A couple of weeks ago I took a look at Torii Hunter’s late career offensive resurgence and explained that a change in his approach has paid off for the Tigers’ RF. Hunter has had a very nice career overall and was once consider one of the game’s elite defensive players. If you’re curious about Hunter’s current and former swing, check out the link above, but thanks to a reader question over the weekend, this post is going to discuss Hunter’s defense.
The genesis of the discussion was the reader wondering how Hunter’s defensive numbers look this season compared to last season because the reader noticed he’s seemed to make some bad plays out in RF. My eyes tell me the same thing. Hunter has made a number of poor plays this season at bad times.
Let’s take a look at Torii Hunter’s defense this season and throughout his career. Let’s start up front and say that I’m going to present the numbers, drawing heavily from Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and leaving the reputation to the side. Hunter won a lot of gold gloves and was all over the Web Gems in the late 90s and early 00s. You may remember him making amazing plays in center, but this presentation is about data. I don’t feel comfortable giving you a real scouting report from his early days because that was before the days of MLB Network and MLB.TV when I couldn’t watch all the baseball I wanted to. I’ve seen him for 100 games this year so I’ll give you the scouting report from this season and the raw data from other seasons.
Let’s take a look at the overall numbers. Remember a few things. Up through 2009 he played almost exclusively CF and after he started blending into RF and has played just one game in center since the start of 2011. What is important here is that defensive metrics judge players compared to average at their position meaning that a +10 in CF is a better defensive player than a +10 in RF. Additionally, defense peaks early. Hunter should get worse as he ages, everyone does.
Total Zone is an approximation based on play by play data that covers players up through 2001. In 2002 UZR becomes available and DRS comes in 2003. So these numbers will get more accurate as we move forward and Hunter’s best seasons happen to overlap with the infancy of advanced defense. Don’t take these numbers as gospel. They aren’t perfect, especially early. I’m just presenting the information. A final aside is that defensive metrics are generally a good description of what happened in a given season, but they take very big samples (close to 3 years) to provide a lot of predictive value about a player’s true skill level. Every 10 runs by these defensive scores equals about 1 win.
This Fld number is Total Zone until 2002 and then UZR. This is what FanGraphs uses for the defensive component of Wins Above Replacement (WAR). What you see on the surface here is that Hunter is essentially an average defensive player over his career with a couple of fantastic seasons and a couple of poor ones. The overall picture says Hunter isn’t a great defensive player overall and is pretty much in line with his career numbers this season.
Now let’s take a look at UZR and DRS in his career in CF only.
What is pretty interesting about these numbers is that DRS has almost always liked Hunter better than UZR. DRS is scored by hand and UZR is done with an algorithm. This consistency likely indicates that Hunter is doing something very pleasing to the human eyes. Let’s look at RF:
I think this is pretty interesting. He didn’t play a ton of RF in 2010, so I’m not too worried about it. In 2011 and 2012 DRS likes Hunter better in RF than UZR does, but in 2013 it flips. And that actually corresponds perfectly to what I’m seeing with my own eyes. Hunter’s range actually looks pretty good to me this season. What Hunter is doing poorly this year, in my opinion, is coughing up easy plays. I can think of at least five instances off the top of my head where Hunter got himself to medium difficulty fly ball and he just botched the catch after doing the hard work. He’s also made some atrocious throws in terms of accuracy and has misjudged the wall a few times. Hunter is making bad mistakes this year, and the data seems to suggest that this might be new.
You can see that he’s been pretty consistent in making errors in his career but is already at his quota for the season:
So the defensive metrics disagree about Hunter. Defensive Runs Saved thinks he’s pretty good (averaging about +5 DRS per season since 2003). Ultimate Zone Rating thinks he’s right about average overall with some heavy year to year variation. If you trust UZR, he’s having an average season at the end of an average career. Defensive Runs Saved says he’s having a bad season at the end of a pretty good career. In total, over the last 11 seasons the difference between Hunter’s UZR and DRS works out to about 4.5 WAR. That’s an interesting difference and it’s one that makes sense.
Let’s take a look at another statistic that I like. What is his defensive efficiency? What percentage of the balls hit to his defensive zone does he catch and how many out of zone plays does he make?
