clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

What Statcast’s Newest Fielding Metric Says About Reds Infielders, Offseason

New, 29 comments

Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average tool has been expanded to include infielders

Cincinnati Reds v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

If you are an analytically savvy baseball fan, you probably feel pretty comfortable about your ability to evaluate pitching and hitting. For pitchers, you want to see lots of strikeouts, and as few homers and walks as possible. Ideally, you’d like to see ground balls, but more pertinently, you’d like to see weak contact. You want to see swings and misses, and batters chasing pitches out of the zone. You want to see evidence that batters are getting fooled by what a pitcher is throwing. For hitters, you want to see power and walks. You want to see a player hitting the ball hard, and that they’re able to identify which pitches they can’t hit hard, and hold back from swinging at them. You want to see evidence that a hitter can maximize every swing he takes.

Fielding, by nature, is much trickier to evaluate properly. For decades, fielding percentage was the beginning and end of most conversations surrounding defense, but eventually, the issues with that statistic began to emerge. There was, of course, subjectivity in the way errors were assigned, but there was also the fact that not all successful fielding plays are created equal. A two-bouncer directly to a second baseman is much easier to field and make a timely throw on than a grounder over the second base bag that the second baseman must field on a backhand and throw against his body to convert into an out, but fielding percentage counts both plays as a simple 1-of-1, and moves on. Not only does fielding percentage withhold how difficult any given play was to make, it doesn’t even tell you how many plays were made in the first place. Over time, more modern defensive metrics, such as ultimate zone rating (UZR) and defensive runs saved (DRS) took the place of fielding percentage in modern evaluations, but even those metrics have their limitations, because of the external factors working for and against a defender on any given play, as well as the increase in shifts constantly changing what’s expected from a fielder on a ball in play.

Today, a new evaluation tool was released that hopes to address some of those shortcomings. Baseball Savant, MLB.com’s home to all Statcast data, unveiled Outs Above Average for infielders, a range-based fielding statistic that measures how many plays a defender converted into outs compared to the average player at that position. Here’s Mike Petriello’s brief synopsis of the workings of it at MLB.com:

“The short version is that there are four primary items that affect the chance of a play being converted into an out:

• How far the fielder has to go to reach the ball (“the intercept point”)

• How much time he has to get there

• How far he then is from the base the runner is heading to

• On force plays, how fast the batter is, on average

The first two items form the basis (though not the entirety) of the outfield model, though the batter’s speed isn’t accounted for in outfield OAA. In the infield, it of course has to be; a ground ball with Billy Hamilton running is surely a different play than one with Albert Pujols running. The direction of the play from the fielder is accounted for, as well.”

Baseball Savant introduced Outs Above Average for outfielders two years ago, which factored in things like catch probability and paired well with its outfielder jump metric. The difference between Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average system and other defensive metrics is that, because of Statcast technology, this metric is able to track precisely where a fielder was when the play started. That’s important in an age where shifting is gaining more prominence every season, meaning someone penciled into the lineup as a shortstop might spend more than a third of the game playing to the right field side of second base. This metric is designed to remove as much subjectivity as possible from the evaluation process, helping us more accurately answer the question of how much a fielder helped or hurt his team in comparison to the average player.

I’d recommend a full read-through of Petriello’s description, as well as Tom Tango’s more scientific background on the subject, as those two are indispensable voices in baseball that can surely do more justice to explaining these things than I can. What I would like to do myself is illustrate what this new information can tell us about Reds infielders. Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric has already been giving us information on Cincinnati outfielders for two seasons, and the results have been mixed. Here’s how all Reds outfielders with at least 50 fielding opportunities graded in 2019:

Statcast Ratings of Reds Outfielders, 2019

Player Outs Above Average Expected Catch Percentage Actual Catch Percentage
Player Outs Above Average Expected Catch Percentage Actual Catch Percentage
Phil Ervin 4 87 90
Aristides Aquino 4 86 90
Scott Schebler 1 88 90
Yasiel Puig 0 84 84
Nick Senzel 0 85 85
Josh VanMeter -3 92 87
Jesse Winker -8 89 84
Note: Figures for Puig include his time with Cleveland

Ervin and Aquino’s numbers are encouraging, and given Senzel’s lack of experience in center before this season, I’d say an average showing like this in his rookie season is probably a win as well. Winker, meanwhile, was unsurprisingly rated as one of the worst fielders in baseball. All told, this table looks about the way you’d expect. Now, let’s get to the infielders:

Statcast Ratings of Reds Infielders, 2019

Name Outs Above Average Success Rate Estimated Success Rate
Name Outs Above Average Success Rate Estimated Success Rate
Jose Iglesias 12 90 87
Freddy Galvis 12 90 87
Jose Peraza 2 90 90
Joey Votto 1 92 91
Eugenio Suarez 1 85 84
Kyle Farmer 1 88 87
Derek Dietrich -1 89 89
Note: Galvis’ numbers include his time with Toronto

