Offense and pitching have been at the forefront of the analytics movement since its inception. It started out innocently enough, with teams targeting players with high OBPs and low FIPs at the turn of the millennium. Now we have rate stats, weighted stats, spin rates, expected results, expected results when a batter makes contact against a high spin pitch... it's a rabbit hole. Sure, some new metrics are superfluous, redundant or just not particularly useful, but generally speaking, almost every new development gives us new tools for measuring hitting and pitching and a better insight into a player's contributions.
But defense has lagged behind. While it's generally accepted that errors and fielding percentage should not be the only metrics to measure how a defender's aptitude, the alternatives are not exactly perfect either, especially for infielders. Shifts are a big part of the problem. Sure, you got an out, but how much of that was due to the fielder and how much of it was the good scouting report? While Fielding Bible recently updated Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) to account for shifts better, it is an improvement rather than the perfect, final answer.
Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is used for FanGraphs' WAR calculations, but even they admit, "We don’t know precisely where a ball is hit, we don’t know exactly how long the ball was airborne or on the ground before it lands, is touched, or passes a fielder, and we don’t know exactly where the fielders were positioned when the ball was hit. Many decisions we have to make regarding the UZR methodology involve a trade-off. Given the limitations of the data, while the outcome is quite reliable, especially with large amounts of data (say, several years for a player), it is not perfect."
For my money, Baseball Prospectus' FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) is the best way to evaluate catcher defense, taking into account their framing and blocking skills and their ability to control the running game. I'm not as crazy about FRAA for other position players, though, because it falls into the same pitfalls as UZR and DRS. It's by no means bad, but it can be improved.
Baseball Savant offered a better alternative in 2018 by introducing Outs Above Average, or OAA, which takes into account where a player was originally positioned and how much ground they covered on each play. This is the gold standard for evaluating defense in 2020. Shifts are taken into account this way and we know exactly what fielder did on every play and what their odds were of being successful. While OAA was originally just for outfielders, last week they updated it to include infielders, too.
If you want to get in the particulars of OAA and how it is calculated, I would recommend Mike Petriello's piece for MLB.com. If you want to get into the math behind OAA, read Tom Tango's accompanying post.
And if you just want the short version, here's how OAA is calculated for infielders, per Petriello:
• 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
Here's a quick example: a batter puts a ball in play. Based on the location of the batted ball and the speed of the hitter, Baseball Savant calculates the odds of this play resulting in an out at 90%. If the fielder succeeds, they get 0.1 OAA. If they fail, they got docked 0.9 OAA. The cumulative total of the outcomes of all their collective plays is pulled together, and the final result is their OAA.
Whenever I started writing this Mound Visit, I intended to focus on Adam Frazier and Kevin Newman. Frazier, surprisingly, ranked first among second basemen in OAA. Newman, perhaps just as surprisingly, ranked near the bottom for shortstops. That story will have to wait until next time, though, because someone else really grabbed my eye. Someone very unexpected.
Buckle up, folks. We're doing a deep dive into Colin Moran's defense.
Moran is, to put it nicely, a poor defender. Whether you want to base that assessment on errors (14), DRS (-13), UZR (-8.8), OAA (-7) or even just the eye-test, he makes a lot of miscues. That does not even take mental mistakes- like this one from June 2- into account. Here, the bases are loaded with no outs. The ball is hit to Moran, and he decides to just toss it to first, forgetting to touch the bag for the force out at third:
Personally, I think that was the worst play by a Pirates fielder last year. If he went home with the throw, the Pirates would have gotten an easy out and kept a run off the board. Just stepping on third and not making a throw would have been a better outcome than what Moran did here. With the exception of air balling the throw, this is the worst possible outcome from this situation.
So is there any hope for his defense? Can he get better? Not good or even average. Just better. With the new information Baseball Savant has brought to light, I think so. We'll take a look at how he performed in the three main directions a third baseman will need to range to to make a play: to their left, their right and going in on the ball.
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