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Dan Shaughnessy

Trust what you see, not the numbers

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / April 4, 2010

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Listen to your first baseman.

“How do you measure defense?’’ Kevin Youkilis asked. “You make an error, you make an error. You get to a ball, you don’t get to a ball. What if you have a bad hamstring and you can’t get to a ball up the line? I don’t know what they evaluate, but a good ballplayer is a good ballplayer.’’

Listen to a man who has been a professional baseball scout for more than a half-century.

“You look at stats and you’re not getting the true picture,’’ said Texas Rangers scout Tom Giordano. “I want to see it. You’ve got to watch a guy for three or four games. And positions are different. You’ve got to take the whole ballplayer at his position. Last year they said [Derek] Jeter was slowing down. Well, sure, his arm in the hole is not what it used to be, but I’ll still take him every time. We’ve got too many stats in this game today.’’

And there will be more. While baseball is played on green grass in fresh-air stadiums, an army of geeks will be holed up in their basements, under a naked light bulb, crunching numbers and finding new equations to measure something that simply can’t be quantified.

Remember Dan Duquette’s water-meter-reading Statman, the guy who established that Dwayne Hosey was superior to Ken Griffey Jr.? Turns out that was only the beginning. Today there is data that no doubt would dispute the notion that Yaz was a pretty good left fielder at Fenway.

Bill Russell never lost an NBA Finals seventh game, Olympic game, or NCAA Tournament game, but I shudder to think how he would fare if the crunchers tried to compute his UZR, Plus/Minus, Win-Share quotient, or Defensive Efficiency Rating.

Here’s sabermetrics professor Chuck Korb writing in the 2010 Red Sox Annual (Maple Street Press) on Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER): “Looking at DER, the Red Sox would have had to make 52 more plays over the course of the season just to reach the league average. To equal their efficiency percentage of 2007 and 2008 (averaged), they would have to turn 99 more balls into outs. Using a very conservative 0.8 runs per play, which includes a value of 0.5 runs per base runner and 0.3 runs per out not made, the defense cost the team almost 80 runs in 2009 when compared to the previous two seasons.’’ (Visit MapleStreetPress.com for a more detailed explanation.)

Chuck certainly sounds like a party starter.

Welcome to the world of run prevention and the quantification of defense. Say hello to your 2010 Red Sox, who will try to convince you that a team with Mike Cameron in center and Jacoby Ellsbury in left is better than a team with Ellsbury in center and Jason Bay (36 homers, 119 RBIs) in left.

OK, we’ll admit that the Sox defense was a little shaky on the left side of the infield last year. Mike Lowell was statuesque at third and the Bum of the Month Club at short let too many balls skip through to the outfield. But I had no idea defense was the reason the Sox were bounced in the Division Series. I thought it might have something to do with the fact that they hit .158 in three games against the Angels. Apparently they lost because Bay was a stiff in left and Ellsbury was subpar in center.

Here’s Theo Epstein after his winter of Run Prevention Acquisition: “I thought if we brought back the same pitching staff and the same defense, we were going to have trouble preventing runs this year. I thought we would have slipped in that area.

“Last year was bad. Any way you look at it. We were really bad at turning balls in play into outs. It’s remarkable we allowed the third-fewest runs in the league. That’s a testament to our pitching staff and some good situational pitching . . . You saw Jon Lester early in the year hurt by balls that got by the left side of the infield and by double plays that were not turned. It’s the same stuff that the numbers will tell you if you look at it.’’

That said, the Sox GM disputes the idea that he rejects the gumshoe work of the scouts.

“It’s just as important to look at it through scouts’ eyes and trust what your eyes are telling you,’’ Epstein said. “But if you look at last year, how many balls got through the left side of our infield? You don’t need numbers to tell you that was probably an area we needed to upgrade.’’

And the stat pack guys?

“We don’t use UZR. We use our own data,’’ he said. “We have guys who do it internally. It’s been refined. There’s been a lot of progress in that area in the last few years. I think if you make any decision exclusively on what some numbers say you’re taking an unnecessary risk. It’s the same way we evaluate guys offensively. You have to combine what the numbers are telling you with what you see with your eyes to make the best possible decision.

“If we’re going to rely on data, we go through lots of stuff to make sure it’s pretty accurate. The same way we know a guy’s on-base percentage is accurate. If you’re going to trust a defensive number, you’ve got to make sure you know what it means.’’

I don’t trust the defensive numbers. I trust my eyes, and the trained eyes of those who’ve watched baseball for decades.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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