We live in a time in which defensive metrics are finally emerging from a cave. Throughout most of baseball history, people have wondered just how to accurately evaluate a player’s defense. Unfortunately, until very recently, any tool to measure defense has been primitive at best and misleading at worst.
These days, serious students of the game drop all sorts of abbreviations like FIP, BIZ, BOZ, BABIP, DER, UZR, ZR, DIP, and FRAA into discussions about a defense. The Average Joe fan is often left wondering just what the heck all those capital letters are supposed to tell us and what happened to those things called errors? After all, aren’t the guys making a great deal of mistakes the worst fielders? Not necessarily so. A player like Brandon Inge might have a high error total, but if he is getting to a great many balls that other players can’t get to, then he is turning those balls into outs.
Often errors are incorporated into advanced defensive metrics without much discussion about them, as talk centers around balls in zone, vectors, range, etc. However, until metrics that include precise Ball in Play Data are published this off season in publications like The Hardball Times Annual, looking at individual players through traditional metrics often yields a fuzzy picture at best.
For instance, Range Factor, which was designed to measure the rate a player makes outs, can paint a very distorted picture unless pitching tendencies are correctly accounted for. Most of the time, the infielders with the highest Range Factor are the guys that are having the most ground balls hit their direction, not the guys who are scooping to the most balls hit to their left or right. Even metrics like Win Shares that attempt to adjust for pitching tendencies can be inaccurate sometimes.
However, in a team context, errors, while unsexy, still tell us a great deal, just as the rock a caveman used to foil a rival suitor was an excellent, albeit primitive, communicator. Let’s step away from the advanced defensive metrics (when the BIP metrics are published, we can return in earnest) and just look at errors to give us a backdrop for another weakness for the Indians in 2006, defense. Yes, errors are only a part of defensive analysis, but when a team is making errors like the Indians did this year, those miscues become a very large part of the analysis.
Errors By Position
Team 1B 2B 3B SS CF LF RF P C TOT BAL 6 10 20 22 5 10 3 12 14 102 BOS 10 8 9 14 1 3 3 11 7 66 CHI 10 10 13 18 6 8 6 12 5 90 DET 12 10 22 30 2 5 7 15 3 103 KC 8 5 22 24 6 4 10 10 9 98 LAA 10 10 27 21 8 3 12 14 15 124 MIN 9 9 16 23 5 9 5 6 4 84 NYY 17 12 26 19 3 3 6 6 12 104 OAK 11 3 13 21 5 6 6 14 5 84 SEA 6 18 15 21 6 3 3 6 10 88 TB 6 14 27 28 6 7 8 10 11 116 TEX 4 24 15 15 8 4 1 11 16 98 TOR 13 10 19 36 4 1 3 9 5 99 CLE 16 17 23 19 3 4 8 17 10 118 AVE 9.6 11.4 19.1 22.2 4.9 4.9 5.8 11.0 9.0 98.1
With 118 errors, the Indians seemed to be engaged in a soccer match with the Angels, booting balls with reckless abandon. However, according to the THT Team Page, the Indians committed 44 throwing errors, which was slightly above the league average of 42. The Indians just weren’t kicking the ball around; they were throwing it all over the place also.
Position wise, the Indians were worst in the AL at first base and pitcher. Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez, no longer with the organization, combined for nine errors, but Ryan Garko made six in just 396 innings played. The pitchers’ high error totals were most certainly related to the stone golems at first base, especially on pick-off throws. The brick hands of the first basemen probably contributed to throwing errors from other infielders as somewhat errant throws were not saved.
The Indians weren’t very good at most of the other positions, in fact, they were only above average in three positions: shortstop, left field and center field. Second base and third base were by no means pretty. Ronnie Belliard committed eight errors at second base over 786.3 innings played, but his replacements, Hector Luna and Joe Inglett were worse, combining for nine errors over 587 innings. Aaron Boone was an absolute disaster at third, committing 16 errors in 842 innings played. Andy Marte committed six errors in 428.7 innings played, but unlike Boone, showed an ability to get to balls that were not hit right at him.
According to John Dewan’s Plus/Minus System, the Indians were -81 in ground balls, second worst in the AL. Much of that had to do with the Indians’ infield errors, but the Indians infielders were also not able to get to record as many outs on balls hit in their vicinity. A good chunk of that was probably Boone’s fault, but others certainly weren’t wearing out their leather either. Jhonny Peralta fared well in non-BIP metrics, but early reports with BIP data indicate that Peralta was probably closer to average, and since the Indians pitchers induced a great deal of ground balls, many of those balls hit way resulted in hits that a superior fielder would have recorded as outs. Peralta also had a defensive slump that lasted most of the last month of the season.
The outfield fared a better. Using the Plus/Minus system, the Indians fared well with fly balls, recording a +48, best in the AL. However, the Indians right fielders racked up a very unhealthy error total. Jason Michaels struggled with angles in left field and certainly was not as effective as Coco Crisp was last year.
The catcher position was hardly a highlight either. Not only did the Indians rack up 10 errors at that position, their catchers’ ability to throw out runners was putrid. Yes, some of that is the pitchers’ fault, but Victor Martinez would have been hard pressed to throw out someone on a softball field diamond. He only threw out 22 runners in 122 steal attempts, a dismal 18%. Kelly Shoppach threw out a very respectable 37%, but only caught 40 games. The positives are that the Indians backstops only allowed seven passed balls, third best in the AL, and the Indians only had 46 wild pitches, seven fewer than the league average of 53.
Not surprisingly, the Indians gave up the most unearned runs in the American League, 84, which was 23 runs over the AL Team Average. Poor defense affects more than just unearned run totals. Errors also put more stress on the pitchers, requiring them to throw more pitches, usually in higher leverage situations. Coupled with a bad bullpen, the Indians defense ensured that the Tribe was a losing team in 2006.