In his CF days he made more plays that average early in his career and started falling behind a little bit as time went on. That makes sense. In his early days he had great range and as he aged the young kids coming up started passing him. Here are the numbers in RF.
This continues the theme we’ve been seeing. Hunter was right around average in his first two seasons and has basically collapsed this season. Hunter is making fewer plays on balls in his zone this season, likely because of the misplays I’ve been talking about. It’s not limited range, it’s Hunter making mistakes. That’s how I blend this information and my own observation. Hunter seems just as athletic, but he’s not executing.
What these two charts show us is that Hunter has been in the ballpark of league average in making plays outside of his defensive zone. Recognize that these numbers were brand new in 2003 and are constantly being refined, he’s sometimes been better and sometimes worse than average.
So what does this all mean? For me, it says that Hunter has obviously declined as he’s aged but that he hasn’t lost a ton of his range relative to what you would expect given typical aging curves. Generally speaking, human scorers like Hunter’s defense more than the machines, until this season when the humans have turned on him. That turn, which lines up with what the plays/balls in zone data tells us and my own visual inspection, tells us that Hunter is getting hit this season for making mistakes fielding the ball, not getting to it.
On several occasions Hunter has gotten to medium difficulty ball and dropped it or misjudged the wall or given up on a ball in front of him a little too early. These kind of plays aren’t called for errors, but they are absolutely mistakes made by Hunter that should count against him.
So the story here is that Hunter was probably not quite as good a defender as you thought he was coming up, but that he was pretty good and remains pretty good given his age. This year he’s struggled, not with declining range, but just some stupid mistakes. You can judge that how you will, but it appears to be a sign that his defense could improve rather than continue to decline for the rest of the season. Hunter’s bat has been a nice addition for the Tigers this year and his defense, despite its current issues, is still dramatically better than what Brennan Boesch offered the last few seasons.
The big focus of last season’s trade with the Marlins was Anibal Sanchez, and rightfully so. He was the best player in the deal and had the biggest impact on the Tigers down the stretch. They re-signed him for a lot of money and before the injury, he was having a Cy Young type season. But the Tigers also got Omar Infante back from the Marlins, and Omar Infante has made one of the more interesting transformations in baseball since we last knew him as a Tiger.
Infante came to the major leagues very young, at age 20, and from 2002 to 2008 only played about one solid major league season. Here are his WAR totals for those seasons, understanding that his PA varied.
Infante had a reasonably good season in 2004 (2.0 WAR is generally considered starter level), but in every other season he either performed near replacement level or didn’t get enough at bats to provide much value because he wasn’t playing well. Omar looked poised for a career as a backup or up and down guy despite making it to the show so young. Then something funny happened. Here are his WAR numbers for 2009-2013:
Infante went from borderline AAA player to solid major league regular. He peaked in 2004 in the first group and slowly lost playing time as his production dropped. But he rebuilt his value in 2009 as a backup and became a full on regular every year since and has added more than 2.0 WAR in each of the last four seasons. Here it is in graphical form, keep in mind that 2013 is only half over:
He’s becoming more and more valuable each season. That’s pretty clear and it’s not so crazy to see it given that he is essentially doing it during the peak years of baseball performance (27-31), but it is a big out of the ordinary how exactly Infante is doing it.
Let’s look at his offensive production over time using wRC+ which compares a player to a league average hitter (100). I’ve dropped out his first season because he only played about 20 games:
So Infante has become a better hitter, but he hasn’t really become that much better over the last few seasons compare to the previous ones. By 2008, he was locked into a 90-110 wRC+ pocket. That number has fluctuated but he also achieved it in 2004 and 2006. He’s become a more consistent offensive performer but he isn’t a great hitter and has had two below average seasons during his recent breakout. He’s a better hitter than he used to be, but that isn’t what’s really driving his transformation.
