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Error ball?

'Fielding Bible' points out Red Sox' flaws

According to the ‘‘Fielding Bible,’’ Manny Ramírez cost the Red Sox 31 bases by failing to catch balls he should have last season.
According to the ‘‘Fielding Bible,’’ Manny Ramírez cost the Red Sox 31 bases by failing to catch balls he should have last season. (Getty Images Photo / Ronald Martinez)

Meet John Dewan. He is effectively Bill James, without the name cachet, and with fewer years invested in experimenting with baseball statistics. Dewan, in 2002, founded Baseball Info Solutions, a company that logs each pitch and ball put into play in a Major League Baseball season and sells the resulting data to some 12 teams, including the Red Sox.

The relevance of this to you: Dewan, last month, published a segment of the data he provides to the Red Sox and other teams in his book, ''The Fielding Bible." Thumb through the book's pages, add up the findings that relate to Red Sox players past and present, and you will come to this conclusion: the 2006 Red Sox, a team rebuilt around pitching and defense, on paper stands to be worse defensively than the '05 club.

How can this be? The explanation lies in Dewan's plus-minus system of evaluating a player's defensive ability, a system that is the basis for his book. Historically, defense has been measured rather poorly. As James writes in Dewan's book, ''With fielding stats, in 1876 we started out with games, putouts, assists, errors, and fielding percentage, and after 130 years, we have games, putouts, assists, errors, and fielding percentage."

Dewan, however, has developed a system good enough that a dozen or so teams are paying for the data it produces. Here's how it works: Baseball Info Solutions records each batted ball's specific direction, distance, speed (soft, medium, hard), and type (grounder, liner, fly, bunt). Direction and distance are computed by clicking a location on a baseball diamond on a computer. The computer then determines how often each type of ball hit to each location at each speed is converted into an out.

If a ball is converted into an out only 25 percent of the time, the expectation that the play will be made is 0.25. If a player makes the play, he is scored a 1.00, minus 0.25 (the expectation that the play will be made), resulting in a score of plus-0.75. If he does not make the play, he is scored a 0, minus 0.25 (the expectation that the play will be made), resulting in a score of minus-0.25.

By adding up all of the credit a player receives or loses for plays he makes or doesn't make, the result is a player's plus-minus.

The plus-minus system as a comprehensive measure of a player's defensive ability does have flaws, or limitations. For example, it doesn't account for a first baseman's ability to handle throws, which J.T. Snow should do much better than Kevin Millar. It doesn't account for a hit-and-run play that forces a middle infielder to vacate his position. It does not account for an outfielder's arm (meaning it doesn't care for Manny Ramírez's league-leading outfield assist total). And it does not include how well a player handles bunts, which Mike Lowell has done better than anyone in baseball the past three years. And, the plus-minus system doesn't account at all for catchers.

But it effectively does explain, in a rather mathematically sound manner, whether a guy can field his position or not.

Tale of two teams
Last year's starting lineup -- which for the purpose of simplification will be listed as 1B Millar (+2), 1B John Olerud (+6), 2B Tony Graffanino (-5), 3B Bill Mueller (+4), SS Edgar Renteria (-11), LF Ramirez (-14), CF Johnny Damon (-2), and RF Trot Nixon (+12) -- combined for a minus-8.

This year's lineup -- 1B Kevin Youkilis (0), 1B Snow (+1), 2B Mark Loretta (-11), 3B Lowell (-13), SS Alex Gonzalez (-1), Ramírez (-14), CF Coco Crisp (-1), and Nixon (+12) -- combined for a minus-27.

Lowell, though he won a Gold Glove in the NL last year with the Marlins, was a minus-11. (Dewan contends that Philadelphia's David Bell should have taken home the Gold Glove.) Mueller, meanwhile, was a plus-4.

Lowell, according to Dewan's book, is the league's best over the past three seasons at handling bunts and at fielding balls hit down the line. He was a plus-16 last year on balls hit between himself and the third-base bag. But he was a minus-19 on balls hit at him, and a minus-7 on balls hit to his left. Mueller, by comparison: plus-7 on balls to his right, 0 (or average) on balls hit at him, and minus-3 on balls to his left.

Loretta, billed as Graffanino's equal, is reputed to turn the double play quite well, which the plus-minus system doesn't account for. But, he has poor range to his left (balls in the second-base hole). He was a minus-12 going to his left last year, second worst at the position in all of baseball, behind only Alfonso Soriano (-23).

Gonzalez (-1) was much better than Renteria (-11) but apparently makes himself look better than he really is because of the spectacular nature of some of the plays he makes. Renteria's breakdown is odd: He was slightly better than average going to his right and left but minus-14 on balls hit at him (realize, this includes slow rollers).

Crisp played most of last season with the Indians in left field, where he ranked second in all of baseball, behind only Carl Crawford, at plus-15. But, in the 10 games he played in center, he was a minus-1. Most scouts and baseball executives support what the math indicates: Crisp, despite his speed, will be about average in center, as was Damon.

The best, and worst
The Sox' corner outfielders, Ramírez and Nixon, represent two of the plus-minus system's extreme players. Ramírez last season posted a minus-14 in left, challenging Florida's Miguel Cabrera (-16) for the league low at the position. Of 257 balls he was expected to catch, Ramirez caught 243. The 14 he missed cost the Sox 31 bases.

Nixon, meanwhile, was a plus-12, best in the bigs in right. By Dewan's calculations, Nixon was expected to catch 228 balls, caught 240, and saved the Sox 18 bases.

The Phillies led the majors last year in team rankings at +108, followed by the Indians (+69), Angels (+57), White Sox (+52), and Astros (+50). The Sox ranked 22d at minus-20. The Yankees were last, at minus-164.

Where did the Sox underperform in '05? They surrendered 26 more outfield hits down the left-field line than the major league average for a team. They gave up 23 more hits to the left-center gap than the average team. And they gave up 19 more outfield hits down the right-field line than the average team.

However, they did excel, too. They gave up 10 fewer hits to the gap in right-center than the average, and nine fewer hits through the first base-second base hole than the average club.

And how were the Yankees so bad last season?

Derek Jeter rated second worst among shortstops (minus-34). And two-thirds of the Yankees' outfield, center fielder Bernie Williams (-21) and right fielder Gary Sheffield (-20), ranked last in baseball at their positions.

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