The infielder evaluations spring up a few interesting points. The first is the fact that Statcast measures Freddy Galvis, a late-season waiver claim by the Reds, as being an equal defender to Jose Iglesias. Iglesias is known for his flashy defense, as I mentioned when I wrote about his recent signing with the Orioles over at FanGraphs. Galvis’ defense is also well-regarded, but both his reputation and the existing fielding metrics don’t tend to place him in the same class as Iglesias. Iglesias finished the 2019 season with 8 DRS and a 5.9 UZR, while Galvis had -2 DRS and a -1.7 UZR. In other words, Galvis was average to slightly below as a defender according to the two most widely-cited fielding metrics. Whatever Statcast’s tracking data uncovered, however, measured him to be absolutely elite — he and Iglesias were both in the 97th percentile of all major league infielders in OAA.

The numbers revealed here could hint at why the Reds have not been more aggressive in upgrading at shortstop this offseason, even for the highest-profile free agent target. When Didi Gregorius signed with the Phillies earlier this winter for a mere one-year, $14-million contract, the mood among Cincinnati fans largely seemed to be frustration. Why wouldn’t the Reds be willing to commit more money to far and away the best shortstop on the market, when their current Opening Day starter at that position is Freddy Freaking Galvis? The answer might have a lot to do with defense. Gregorius, typically regarded as a very good defensive shortstop, was 13 outs below average in 2019, according to Statcast’s newest metric. Only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Jorge Polanco graded out worse than that in all of baseball. And this wasn’t just a side effect of coming back from injury, either — Gregorius was in the 15th percentile of OAA in 2017, and the 5th percentile in 2018. While UZR and DRS generally give him positive reviews, Statcast thinks he’s one of the worst defenders in the sport. If we are to assume teams are working with similar data from MLB Advanced Media to what is publicly available, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Reds viewed Gregorius as a liability on defense, and after a slip in his offense — his 84 wRC+ was five points lower than Galvis’ career-best 89 wRC+ — didn’t even consider him to be much of an upgrade.

Statcast isn’t just a fan of Galvis’ defense — it likes the entire Reds infield. Cincinnati’s 14 outs above average as an infield ranked eighth in baseball in 2019, with the Cardinals leading the way at an astonishing +42. That’s a big help to a team whose pitching staff generated the sixth-highest rate of ground balls in 2019, and if we take a look through previous seasons, there are more examples of Reds infielders performing better in Statcast metrics than they do in typical fielding metrics. Eugenio Suarez, for example, was rated slightly below average by FanGraphs in 2018 and slightly above by Baseball-Reference. But according to Statcast, Suarez’s OAA was in the 90th percentile of all infielders that season, even further boosting the value he generated in his career-best offensive season. Meanwhile, Joey Votto — often knocked for his defense — graded out in the 84th percentile of OAA in 2017, the first season for which Statcast has data, and hasn’t slipped below the 62nd percentile since.

The one Reds infielder we haven’t gotten to yet is its newest one, Mike Moustakas. Moustakas, you’ll recall, signed the largest free agent contract in franchise history this winter, agreeing to four years and $68 million. That handshake made Moustakas the Reds’ new second baseman, a detail that confused some because, well, Moustakas doesn’t play second base. He’s only played 44 games there in his career, compared with 1,029 at third base. But all 44 of those games at the keystone came in 2019, and they were apparently enough to convince the Reds he could stick there into his mid-30s.

What might have told them that? Again, the data released by Baseball Savant today provides some insight. The disclaimer here is that 44 games is a teeny, tiny sample when attempting to evaluate defense. There is a ton of noise in those stats, and it takes a lot of data points for a reliable conclusion to be reached. That said, here’s a visual breakdown of Moustakas’ defense in 2019, based on where he started the play (red shades are good, white is average, blue is poor):

In 2019, Moustakas was -2 OAA as a third baseman, and +2 as a second baseman. In simple terms of where he was on the field, he was -3 in third base zones, +1 in shortstop zones, and +2 in second base zones. In other words, the further to the right Moustakas played, the more likely he was turn to plays into outs. This is only a one-season sample, with only 284 fielding attempts to pick through, but there’s an undeniable trend here. If this is the kind of data the Reds are seeing — and again, it stands to reason that it ought to be close — it’s easy to see the reasoning for their plans regarding Moustakas.

None of this should be taken as gospel. OAA, like UZR and DRS and even fielding percentage, is just one of several different tools we can use to evaluate defense. As a brand new metric, it will have kinks that need to be worked out, and some of the numbers included in this post may be altered slightly as more information is dissected and flaws in the process are sorted out. But more data points are always better, and the more reliable metrics like these get introduced, the closer we can get to piecing together an accurate picture of a player’s value. We’ll likely never have a perfectly satisfying measure of defense. But if used properly, the technology involved in calculating OAA could make it one of the more reliable fielding evaluators available. Even on Day 1, it may already be giving us a closer glimpse at how modern front offices are thinking.