Infante has become a solid major leaguer over the last few seasons because he’s become a complete baseball player. The offense has stabilize, but it’s his glove and baserunning that have pushed him over the top. Check this out. Here are Infante’s defensive and baserunning numbers from his career. NOTE: I’ve dropped 2002 because of how few games he played and I have extrapolated his 2013 numbers so that you can see how much better he is playing this season. To be clear, the 2013 numbers are projections because these are not rate stats:
Infante has become a much better defender and a noticeably better baserunner over the last three seasons and it’s helping him become one of the more valuable second basemen in the game. He’s currently on pace for a 4-5 WAR season, and even if that won’t keep up completely, he looks poised to turn in his best season yet. He’s doing it with defense and baserunning which are parts of a player’s game that are supposed to peak early. You’re supposed to become a better hitter as time goes on and you’re supposed to watch your other skills fade early.
Infante won’t hear of that. He’s becoming a good all-around player as he ages, which is making him very valuable. Here are the runs above replacement from his defense and baserunnining added together over his career. Remember, 10 runs equals 1 WAR:
But here are his run values on offense:
Yes his offense is getting better, but the value is coming from turning himself into a good defender and baserunner. Replacement level and positional adjustments are added to these to get WAR, but you can see clearly that Infante is taking an unusual path toward mid career success.
He’s getting better in the field and on the bases and it’s working for him and the Tigers.
Since I’ve twice written above defense in the last week, it’s high time I actually explain these defensive stats. Luckily, this is quite easy to explain and understand. There are two primary defensive metrics that people use. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which are based on people watching video of every play and computer algorithms.
You can learn exactly how each is calculate here, DRS and UZR. But you don’t need to know how to calculate them in order to understand what they mean. It’s important to learn about these because Fielding % is problematic stat because it doesn’t factor in a player’s range, so you can have a good fielding percentage if you don’t make errors because you never get to difficult balls. We need numbers that measure how good players are at preventing runs and avoiding errors isn’t the only way to do that.
The numbers are scaled to position, so league average at every position is zero and positive numbers are good and negative numbers are bad.
For example a player with a +5 DRS or +5 UZR is five runs better than league average at their position. 10 runs is equal to 1 Win Above Replacement (WAR). These are counting stats, so you accumulate them as the season goes on, although I believe they are only updated weekly on the more popular statistics websites.
You can use either DRS or UZR depending on your preference, but Baseball Reference uses DRS in their WAR and Fangraphs uses UZR in theirs. It’s a preference thing. I always use Fangraphs WAR on this site, but I interchange the defensive stats on occasion because I don’t really have a favorite. If there is no label on this site, it is UZR.
Additionally, you might see UZR/150, which is simply UZR scaled into a full season of games as if you played at your current pace for a whole season.
As a rule of thumb, 0 is average, -5/+5 is above or below average, -10/+10 is poor or great, -15/+15 is awful or elite. It is also important to know that these statistics take a while to become predictive, so small samples can cause problems with defensive numbers but they generally all a good description of what has happened, even if it doesn’t predict what will happen next.
Andy Dirks has been slumping with the bat lately. A lot of Tigers fans are unhappy with his performance lately and want to see more from the now-injured Tuiasosopo, Garcia, and Castellanos. I get that, I understand. The offensive numbers are down. You can see it in his rate stats from last year to this season:
He’s 100 PA shy of where he was last season (344 to 244), so the counting stats are going to be harder to compare, but something is incredibly interesting about Dirks this season. Last year, he was worth 1.6 WAR in 344 PA. This year he’s at 1.4 WAR in 244 PA. So he’s actually a little ahead of last year’s overall value despite being 100 PA behind and being a worse player across the board offensively.
Andy Dirks went from an above average hitter and below average defender last season to an elite fielder and below average hitter this season. Now, it could be a sample size issue. Certainly it could. But the change is pretty dramatic and pretty interesting in terms of where his value is coming from, so let’s just take a look with the caveat that this might not keep up.
If we take a look at this advanced defensive numbers, multiple measures line up. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) agree that Dirks was slightly below average/right around average in 2012 and way above average in 2013.
