Defensive Misplays and the Sox that excel at them

You may recall when we covered Defensive Runs here last week.

We learned that Jason Bay has negative value as a left-fielder while Mike Lowell and Dustin Pedroia are exceptionally good fielders. Before I move into this article’s subject, a refresher: Defensive Runs show how good a player is at preventing runs. But there’s more than that that goes into fielding. What about mistake-free plays?

You would think that preventing runs and mistake-free plays go hand in hand, but not quite.

In the Fielding Bible Vol. II in which I received today [note: I was not compensated for posting this article], Bill James has unveiled publicly what I feel is a revolutionary statistic: Defensive Misplays. Allow me to let James explain:

A Defensive Misplay is not a type of error. A defensive misplay is a very specific observation of a very narrowly defined event, created in such a way as to keep the scorer’s use of judgment to an absolute minimum. … The one element of discretion is that there has to be some possible consequence to the play. There would be no consequence here (thus no misplay) if, for example, another fielder was in position to play [a] ricochet off the wall. If the left fielder chases the ball to the wall but the center fielder plays the carom, that’s not a misplay [by the left fielder], that’s teamwork.

James goes on to exhaustively list all the possible misplays. You’ll have to buy the book to see them, but let’s jump into the Red Sox. You’ll see that it’s pretty clear how heavily influenced the Red Sox must have been by this statistic.

First things first, the leaders in misplays per inning. This is James’ preferred way of marking the statistic while John Dewan (the author of the book) prefers misplays per touch. Let’s not quibble and just dive into it. The leaders are the same, except at pitcher.

P James Shields (TB) for per inning — 0 in 215 innings, Josh Beckett (BOS) T-1 for per touch — 0
C Kurt Suzuki (OAK) — 21 in 1,215 innings
1B Derrek Lee (CHC) — 12 in 1,339 innings
2B Orlando Hudson (ARI) — 9 in 905 innings
3B Mike Lowell (BOS) — 6 in 935 innings
SS Derek Jeter (NYY) — 17 in 1,259 innings
LF Jason Bay (PIT) — 9 in 1,345 innings
CF Curtis Granderson (DET) — 14 in 1,188 innings
RF Nick Markakis (BAL) — 12 in 1,367 innings

So what do we learn about Lowell and Bay if we fuse it together with defensive runs? Not only is Lowell a great fielder (range, coming in on bunts, etc.) he rarely makes mistakes. Only six, in fact.

Jason Bay is the opposite. He’s not particularly good in range, zone rating and all that, but what he gets to, he will not make a mistake. The ball won’t clank off his glove. He won’t overrun a ball or run a bad route. Good stuff. Manny on the other hand, there were no statistics for but he did lollygag his way to a ball twice that allowed a baserunner an extra base (tied for second behind B.J. Upton’s three).

Not only did Lowell and Bay qualify as the best for Defensive Misplays (let’s call them DM), they qualified as the best for DM plus Errors. Good stuff.

Let’s move on to two more fascinating players. First up, Mark Kotsay. James noted that Kotsay only had six misplays and no errors which was a DM+E rate less than half of Torii Hunter’s, but he didn’t make the cutoff (900 innings, he played 696). Still, the fact that he would have had less than half of Hunter’s DM+E (Hunter placed first among centerfielders in that category) is impressive.

Ah, but that’s not all. Did you know that Jacoby Ellsbury was the most impressive defensive outfielder in all of baseball?

James:

The Red Sox rookie played 346 innings in left field with only two misplays and no errors — by far the best mistake rate of any left fielder playing 125 or more innings. In center field he played 547 innings with no errors and a misplay rate, per touch or per inning, just a hair behind Curtis Granderson (although also behind several other players who didn’t quite qualify as regulars, like Kotsay, Cody Ross, Skip Schumaker and Vernon Wells). And in right field, Ellsbury played 281 innings and handled 123 touches with no errors and no misplays — by far the most innings and the most touches by any major league player with a clean record at any one position in 2009. … Adding it together, he played 1,174 innings in the outfield (130 games), being involved in 622 plays with zero errors and only 11 misplays. Rookie or no rookie, that’s a remarkable record.

Very impressive, I have to say.

You can see that the Red Sox have to have been influenced by this statistic. Prior to this book, this was propietary evidence available only to teams (and I would assume only to the Red Sox)… is it any accident they’re aggressive about playing Ellsbury, acquired Kotsay, resigned Lowell and brought Bay in? I say no.

Thoughts? I have to say, I feel a lot better about our fielding now.

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