet to post a wOBA as high as .300 in the major leagues and yet he has been worth nearly 24 runs in center field over the last two seasons.

There are other reasons, of course, to explain the White Sox lack of interest in Dye or the fact that Griffey only received a two million dollar base salary: namely, the fact that age and offensive production are moving in opposite directions. Perhaps the Rockies and Nationals are only seeking to capitalize on the weak free agent market and Hawpe’s and Dunn’s offensive talents to attempt to receive a large package in return. But it just may be that teams are truly getting a sense of how valuable good defense, and how detrimental, bad defense can be. Perhaps the success of the Rays in 2008 and the Mariners in 2009 is an indicator that good defense has been undervalued and teams are planning on trying to take advantage of that this offseason. It will be interesting to see if the free agent contracts signed by Bay, Cameron, and Adrian Beltre and Vladimir Guerrero reflect that.

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  1. kranky kritter said...

    Averaging the 65 out to 21.6 per season, there’s just no way Jason Bay cost the Red Sox around 20 runs defensively over the course of the season as compared to an average defender.Or anywhere near that. I watched most of the games, and I just don’t see it.

    I love baseball and I love math and I love critical thinking, but this is the kind of stuff that really calls sabermetrics into question. I’ve been watching baseball for 40 years, and I’ve seen my share of butchers. Bay is a fairly adequate fielder who makes the routine plays. Playing LF in Boston he doesn’t have much ground to cover and he does fine. Ellsbury goes to his right pretty well. No one who watched the games would see Bay’s fielding as a concern. If he is playing in a spacious outfield, maybe its worth considering. But in Boston, he was totally up to the task.

    It also seems kind of silly to think of outfielders as the worst defensive players given how seldom an outfielder’s minor mistake turns an out into a hit or extra base compared to an infielder with an iron glove or weak range.

    I do think that defense is undervalued, especially up the middle. For example, few appreciated Darren Lewis when he played CF for Boston, and he took away 3 or 4 hits a week if not more.

    But with corner of, I had trouble worrying about defense unless the guy is genuine spastic clod, like a Canseco or a Wily Mo Pena. Dunn is maybe in that category. Don’t see it with Bay.

  2. kranky kritter said...

    Well, it seems like they are making the adjustment in order to be able to compare say LF and shortstops. It’s interesting in the abstract, but of limited interest and utility as an applied idea.

    In other words, the ‘runs cost” ranking is not really reflective of actual damage done to your team as much as much as it is serving to allow comparisons. For example, the explanation cites how Yuniesky Bettancourt is a better defender than David Ortiz. Sure, fine, but whose poor defense actually hurt his team more?

    I agree Bay is below average if one is comparing him to some sort of median outfielder’s skill level. When I describe him as an average OF, I’m really saying that his performance is within the range of being acceptably decent. He hasn’t embarassed himself in Boston. Dye, Hawpe and Dunn are outliers, noticeably worse than acceptable.

    As I first asserted, I don’t think that Bay misplayed enough chances to actually cost the team 20ish runs over the course of the season compared to the median fielder. I think the stat has real comparative value by trying to hold everyone to the same standard, but I don’t think -65 runs over 3 years has a real reflective value of reality in the sense of being an objective tally of the number of actual runs his play cost the team.

  3. Chuck Brownson said...

    The 65 runs includes not only the runs that Bay cost the team defensively but also the positional adjustments that go along with playing their positions.  Because Bay is a corner outfielder playing the easiest position on the field to play, he’s gotten roughly a minus 7 run fielding adjustment each season.  He’s cost his team 43 runs by playing poor defense and another 21 by doing it as a left fielder, as opposed to being a poor shortstop or second baseman.  The link to the fangraphs article explains how the numbers were calculated.

    As for Bay himself, even Tango’s fans scouting report has him as a below average left fielder and UZR has him as an above average left fielder only once out of his 6 full seasons in the majors.

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