So Dirks’ bat is down and his defense is way up. If we look at where he is contributing runs to his team it has completely shifted (keep in mind replacement level and positional adjustments change a little year to year) from the bat to the glove (10 runs equals 1 WAR). Batting runs, fielding runs, and total runs above replacement look like this:
Basically, the takeaway point here is that while Dirks is struggling at the plate this season, he has made up for it with huge defensive value. I’ve watched almost every inning of Tigers baseball this year and I’m comfortable with the directional change, even if you want to quibble over his precise defensive numbers. Dirks has been great on defense especially compared to most guys who play left field.
Consider this, by UZR/150 which is essentially how many runs a player saves on defense per 150 games, Andy Dirks in LF is baseball’s best qualifying defender. His UZR/150 this year is 34.9. That’s like being a 3.5 WAR player just on defense. Granted, he’ll regress a little over time, but that is an elite level to this point. He’s the best defensive player in baseball by this measure! He’s 2nd in UZR (which isn’t scaled to a full season) and 8th in DRS. (These are all broken down by position and player so guys who play many different positions are unfairly knocked down)
So while I understand that fans are concerned about Dirks’ offensive performance you have to consider his defense as part of his overall value. That’s why Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is such a useful tool. It places a run value on everything and converts those runs into wins. I don’t care how a player adds value, I care if they add value. Dirks is adding value on defense instead of at the plate, and we can’t just ignore that.
Half of a player’s job is playing defense, even if it isn’t as sexy. And Andy Dirks is playing great defense.
I’m a huge believer in the value of defense in baseball and I’m also someone who believes in advanced statistics in baseball. You might already know that if you’re a regular reader. Some of the typical advanced stats regarding defense are Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and UZR’s close cousin UZR/150 which scales that number based on a full season of games.
Critics and proponents alike will tell you these numbers aren’t perfect and do not always predict true skill in small samples, but they are reasonably good compared to any other defensive statistic we have and they are created by people watching baseball, not a computer algorithm. So they’re the best measure of defense we have even if there are flaws.
But another measure of defense is the number of spectacular, eye-popping plays. This measure is called the Web Gem and is brought to you by the people at Baseball Tonight.
Mark Simon, an ESPN Stats and Info researcher, often posts Web Gem data on Twitter and I’ve been wondering about Web Gems and advanced stats for a while. Today I stopped wondering and started doing. Here’s Simon’s most recent tweet regarding team level Web Gems:
Now if you’re a real scientist who knows about probability and stuff, you know there are a couple flaws in what I am about to do. Let me get them out of the way quickly:
- Web Gems are conditional what happens on a given day, the 6th best play (not a gem) on Monday might have been 1st on Tuesday (a gem) but due to the random distribution of gems, it doesn’t qualify even though it should.
- Terrible defensive plays don’t count against you in Gems, but do in DRS/UZR
- Team numbers aren’t best, but it’s all I have. A team’s defensive quality can vary, so if one play accumulates all of your gems they can still only account for a fraction of your DRS/UZR
So recognize that these are issues, but also ignore them for now because this is supposed to be fun and merely to satisfy my curiosity.
How well do Web Gems predict defense? Does a small number of great plays predict overall defensive value? The short answer, no. Not at all. Here is Web Gems plotted against DRS, UZR, and UZR/150.
You may notice the line slops upward in each graph, meaning that as Web Gems increase, so too do the various metrics, but a positive slop doesn’t mean it’s a real effect. That’s just the line of best fit. In reality, these lines are not statistically significant. In fact, they are almost as insignificant as something can be (I know that’s bad statistical theory, it’s poetic license).
Here are the slope coefficients, standard errors, and adjusted r squares:
|Adjusted R squared||0.03||0.00||0.05|
As you can see, the adjusted r squares for each of these are remarkable tiny. In layman’s terms, what you are seeing here is this. More Web Gems, on average, mean higher DRS/UZR, but this is almost surely due to random chance. Web Gems also explain less than 10% of the overall variation in the defensive stats.
Basically, the takeaway here is that overall team defense is not related to a team’s overall number of Web Gems. That might not interest you, but I was curious. I’d like to do it with every player in the league, but I don’t have complete individual Web Gem data and I think the very high number of zeroes would probably make it a giant mess. I’m not sure.
But my curiosity has been satisfied and I feel better knowing that the ability to make ridiculous plays is not strongly related to the overall ability prevent runs.